Let them eat cake!

By Helen Row Toews

September 27, 2017 3:06 PM

During the early years of farming on the Prairies, home cooks didn’t have the luxury of popping into the grocery store at a moment’s notice.
They didn’t own bread-makers, mixers or high tech ovens. Nor did they possess a plethora of cookbooks, or watch television carrying multiple programs dedicated to the culinary arts.
They worked with limited ingredients, resources and equipment, and made do with what they had. 
Nonetheless, they fed their families wholesome, nutritious food who were all the better for a simpler diet.
I recall my grandmother relying on an old Blue Ribbon Cookbook for inspiration.
The pages became splattered and worn from years of use and eventually were only held together with the rubber ring off an old sealer jar.
Now, some 60 years later, that same book is a cherished antique; its lifetime of faithful service rewarded with a place of honour on my bookshelf.
One recipe, for a spice cake, stands out in my memory. It featured raisins – boiled to within an inch of their plump, sticky little lives – and a sprinkling of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves all stirred briskly into a stiff batter.
Then it was skidded into the old wood stove to be baked. It often turned a little black on top since the heat was difficult to regulate, but when it was sliced hot and placed steaming on the table before us, the aroma was heavenly.
Sadly, I hated it. I can recall this miserable dessert only because I was forced to gum it down regardless of a deep loathing for the revolting fruit it contained.
Kids ate whatever food was put before them back then and felt – at least according to my father, “BLOODY LUCKY TO HAVE IT.”
Another interesting volume I have on the shelf arrived on a ship from England with my grandparents.
This tome is a true relic of a bygone era. Among such award winning recipes as Soused Mackerel (had they spent all night swilling beer in a pub?) Fish Faggots (WHAT?) Jugged Hare (yum) and Stewed Neck of Lamb, we also find a section on sweets.
A few ingredients – for a recipe by the somewhat off-putting name of Dough Cake – include six ounces of good drippings, a little tepid milk and one teacup of golden syrup.
Tepid milk and syrup are understandable, but this teacup business is a bit strange. And what the heck are good drippings? Are they easily distinguishable from bad drippings or is that just the chance we take? Furthermore – from where exactly did they drip? Inquiring minds want to know.
Time has passed and while I retain my raisin boycott, I’ve developed an unfortunate penchant for cake. (Here’s where some self-deprecation begins.)
A long time ago, when I was first married, I wished to prove myself as an excellent cook. One evening I busily baked up a moist and delicious carrot cake with extra creamy frosting for my husband to take to work.
Next morning, I cut a large wedge of the delectable treat and popped it into his lunch pail.
After he left, I busied myself with small household chores, keeping an eye on aforementioned cake.
Finally, I allowed myself just one piece. After all, it was important to sample it – for quality assurance you understand.
Well, one thing led to another and over the course of the day I found myself hovering over the dish until all that remained were a few crumbs and a smear of icing.
I had devoured the whole flaming thing! In my defence it was an 8x8 pan; not a triple layer monstrosity, but still – appalling behaviour to say the least.
Ashamed of this dreadful deed I paced the floor, staring at the clock. My spouse would return soon, after slaving in the elements all day, how could I possibly answer when he asked for dessert? “Oh that?
The dog ate it,” I heard myself answering offhandedly, to test its believability – but we didn’t have a dog. Then I tried, “Good grief man! We’ve been robbed!” Nope, couldn’t do it. Hurriedly I baked and iced another cake.
With minutes to spare I hacked off the identical wedge, bolted it down and smiled a smile of pure criminal greed as he walked through the door.
This last tale may have had more to do with purging my guilty conscience than a discussion of early country cake baking, but it shall remain as a warning for all who hope to keep baked goods safe in my presence.
The secret lies in raisins.

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