Black History

Aunt Ruby's Signature Sour Cream Pound Cake (& Its Many Origin Stories)

Tracing a family recipe can be hard. Luckily, eating it is very easy.

February 12, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


My mom's sour cream pound cake has been about as much of a fixture in my life as she has. The "sour cream" part of the title might throw some for a loop at first, but in actuality this cake is one of the most moist, tender, and beautiful cakes I could imagine. It makes an appearance at just about every major holiday—and a few other non-celebratory times throughout the year—and many have come to look forward to it at family gatherings. (My Great-Aunt Ida calls it "crunch cake" because of the way the top gets crispy after baking.)

Though many in the Hutcherson clan (my father's side of the family) associate the cake only with my mother, its previous steward was her Aunt Ruby. Known to many outside the family as Sis Ruby, she resided in a small town called Colonial Beach (formerly Oak Grove) in rural Virginia, located a couple of hours away by car from Washington, D.C., where my mother grew up. I know it simply as "down the country" and had to ask my mother exactly what city and state it was for this story, but have fond memories of visiting during summers as a child and playing badminton with my family in the field behind Aunt Lorraine's house across the street from her sister Ruby.

This sour cream pound cake was her signature dish. Though its exact origins are unknown, the cake has been around as long as my mother can recall. Neither her mother nor any of her other aunts made the cake—it was Ruby's beloved dessert and hers alone. My mother fondly recalls making trips with her dad to visit, and whenever Aunt Ruby gave him some cake to take back home with them to D.C., it never seemed to survive the drive, save for a few crumbs.

Mom is one of seven children—five girls and two boys. All of her sisters have made the cake at some point, but my uncles aren't really known to bake. She did, however, once mail a cake to my Uncle Harrison for his birthday, who she says claimed it was still warm from the oven when it arrived. (My family is no stranger to a tall tale or two.)

As to how and when the recipe was passed down from Aunt Ruby to my mother, no one’s really sure. During a recent phone call with my mother, she said that Aunt Lorraine may have given it to her after Aunt Ruby's passing on May 28, 2004, but that's far too recent to be true. Then she remembered getting a copy of The Joy of Cooking, along with a few other recipes, as a wedding gift from Aunt Ruby, saying, "That'll make a good story." However, my mother then admits that she must have gotten the recipe at some other point in time.

Well, whenever it happened, I'm glad it did.

The first time Mom tried baking the cake, it didn't quite work out for her, citing that she used a Bundt pan instead of the prescribed tube pan. But she has since mastered the recipe, and over the years has made a few tweaks to the original text to make it work for her. (One such change was the time and temperature, which originally called for a low and slow two-and-a-half hours at 275 degrees. But she found that a hotter, faster bake time worked for her oven.) “Still,” my mother declared, "the overall taste was Aunt Ruby's cake.”

Or perhaps one version of her cake, it seems.

It wasn't until just now that we both realized that Aunt Ruby's ingredient list states, "2 teaspoons vanilla (or your choice)." My mother, being the textbook definition of a creature of habit, has never explored this measure of freedom in the recipe. Each instance of the cake in my memory has turned out exactly the same—except for the most recent one.

"Oops" and "Ouch" are the nicknames for both my parents, so it was no surprise to hear an "Oops!" come from the kitchen on Christmas Eve this past year. After she put the cake in the oven, she realized there was one cup of flour sitting out next to the stand mixer. She asked me, the "culinary expert," if she should take the cake out of the oven to try to mix the flour in, but I figured that wouldn't quite work since it had already been baking for a few minutes. Instead, we opted to leave the cake in the oven to see how it would turn out. As one might assume, it was a little wetter than usual, but the taste was still okay.

As a result of this minor flour incident—along with me being an aging Millennial and my parents retired Baby Boomers—my mind at the time went to the deep end of anxiety about their aging. It's a topic I've cautiously broached with them before—from making sure that they're financially set for retirement to pestering them for years to put their affairs in order—and now I suppose it's one I'm bringing up again. It's not something that keeps me up at night, but I sense myself becoming more cognizant of the reality as each year passes.

Yet in this particular instance, when I think of each time my mother has said "Oops!" coupled with the fact that she has only ever used pure vanilla extract, I'm reminded of exactly who she is: a woman with a penchant for routineness and proclivity for the occasional mistake.

That’s what this sour cream cake allows for and withstands, and part of why I love it so much today.

My mom's sour cream pound cake has been about as much of a fixture in my life as she has. It's one of the most moist, tender, and beautiful cakes I could imagine.

Like any good child, I tend to take the opposite path to my parents, which in the kitchen manifests itself as a love for experimentation. I've only made this cake for myself once: the year I was working in a restaurant and couldn't make it home for Christmas. I ended up tweaking Aunt Ruby’s recipe with orange zest and bringing my version of the cake to my friend’s house that night. It was my way of dealing with my homesickness while, unbeknowingly, both adhering to and eschewing tradition.

This sour cream pound cake recipe has been a treasured family heirloom for generations. So much so that my mother half-jokingly chided to me over the phone, "Did you get the family's permission to share this recipe?"

Let's hope they'll approve.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.

1 Comment

daimblond February 13, 2019
Beautiful story and writing. Thank you for sharing!