Every other week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
Today: Food52 Assistant Editor Marian Bull shares her grandmother's recipe for a spice cake with a not-so-secret ingredient.
Shop the Story
I was supposed to find a picture of my grandmother roughly five weeks ago.
I never got around to it, until a few days back, when I frantically emailed an aunt and an uncle asking for an image, any image, of their mother.
What I received was a photo of my grandmother Ruthie, lounging on a beach, somewhere on Boston's North Shore. Her mouth is big, like mine. She's wearing a killer pair of sunglasses, and she's clearly having the most fun. The photo isn't as elegant or as clear as I was hoping for, but it's all I have, so it will have to do.
I leave things until the last minute; I get this from my lovely mother. Who, in turn, got much of her charm and compassion and freakish capacity for unconditional love from her mother, Ruthie. She died before I was born, but I carry her name proudly between my first and last.
An Irish Catholic mother of seven whose husband died, too young, from a heart attack, the woman lives on in all of our minds as a saint. She raised seven (loud, rambunctious) children with grace; worked tirelessly; always had an eye out for those around town in need. She brought an Irish sensibility to her resolution to keep going. She put corned beef and cabbage on the table each St. Patrick's Day. And she made this tomato soup cake.
Which, I know, sounds scary. It sounds like it's trying, ostensibly, to push your boundaries, to eke you out of your comfort zone; but it's more resourceful than avant garde, more humble than hilarious. It's more Betty Crocker than Andy Warhol.
The story goes that Irish immigrants devised this cake from a lack of fresh ingredients -- it calls for no milk, no butter. You'll only open your fridge once, to retrieve two eggs; this recipe pays more attention to your spice drawer, and tastes like something you might come across over the holidays. But I suggest you serve it year round.
Soup cake is my lone heirloom recipe. I'm proud of its freakishness, its humility. It's an embrace of a cake, and then a joke; a hug and a laugh, just the way I imagine Ruthie would welcome me into her home, had she ever been given the chance.