As I cut into my daughter’s seventh birthday cake, a myriad of memories flooded my mind: years of ‘Happy Birthday’ ringing through the air; clapping and cheering; family standing close; feelings of belonging, warmth and love. It always felt good. However, the most vivid and constant memories were of my Mama and ‘the cake’. A German Wiener Torte: multilayered, glued together with jam and covered in rich, velvety chocolate. Every year, as Mama cut that cake, I always loved to see the perfect layers as she took out the first slice. And on my day, she would always pass me the first one. The taste of its sweet goodness brought me joy and now I saw it bringing joy to my daughter too. It was always delicious and most importantly it was always lovingly baked and constructed by my Mama, just as it had been by her Mama. . . . and by her Mama before that . . . . .
Year 1911 ‘Honeygrove’ South Africa
“Irene, bringe mal die Eier”
Irene rushed over to the eggs that had been collected the previous day. She counted ‘1…2…3….’ as she carefully selected the six bigger eggs and brought them to her Mama, who placed them in a bowl ready on the kitchen bench, alongside the flour and sugar. Now that Irene was almost seven she could help Mama bake. She was an eager helper this particular morning. She had risen just as the sun poked its chin over the horizon. Pouncing out of bed she pulled off her nightgown and replaced it with her work dress. As always her Mama was in the kitchen and warmth was already radiating from the wood stove. The large white kettle, which had a permanent home on the stove, was not yet simmering but steam was just starting to escape from its spout.
As usual, Irene brought her Mama the steel bucket for the hot water. She filled it halfway and quietly they carried it out into the new, fresh day. They lifted their gaze to see a pillow of fog sitting on the wet green fields, the horizon still aglow from the rising sun. It was time to collect milk from their cow, Clara. To her Mama’s dismay, Irene had given the cow a name. In her practical German way, Christine knew no sense in becoming attached to an animal that was there merely for provision. But Irene insisted, so Clara it was.
The milking barn was always dim and the air was fresh with earthy smells, hay and manure. They would always bring a warm bucket of water to the farm boy to wash Clara’s udder before milking. Mama often let Irene squeeze the first streams of milk out of the udder before the milking bucket was placed beneath. The sound of the milk squirting against the metal bucket was sharp, yet comforting, steady and rhythmical, the farm boy well accustomed to milking. The bucket filled steadily. By the time they carried the milk home the fog had lifted. The sun was well up and the sky a bright, clear blue.
Walking back into the kitchen the waft of yeasty bread dough hit them. Mama had been up early to knead dough, which now sat in a large bowl on the kitchen table to rise. Irene could not resist. She tiptoed up to the table, removed the checkered cloth and poked it with a grin on her face. It was so soft and felt so good.
“Ja, Irene, du kannst es kneten”
Mama gave her permission to begin the second knead. She punched into the dough, then folded it over and pushed it again. Her petite six year old hands did not manage to do a full knead which helped the yeast do its work but she was learning. Her Mama came to take over and continued to knead the dough with ease. She cut it in 3. She lovingly fashioned each segment into shape to sit neatly in her bread tins. There they sat side by side on the kitchen table for their second and final rise. Mama unlatched and opened the door of the wood stove. Irene always loved to peer in to see the red embers, sparkling and dancing as Mama poked them with a stick, before placing more wood on the fire.
By that time the milk had settled and Mama let Irene scoop the rich cream off the top. They poured this into the butter churn, which Irene delighted to turn, around and around until the clumps of butter came together. The butter was then put aside for ‘the cake’, the birthday cake. It was because of this cake that Irene was even more eager this particular morning. You see, the next day was her seventh birthday and this was her cake!
First came the sugar. One and a half cups, like a stream of liquid crystal being poured into the bowl. Next the amount of butter they had put aside. Irene could not mix these two. The yellow clumps of butter just seemed to chase each other around the bowl, but somehow, Mama got them together with ease. Though it did take some time for the mixture to be just right, creamy and pale. This change of colour from bright to pale always fascinated Irene. When questioned, Mama always told her quite definitely, “Gott hat es ja so gemacht.” God just made it that way.
Next came the eggs, which had to be separated, the beautiful yellow sunny yolk from its clear jelly surrounds. Mama did this carefully. Each egg was given a firm yet gentle tap on the edge of a fine crystal wine glass. The shell would always break neatly leaving a bowl for the yolk to sit in. Mama would slip the yolk from one shell to the other until all the clear jelly had poured to the bowl beneath. Not one yolk broke. You see if it did, Mama would have to start all over again, as the whites would never get stiff.
