The Cake I Remember My Grandmother By

August 11, 2015

We’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes—dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.

Today: What recipe would you want to be remembered by? Sara Cornelius from Cake Over Steak celebrates her grandmother by making a classic cake from the Mid-Atlantic. 

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It seems as though a lot of people who love food and cooking the way I do talk about growing up cooking with their family, making pies together at Thanksgiving or putting together a large family meal on the weekend. This was not the case for my family—I was probably too busy at basketball practice, to be honest—and I didn't fully develop my love for cooking until college. 

There are a few family recipes, however, that my mother has kept alive throughout the years, especially at special occasions and holidays. One of those recipes is this hot milk cake, which comes from my grandmother on my father's side, Ruth Lenton (a.k.a. "Mom Mom").

Sadly, both of my father's parents developed Alzheimer's and serious dementia when I was in second grade. It was at that point that they moved closer to my family so we could care for them. My grandmother passed away when I was in eighth grade, then my grandfather when I was a senior in high school, but they had become shells of their former selves long before then. I have fond memories of both of them from when I was a little girl, so I try to focus on those rather than the years when they were deteriorating.

I don't actually remember my grandmother ever making this cake. I do remember that she usually had some really good butter cookies on hand at their house, as well as a dish of spearmint gumdrops in the living room, and that my grandfather had a secret stash of M&Ms. I also remember them goofing around in the kitchen together, with my grandfather slapping her butt and my grandmother pretending like she didn't know who did it. 

But this is what makes family recipes so important. I associate hot milk cake with my grandmother because, for as long as I can remember, my mom has made it for my dad's birthday in June (which happens to be the day before my birthday, so it feels like my birthday cake, too). I've never seen this cake in a bakery and my friends' families have never made it, so it really feels like my family's cake. 


My grandmother lives on in our family through this magical combination of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. I can't help but think of her when I'm making it or eating it, and I'm sure that's especially true for my dad. I wonder what it was like for her to be making it in the kitchen: Did she enjoy the process? Or did she love this recipe simply because it was so easy to throw together and then move on to other activities? I usually listen to Pandora or a podcast while I make it—did she listen to anything? Did she originally have this cake at a party and then beg her friend for the recipe? Perhaps it came from a cookbook handed down by someone in her family.

I don't have the answers to these questions, but it's fun for me to speculate.


I am actually lucky enough to know some details about one particular chapter in my grandmother's life: the summer of 1946 when she was dating my grandfather. We uncovered her diary in an old box several years ago, and I read the whole thing from cover to cover.

What unfolds is the story of young Ruth Morrison, casually dating a few "suitors" in Philadelphia until Warren Lenton sweeps her off her feet and asks her to be his "steady girl." I just love the story to pieces. My favorite passages are when she refers to him as being "swell" or "wonderful." They were married in the fall of 1947.

If my grandmother's good taste wasn't confirmed by her choice of husband, then this cake certainly seals the deal. After doing a little bit of research I learned that "hot milk cake" is a classic, old fashioned cake from the Mid-Atlantic region. It gets its slightly quirky name from the technique of warming up butter and milk together before adding it to the batter, which supposedly helps to keep the cake moist.

You could make it as a layer cake, but my family has always made it in a tube pan and served it with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. My mom would take us on an annual strawberry-picking adventure early in the morning at a nearby farm, and then we’d use those to dress up the cake up for the birthday meal. However, it has a flavor that can certainly stand on its own—I will happily eat it plain. 


I haven't really changed my grandmother's recipe at all, save for providing slightly more detailed instructions (rather than mix, mix, add, bake), and I've encouraged the baker to gently stir in the flour by hand to keep the crumb as delicate as possible. It's a true winner: quick to throw together, hard to screw up, tastes wonderful, and holds up well on the counter for a week (if it lasts that long).

I look forward to the day when I hopefully have kids, their grandmother makes this cake for their grandfather, and we tell about how it came from their great-grandmother's recipe box. 


Hot Milk Cake

Serves 8 to 12

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
4 eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup whole milk
Berries, for serving (optional)
Whipped cream, for serving (optional)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Sara Cornelius

Do you have a story to share? Email your pitches to [email protected] We'd love to celebrate more Heirloom Recipes with you.

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Justcookin September 3, 2015
Lovely story!I teach Family an dConsumer Sciences and we make this cake with a broiled coconut icing as demonstration for class. The kids usually are a little apprehensive, but usually they take and LOVE it! I had one boy (these are 6th graders) make it at home and bring me a piece. Never mind that he pulled the treasured smoothed morsel out of his pocket. It was so cute!

