The cake my grandmother made

 A few weeks ago I made a cake. It’s my grandmother’s recipe. For as long as I could remember, my grandmother made this cake for us. To her it came as easy as making rice. One afternoon many years ago, I set out to write down her recipe (where she got it from, I’ll never know). I watched her and I wrote down her instructions in English as she dictated each step to me in her dialect.

I’ve made this cake a few times before with mixed results. I guess that out of the five times I’ve made it, one was almost “perfect.” That is, as good as my grandmother’s cake was: Light, fluffy, sweet enough to stand on its own, and with a golden-brown, soft, crusted top. Other members of my family have tried to make the cake, but they have failed as well. If the eggs aren’t properly separated, or if there is water in the bowl, or the mixing was too vigorous… then the cake will inevitable fall. Usually practice makes perfect, but the recipe uses NINE eggs. Hard to justify when success is so rare.

I should add that my grandmother passed away a few years ago, not long before I decided to take up Christian studies. Every time I (attempt) to make the cake, I think of her. I think of her curly grey hair, her deep facial wrinkles and stern eyes. I think of her mannerisms and selective hearing. But I think most about her hands. Her hands that would deftly crack those eggs and separate them. Her hands that would pick wolfberries for hours or sew her own clothes. Her hand that would envelope mine in a firm grip while we walked together. Though the skin was loose and waxy, her hands were always warm….their bones strong. She was a petite yet formidable woman. No one crosses Grandmother (well, perhaps except my mother). Grandmother was always right.

So I made this cake because I wanted to connect with Ngeen Ngeen. I wanted her with me momentarily in this kitchen, even though time and death has separated us. I wanted to remember her strength, her stubbornness, and her care. I wish that my Toisan had been good enough for me to ask her about her childhood in China, how she met my grandfather, and those early years in Canada when she first arrived. But I believe we bonded in different ways even though I knew so little about her.

The cake turned out pretty good. And the one after that was near perfection. But they will never be perfect, simply because they won’t ever be made by her, by her hands.

But it’ll be pretty darn close.

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2 thoughts on “The cake my grandmother made

  1. About a year ago I began putting together a scrapbook about my life which included my family tree, a letter one of my grandmother’s wrote about her life growing up, photos of relatives of generations long ago, special occasion cards from relatives and friends, and mementos. There were times I shed tears because I had wished I had gotten to know them better, and ask questions, such as you mention. I learned much about my grandmother as I sat by her bedside in the hospital with other relatives, as she lay approaching death. Each person would share a favorite memory or some special quality of my grandmother. For me, it was my grandmother who took the time to teach me to bake. I loved being in the kitchen with her and the wonderful smells in the air as she put together a meal, made one of her pies or baked one of the 20 some cookies recipes that she put together to give to each family at Christmas. I was always amazed that she rarely used measuring cups or spoons, just her hands. Most of her recipes were in her head, so they died with her. It was evident she loved what she was doing and everyone always loved to hang out in the kitchen to talk when at my grandparents home. Thanks for sharing and reminding me to treasure the moments with family.

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