Initially, I set out to write this piece, after a year into the pandemic, about my grandmother’s orange cake. I never finished it, haven’t even opened the site until today, when I checked the date on this draft: February 2021. In a matter of weeks my entire life would change but how was I to know? So I did what I always do and put off writing. This has been sitting here for a year now and to be honest with all of you, the jury is still out on whether it will sit for another. Things have changed, my ways have held on tight.
In less than two weeks from when I first wrote the words down below, my dad went into the hospital, in less than two months from when I first wrote the words down below, he’d be gone. Clearly, I didn’t experience one of those life is short if not now when moments in terms of finishing things– likely because the days have felt extremely long.
I know this is a food blog and you want me to talk about that. About the joy of food and cooking and maybe a Julia quip, which may be why it was hard for me to get back here. To write earnestly about family and food in the right way in the right tone, I didn’t have the strength to fake it. So I left it. But I’m back now, deciding I will just write the damn thing and be honest when being in the kitchen makes me happy and also when it feels like a chore. Welcome back, you might have missed me. More likely, though, you hadn’t noticed my absence. Either way, hello.
I still want to talk about my grandmother’s orange cake because what I started to write then is maybe even truer now. At that time I was worried about remerging, thinking normalcy was coming. Oddly enough, like so many others, I was struggling with a year lived inside. What I wrote:
In trying to keep my hands busy and my mind from thinking about the logistics of reemerging and how a year has almost gone by and yet time has been frozen for me, and bitterly cold, I went back to the kitchen. If all of time is frozen, maybe I can jump in the point I want and start the thaw. It came to me right away, the cool tang of orange at first bite and the rich sweetness left on your tongue. The understated cake that my family rings in the fresh start of a new year: Ima’s Orange Cake.
In my house, the orange cake is saved for Yom Kippur. But the Jewish day of atonement has come and gone and the cake usually reserved for breaking the fast didn’t come till months later, but I just wanted it. I wanted the one-bowl cake and more importantly the moment in time. The candor of a kitchen that smells like my grandmother’s. The whiff of lemon zest each time you saunter bye.
What I didn’t get to: is the simplicity of making this. Baking is not for me. If you’ve been here for a while you already know that recipes are not for me and my “just enough” lineage, so having to follow detailed measurements never suited me. Most of my family “recipes” have no order or instruction. But for this, those who scoff at me for recipe-less posting, I have a recipe. thanks to Ima and her group of friends, other Holocaust survivors who all lived in a 5-block radius and were constantly trading index cards scribbled in passed-down recipes for baked goods. This is a whole other post that I will get to because there are endless things to say. All to say that I have this special recipe locked and there for me and now you.
This year we didn’t celebrate any holidays, but I did make the cake one other time for my family. In my grandmother’s kitchen. We were all trying to thaw. Normally, when the fast would end my dad would walk in from synagogue, pour himself a glass of orange juice, reach over my head and grab a slice off the plate, and eat it with his back against the counter. Then another.
Ima’s orange cake looks plain, easy to go unnoticed on its own, more so against an array of desserts. But with flavor so warm and inviting and layered, the inside outshines any competitor.