stories

Grandma’s Cake: How a rediscovered recipe guided me through grief

left: original artwork, right: the tea towel itself (creased, stained and used)
No items found.
No items found.

Rosemary (Salvia Rosmarinus)
[ˈrəʊzm(ə)ri]
noun

an evergreen aromatic shrub of the mint family, native to southern Europe. The narrow leaves are used as a culinary herb, in perfumery, and as an emblem of remembrance.

or

Rosemary (ROHZ-mare-ee) A feminine name of Latin origin, meaning "dew of the sea". Also, a blend of Rose and Mary; otherwise known to me as Grandma. 

Love and virtue 

Rosemary has long been a symbol of love and virtue with medieval brides and wedding guests alike carrying sprigs to bless matrimonies.

However, the love I experienced from Rosemary was never limited to symbolism alone. It was as regular and inevitable as the rising sun, and its touch filled my earliest memories with the very same golden hue. Do you remember the time I fell down that nettle covered hill, a veritable Everest to a young child like me?. I do. Covered in blotchy, angry stings you sat me down on the stone stairs, murmuring words of comfort while you bathed my inflamed skin in Aloe, promising me the pain would shortly go away. 

Not all of childhood’s ails are physical, and I foolishly battled to keep my more nuanced wounds to myself; relishing in the seclusion only pain could bring. However, you were as adept at noticing and treating these guarded agonies as any visible bump and scrape; comfort coming to me almost against my will. The covert gifting of white chocolate buttons, hidden on a shelf far beyond my furthest joint-popping stretch, was often an apt cure for the trials of being the youngest of three brothers. 

The makeshift science experiment, involving melting the chocolate buttons using the heat of a lamp to create a sticky, sweet and velvety sauce proved the ultimate peace-making mission between warring factions. 


Gastronomic

Rosemary is widely used globally in the kitchen as a flavouring in foods, often in conjunction with roasted meats in Britain while in the Mediterranean it is used to flavour breads such as focaccia. 

As suggested, Rosemary was a perpetual feature in the kitchen, fueling me and my brothers just as my Grandad fuelled the gigantic, vintage cars that crowded the driveway, which roared and spat like so many furious beasts, clearly enraged by his tinkering. Often he too became angered, hands covered in oil, the carcass of a car laid out around him as he searched for the wayward bolt. A metal surgeon, with me his trainee nurse determined to impress, tentatively handing him a spanner as he fought to preserve their ancient and storied lives. Sometimes I wondered that if I too were coated in oil would he treat me with the same reverence as those cars? As it was, he seemed to barely notice any loose screws I may have had.

Far too stubborn to admit defeat, my awkward, garage-based tribulations were only blissfully ended by the appearance of Grandma, who upon seeing my apparent discomfort would whisk me away to the kitchen. And what reward upon entrance; gone was the hedonism and toxically masculine expectations associated with the garage. In their place were conversations and gently guiding hands. Furthermore, standing on a kitchen chair I for once towered over my beaming brothers, a momentous triumph for any youngest sibling. 

Bowls allocated on an age-size basis, ingredients splayed across the table and sleeves rolled up past elbows - if only to delay the inevitable cuff dipping - were all signs of an imminent cake bake, a fabled tradition which marked every visit, long or short, to my grandparents’ house. A truly multi-sensory experience, I can still smell the tangy peel and feel the mixture oozing through my fingers as it dripped lazily down my hands.  

And then the long, slow bake, in an oven so temperamental that it made my Grandad’s struggles with automobiles look elementary by comparison. Unsurprisingly, Grandma could coax the secrets out of the oven in a matter of seconds, getting it to open its door in a wide gap-toothed grin and accept our doughy cakes-to-be with begrudging delight. My Grandma, a metal psychologist perhaps?

As if an esteemed guest, the cake announced its presence long before arrival, via a lazy scent which slowly filled the whole house like an autumn’s bath. If patience is a virtue then I will readily admit that I was not a virtuous child; those hours were a maddening eternity. The cake itself though, a timeless beauty when finally revealed; a golden crust with a moist centre, it’s body freckled and cracked in indecipherable swirls whose secrets only my Grandma could decipher. A still warm slice would nearly make me weep with joy. And a whole cake, just for me! Something to call my own, to control at an age where you are deemed too young for autonomy, yet too old for dependence. It was an aluminium wrapped promise of adulthood; one I gripped with selfish glee all the way home. 

