Last week I brought up the ins and outs of “secret” recipes- why we have them, why we might not, and how to keep recipes safe behind the law.
In writing it, I said that I am generally happy to share my recipes for a number of reasons- but that I won’t share some recipes for sentimental reasons. When I said that, I was thinking of one of my recipes in particular.
It’s a recipe that very few people outside my family know, one that I have been tweaking and trying to perfect for several years, and this is the story of why I decided I was gonna hold it close to my chest from now on.
Receiving the Recipe
Shortly after my grandmother passed, my father and his brothers were going through her house to catalog her estate. My uncle was the executor of her will and needed help to make sure everything specifically listed was given to the appropriate people before anything was to be liquidated or donated.
Several times before her death, my grandmother asked me what I might want from her passing. Besides asking that she not pass on, I said that I’d be happy with whatever she chose to give me. That was before she died. As my dad was heading over with my uncle, he asked if I was sure I didn’t want anything in particular. I thought for a moment and decided that I wanted something from her kitchen to put in mine, so she could be with me when I cooked and baked.
An hour or two later, my father was back and put three paper-wrapped bundles in front of me. First was my grandmothers kitchen witch spoon holder. Second was her copy of “Love and Knishes”- her favorite Jewish cookbook which my father said “Keep that to yourself- a LOT of family want that book, but they’re all getting other stuff.”
Finally was case after case of recipe cards and clippings. “Take out your phone and start snapping- we can’t keep these, and I need to give them back before anyone notices.” There must have been a hundred index cards, retro appliance and ingredient books (the kind that feature the related product in ALL CAPS and ™️) and I began snapping pictures of any recipe that sounded like it might be fun, interesting, or not so absurdly retro that I’m not sure I could ever get anyone to eat them. James Beard had some opinions I share when comes to “congealed salads” and there were Far. Too. Many in my grandmothers keeping. Growing up, the only one I remembered her ever serving was a multi-flavored jello ring with fruit suspended in it. That was acceptable.
Right up front, though, was one recipe I remembered fondly on a faded index card in my grandmothers tight, neat print- the kind I wonder if she used when she would write notes and observations as a chemist. Apparently it was gotten from a friend of hers, and was for Jewish Apple Cake.
It was fairly straight-forward. The instructions amounted to “mix everything together for the batter, layer up in a Bundt with apples and cinnamon, bake till done. I was a culinary student, so of course it was simple- but I wondered what else I could do with it.
Sometime later, I was working at the casino. An upcoming banquet called for Jewish Apple Cake, but on a grand scale- baked in sheets rather than bundts, and cut into easy-to-arrange-on-a-platter rectangles. I leapt at the chance to use my grandmothers recipe- not just to contribute at my workplace and earn a little respect as a new baker, but to see how well I could adjust the recipe. I wanted to scale it up, change the look, change the texture, improve it… use it to prove I was an honest-to-God Serious Pastry Chef in the Making.
After a few comparisons, my grandmothers recipe was deemed the best, and I successfully scaled it up to full sheet pans baked in the casinos giant ovens. The kitchen would fill with the scent of baked apples and cinnamon on “apple cake day,” and a small line would form at the bakery door for me to come out with a bowl of the edges (trimmed off for cosmetic reasons, even though anyone who knew anything would tell you they were the best part.)
It was my grandma’s recipe being served to customers and high rollers, and I was the man that was making it. I was proud of myself, and I felt my grandmother might be proud of me too.
Then, one day, cake boxes arrived from an outside company. That wasn’t uncommon- the bake shop had a repertoire that we made from scratch (fine dining desserts, some things for the buffet) but most other stuff was bought from outside companies and gussied up for service.
What stuck me, though, was that these said “Jewish Apple Cake” on the outside. I went to my chef and asked what was up with the boxes. He matter-of-factly said “Oh, these guys make their own cakes, but for a small upcharge they’ll scale and make any recipe we give them. So we sent them your apple cake recipe. Now we can have you do some other stuff.”
I was stunned. Yes, I had commodified my grandmothers recipe- I had tweaked and perfected it then put it to work. If I’d wanted to protect it, I should have kept it to myself. Sending it out to an outside company so that it would become yet another thing we just shipped in felt wrong, though. Production of the recipe I had introduced had been taken out of my hands so I could focus on… what? Stacking Oreos on platters and cutting up Sara Lee pound cakes for fondue displays?
I felt betrayed and disgusted. As I opened the boxes, it looked strange. The apples were cut wrong. It looked over mixed and doughy. After all the times I’d worked on the recipe, I knew when something was done wrong, and I took an experimental bite.
There it was. A flaw. The company had screwed up and sold my casino faulty cake. It was my grandma’s recipe done wrong.
I quietly closed the box, didn’t tell anyone, and kept the correct recipe a secret since. Anywhere I’ve made it since either only learned the ingredients or just charged what they thought was right.
Keeping Good Things Out of the Wrong Hands
As I was writing this, I realized a good chunk of my reason for keeping Bubba’s Jewish Apple Cake a secret recipe is rooted in emotion and a desire not to get screwed out of work that makes me happy. Any home baker who learned the ingredients and tried the cake once could probably figure out the method on their own. I’m serving nothing but my own wounded pride and ego by keeping the recipe from anyone outside of my family.
That’s enough of a reason for anything, though. The cake reminds me of my grandmother and her love. It reminds me of the reasons I wanted to become a baker. The idea that anyone else I worked for could take that recipe out of my hands and hand it over to someone else- just so they could save a buck on someone doing it badly- makes me sick.
I sell the cake at my pie shop now- retooled to be vegan and gluten-free. It’s not quite the same as the original, but enough people love it that I’m happy to keep making it. I’m happy to sell it because it’s on the menu as “Bubba Mitzi’s Jewish Apple Cake,” and people who get it can ask who Bubba Mitzi was.
Then I can tell them this story, and they’ll take a bite. Watching them eat the cake, we both remember my grandmother. They’ll never know who she was besides my grandmother. They’ll never know the way she made me want to look after people, made me feel safe and happy and loved… but they’ll know she made really good apple cake. That’s good enough for me.
One thought on “A Story About A Cake”
Lovely story, Matt!
Sent from my iPhone