The yolks went into the mixture first, one at a time. The wooden spoon would beat the mixture after each addition until all six were in. Mama’s arms were strong and sturdy, managing the wooden spoon with ease, though it felt so clumsy to Irene when she tried. The flour was next. Irene was allowed to pour one cup in and then another three quarters. This was mixed until it just came together.
The egg whites sat still in a glass bowl until their turn came. A hand whisk came out and Mama whisked and whisked until slowly but surely the clear started to turn white and bubbly. And whisked and whisked until it was solid white and fluffy, like foam. And whisked until peaks formed when the whisk was removed. Then it was time to combine. Half the mixture was deposited into the flour mixture. Carefully Mama took a butter knife and folded in the stiff egg whites, until it just came together. The process was then repeated a second time with the remaining egg. The dense flour mixture became light and soft. With a big metal serving spoon it was spooned into 5 buttered and floured pans and smoothed in thin layers with a knife. Her Mama would spin the pans as she worked.
Each layer was placed in the wood stove to bake. Not too long, as the layers were very thin. Twelve minutes maybe, or really no set time at all, just baked until Mama smelt they were done.
The cooling racks waited for their delivery. . . as did Irene.
Year 1983 – Silverton, Australia
“Are they done yet Mama?’
My Mama, the daughter of Irene, who was now living in another country thousands of kilometres away, had also been up early, baking my cake. Though not made with wooden spoons and wooden stoves, instead with the trusty Kenwood. I was woken by the whir of the motor on the day before my seventh birthday. I raced out to sit on the stool at the kitchen bench watching as my Mama put each ingredient in. She too sent me to get the eggs and the milk but only from the fridge a few steps away. I eagerly waited for the beaters to be removed so I could lick them. My sister and I would nudge each other to make sure we got our share from the bowl too as Mama put the cake into the oven.
“You will smell when they are done!” Mama said.
Sure enough, I did. Mama was there in a flash to whip the pans out of the oven. Swiftly she removed the thin cake layers from their pan, somehow never breaking them. And then they rested a while. Mama washed her dishes right away. Wiped the benches clean. Packed everything away, right back to its place. The washed tins went into the oven to dry. ‘So they don’t rust’, Mama would say. And she was right. Hers didn’t rust and nor have mine.
Once the cake was cool, baking paper would be placed on the laminate bench.
On that, a layer of cake.
On that, a layer of apricot jam, not too much.
‘The cheap jam works best’, she would say, ’It has no lumps’.
Then another layer of cake placed carefully on top.
A layer of jam.
A layer of cake. Almost like a stack of thick pancakes.
A layer of jam.
Until the last layer of cake. . . . and there it rested until night.
There it awaited decoration, for this part Mama always kept a mystery………
2017 Moogoon, Australia
I too kept this final step of decorating a mystery from my daughter. She saw me bake the cake yesterday, just like my Mama, but the rest was all done in secret. I waited until she was in bed then I pulled out all that was needed: a heavy based pot, a stainless steel serving spoon, a bit of cream and a slab of dark chocolate. Then I felt right at home. It was all so familiar. So many beautiful memories of sprinkles and Smarties® and those smaller “smarties” that ‘melt in your mouth but not in your hand’, and as I got older it became chocolate flakes, then somehow as an adult it went back to sprinkles, because really, I suppose they are just fun!
Placing the chocolate squares in the pan I gently moved them around, watching them melt. They became so smooth and velvety and glossy. Just as the last lump disappeared I quickly poured it all over the cake, allowing chocolate to cascade over the edges onto the baking paper. With a knife, in smooth strokes, I brought it back up the edges to meet the top again, until it was all covered. Then quickly, before it set, I put on the sprinkles. All I had left to do was transfer the cake onto the plate. I remember watching Mama do this and wondering how she ever did it. And yet there I was, doing it too! Perfect. Another German Wiener Torte passed on with love!
There is something about traditions, such as these, that tug at my heart. They lay something deep and solid within. All those layers of care and prayer and concern pushed into parcels of love, growing deeper and deeper generation after generation. It brings a connection and a sureness that is so sweet. Do you know what I mean? I wonder if you feel what I feel. I wonder if you have your own traditions that keep you grounded and connected. I wonder if the next generation will feel what I feel. Will they pass it on? I hope so because it is so sweet. I guess all I can do is my part and pass it on to those I love, hoping that they too, will feel what I feel now. I hope you do too.