Cleansing and purifying 

Rosemary has long been used for cleansing and purifying purposes. The ancient Egyptians burnt Rosemary as a cleansing incense whilst in Medieval Europe It was used to drive away evil spirits and protect against the plague. 

Unfortunately, those who prioritise and care for others often do so at their own expense; my Grandma was no different. Her illness was prolonged and I, as a child, had to accept the gradual and then final loss of my Grandma before I ever got to know her outside of the role which she had played with such delight and tact. Gone where the softly lit rooms and evenings spent playing find the thimble; replaced with shadowless hospital corridors and eternal minutes spent in a cold church wondering how to say goodbye.

To a child death is distant and obscure, after all how can you understand death before you have begun to think about life? And yet, the lingering finality of death is still comprehended, its authority never questioned. 

My mourning period was marked by an obsession over what I had lost; not the losses of my Grandad, my parents, my brothers… these were shoes I could not walk in as of yet. Only they knew what the loss of Rosemary meant to them as a wife, mother, and the other myriad of roles she filled so exceptionally throughout her life. As such their suffering was a distant phenomenon which I could barely make out, as if straining to see ships through a pillowy fog. 

There were shared miseries: her walking boots left by the door, an eternally empty sitting room chair, a lost cake recipe. All of which briefly illuminated our struggles, a lighthouse cutting through the gloom, allowing us to make note of each other’s progress until it swung elsewhere. For the most part, I found grief to be a solitary affair. 

Remembrance 

Rosemary is often planted on graves in the hope that ancestors will remember the bond between themselves and the living, ensuring that they continue to give guidance after death. 

What is remembrance? Initially, I thought it was remembering a face, a voice, specific moments in time which – if you screwed your eyes shut – you could almost experience again. But despite my best efforts, doubts crept in, faces became blurred and events clouded. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to experience the guilt of forgetting. However, remembrance should not be a memory test, instead of painful and growingly inaccurate recreations we should practice remembrance by enjoying the imprint left on our lives, focusing on the feeling in our chest rather than the image in our head. 

The universe has a strange way of rewarding this acceptance and its greatest gift to me occurred on an innocuous afternoon during which I was adding family recipes to my notebook in the hope of improving my – at the time, pitiful – university culinary repertoire. While searching my parents’ bookshelves for inspiration I came across a small handwritten cookbook, made by Grandma Dorothy (A.K.A Canadian Grandma) some decades ago. And there, amongst the terrifying collection of cheese and pineapple-based centre pieces so popular at the time of writing, I found it: "Rosemary’s cake"; unbeknownst to me the cherished recipe of my childhood had also bound my Grandmas together despite the ocean which separated them for the majority of their lives. 

Although I no longer stand on chairs, melt chocolate buttons with lamps or play sous chef in the kitchen, now that I finally have the cake recipe I can celebrate my childhood and my Grandma in a form of remembrance which does not bind me and my senses to the fading past but to the vibrant and unparalleled sensations of the present. And it is in this present - with every cake that I bake - that I will continue a familial legacy which has overcome time, oceans and even death itself. 

Legacy and tradition are made to be contributed to; stories updated by those who are enjoying their fleeting role as protagonist. As that power is mine for the time being, I will make the suggestion that should you choose to make this cake, perhaps you should lay a sprig of Rosemary upon it, and for those that ask why you would do such a thing, you can rely on the words of the great William Shakespeare and say: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.’


Grandma’s Cake

8oz Plain Flour
1tsp Baking Powder
½ lb butter
½ lb Sugar
3 Eggs
2oz Semolina
2oz Peel
2oz Ground Almonds
2oz Glace Cherries
½ lb Sultanas
A sprig of Rosemary (optional)
1Tbsp Golden Syrup
1oz Whole Almonds

Method
  1. Place almonds in a bowl and cover with just boiled water for 5 minutes before draining. 
  2. Preheat the oven to 150°C and line a deep loose-based 20cm cake tin with baking parchment.
  3. Place the butter into a large mixing bowl, beat until soft.
  4. Add sugar, syrup, and eggs to the bowl and cream together.
  5. Add the flour, semolina, ground almonds and baking powder to the mixture and mix until combined.
  6. Add all the fruit and peel to the bowl, hand mix until it is evenly distributed throughout the mixture.
  7. Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin and level using the back of a spoon. Arrange the blanched almonds close together in neat circles on the top of the cake. 
  8. Bake at 150°C for 3 - 3 ½ hours or until golden brown. 
  9. Remove from oven and leave to cool in the tin before removing.
  10. Optionally lay a decorative sprig of rosemary atop it, slice and enjoy.