My great-grandmother Nettie, like many women of her generation, knew how to cook. Her parents were immigrants in New York—the story goes that her father gained passage from Germany as a 14-year-old stowaway in the 1880’s, though I have no idea if that is really true. Nettie grew up in Brooklyn, married a milliner (not to be confused with a millionaire) four years before the Titanic sank, and raised her children near Prospect Park.
Nettie was famous for her cakes and sweets and a few German classics. She kept a book of her recipes, which she typed and hand-wrote in alphabetical order, complete with Appendices on substitutions and measurements. When Nettie died, she left the book to my mother. Mom is the second one from the left:
When I was growing up, Nettie’s book sat carefully wrapped in tissue paper, in a box at the top of a closet. Occasionally my mother would take it down and we’d look through the contents, carefully turning each crumbling page to prevent the punch-holes from tearing.
‘Ooohhh, Grandma’s Peach Kuchen!’ Mom would sigh. ‘She made the best Peach Kuchen…’ Memory over, we’d wrap the book back up and put it out of the way. Did my mother ever cook the Peach Kuchen? Don’t be ridiculous.
Mom is not a cook. She’s an optimist, a dancer, a social butterfly; she’s a private person, a writer, and a worrier—simultaneously fragile and tough. When left widowed at a very young age, she got out of bed the next morning and did whatever she needed to do to raise her kids alone. She set the example of steely self-reliance that I will carry with me for my entire life.
But she’s not a cook. Her specialties are cheese and crackers with a glass of white wine, Stouffer’s lasagna with a glass of red wine, and walking down to the local restaurant for crab cakes and margaritas. Anything more causes stress, which she just doesn’t do anymore.
She can’t figure out how (or why) I like to cook. When I talk about food she cocks her head to one side and looks at me like she’s never seen me before. On visits to her house, I buy things like good sea salt and toasted sesame oil, only to find them covered in a layer of dust three years later. Despite this, she reads every word I write, even though she doesn’t really give a monkey’s about artisanal cheese or French pastries or slow-cooked anything.
She’s also full of suggestions for this blog. Why don’t you put up a better picture of yourself? Why don’t you move the twitter comments down? Why aren’t you promoting yourself on Facebook? And the big one: Why haven’t you written about Buttermilk Party Cake? No one knows how the site got its name.
In fact, the name came from Nettie’s book. Two years ago, Mom painstakingly scanned the pages for me, so that I could experiment with Nettie’s recipes without risking damage to the book itself. I was cooking from it on the weekends until the inclusion of lard in nearly every dish led me to, uh, need to cut back on my calorie intake. When I decided to start writing regularly about food, I chose the name of Nettie’s recipe for Buttermilk Party Cake, because…well it just sounds good. It trips off the tongue; it’s fun to say.
Lucky for you, it’s fun to eat, too. So here it is: Great-Grandma Nettie’s Buttermilk Party Cake, just for Mom on Mother’s Day. Enjoy, I love you. xx
Buttermilk Party Cake
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 cup cake or sponge flour
- 1/2 t baking soda
- 1/2 t cream of tartar
- 1/4 t salt
- 1/2 cup buttermilk (you can substitute regular milk plus 1T of vinegar if you don’t have buttermilk)
- 1/2 t vanilla
- 3 egg whites
- additional 1/4 t cream of tartar
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 1/2 cups confectioner’s (icing) sugar
- 1 t vanilla
- 2 egg whites
- 1/4 t cream of tartar
For the cake:
Beat the butter and sugar together until it looks pale and fluffy. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, soda, cream of tartar, and salt.
Add milk and vanilla to butter mixture and beat to combine, then slowly add the flour mixture and beat until just mixed.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites and additional cream of tartar until the whites form stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the batter.
Pour batter into a 9” round cake pan, greased and lined with parchment. Bake at 375 F/190 C for 30 minutes, until you can stick a knife in the center and it comes out clean. Let the cake cool completely before putting on the icing.
For the icing:
Beat the butter, sugar, and vanilla together until combined. it will be fairly dry looking, like breadcrumbs. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar to form stiff peaks.
Stir 1/3 of the eggs into the sugar mixture to loosen, then fold in the remaining eggs.
Refrigerate the icing for a half hour before spreading on the cake, then refrigerate the whole thing for at least an hour (ideally a few hours) before eating. The icing will be fairly soft until you do this, but will firm up nicely once it’s cold.