KitchenScraps – Mom’s Upstairs One-Egg Cake by Bettyann Schmidt

by Matilda Butler on September 10, 2009

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #4 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoirs – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

By Bettyann Schmidt

World War II’s draft took my father in February 1942, leaving my pregnant mother at home. He was stationed in Hawaii and didn’t see me, his firstborn child, until I was about a year old.

Private Raymond Clarence Dean, Hawaii, 1942

Private Raymond Clarence Dean, Hawaii, 1942

My mother moved out of the apartment she and Dad had shared since their marriage and back into her father’s home in California, Ohio. At the time, my maternal grandmother was dying of breast cancer, and Mom wanted to take care of her. There was no money for either a hospital or hired help. Cecile Leeds Jones died shortly after my birth.

California was a small town along the banks of the Ohio River, where the seasonal rains swelled the river over its banks and up to the third floors of the small wood houses. When I was a kid, Mom told us stories about stepping through an upstairs window into a rowboat in frigid winds. California also bounded the East End section of Cincinnati where my father’s German ancestors settled and where the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains began to spread. Across the bridge lay the Kentucky countryside and steep hills where my mother’s relatives still lived.

My father, on returning home from the war, wanted to settle in the inner city that he loved. He and Mom rented an apartment in Cincinnati, downstairs from my paternal grandmother. But as no job came his way, along with no money, they took the offer of moving in with Mom’s dad again, who had in the meantime bought a farm in Morrow, Ohio, and remarried a woman named Elva, only a few years older than my mother.

Elva, a diligent worker and sweet hostess, made us feel at home in the big Morrow house with its modern kitchen sparkling with shiny new Kenmore appliances. But Grandpa, perhaps knowing my mother’s need for a space of her own, made a small apartment for us upstairs consisting of one bedroom with a double bed and a tiny kitchen with a stove and refrigerator. The only other furniture was a baby crib, which I slept in until I was four, right before my sister Phyllis was born.

Phyl and me riding our old tricycle

Phyl and me riding our old tricycle

Morrow house in 1990

Morrow house in 1990

This photo of the Morrow house was taken in 1990. In the 1940s, there were no shutters or stone wall, nor a paved drive. The driveway down to the road was a long dirt trail as was the road itself, and there were no street lights in this rural community. I distinctly remember this because we regularly traveled by Greyhound bus to visit my father’s family in Cincinnati, which meant we walked down Grandpa’s driveway and then up the old road to the 3-C Highway to the tiny bus station with a little store. On arrival home, usually on Sunday nights, we’d walk back to Grandpa’s in total darkness except for the moon and stars.

My father had suffered a neurological disease in his childhood that caused him problems enough that he could never drive an automobile. But that was okay as I loved riding the bus. We arrived at the Morrow bus station early and walked into its store. I always got a Hershey’s chocolate bar before we boarded the bus. I made the sweet milk chocolate last until we got to the downtown Cincinnati Greyhound station, where we would catch a trolley, or “streetcar,” to Grandma’s apartment on Clifton Avenue, right on the bus route. There I’d often get to see not just Grandma Dean but also my aunts and uncles.

Sunday night, we’d return in the same manner, to the 3-C Highway bus station, and tread through the inky darkness, carefully measuring each step so as not to crunch underfoot a snake or dead animal, or bump into something scurrying out of the heavy woods that bordered both sides of the road. Phyllis and I would hold on to each other, shivering in the late night darkness. To keep us from being scared, Dad would fall behind all of us and then invisibly and soundlessly sweep by, saying, “Passing you by.” It was a fun game and took our mind off of being afraid. My father was a cut-up, always.

One weekend, Dad could stand the yearning for the city no longer and went to Cincinnati, while the rest of us stayed behind. My new baby sister Donna was just weeks old, and Mom didn’t want to travel. That first evening with Dad gone, my mother announced, “We need a cake.” Mom and I went across the hall into the small kitchen where we could still keep an eye on the baby on the big bed with plump pillows in white cotton cases surrounding her. We could even hear Phyllis as she played with her favorite dolls on the floor, talking to them in her usual way.

“Here Bettyann. Get this ready,” Mom said as she handed me the little plastic packet of oleo from the “icebox,” which is what we still called it then. Inside the packet of white margarine was an orange pill that ruptured when squeezed. With enough squeezing, something a kid loves to do, the margarine eventually turned yellow.

After putting the ingredients in a well-worn bowl, Mom used her hand-held rotary beater that always locked up when she tried to go too fast, and then she’d turn the handle backwards just a bit to get it going again. Eventually the beating was finished, and the best part came when I got to lick the beaters, which dripped sweet and gooey pale yellow batter, almost like thin pudding.

