Ann Romines on Eudora Welty’s Cake

We scholars publish much that can be described charitably as dry. It’s a pleasure to post here some scholarship that is not only moist, it is also sweet and beautiful. Below you will find a recipe that Professor of English Ann Romines created from references in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding. Professor Romines also provides a detailed narrative of how cooking matters in the novel from which she creates the cake. The recipe for “Mashula’s Coconut Cake” has just been published in the cookbook Southern Cakes.

Baking the Cake:
My Recipe for Mashula’s Coconut Cake

As a reader/scholar who loves Eudora Welty’s fiction and has a long-standing interest in American women’s domestic culture, I’ve found Delta Wedding an irresistible text, and I’ve returned again and again to nibble at its edges. I’ve been particularly interested in all the cakes and cake-eating in this book. In previous discussions, I’ve emphasized the importance of these cakes as textual expressions of the continuities and conflicts of local women’s culture, both white and black. To apprehend the full complexity and artistry of Delta Wedding, I argued, it was necessary to read the cakes.

The women of Shellmound plantation have an extensive vocabulary of cakes, ranging from a picnic caramel cake to confectioner’s wedding cake to Partheny’s voodoo patticake. But the quintessential family cake is Mashula’s coconut cake, a complex family recipe passed down from a long-dead great-aunt, who first prepared it in antebellum Mississippi. One of the great and extraordinary sequences in Delta Wedding occurs in the kitchen, as Ellen Fairchild stirs up this cake. Her assistant is her nine-year-old niece Laura, and Ellen instructs the child in the intricacies of Mashula’s recipe. And, as she assembles her delicate batter, Ellen is in a trance-like state of heightened awareness, thinking of some of the most complex issues of her life, embodied in her daughter’s coming wedding and her brother-in-law’s marital estrangement. As I wrote several years ago,

The passage is one of the extraordinary texts of U.S. women”s writing. As Ellen stirs up a Fairchild ancestor’s recipe . . . Welty shows how much of tradition, innovation and consciousness are expressed in the baking of a cake” (“Reading the Cakes” 608).

I wrote those words in my university office, after I’d spent hours poring over Welty’s words:

As Ellen put in the nutmeg and the grated lemon rind she diligently assumed George’s happiness. . . . adding the milk, the egg whites, the flour, carefully and alternately as Mashula’s recipe said — she could be diligent and still not be sure (25-26).

As I was driving home that night, I thought, Wait a minute. I recognize that recipe. I could make that cake. When I got home to my kitchen, I got out the butter, the coconut, the cake pans — and I did bake a reasonable (and delectable) facsimile of Mashula’s coconut cake.

When that essay was published, I mentioned my cake in a few words–just one sentence in sixteen pages of criticism. As a Welty scholar, my subject, I thought, was reading cakes, not baking them. But now, a few years later, I’m not so sure. For recipe-writing was another significant motif in Welty’s life and career. She was one of the writers who collected recipes and food remembrances for a projected book, to be titled America Eats, that was planned for publication through the Federal Writers Project in 1942 (although it never appeared). This book was to be “an account of group eating as an important American social institution [and] its part in development of American cookery as an authentic art” (Edge ix). Welty’s contributions included lucid recipes for Beaten Biscuit and Mint Julep. Unlike Laurel Hand of The Optimist’s Daughter, Welty did not burn her mother’s jotted recipes that had “accumulated themselves over the years from friends and relations and from her own invention.” Instead, she complained of the limitations of these treasured inherited texts:

My mother’s [recipes] don’t do me as much good as they might because she never included directions. Her reasoning, often expressed, was that any cook worth her salt would know, given a list of ingredients, what to do with them.

In fact, Welty describes what may have been her debut as a recipe writer, in her mother’s kitchen:

I had to sit on a stool while she made spoonbread and take down what I saw like a reporter, to get her recipe (The Flavor of Jackson, unpaged).

By the time she had become a local celebrity in Jackson, Welty was also the patron of local cookbooks (usually fundraising projects), for which she sometimes produced introductions. One such essay, The Flavor of Jackson, was sufficiently important to Welty that she included it in her literary oeuvre, as one of the essays collected in The Eye of the Story. In The Flavor of Jackson, she celebrated local recipes as a medium by which memory was transmitted, recalling,

I make Mrs. Mosal’s White Fruitcake every Christmas, having got it from my mother, who got it from Mrs. Mosal, and I often think to make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more.

In fact, Mrs. Mosal’s recipe was included (as submitted by her daughter) in The Jackson Cookbook. Later, Welty circulated privately printed copies of the fruitcake recipe as a Christmas remembrance to her friends. Clearly it’s Mrs. Mosal’s recipe–but Welty has made a few judicious revisions and additions. Although Chestina Andrews Welty may have scorned directions, her daughter’s recipe is complete with meticulous instructions. Eudora Welty wrote six paragraphs of directions, as opposed to Mrs. Mosal’s one. For example, she’s much more specific about pan sizes and ingredient preparation; she alters the baking temperature, and she specifies that the “cup of whiskey” should be bourbon (Edge 286-87). The text that she chose to share with her friends testifies to more than an antiquarian’s interest in old recipes. Obviously, Welty saw recipes as texts meant to be used, as well as preserved, and thus in a constant state of transition and revision.

