Our Favorite Kind of Heirloom: Passing Down Cake Recipes
Sometimes a cake is just a dessert, but the friends-and-family recipes that are keepers tell a little of the story of who we are.
The main reason to write down and share a cake recipe is so that someone else can make that cake with confidence and success. Precise measurements and clear, complete, trustworthy directions are make-or-break distinctions. The words and details should suit how much the recipient(s) know about baking cakes in general and that cake in particular. It’s better to err on the helpful side rather than leave people confused and unprepared. No one likes to waste time and groceries on a faulty recipe. A good cake recipe is accurate and friendly.
The basic format of any reliable recipe is to list all of the ingredients and their measurements in the order they will be used, and then provide ordered instructions on when and how to use each of those ingredients. That sounds simple enough, but many handwritten recipes found in the family recipe box and vintage cookbooks omit much of that information. Good bakers often skip things inadvertently because they don’t realize how much they do by rote or assume that everyone knows. When writing down and sharing an important cake recipe for the first time, have someone else test it by baking the cake based solely on what the recipe says, which will reveal the knowledge and experience that’s in your head, but never made it onto paper. (We won’t talk about people who deliberately omit important things from a recipe, because that’s not nice at all.)
The second reason to write down and/or pass along a cake recipe applies to family recipes, both those we received and those we want to add. For those cakes, beyond ingredients and oven temps, we should include the stories, anecdotes, memories, and context for why the cake matters and is worth making again. The fact that a particular German Chocolate Cake, for example, was what a beloved family member or lifelong friend made for every birthday or Christmas Eve (ferried to the table on the pretty cake plate that Aunt Jean got for a wedding present) has little to do with how the cake tastes, but everything to do with why it should be remembered and passed along. To jot down only the amount of cocoa powder without including a few lines of lore is an incomplete recipe. Sometimes a cake is just a dessert, but the friends-and-family recipes that are keepers tell a little of the story of who we are.