From Scratch

For my grandmother’s 80th birthday, her best and oldest friend in the world, Midge — fellow bridge clubber, golf partner, drinking buddy, all-around Golden Girl — hosted a dinner party, on the Wedgwood china, in her big brick house on Forest Avenue. Jenny and I were in attendance, as were my father, two widows — Mary and Shep, both in their mid-eighties — and a couple of cranky daschunds named Maxi and Mini. These ladies were as old-school as they come, and though the most basic motions of life had grown difficult and their social universe had pretty much been reduced to the people at this table, they all had that twinkle in their eyes that said: We might be past our prime, but don’t be fooled, sonny. We could crush you in our day. Every woman there had raised kids, spoiled grandchildren, and all but one had lost husbands; all, including my grandmother, have since passed away. But that night, Midge turned back the clock. At 5 pm sharp, out came the Scotch. (These women couldn’t be bothered with wine — unless the Scotch ran dry, at which point: watch the f*ck out.) Then came the little bowls of mixed nuts, cheese waffles, and Bugles. By 6, we were feeling good, seated at the long, formal dining room table, and my dad was toasting my grandmother, whose chair was decorated with balloons. I don’t remember exactly what Midge made for the main course, but let’s say it was a foil-tipped crown roast with cooked-to-oblivion asparagus and instant mashed potatoes — and if it wasn’t, it might as well have been. For dessert, one of my grandmother’s all-time favorites: angel food cake.

My grandmother, it should be noted, was the daughter of German bakers. The woman knew from dessert. I don’t think she had a tooth in her head that hadn’t been violated by a dentist over the years, but that didn’t hold her back. She actually had a little silver dish by her front door that was filled, year round, as if by a benevolent god — I never did figure out where she kept her stash — with York mints and peanut M&Ms, jelly beans and mini-Almond Joys. When I think of her kitchen in the house my dad grew up in on Lincoln Street — before she moved into a one-story place later in life, as my grandfather grew frail — I picture two things clearly: the side-by-side freezer with two or three white-and-blue gallons of Schrafft’s ice cream, and an angel food cake, cooling upside down in its pan on the counter, impaled on the neck of a Dewar’s bottle. She’d serve this to me with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of Hershey’s chocolate sauce, and god, the way that slab of cake absorbed the ice cream, and held it there until fully saturated, kind of like a sponge? Please. Let me rephrase that: Please.

It made sense, then, that we’d have angel food cake for her 80th. The cake, this night, had been supplied by Mary who, at 84 or 85, still knew how to make some noise in the baking department, still knew the value of cake and ice cream on a birthday. This had just the right amount of toasty crunch on the outside, and just the right fluffiness on the inside. Jenny, who also loves a dessert, was impressed.

“Mmmmmmmmmmmmm,” she said. Maybe this was just the Scotch talking. “Oh my god, Mary. This cake is a-mazing.”

“Isn’t she just the best cook?” my grandmother said.

“She really is,” said Midge.

“Truly,” said Shep, who was wearing an awful lot of gold. “Always was.”

“Oh, stop,” said Mary, waving them away. These women were not limelight-seekers. “But Jenny, if you give me your address, I’d be happy to send you my recipe.”

About a week later, a letter from Mary arrived at our apartment in Brooklyn, addressed — of course — not to Jenny, but to Mrs. Andrew Ward. Inside was written, in slightly shaky hand, the secret recipe for this angel food cake. “Take one box Duncan Hines angel food cake mix,” it began…

For women of my grandmother’s generation — or, I should say, the women of my grandmother’s generation that hung around with my grandmother — from scratch meant something very different from what it means today. It meant: I didn’t buy this in a store. It meant: I cooked this in my own oven. It did not mean: I defied convenience and combined several real ingredients together to make this cake. Was it worse? Better? They didn’t care. To be honest, I didn’t get any of this “from scratch” stuff until pretty late in life, either, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend Duncan Hines doesn’t make a solid angel food cake mix. But there is a from-scratch version of this that we make for the kids that even I — a terrible baker — can pull off. It, too, goes great with ice cream. We never tried it out on Doris, Mary, or Shep, but something tells me they would have been impressed. — Andy

Angel Food Cake, from Scratch
From Cakewalk, by Kate Moses

1 1/2 cups sifted confectioners’s sugar
1 cup sifted cake flour (or unbleached all-purpose flour)
1 1/2 cups egg whites, at room temperature (about 12 large egg whites)
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup granulated sugar

Move the oven rack to the lowest setting, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Bring the egg whites to room temperature about an hour before baking.

Combine the sifted confectioners’ sugar and flour and sift three times. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the whip attachment, beat the egg whites on low until foamy, then add the cream of tartar, salt, and vanilla and increase the speed to medium. Whip just until soft peaks form, then, beating on medium speed, gradually add the granulated sugar a tablespoon at a time, beating until the whites form soft peaks but are not stiff.

Sift one quarter of the flour mixture over the whites and fold in lightly by hand using a rubber spatula, and repeat with the remaining flour in quarters. Turn the batter gently into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan.

Bake about 40 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean and the top springs back when touched lightly. Invert the cake onto the neck of a bottle of Dewar’s (or a wine bottle) and allow to cool completely, 2 or 3 hours, before moving from the pan.

Serve with spring strawberries or with chocolate sauce and ice cream.

Photos courtesy of family archivists Earl Johnson and Douglas Ward.

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what gorgeous photos of your grandmother. and i love what you say about her love of sweets. i am a dessert-a-day person, and i feel like i can run enough to mitigate the weight gain but there’s nothing i can do about the teeth. sigh.