Looking through my mom's recipes I came across noes from my great aunt about making Jelly Roll and Angel food cake - one takes 12 egg yoiks and the other 12 e.g. whites. They would make one desert one day and use the rest of the eggs the next. These are priceless memories.
sara_cornelius_ September 4, 2015
Haha! That's a cute store about your student. In my research I did find that the broiled coconut icing was a common topping for it. I also love that memory of your great aunt making those two recipes together. Very resourceful ;-)
Anna M. September 3, 2015
I want the Cake Over Steak cake plate! Where might I find it?
sara_cornelius_ September 3, 2015
That was actually a gift from a friend! It's a customized cake plate, but I believe she ordered it from Red Velvet.
Anna M. September 3, 2015
Can't find it. :( Thanks for the sharing and for telling your story.
sara_cornelius_ September 4, 2015
Oh! I'm sorry - it was red ENVELOPE. But it looks like their online store is shut down at the moment. Sorry! Maybe it will be available again at some point in the future. It's just their personalized ceramic cake stand.
Anna M. September 4, 2015
Thank you so much!
Carolyn V. September 2, 2015
What a beauty of a lady. Am trying cake this weekend. Thanks.
sara_cornelius_ September 3, 2015
Thanks I hope you love it!
ustabahippie September 2, 2015
Seems as though you could decrease the sugar by at least 1/2 and come out with a great cake.
Charlotte B. September 2, 2015
I would love to bake this cake but.......
My rule of thumb is the amount of sugar ratio to flour. It is too high
in this recipe. Sugar is the major culprit in the nutritional awareness world.
You can use sugar, but not in this proportion.
Adele M. September 2, 2015
I can't wait to try this recipe. My mother (who also had Alzheimer's Disease) used to talk about the hot milk cake that the baby nurse used to make when she took care of my mother and older brother after he was born. She tried making it herself, but said it never came out the same. There's a recipe card for it in her old box, and now that I know what it's all about, I'm going to try making it.......this weekend!
sara_cornelius_ September 2, 2015
Oh, how fun! I hope you have a wonderful time making it this weekend. :-)
Joanne September 2, 2015
Hi Sara. This brought me back to my own Grandma's "Crazy Apple Cake." It was a beautiful, light, yellow cake with baked apple slices on the bottom. As it baked, the batter would surround the apples. When you cut into it, it was cake, and apple, and just sheer deliciousness. Oh, and of course, there was the love that was sprinkled all around it. She would just throw it together whenever she thought I needed it. Unfortunately, I never learned her recipe. I've seen other cakes that are named the same, but I'm not sure if they really are the same as Grandma's. I encourage everyone out there to learn how to make something you love from your familiy's cooking history and hold on to it. Grandma is gone 34 years, and there are still times I could use a piece of that "crazy" cake. Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful story.
sara_cornelius_ September 2, 2015
I agree - everyone should learn a good family heirloom recipe. I wish you the best of luck in finding your grandma's apple cake recipe! It sounds like a winner.
Chantell J. September 2, 2015
Thanks for sharing such a beautiful heartfelt story. Everytime I am making this cake I will think of your Mom-Mom.
sara_cornelius_ September 2, 2015
Aw, thank you! That is so sweet. :-)
Ann September 2, 2015
I loved reading your story, Sara. Thank you for sharing. I too remember my grandmother cooking and baking. I especially loved her dark, rich and absolutely delicious chokolate cake. Just a few weeks ago I found the recipe online.
sara_cornelius_ September 2, 2015
Thank you! That's wonderful that you found that cake recipe online. I love a good chocolate cake, so it sounds like something I would enjoy as well.
Justcookin September 3, 2015
The Chocolate cake sounds delicious! Where did you find it?
Ann September 4, 2015
Hi Justcookin, the rich chocolate cake recipe is similar to the one I found in by Marg (Dark Chocolate Cake). My grandmother used icing and dark quality cocoa. The cake is moist.
Justcookin September 4, 2015
Thanks Ann! I'll have to try it!
sarahepardee August 11, 2015
I just love this story so much. Thank you for sharing!
sara_cornelius_ August 12, 2015
Thank YOU !
Kathryn -. August 11, 2015
Beautiful, Sara. I loved the photos of your grandmother's journal and picturing you pouring over it. So, so sweet. This cake looks just perfect.
sara_cornelius_ August 12, 2015
Thank you! The diary is a real treasure in our family. I can't believe we even have something like that. :-)
Sini |. August 11, 2015
Thank you so much for sharing this story and recipe with us all! So special <3
sara_cornelius_ August 12, 2015
Thanks Sini! It was my pleasure. ;-) xoxoxo
Pamela D. August 11, 2015
We've never met - but your story 'took me home' in such a sweet way -thank you! And I learned something too. I didn't know 'hot milk cake' or 'Mom-Mom' were Mid-Atlantic specific. I guess I should have. From Baltimore but now in North Jersey, my kids are the only kids around who call their grandmother 'Mom-Mom,' and the most requested cake by all the kids in our extended circle is my Grandmother's 'Hot Milk' cake. I also serve mine with whipped cream and strawberries - although I make it as a layer cake and 'frost' it. My Mom-Mom taught me to put 'frosting' and strawberry circlets between the layers and cover the whole thing with whipped cream 'frosting style' and top it with the strawberry bottoms tip side up like a forest of strawberry trees. Mom-Mom showing me how to make all the strawberry tips the same size by slicing off the wider part into the aforementioned circlets (and slicing the circlets in half again if they were too thick) was the first 'precision' cooking I ever did. Even though it's not chic and doesn't last an hour (cause the 'frosting' is just sweetened whipped cream) I never have to worry about putting any away!
sara_cornelius_ August 12, 2015
Hi Pamela - thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! That's so interesting ... I didn't realize that "Mom-Mom" was a regional thing either. Funny how our families have this little tidbit in common. It sounds like your Mom-Mom was quite the crafty lady with her decoration of the cake. It sounds wonderful! Thanks for sharing. :-)
Bella B. August 11, 2015
Thanks for sharing this! I love how food can connect generations and create so many memories.

xoxoBella |
sara_cornelius_ August 12, 2015
I agree! :-)
mrslarkin August 11, 2015
What a great story, Sara! Thank you for sharing, and I can't wait to try the cake!
sara_cornelius_ August 12, 2015
Thank you! I hope you love the cake if you get a chance to try it out.