Family Time and Spice Cake

It was uncles lunch today. It’s a once-a-month Knipple tradition where Paul’s 3 uncles and 1 cousin on his father’s side get together for lunch. It’s a great way to keep in touch with family, something that we all seem to lose without making effort like this. Every month, the responsibility of choosing where to meet rotates. This month was our turn.

It’s always an interesting challenge to figure out where to eat. There can’t be anything too exotic, cost should be moderate, the drive can’t be more than an hour from Memphis, and there has to be somewhere for conversation. Sure the food part is important, but the important part is getting to see everyone.

The range of restaurants we’ve gone to have ranged from Ryan’s in Millington to Old Country Store in Jackson to J Alexander’s by Wolfchase to the now gone Tennessean in Collierville. Today, we had a great meal and good time at 3 Angels. Of course, some of the best meals of all are those at a family member’s house. That gives everyone an opportunity to bring their favorite dishes. And one of everyone’s favorites is the Spice Cake.

This isn’t just any spice cake. This is THE Spice Cake. This is the recipe that has been passed down through the family, the one that everyone remembers from childhood, the one that never turns out exactly the way they remembered, but it’s the one that’s still delicious.

I have never made the spice cake. I have the recipe. I have no doubt that I could make a really good cake with it. But I haven’t made it. When you have a recipe like that, you want to get it just right. With that kind of recipe, a recipe with that much connection, you need to really nail it.

It’s hard for me to follow recipes. I like to tweak things, make them my own. My grandfather’s beef stew? I grew up loving it, and I still make it, but I’ve changed it. I’ve added mushrooms and corn, thrown in a pepper or two, used leftover lamb with a nice buttery garlic crust. It’s similar, it’s still the stew I loved, but it’s mine, and I don’t doubt that when Patric makes it later on, he’ll make it his.

For me, recipes have always been guidelines. Yes, there are some things you can’t change, and shouldn’t change, but there are so many things that you can. There’s no reason not to take an idea from one recipe and combine it with an idea from another one to make something completely different from either of them. I think that’s the way it should be. There are no recipes out there that you can’t make into something you and your family will like if you change the flavors, the spice levels, the tartness, the sweetness to the things you like. And that’s where recipes like the spice cake come from. Paul’s grandmother made the one he remembers, but the recipe is one she made her own.

Recipes tell stories, and the spice cake recipe is no exception. The original ingredient list calls for sweet milk, not a designation you’ll see on any of the milk jugs at the grocery store, so there’s a substitution listed. There’s butter in here, and not just a little bit. You’ll see that diet consciousness changed that a bit. The amount of flour is an idea, but you’re supposed to just add enough to make the batter look right. The original recipe assumes you know how to make a cake. It doesn’t give you pan sizes or baking time. It assumes you know how hot to have your oven. You cook it in a slow oven; your grandmother probably would have known exactly what that meant. The variations show how ingredients changed as the grocery store offered shortcuts. It’s evolved from what it was originally, and it will keep evolving.

I want to make the spice cake. I will make the spice cake. I will keep to the spirit of the spice cake. But I know myself too well. What comes out of the oven will be good. I like butter, so I’m very likely to go back to the original recipe for that. I might use a fresh coconut; I have memories from making coconut cake with my grandmother that center on the cracking and draining of the coconut. I’ll grind my own spices because I like them better than the ones I buy already ground. I might toast some of the coconut to press on the outside of the cake. I’ll play with it to make it what I want it to be.

The Knipple clan will like it. It will remind them of the one they grew up eating. But it will be my spice cake, and that’s ok.

Grandma Knipple

This cake must be refrigerated because it spoils fast, unless you have a lot of Knipples around to eat it.

These are Paul's aunts' variations: Instead of buying a fresh coconut, we buy frozen coconut and thaw it. And, we buy canned coconut milk. You want the icing to taste like oranges and coconuts. Also, we use 9" round cake pans. Grease the bottom of the pans with shortening, cut waxed paper to fit bottoms, and grease the waxed paper. Then, lightly flour and shake excess flour out of pans. Pour cake batter into pans. Bake until a tooth pick inserted in the center of cake comes out clean. This tells you how long to bake. You want the tops to be lightly browned, and the batter done. Let the layers slightly cool, on a baking rack. Run a table knife around the edges of the cake. Put cooling rack over top of pan and turn over. Cake will drop out of the pan. Peel off waxed paper. Cool until layers feel cool to touch. Then, slice the layers in half, so you have 4 cake layers. Place first layer on cake platter, with top side down. Take a toothpick and pierce holes in cake layer. Sprinkle with some of the coconut milk. Ice layer and cover with some of the coconut. Add second layer (bottom side down) and repeat with milk, icing and coconut. Do the same for the third layer (top side down). After the fourth layer has been added (top side up), sprinkle with coconut milk, ice top and sides of layers with icing. Press rest of coconut on top and all around sides of layers.


    For the cake:
  • 1 cup butter (can use Crisco)
  • 4 eggs (large)
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 lb. pecans (chopped)
  • 1 cup sweet milk or water
  • 1 tsp. allspice
  • 1/4 lb. raisins
  • 3-1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 lb. dates (cut up)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. cloves
  • For the icing:
  • Juice of 1 orange (sometimes takes 2)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Grated rind of 1 orange (orange part only not white)
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 2 Tbsp. cornstarch or flour
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 1 grated coconut (save the milk from the coconut)


    To make the cake:
  1. Mix well and cook in slow oven (about 375 degrees).
  2. Dredge the raisins and dates with some of the flour. (This keeps them from sinking to the bottom of the bowl and cake pans.)
  3. Do not use your mixer. Mix by hand.
  4. First, cream shortening (or butter and sugar).
  5. Add the eggs, mix some more.
  6. Then, add the other ingredients.
  7. Sometimes, it seems that 3-1/2 cups of flour is a little too much. So you can add flour until you think it is of the right consistency.
  8. (Note: Grandma K, Joyce and I use ground spices, whole milk and 1/2 cup each butter and Crisco.)
  9. For the icing:
  10. Mix first 4 ingredients in saucepan.
  11. After it boils, add cornstarch dissolved in the 1/2 cup of cold water. (Cornstarch helps to thicken the icing.)
  12. Cook until consistency to spread.
  13. Sprinkle reserved coconut milk over layers.
  14. Then, ice cake with icing.
  15. Press grated coconut all over cake layers.
  16. This usually makes a juicy cake.
  17. Cover and refrigerate to firm up cake layers.

A Bubba Kind of Day
We Ate It Anyway

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