We’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes—dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
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.
Serves 8 to 12
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
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)
Photos by Sara Cornelius