Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.
I used to think all cake came from boxes. Until I was an adult, I had never seen anyone make a cake "from scratch." Not even my grandmother. The women in my life cooked a lot, and there was always dessert for parties, social gatherings, and after regular meals, but a lot of their birthday cakes, muffins, and cookies came from mixes.
Don't get me wrong; my mother was a skilled baker. She'd whip up a flan in minutes, using the microwave to make the caramel syrup that is notoriously easy to burn. Using a white ceramic casserole dish decorated with Autumn-colored flowers, she combined fine sugar with just enough water and microwaved it on high heat, pulling it out every couple of minutes to swirl the contents around the dish. It consistently came out a dark amber color, cracked in patterns that looked like stained glass.
She made New York–style cheesecake with tart cherries and a graham cracker crust that, if left alone, I ate half of in one sitting. White chocolate Christmas bark crackling with crushed candy canes, tangy lemon bars, and buttery mantecaditos (tiny shortbread cookies) were all desserts she made frequently, often as gifts for people who’d helped us out in some way, or in lieu of a gift she couldn't afford to buy.
My family was always on a very tight budget. Honestly, most of the time we were straight up broke. Mami balanced her checkbook daily, and in the hardest times, soon after she and my dad split, our weekly grocery budget was $50 (for Mami, me, and my baby sister).
My mom recently revealed that she often skipped meals so that Kristina and I had enough, and cooked largely vegetarian to stretch her grocery dollars. Thanks to her sacrifices, my sister and I never went hungry, but the quality of the foods we ate—largely frozen, boxed, or canned, no fresh fruit or vegetables—was always lacking. So I began experimenting with spices and cooking techniques, such as adding garlic powder to our boxed mashed potatoes, making honey bbq sauce with Puerto Rican adobo seasoning for our chicken nuggets, or adding frozen broccoli to our jarred spaghetti sauce, to make our food a little more interesting. But one thing was clear: all the ingredients in my house were precious. I could not waste. And this made any food we cooked for other people that much more special.
Her bizcocho de ron, or rum cake, was among her most popular desserts, fervently requested by her friends (and her kids). And she only ever made it using boxed cake mix. In today's DIY/made-from-scratch culture, admitting you use cake mix might compromise your baker cred. But I'm an 80s kid from Puerto Rico, aka generation TV-dinner/canned-everything. Growing up, making a box cake was perfectly acceptable, and a cook's capacity to be inventive with premade food was a marker of true skill.
My mother executed bizcocho the ron with expert precision and seemingly effortless simplicity. Butter flavored box cake (she recommends Duncan Hines), vanilla pudding mix (Jell-O brand), then eggs, oil, and water in adjusted proportions. The pudding gives the cake a rich flavor and a dense texture that makes it closer to a pound cake. And then her secret ingredients: walnuts and a rum-butter-brown-sugar glaze. The walnuts are sprinkled into the bowl of a greased Bundt pan, so they toast up and make the cake look elegant. Once baked, the rum glaze gets poured evenly over the entire cake, which sits overnight, soaking in boozy bliss.
Because it's so simple, my mom let me help her make it when I was eight years old. At first, she empowered me to use an electric egg beater to mix the wet and dry ingredients, which almost always ended in me spraying myself or the walls with a bit of batter. Once I got better at that, my tiny biceps strengthening over time to fully support the weight of the mixer, she bumped me up to making the glaze. I would stand vigilantly over the stove, bringing the butter to a low simmer then adding brown sugar and stirring continuously to incorporate. Once I was a teenager, I could make the whole thing alone, participating in our holiday assembly line of cake gifts.
So when I left home and started cooking for my friends, bizcocho the ron was one of the first things I made, particularly because most of the ingredients were affordable and available at bodegas, superstores, and gourmet markets alike.
Mami's rum cake was among the recipes I hoped to elevate in my cookbook, Coconuts and Collards. I wanted to make it sparkle with new techniques and ingredients. I developed a new recipe from scratch, taking inspiration from classic Southern yellow cake recipes, adjusting the rum glaze with slightly less sugar, using toasted pecans instead of raw walnuts. But ultimately, Mami's recipe surprised me, and discovered that I liked them both.
I blind taste-tested them on unsuspecting eaters, and my informal survey elicited the same results; nearly half and half. For some, it was about texture; for others, about sweetness. And for me neither was bad; just different.
Because that's the whole point of boxed cake mix: It's supposed to taste as good as homemade cake. And honestly, sometimes it does. Today, I exclusively make Mami's recipe. It's easier, and I'm not much of a baker. It turns out just right every single time, and makes me think of her.
- Canola oil or cooking spray, for greasing
- 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
- 1 box butter-flavor cake mix
- 1 (3.4-ounce) box instant vanilla pudding mix
- Unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup white rum
- 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup white rum
- 1/4 cup water
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