Such a fantastic story, so well told. My grandmother made an angel food cake that I remember so well. . . and I always believed it was “from scratch.” But reading your narrative makes me wonder!


Love this story! And can’t wait to try the cake recipe.

So, for those of us who are saddled with a mysterious guilt about wasting any food item, do tell… what do you do with all those yolks?!

Gretchen SB

Wonderful story and lovely photos — Great post! My grandparents are first generation German-Americans and your description of the birthday meal could have been one my grandma served, especially the boxed angel-food cake! She likes to mix cake decorating sprinkles in the batter so it has little polka dots of color throughout.


I find myself a little choked up more often than one would expect for “just” a food blog…
Loved this post.


What a beautifully told story, I felt like I was at the party! The photos are amazing, too. I never understood the allure of angel food cake, but the idea of having it soak in ice cream sounds pretty genius.

Jenny Keith

How do you always seem to know what I’m looking for??!?
I spent the morning yesterday searching for a yummy “from scratch” angel food cake, for my maiden angel food baking voyage. And I found one, but I’m going to forge ahead with your recipe. Thank you!
P.S. Love the photos of your grandmother. We spent last year living with my husband’s 87 year old grandparents while our house was remodeled. What a gift! The greatest generation!


Extra yolks? How about a vanilla bean creme anglaise to go with the cake for those who prefer vanilla over the chocolate sauce…


I’m with Jen.

How is it that I find myself wiping away a tear more often than not when I read this blog.

This was an absolutely beautiful story. My mother always says that food is the biggest contributer to family memories and if you feed people, it will fill more than their sotmachs. We lived this growing up and she didn’t always have time and money for fancy ingredients.


Well, this was just lovely. Left me a little choked up and that’s not a regular occurrence. Such a perfectly told little capsule of a huge chunk of life. Okay, I’m going to stop now, but really, thanks.


love love love…the story, the photographs, the memories ~ thank you so much for sharing! and anytime you want to post more images of your beautiful grandmother, please do so 🙂


Beautiful story!
For every birthday in my family, I make a fabulous chocolate cake that was passed down from my great-grandmother (she was a very young mom, grandma. great-grandma). Without fail, every time I make it, someone asks for the recipe and it begins just like your grandmother’s recipe, with a box of Duncan Hines cake mix. In a pinch I’ve tried making it with other brands of mix and it doesn’t work.
I think what you say about the meaning of “from scratch” is so true and I wholeheartedly agree with those wonderful women. You’re still putting in time and love to the recipe, it comes from your kitchen and there is no shame in that.

Lori@ In My Kitchen, In My Life

Thank you for acknowledging the cake mix. It is a valuable part of my pantry, and I’m a scratch cook for most things. My favorite cakes, though, the cakes of my childhood, generally involve doctored up cake mixes. Nothing wrong with that.


This is perfect. I love so much about it: your description of these ladies (when young, when old), the perfectly captured conversation, those differing definitions of “from scratch” that various generations have. Thank you for a story that truly brightened my day!


Oh, lemon curd! That would be just lovely over the pound cake too!! And the creme anglaise sounds delicious and elegant. Thank you!


My wonderful grandmother’s rum cake, beloved by four generations, began with a box of Duncan Hines yellow cake mix. My mother, a great student of baking (she read Shirley Corriher for fun! in bed!), tried to vary things but ultimately assured me that nothing else would work. In memory of them both I may have to make rum cake today. Thanks for another great post, Andy.

Uncle Doug

In Defense of the Greatest Generation Women:

Hey, as usual a really wonderful post, (and all the family members particularly enjoyed it).
I know you’re not necessarily impugning the culinary talents of these ladies, but remember: your grandmother and her friends started their families during the Depression, and then supported them during World War II with rationing (except Mary who actually served in Europe during the war)…they were good cooks and could whip up a cake from scratch without blinking an eye. When the mixes came along (interesting historical question…when was “Duncan Hines” born?) it took a lot of the work out of having dessert, and was still a damn good angel food cake (as evidenced by Jenny’s comment at Midge’s dinner). I’ve always loved them.

And, by the way, angel food cake has no calories…it’s all air.

It’s interesting how that upside-down-cake-cooling on-the-bottle image is universal: Earl who grew up at the same time as I but 1000 miles away has the same memories.

Correction: As family historian I need to point out that it was Doris’ grandfather who was the professional baker. I don’t think her father could bake a cake (even with a mix) to save his life.

ellen patton

I loved this post. And I love making angel food cakes from scratch (I use the recipe from the red/white checked Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book. YUM!


How did you know I wanted to make angel food cake for my daughter’s bday? Yep, I made your recipe and it was awesome! Thank you. Of course, once the chocolate ice cream came out, she had no love for the angel food cake, but that just meant more for me!


I love this, Andy! So incredibly beautiful.

My grandmother was also a huge fan of angel food cake and made one for every birthday and holiday. I loved walking into her house filled w its sweet scent and spotting the cake upside down on a bottle. My absolute favorite, though, was Christmastime when she’d serve a slice of cake topped w crushed candy cane and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. Wow!

I’m so happy Jenny reposted this in her Friday Roundup xo

Ligeia Polidora

I have read that if you write with specificity, it becomes universal. You did that here. I was very close to my grandmother, and our bond was sealed by our shared love of Angel Food cake with chocolate frosting. Thank you for telling the story of your grandma, which also brought me back to mine. Now, to the kitchen to cook!