(by Amanda Uhry)
Most family secrets are deep and dark. Ours was about a dessert.
The bar was set high in my New York City family: My father was an orthopedic surgeon, my mother a magazine editor, and her father (who died when she was a child) was the first deputy mayor under Fiorello La Guardia. My grandmother, only in her 30s when my grandfather died, went on to become the first Assemblywoman in America. Yes, a really high bar.
My grandmother had so many talents, but cooking wasn’t one of them. The one thing she made that was incredible was orange pound cake. I don't usually like sweets or desserts, but it was the most delicious thing I've ever tasted. My grandmother lived one block away, and she made it for me all the time. I'd beg for the recipe, and she would tell me that there wasn't one, that it was in her head. She joked (sort of) that if she divulged the secret, her grandchildren would never come visit her (wrong—we all loved her even more than the orange cake).
I always asked my mother why she didn't know how to make the orange cake. I probably could have answered that myself: she was a) busy and b) not a very good cook. Cooking was unimportant to my mother. The happiest day of my mom's domestic life was probably the day they invented the microwave, followed by the day they invented Lean Cuisine. My father didn't seem to mind that his wife's culinary skills were so limited. He was more of a feminist that she was and would say to me, "Women work now, like your mother, and hopefully you, too, one day. Which is, of course, why we're giving you this million dollar education, just in case you hadn't noticed." (I did notice.)
Both of my parents and my grandmother died when I was still a teenager. I had a lot to deal with and think about besides that orange pound cake. Yet I never forgot it. It was deeply symbolic. It reminded me of my grandmother and, in turn, the very sudden loss of my immediate family. I would think about it at odd moments and cry for everything I’d lost so young. Everyone in my family—aunts, cousins, great-aunts, even one great-uncle—tried and tried to replicate that cake to make me feel better. Valiant efforts but none worked.
I finally realized that I couldn't do anything about the orange pound cake. The recipe went to the grave with my grandmother. But I could do something, even indirectly, about loss. Perhaps I could settle my feelings about my own loss through someone else's. A decade after I graduated from college, I adopted my daughter, then six months old, from Maoming, China. A lot of friends thought I was nuts. I was in my early 30s yet looked, and sometimes acted, like a teenager. I also founded and ran a successful public relations firm. I was as busy as my mother, and my domestic skills were equally limited. "Why are you doing this now?" so many people asked. Wait. Get married. Have "your own" kid. (The last part infuriated me: My daughter is my daughter.) When I returned from China with my baby, many people thought I was joking around (I'm known as quite the prankster) and had borrowed her for the day. I didn't find that too amusing either.
I turned out to be a good mother, just like my mother was, even if she didn't cook and never taught me how to cook. Being a mother must have been the most important thing to my mother because, however busy in life, she taught me how to be one. Parenting was the best thing I ever did and the most successful, never mind about the fancy-schmancy education and successful businesses. Of course, parenting didn't bring back my parents or my grandmother (or her cake), but it gave my daughter, abandoned on the street in China at the age of one day, the chance to have a parent, and gave me the chance to have a family.
As soon as my daughter was old enough to eat real food, I started trying to replicate my grandmother's orange pound cake. Over the years, I made it dozens of times. Some attempts were more successful than others, but it never really worked, and I finally gave up—partially because my daughter was the kid who, like me, didn't like sweets. At three, she said, "NO MORE CAKE! I want BROCCOLI!" At seven, she said, "Mommy, stop with the cake and just make some chicken!" As a teenager, she said, "Mom, give it up. You're great at lots of things, but one of them is not making your grandmother's orange cake, or basically cooking anything else." It's true, I am my mother's daughter when it comes to forays in the kitchen. Did it matter that this mommy couldn't cook? Not at all. This mother, like her mother, loves her daughter (now a magnificent 24-year-old) and wants the best for her, only and always. And that best really has little to do with what you serve for dinner. I say that and mean it. But there will always be a little voice wheedling my subconscious saying, "If only you could make that orange pound cake.” Life's not perfect. Sometimes orange cake becomes grief, and then a vehicle for overcoming it.
Amanda Uhry is the founder of Private School Advisors, an educational consulting firm in New York City.
Orange Pound Cake
(adapted from The Barefoot Contessa)
This is not Frances Deutsch’s orange pound cake, but it will do.
1/4 lb. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 c. granulated sugar, divided
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
grated zest of 3 oranges
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 t. baking powder
1/4 t. baking soda
1/2 t. kosher salt
6 T. freshly squeezed orange juice, divided
6 T. buttermilk, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 c. confectioners' sugar, sifted
2 - 3 t. freshly squeezed orange juice
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Grease and flour a loaf pan, approximately 8 x 4 x 2 inches.
Line bottom of pan with parchment paper.
Cream butter and 1 c. of granulated sugar in bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy.
With mixer on medium speed, beat in eggs, one at a time, and orange zest.
In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
In another bowl, combine 2 T. orange juice, buttermilk, and vanilla.
Add flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with flour.
Spoon batter into pan, smooth the top, and bake for 45 – 60 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.
While cake bakes, place remaining 1/4 c. granulated sugar with remaining 4 T. orange juice in a small saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves.
Let cake cool for 10 minutes.
Remove from pan and place on a baking rack set over a tray.
Spoon orange syrup over the cake and allow to cool completely.
To glaze, combine confectioners' sugar and orange juice in a bowl, whisking until smooth and pourable.
Pour over top of cake and allow to dry.
Wrap well, and store in refrigerator.