The Whiskey Diary

7 Feb

It was 1999. I was eleven years old and I decided I wanted to bake.  Thanksgiving was approaching and I thought this the perfect time to unveil the culinary talents that I was convinced had long been hiding, just waiting to be unleashed on an unknowing world.

As I meekly voiced my newest endeavor, my mother immediately whipped out a file-box collection of her mother’s old recipes that lay untouched on top of our antique fridge (as she politely referred to the yellowed, humming unit).  My mother loves a good dessert.  The skinny, tennis-playing, exercise-loving, moderate-eating woman can’t get enough of her pastries.  Over the years, she has become my biggest fan, placing orders for my pies like I was working on commission.  So it’s no wonder that the moment I expressed an interest in baking, there she was, climbing precariously on a kitchen chair to scour her recipe box for the exact cake she had in mind.

“Your grandmother’s Whiskey Cake!” she shouted as she enthusiastically pulled out an old note card, which uncannily resembled the color of our antiquated refrigerator.

This cake had apparently been famous amongst the Rosenbergs, baked for every holiday, birthday, and dinner party.  And it’s no wonder.  The thing is drenched in a thick whiskey glaze, which soaks into the cake, rendering it exceedingly moist and reeking of booze.  This isn’t your usual whiskey cake, in which a moderate amount of alcohol is baked into the cake, burning off any alcoholic content it may have had, along with its strong boozey kick.  Rather, it’s the obvious creation of a tipsy, bored housewife, who, while polishing off her third glass of brandy, figures she might as well drench the cake she plans to serve at tonight’s dinner party in a refreshing coat of whiskey, butter, and sugar.

So there I am, an eager eleven year old, testing out my first foray into the world of baking, with ingredients I can’t (neither legally nor physically) even consume.

But my well-meaning, enthusiastic mother is already regaling me with stories of her childhood—her mother in the kitchen baking the famous whiskey cake, while aunts and uncles sit in the living room, watching little Janie twirl and frolic in her tutu.

And so I agreed to humor my mother and bake this cake, which, as it turns out, is the perfect recipe for a novice baker, constructed primarily from store-bought cake mix, pudding, and a few extraneous additions.  I opened boxes, tipping the mixes, nuts, and eggs into a large bowl, gave it a few haphazard stirs, and poured the batter into a rusty bundt pan, probably last used by my grandmother to bake this same cake.  I eagerly waited by the oven as the kitchen began to take on the pleasant aroma of a freshly baked cake.

I removed my rather perfect looking (I must admit) cake from the oven and began on the glaze.  Plugging my nose, I measured out the whiskey, heating it up with butter and sugar.  I watched as the butter melted and the tiny crystals of sugar dissolved into a smooth, dark liquid.  The smell was repugnant to my delicate, eleven-year-old senses, but I followed the instructions and reluctantly poured the glaze over my masterpiece.

A few hours later, we were on our way to the Thanksgiving feast— my mom, holding her green beans and turnips; and me, in the backseat with this booze-ridden cake on my lap.  I was infuriated— the once beautiful cake sank under the pressure of its boozey finish.  Both soggy and wrinkly, it smelled and looked like a bum one would find slumped in some dark alley.  But my mother’s excitement never abated.  She continued yammering on about the Thanksgivings of her past—the turkey, the stuffing, the whiskey cake…

Finally, we arrived.  I trudged glumly to the door, handing our host the hideous concoction I had spent all afternoon on.  Ready to abandon all my prior fantasies about becoming a baker, I had one last vision of the successful cake I had hoped I would present to the party—the first bite everyone would take of my cake, eyes widening with delight as they devoured the entire thing and praised me for a job well done, insisting that I would become a world famous baker one day, and, when I did, please don’t forget all of us little people from your past!  But no, I would just have to resign myself to the dull and unglamorous life of an artist, a writer, or some other commonplace profession my parents would suggest.

The Thanksgiving meal progressed, and I was taunted by the praise each contributor received for his or her dish.

“Roberto! Your stuffing is superb!”

“Jane, I just love those green beans!”

“Claude, how did you ever make those sweet potatoes?”

Don’t even get me started on the turkey.  Even David got applause for his sadistic carving techniques.

I wanted to sneak away to the kitchen, grab my bundt cake, and chuck it into the pool.  But it was too late—the plates were cleared, the food put away, the pants unbuttoned, and the unveiling of dessert began.

Next to the store-bought pumpkin and pecan pies, chocolate fudge, and vanilla ice cream, my pathetic, sunken cake looked pitiful in comparison.  I watched as guests piled their plates high, and nobody seemed to skip over my feeble attempt at dessert.

And then it began.  It started as a low rumble, but got louder and louder with each proceeding bite.  It was, in fact, murmurs of approval! “Yum’s,” “Yummy’s” and “Mmmm’s” echoed in surround sound throughout the room.  And it was all for my cake!  That cake which I still couldn’t be within two feet of, lest the smell of booze knock me straight onto my underage butt.  My head spun from the tiny bite I attempted from my sisters’ plate.  But boy, did those adults love it.  Must just be another one of those things “you’ll understand when you’re older.”

Plates were abandoned with half-eaten pumpkin pies, cookies with one bite mark, and melted ice cream, but nowhere could be found even one leftover spoonful of the Whiskey Cake.

“Phew,” I thought, “Maybe there is hope for me after all.”

Lily’s Whiskey Cake


Ingredients:

For cake:

  • 1 pkg yellow cake mix
  • 1 pkg instant vanilla pudding (If the cake mix you buy doesn’t already include the pudding!)
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup Crisco Oil (I use Safflower– this is 2011, after all)
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (I always use walnuts)
  • 1 cup shredded coconut (I use unsweetened, but either would work)

For glaze:

  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup whiskey, not Scotch (I always use Canadian whiskey)

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Combine first five ingredients and beat until smooth.  Fold in the nuts and coconut and pour into an ungreased tube pan.  Bake for one hour.

With 5 minutes to go in baking time, melt the stick of butter with 1/2 cup of sugar in a small saucepan over a low heat, careful not to burn the butter.  When the mixture has become smooth, remove from heat and add 1/2 cup of whiskey.  Plug your nose, if underage.

Once the cake has browned and a toothpick inserted comes out clean, remove it from the oven.  Pour the hot glaze slowly over the hot cake.  It will get puddly and soggy.  I usually do this in three or four rounds, allowing the glaze to soak in before adding more.

Cover and let sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours.  Serve with whipped cream and make sure no one will be driving or operating heavy machinery for at least an hour after consuming a slice.

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