A Pianist in the Kitchen
Updated: Mar 2
(by Buffy Shutt)
Every Easter my mother, Middy—a great cook, baker, and healthy chef before healthy became a thing—made a cake in a cast iron mold shaped like a lamb.
When she passed away my brother, sister, and I amicably and lovingly chose some of her possessions to become our own. I chose the lamb, even though I am overwhelmed by baking. The chemistry of leavening and the arithmetic of measuring ingredients makes me anxious.
But this year, I made my first pound-cake lamb, following Middy’s directions (somewhat chagrined that the peaks of my beaten egg whites weren’t as sharp as they should have been). I filled the mold and tied it together with cooking twine, just as Mom had done so many times. I spread coconut over white icing for his woolly coat and added a maraschino cherry for his nose. I say "his" because, over the years, some of my mother’s lambs were girls, but she had a fondness for boys. I used raisins for his eyes and set him, as she always had, on a silver platter, surrounded by hand-colored eggs nestled into Easter basket grass.
As I studied my lamb, I saw that he had a slight tilt to his head and one ear was cocked, as if to say, “Girl, what took you so long?” His presentation was also a bit wobbly because I forgot to put a wide smear of icing on the platter to “paste” him down. When my two adult children saw him, they said, “Grandma Middy would be proud of you.” I nodded and quickly went to find my mother’s cake knife, surprised how close I was to tears.
My mother encouraged me to watch her as she prepared meals, to be in the kitchen with her and to taste everything, even if it was only one bite. She didn’t prod me toward cooking myself. As I look back, it was as though she was a concert pianist intent on her craft, and if I picked up some of her talent by osmosis, great. If I didn’t, she was fine with that too. And so was I.
There were always generous servings of Mom's lamb cake. Still, by the Wednesday after Easter, when no one wanted any more, she would divide the leftovers into pieces and freeze them in plastic bags. In a few days, I’ll be performing this ritual, and the idea of carving up the lamb, oddly, weighs on me. It is as if I will be saying goodbye to my mother all over again. She had a large freezer, and it was packed. A nostalgic slice of my wedding cake, which she also baked, was in there, usually with a quart of her sweet-and-sour carrots and tomato soup made from her home-grown tomatoes. My own freezer is smaller and empty. I am afraid of freezing food, afraid it will spoil or, worse, be forgotten. I may put a few lamb cake baggies in there and never reach for them again. And yet somehow I know that a bit of my mother’s spirit will be waiting to be defrosted and devoured—with love.
Buffy Shutt worked most recently at Participant Media where she spearheaded the marketing campaigns for such films as Lincoln, The Help, and the Oscar winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Her books include Coming of Age… All Over Again and Creative Differences.
Middy's Easter Lamb Cake
2 1/4 c. flour
2 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 1/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. butter
1 c. milk
1 t. vanilla extract
4 egg whites
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Coat lamb mold with vegetable oil, let stand, and wipe clean.
Butter and flour mold, taking care to get into all areas: ears, eyes, and haunches.
Sift flour, then sift again, adding baking powder and salt. Set aside.
Beat butter and sugar together until fluffy.
Add vanilla extract to milk.
Add flour mixture to butter and sugar, alternating with milk.
Beat egg whites until soft peaks form.
Fold in about a third of egg whites, and then add remaining whites.
Fill face side of the mold, using a wooden spoon to ease batter in and eliminate air pockets.
Place lid on mold and use kitchen twine to secure the two sides.
Put mold on a cookie sheet and bake for about 1 hour, until a toothpick comes out clean.
Cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes (don't rush this part).
Remove top and mold and cool for another 5 - 10 minutes.
Remove the rest of mold and cool completely.
Decorate with white frosting, shredded sweetened coconut, raisins, and maraschino cherry.