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Culinary Calligraphy

(by Babs Mollere)

Inside my pantry on an upper shelf is a small box covered in blue flowered fabric, full of 3 x 5 handwritten cards. It will soon qualify as a bona fide antique. The box is full of selected recipes, well-used and stained, and was assembled by my mother in 1969 after I married. Maybe she wasn’t sure if I’d starve—newly married, a brand new school teacher, and inexperienced cook. There weren’t many readily available cookbooks for novices then, and maybe she wondered, too, if I’d give up biographies long enough to find them.

I prize the box for its age and contents. The cards are a kind of culinary calligraphy from people I’ve known, especially my mother and grandmother, and other women who’ve served me at their tables. Thumbing through the box is an afternoon of reminiscence, and I hesitate to alter anything about it.

My mother cooked food that I loved to eat, dependably and consistently, but I’m not sure she loved it. She loved her family enough to put food on the table cheerfully in our New Orleans home. She talked to herself while stirring at the stove. Sometimes it was audible. My grandmother, who late in life claimed to prefer home decoration to home cooking, was a wonderful cake baker, and my mother carried on the tradition with innumerable homemade birthday cakes. My daughter does it now, utilizing proven cake mixes along with “scratch” versions. One of our most memorable layered confections is blackberry jam cake, which has come down through generations of women.

When I was a child and we’d arrive at my grandmother’s home in north Louisiana after a long five-hour drive in a station wagon without air-conditioning, she’d welcome us into her sun parlor with a glass of real lemonade and a piece of fresh jam cake. I thought it was the essence of hospitality. Later on she also revealed her belief that new mothers should have an “afternoon pick-me-up”—a relaxing beverage and sweet treat. For sure, she understood recipes and mental health. When I read the recipe for that cake on its handwritten card, I’m still a girl sitting there waiting to be served or a tired young mother encouraged to take an afternoon break.

My classically beautiful mother and my indefatigable grandmother both taught me how to cherish time together, as women alone or with the larger family, featuring a homemade cake. I have an antique box to prove it; I remember them every time I use it.


Babs Mollere was managing director of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, a musician-owned ensemble formed in 1991. She directed the New Orleans classical ensemble as it rebuilt following Hurricane Katrina. She lives in New Orleans.

Blackberry Jam Cake

1 c. butter, softened

2 c. sugar

4 eggs, separated

1 c. buttermilk

1 t. baking soda

3 c. flour

1 t. each allspice, cinnamon, and cloves

1 c. blackberry jam

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cream butter and sugar.

Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating into mixture.

Mix buttermilk with baking soda.

Mix flour and spices, and add to batter alternately with buttermilk.

Add jam.

Beat egg whites until fairly stiff, and fold into batter.

Pour into two greased and floured 9-inch cake pans.

Bake for 26 - 30 minutes, until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool before frosting.

Caramel Frosting (quick version)

8 T. butter

1/2 c. light brown sugar

1/2 c. dark brown sugar

1/4 c. whole milk

2 c. confectioners’ sugar

1 t. vanilla extract

Place butter and brown sugars in heavy saucepan over medium heat.

Stir and cook about 2 minutes until mixture comes to a boil.

Add milk and bring mixture back to a boil.

Remove from heat and add confectioners’ sugar and vanilla.

Use immediately to frost between layers and on top of cake, before the icing hardens (re-heat to soften).

Note: Some cooks have added a thin layer of additional blackberry jam in between the two layers, before adding a layer of caramel frosting.


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