I’ve never quite understood why some people insist on keeping family recipes secret. Isn’t bringing people together the point of a family recipe? And doesn’t sharing recipes tend to bring people together? Why do you read hogwash?
Now, if a bakery considers a recipe proprietary information (The Boise Co-Op’s lemon cookie comes to mind first), I’m inclined to respect the decision immediately. After all, the bakery business is tough, and one perfect recipe butters less bread if it’s sold from competing dessert cases.
Family recipes seem different. If a grandmother’s best pie makes a person smile, shouldn’t that person have the right to feel those sensations – the flavor of the filling, the snap of the crust, the warmth of a friend’s smile – even if she isn’t directly related to the grandmother? And, as is the case with the bakery recipe, shouldn’t the family know that the pie will never taste the same – really the same – if someone else (besides the grandmother or her direct descendants) is making it?
But. BUT. As much as I disagree, I try not to step on recipe-hoarders’ toes. I do try. If they want to skim joy off the top of other peoples’ lives and deprive them of sustenance, that’s their prerogative.
Take, for example, the blueberry cake I eat at least once a year with the Trafton clan. It’s as simple as cake gets, a white butter batter stirred together with a spoon, studded with blueberries, and plopped into whatever pan is handy. At every summer celebration, it fills a kitchen in a house on the Maine coast with a hot blueberry breeze, and when it’s served, slathered with cream cheese frosting, everything else stops.
Now, I adore Mom Trafton. But from the first time I met her (and tasted the cake), I knew that I’d only get her blueberry cake if it was baked in a Trafton kitchen. When we saw her last summer, seven years or so since we met, she gave me a squeeze and told me I was special. I think she actually said “You guys are honorary Traftons.” In that clan, there’s hardly a higher compliment. I smiled instantly.
Never one to let an opportune moment slide by, I squeezed her back and said something bright, like “So does that mean I get the blueberry cake recipe?” It was the wrong thing to say, but I got over it, and resolved to wait for another slice next summer.
Keep in mind, though, that for me, not having a recipe doesn’t necessarily mean not being able to duplicate something, at least roughly. Technically, I could reinvent the blueberry cake. It’s not a temptation I deal with on a regular basis, because, quite frankly, the idea of the family recipe has all but faded in my generation, and of those that are left, few are really secret.
But last weekend, we went hiking. The trail we took up to Skyline Lake wasn’t so much dotted with huckleberries; it plowed a path through a virtual huckleberry forest. We slept on huckleberries. (Here’s Frank’s slideshow, by the way; you can see how the leaves on the blackberry bushes are turning different shades of orange.) On the way down we picked them, watching the shiny, dark fruits roll over each other like ball bearings as we tipped them into the big zip-top bag I’d brought just in case. We showed each other our huckleberry hands and giggled.
In the mountains, I’d wanted to make muffins, with buttermilk and lemon zest. But by the time the huckleberries were clean and dry, huddling together in a paper towel-lined bowl in my refrigerator, I’d realized I could sin without sinning. My goal shifted: I’d make huckleberry cake.
And so I started. To assuage the guilt that began building the moment I set the butter and cream cheese out to soften, I strayed from the parts I knew to be true: I mixed by machine instead of by hand, added not so much sugar, and used huckleberries instead of blueberries (and many more of them).
When the cake came out of the oven, hot and puffed and only barely browned at the edges, the way Mom Trafton’s always is, I almost called her to tell her what I’d done. Instead, I decided to skip the frosting. I put the cream cheese back in the refrigerator and ferried cake to my neighbors and to my fellow pickers, an unnoticed atonement and silent celebration for doing something I know I shouldn’t have done.
If the Traftons ask, fresh, wild Maine blueberries (especially the ones Emily picks each year) are not an acceptable substitute for huckleberries. And this would be terrible with a soft, spreadable cream cheese frosting.
Huckleberry Cake (PDF)
Recipe 268 of 365
Based on my imagined recipe for the infamous Trafton Family Blueberry Cake (although truth be told, it may belong to Mom Trafton’s family, so it might carry her maiden name), this isn’t one of those fussy, ethereally light cakes, meant to be dressed up and presented with pomp and circumstance. It’s homey and hearty, and takes about fifteen minutes to whip together. Serve it hot, just out of the pan, with vanilla ice cream or soft cream cheese frosting.
TIME: 15 minutes active time
MAKES: 8 servings
Butter and flour, for the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup milk
2 cups huckleberries
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8” square cake pan, and set aside.
Whisk the flour, salt, and baking powder together in a mixing bowl. Transfer a heaping tablespoon of the dry mixture to a small bowl, and set the small bowl aside – you’ll use this for the huckleberries.
In the work bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed until light, about three minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla, and mix to blend. Scrape the sides of the bowl down with a plastic spatula to incorporate the butter, and blend again on medium speed for 1 minute. Add half of the dry ingredients, then the milk, then the remaining half of the dry ingredients, mixing on low speed between each addition until just blended. Stir the huckleberries into the reserved flour mixture (coating them with flour prevents them from sinking in the batter and streaking it blue), then add them to the cake batter and mix in by hand. (The batter will be quite thick.)
Dump the batter into the prepared pan, and smooth into an even layer (don’t forget the corners!) with a flat spatula. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the center of the cake springs back when touched. (The cake will not brown much.) Let cool for 10 minutes, then serve straight from the pan, warm, with vanilla ice cream.