Mom cooked in Grandpa’s old hand-me-down green and white gas oven, the kind with legs. She was always hesitant about lighting the oven, and jumped back from it as soon as the match caught the pilot light and made its small explosion. When the oven was ready, in went the cake in a one-layer pan. While it baked, Mom measured sugar into her old black iron skillet and stirred and stirred. She called it “burnt sugar,” but it didn’t smell burnt at all, but more of a sweet candy scent wafting through the kitchen. I asked her why it was called burnt, and she said, “I don’t know. I just know my mother taught me how to make this cake, and she said it was a one-egg cake with burnt sugar icing.” This prompted more questions from me about my grandmother, which Mom didn’t like to answer, other than to say how much she had loved me, her first grandchild, even though she had only seen me briefly.

I supposed Mom talking about her mother dying was too hard for her, and as I grew in age I began realizing just how hard. But in some odd way, I missed the grandmother I never got to know. I would stare at her photo in Mom’s picture box and wonder what she was like. Did she let my mother lick the beaters when she made the one-egg cake? Mom would always sigh when I asked those questions and say, “Honey, I probably did. I just don’t remember.” The sigh that came at the beginning told me she was weary of any further discussion. When I was 18, Mom began talking to me of bad memories from that California house, and I finally understood why she didn’t like to remember.

Mom, born Dorothy Mae Jones

Mom, born Dorothy Mae Jones

Besides not talking much, Mom never liked having her picture taken. She was a shy, small, and unassuming woman. Below is a photo of her from 1963, wearing her cute Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat.

That night in the upstairs kitchen, atop the double bed, with Donna safely surrounded by pillows, we ate the One-Egg Cake with Burnt Sugar Icing. Our slices were still warm, slightly doughy in texture and swimming in the icing, It was almost like the taste of warm fudge we liked to eat out of the pan before it had set up, but without the chocolate, of course. It’s still a poignant memory in my heart, a sweet memory, and not just about the cake.

Mom didn’t make many cakes after that. Cooking became a duty to a husband and eventually six children. That my mother lacked confidence in herself, especially when it came to cakes, became apparent. When cake mixes finally appeared on store shelves, she asked if I could whip up a cake like June Cleaver on the “Beaver” show. The particular episode, June in her kitchen, swirling the fluffy white icing on the tall masterpiece and then topping it with fresh strawberries captivated my mother. I said I’d try. It turned out pretty good, but nothing was as good as that simple one-egg wonder Mom created for us in our upstairs apartment on the farm. I never could convince her, however.

(The version I came up with from old cookbooks. This makes a one-layer cake just like my mother made.)

1/4 cup oleo [I use butter today.]
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup milk

Cream shortening and sugar. Add unbeaten egg and vanilla. Beat well. Combine flour, salt and baking powder. (Old recipes say to sift the flour first and then measure.) Add dry ingredients alternatively with milk to creamed shortening and sugar, ending with dry ingredients. Pour into a greased and floured pan. Bake at 375 F. for 35 minutes, until testing done in the center.


Measure ½ cup white sugar in a hot skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until light brown. (I still love using Mom’s old black cast iron one.) Though it’s called “burnt,” don’t let it burn. My stove runs high, so I usually use the low setting instead of medium. Pour ½ cup milk and 1 cup sugar in a deep pot. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add this mixture to the burnt sugar in the skillet and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat, add ¼ stick butter and ½ teaspoon vanilla and stir until the consistency of icing. (Should be thin and run down sides of cake while warm and glaze over when cool.)

We’re pleased to share Bettyann Schmidt’s
memoir vignette and recipe. Look for
Bettyann as a regular guest blogger who
will share ideas about combining scrap-
booking and memoir writing.


{ 1 trackback }

dirt cake recipe
April 6, 2010 at

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Donna Fusco September 10, 2009 at

Nice story, I felt like I was looking into your life while reading the story and I could smell the burnt icing.

Magdalena September 10, 2009 at

Lovely recipe and beautiful memories, I felt I was there as an invisible spectator :o )

Matilda Butler September 10, 2009 at

Hi Donna: Thanks for your lovely comment. Isn’t it interesting how descriptions can activate our senses.

Matilda Butler September 10, 2009 at

We’re so glad that you stopped by. We’ll be bringing you wonderful stories and recipes almost everything Thursday. We publish our KitchenScraps on Thursday because that was the day that my mother always sat at the kitchen table, read recipes for new inexpensive meals, and cut out the grocery store coupons.

Leave a Comment

Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Interviews Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category Writing Prompts Category StoryMap Category StoryMap Category StoryMap Category Writing and Healing Category Writing and Healing Category Writing and Healing Category Scrapmoir Category Scrapmoir Category Scrapmoir Category Book Business Category Book Business Category Book Business Category Memoir Journal Writing Category Memoir Journal Writing Category Memoir Journal Writing Category News Category News Category News Category