It was a small house, with wooded slats and a porch painted in creams and browns. As you walked through the heavy burnished door and stood in the center hall, you left the world behind you on the threshold, not three feet away yet a thousand miles from care. A curved staircase led to a motley square of stained glass, a glimpse of the music room through the double French doors, and the unmistakable aroma of a perked pot of coffee always at the ready. This was Grandma’s house, Hertha’s house. This was gemütlichkeit.
A uniquely German abstract, gemütlichkeit, is virtually impossible to accurately translate, though the Dutch, Russians and Danish have words that convey a similar meaning. It is a place of coziness, comfort and camaraderie, where one minute slips effortless into the next, yet you are forever in the moment. The feeling, though typically defined as “home,” knows no exact boundaries; it could be a garden, a glade, or a table tucked away in a café. The only guidepost is that you know it, feel it in your fiber, exactly when you get there.
It was many a Saturday afternoon, so long ago, that I was there. My mother, brother and I would arrive to the last notes of Chopin, Bach and Ravel dancing through the doorways, as my grandmother gave her final student of the day a lesson on the piano. We would sit and wait for her on a comfy sofa with a collection of lazing cats stretched over the cushions.
When the lesson was over, we would immediately be welcomed into the dining room, a small inner sanctum of tall, glossy cabinets. Thick slashes of sunlight would cross the table and converge on a solitary white box bound in striped twine. We all knew what was inside, a lavishly frosted layer cake, which was bought that morning at the local bakery.
As we assembled around the table to the clinking of china and utensils, and the arrival of the coffee pot, all eyes were focused on the box, waiting for the mystery inside to be revealed. Could it be coconut, black-and-white ganache, or maple walnut? Maple walnut was always my favorite, a pile of fawn-colored buttercream cresting walnut-crusted curves of cake, a mile high to a child’s eye. Despite its dazzling decor, it always seemed less sophisticated and more friendly than the other cakes in the rotation. Coffee was poured for the adults and milk for us children. The twine was snipped from the box, thick wedges of cake were cut, and there we would be, spending hours caught up in conversation beyond my ken. To this day, I do not remember a word of it, but it doesn’t matter.
My grandmother has been gone some years now, and the house has long since been sold and gutted several times to accommodate a string of businesses. Memory, though, can hardly be quelled by progress. I sometimes pass by and imagine the door is opening, just wide enough for a small girl to step inside.
Maple Walnut Layer Cake
Chiffon Layer Cake - Adapted from the Crisco recipe.
[This is an excellent, moist, all-purpose cake recipe, particularly good when you don't want to fuss with the extra steps and tube pan needed for a traditional foam batter. I've made it several times, and it has never failed to perform.]
2 egg whites
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups sifted cake flour
1 cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1/2 cup flavorless oil (I used safflower)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg yolks
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a small bowl, beat egg whites with 1/3 cup sugar until thick and glossy but not stiff. Set aside. Combine flour, 1 cup sugar, baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Add milk, oil, vanilla and egg yolks to the dry ingredients. Beat with electric mixer at medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape the bowl and beaters frequently (not continually). Fold or stir egg whites into batter until, about 1 minute. Pour into two greased and floured 8-inch layer cake pans. [I used 6-inch X 3-inch round pans.]
Bake for 25-30 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched. Cool 10-20 minutes before removing from pans.
American Buttercream Frosting (Maple)
[This is a standard recipe, using all butter and no trans-fat shortening. If you are not fond of the metallic gritty sweetness of confectioners sugar, you can use glazing sugar, a powdered sugar without cornstarch. King Arthur carries it.]
½ pound butter, softened to room temperature
1 pound confectioners sugar (or more)
¼ cup milk (or more)
1 Tablespoon natural maple extract (much more highly concentrated than maple syrup)
In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy and fluffy. Add sugar one cup at a time, beating well between additions. Keep beating until all the sugar is absorbed. Add extract and milk, and resume beating until frosting is smooth and light. Frosting consistency is a matter of taste. You can easily add more sugar to thicken. You can also stretch your ingredients by adding more sugar and milk incrementally until you have doubled the volume. This is especially useful if you have a large cake to frost and don’t want to increase an already high fat content. Keep frosting tightly covered until ready to use to prevent sugar crust. Buttercream does not have to be refrigerated, but should be kept in a cool place so it doesn’t melt.
After filling and decorating the assembled layers, gently press approximately 1 1/2 cups of chopped walnuts into the sides of cake. Cake will develop a natural sugar crust while standing; this is perfectly harmless and adds to its character. Cover with a large inverted plastic bowl to keep it fresh.
Yield – The original recipe without additional sugar and milk will lightly fill and frost an 8-inch, 2-layer cake or two 6-inch cakes split into 2 layers. The cake shown is a 6-inch split into 3 layers. It is lightly filled, but generously decorated. It is very sweet and rich.
Serves 8 - 12 depending on size of wedges cut.
This post is my submission for this month's Sugar High Friday, hosted by Jennifer of Domestic Goddess, the creator of the long-running monthly sweet blogging event. This month's theme is Favorite, Most Craved Desserts.