Anyone looking at the stack of baking pans on my shelf would see the haphazard clutter but be completely blind to the emotional treasure of two particular 9×13 pans. Not pretty. Clearly not Sur La Table nor King Arthur. Both are well-worn– the variegated and faded mottled metal, the product of uneven oven temperatures, the criss-cross hatching of sharp knives from repeated sectioning the cake into fifteen neat pieces, ready for the eager eaters who often muss the frosting to carefully select a middle piece. The still-shiny aluminum of the sturdy pan which has shifted off square over the years, edging to a parallelogram after more than 75 years of use.
My mother’s 9×13 is the shiny aluminum one; my dear sweet Aunt Dessie’s pan is the one with handles, a treasure snatched for one dollar by my sister-in-law, Glenda, at the family garage sale after Dessie died. Nearly thirty years ago now. “I thought you’d want something from Dessie’s kitchen,” she said kindly.
She was right.
Using her pan brings back memories of that sweet-faced, pleasantly large, perennially apron-garbed farm wife with the oversized guileless smile of welcome. She lived to cook and embodied rural hospitality. Our family cookbook is named “How About a Little Lunch?”– her inimitable question of welcome when we step into that large, light-filled country kitchen on our frequent visits. From the six-burner iron cookstove with warming oven above and piping hot water reservoir below would come enticing smells of one of her tender vanilla-infused cakes or her famous nearly black gingerbread redolent of molasses, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. The large family table covered with a well-scrubbed checked oilcloth would be laden with platters of cheese, home cured sausages, squat jars of pickled herring (Uncle Harry was Swedish, don’t you know?), crisp salty-sweet refrigerator pickles, and always Dessie’s home baked white bread, freshly churned butter and fresh fruit preserves (strawberries from the garden, of course, and often rhubarb from the patch to the south of the house). Draughts of fresh cold water from the farmhouse well would be pumped into large glass pitchers, immediately frosting over with condensation from the warm summer breeze wafting in from the open windows. The faint scent of Dessie’s roses would be a delicate scent thread amidst the fragrance of the coffee percolating on the cookstove.
All talking at once in our excitement and simple gratitude of family, we would sink gratefully onto the mismatched kitchen chairs and await the feast. Other women would pour the coffee and pass around the plates as Dessie wielded the egg beater to bring the whipped cream for the gingerbread to soft peaks. Tossed lightly with sugar and a generous splash of vanilla, it would be brought to the table as heads immediately bowed for Uncle Harry’s blessing on family. His slightly nasal baritone voice, soft but confident in conversation with his Savior would bless the fellowship of family, the bounty gratefully received and especially the hands – Aunt Dessie’s hands – that prepared the gift of food.
The well-worn 9×13 pan that holds these memories is simply not big enough.
My mother’s pan on the other hand comes from a kitchen of furious energy. My mother, Lois Hayes, had many irons in the fire at all times. A woman of quick temper, ready tears, an over abundant generous nature and more passions and hobbies than she had time for was also a fabulous cook and baker. So talented, in fact, that she was known county-wide for her wedding cakes, her unique recipe posted in the local paper and featured at every cousin wedding in the last several decades of the 20th century.
Mom’s gift was an effortless ability to find a need and “do” for people, do more than was expected, more than could be hoped for. The broken family who needed everything? Mom led the effort to gather the household needs including toys for the kids. The missionaries who needed birthing kits for new moms in far flung continents? Mom led the initiative, gathering the Ladies Aid into her passion to deliver hundreds of newborn kits for new mothers. A child of the Depression, she could never see anything going to waste. So when a local hotel had barely used sheets which were damaged with cigarette burns and about to be discarded, she and a neighbor woman led the effort to wash and fold and recycle thousands of sheets which gained new life in new homes and families.
Mom led the effort at our church to serve a full Sunday dinner every Sunday after church. Cookies and coffee were for others but didn’t meet her generous expectations. “There are so many widows and widowers who miss Sunday dinners now that their children are gone,” she told me. “Let’s serve a meal for Dot. For Wally. For Ray. For Mrs. Reynolds. So they can have a special Sunday with friends even if their kids are far from home and don’t visit often.” Sunday mornings would often find her banging pots and pans together to get her cake ready for the fellowship meal. As kids we always knew she couldn’t get in and out of her cupboards without a lot of banging noise. Patience was not her strong suit.
She would get the cake in the oven and soon the enticing smell of chocolate wafting in the kitchen would be coupled with the mouth-watering smell of nearly caramelized butter and brown sugar in the penuche brown sugar frosting that was traditional with the family’s favorite chocolate cake. Every time I make this recipe – every time – I am reminded of family times of my parents and three siblings gathered around the table with this cake and a pot of tea (Dad was a tea-drinker. “If coffee tasted as good as it smells, I’d like to drink it,” he always said). Our favorite chocolate cake recipe has coffee in it, though, which contributes richness, not a coffee flavor. Probably a frugal adaptation from long ago.
Gingerbread with whipped cream. Chocolate cake with penuche frosting. Memories from childhood and family. From saints long gone. Sometimes it takes only a simple tool to bring the memories back. The simple tool of a 9×13 pan.
Aunt Dessie’s Rich Gingerbread with Whipped Cream (page 103 in “How About A Little Lunch?”)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9×13 pan. Make the cake by creaming together the following ingredients.
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup molasses
3/4 cup melted butter or shortening
Sift together the following dry ingredients and then add to the creamed mixture alternately with one cup boiling water.
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. ginger
1 1/2 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
Bake for thirty minutes and then check for doneness. Don’t overbake. When thoroughly cold, serve with a generous dollop of whipped and sweetened heavy cream.
Rex Hayes Family Favorite Chocolate Cake (page 263 in “How About A Little Lunch?)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9×13 pan. Sift together the following dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
2 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 3/4 cups white sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1 Tbsp. soda
To these dry ingredients, add the following:
2/3 cups salad oil
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup sour milk or buttermilk
Mix well and then add 1 cup boiling water or coffee. Batter will be thin.
Bake for about 40 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.
Make the Penuche Frosting (also known as Boiled Brown Sugar Frosting (page 281 in “How About a Little Lunch?”)
2 2/3 cups brown sugar
2/3 cups whole milk or heavy cream
2/3 cup butter
1/3 tsp. salt (or 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt)
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and stir at low heat. When well mixed, bring rapidly to a boil and when at a full boil, boil for exactly one minute and then remove from heat. Beat with a wooden spoon until lukewarm and right spreading consistency, Spread on cake.