So, when we return to Delta Wedding’s account of the baking of Mashula’s coconut cake, perhaps we should not be surprised to discover the vestiges of a functioning, usable recipe there. Most of the cake ingredients are specified: fourteen guinea eggs, sugar, butter, a coconut, a lemon, nutmeg, milk, flour, blanched almonds, and rose water. And, embedded in the narrative, Ellen’s thoughts, and her interchanges with Laura and the household’s African American cook, Roxie, many of the recipe’s directions are included, as well. We learn that the eggs are separated and the whites beaten, the sugar and butter are creamed together, the coconut and lemon rind are grated; the almonds blanched and then pounded in a mortar and pestle with rose water (except for twenty-four perfect almond halves, saved for decoration), and milk, egg whites and flour are added alternately to the batter. The batter is baked in four pans, two at a time. Then the cake is filled (the filling contains eggs and the almond paste) and frosted, “thick on top with the perfect almonds over it close enough to touch” (32).

As I and other critics have already noted, in the process of receiving this recipe, we have learned quite a lot about the plantation culture of which the Fairchild family is a part. Their ongoing history of affluence, for example; coconut, lemons, almonds are all luxury ingredients that cannot be grown locally and must have been extremely hard to come by in the antebellum years when Mashula first baked her coconut cake. We know that this cake is an important part of the Fairchild family tradition of celebration and memory, instantly recognizable. (With one bite, Aunt Tempe says, “Oh, Mashula’s coconut!” [141]) And, as Ellen and Roxie negotiate who will do which cake-baking tasks and who is banished from whose kitchen, we glimpse the fraught and delicate relations between white and black women, working together in plantation households. Ellen bakes the cake to celebrate the arrival of beloved family members, to teach motherless Laura an important part of her Fairchild heritage, and–perhaps–to confirm her own faculty as plantation mistress. After all, the guinea eggs have come from the flock that she tends herself (as American farm women have traditionally done), and she tells Roxie, “I got fourteen guinea eggs this evening, and that’s a sign I ought to make it [the cake]” (29). As the house fills up with managerial relatives (particularly masterful Aunt Tempe) and friends, converging for Dabney’s wedding, Ellen (although she has an expert professional cook in her kitchen), chooses to execute this complex family recipe herself. It is both a challenge (“Smell my cake?” she challenged, as Dabney appeared radiant at the pantry door”) and a test (“Was the cake going to turn out all right? She was always nervous about her cakes” [33]). Cakes have been traditional proof of a cook’s skill, particularly in the South. And with Mashula’s coconut, modest, quiet Ellen–who is after all a Fairchild only by marriage, not by birth–reminds the assembled family of her centrality. Baking the cake is a quiet assertion that will literally be taken in by all the family, as they eat the legendary “Mashula’s coconut”–which is now also Ellen’s cake.

By weaving the recipe into this fictional text, Eudora Welty offers us the opportunity to experience Delta Wedding in yet another way–we may experience the balancing act of skill, invention, concentration, and precision that baking a complex cake involves, followed by the sensory pleasures of serving and eating the cake! Also, I must admit that, by baking up my version of Mashula’s (and Ellen’s. and Eudora’s) Coconut, I feel that I have become a small part of this literary/culinary tradition, myself–passing on the cake and the recipe to my Southern literature students (my first tasters!) and now to you.

But, you may say, how can I talk about a “cake recipe” in Welty’s novel, when she doesn’t specify amounts for many of the ingredients? Well–remember that we know Ellen starts with fourteen guinea eggs. “Any cook worth her salt” would know (as a poultry-raising friend told me ) that two guinea eggs are roughly equivalent to one large chicken egg, the standard size for baking today. We also know that the egg whites are beaten and folded into the cake and that “the rest of the eggs” (probably the yolks) go into the filling. Knowing the number of egg whites, an experienced cook (especially if she has access to a library of cake recipes) can estimate other amounts. And that is exactly what I have done. I’ve also had to assume certain additions. This amount of egg whites wouldn’t be sufficient leavening for a four-layer cake, so I’ve added baking powder, an ingredient to which Mashula might not have had access, although Ellen would have, in the 1920s. I’ve also added vanilla (reminiscing about her Jackson childhood, Welty noted that “Vanilla must have had a central importance in those days–think of all the cakes” [Flavor]). Plus a bit of almond extract, to play up the almond flavor, and a bit of salt. Also, the text doesn’t indicate how the grated coconut is used, so I’ve chosen to follow a standard Southern practice and layer the coconut on the top and sides of the frosted cake. However, an occasional recipe also adds coconut to the cake batter; if you want to try that, fold in 1 cup very finely chopped coconut before adding the beaten egg whites. I’ve made a buttercream “icing,” as my mother did, but a cooked white frosting (such as the seven-minute frosting my grandmother made), would also be a good and traditional choice. The filling includes the almond paste, rosewater and egg yolks that Welty specifies, but the rest of the recipe is my own adaptation. And I have taken advantage of a few conveniences that weren’t available to Mashula and Ellen, such as packaged almond paste and flaked coconut.

In the process of reading and baking and eating this twenty-first century version of Mashula’s Coconut, I’ve learned a lot about the multiplicity of Eudora Welty’s artistry. I hope you’ll try this version of the recipe. Following Eudora Welty’s precedent, feel free to add your own revisions. Remember, Welty’s birthday is April 9. And as she reminded us, “to make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more” (Flavor). Why not celebrate with a slice of Mashula’s Coconut and a rereading of Delta Wedding?

Mashula’s Coconut Cake: My Version

For the cake:
3/4 cup egg whites (about 6 large chicken eggs or 12-14 guinea eggs), at room temperature
2 3/4 cups sifted cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoon salt
1 2 cups white sugar
3/4 c. butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoon pure almond extract (optional)
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
the rind of one small lemon, finely grated ( no more than 2-1 teaspoon)
1 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease the sides and bottoms of three or four 8″ round cake pans. Line each pan with a circle of waxed paper; grease the waxed paper.

Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and optional nutmeg. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and 1 cup of sugar until light and fluffy. Add the extracts and lemon rind. (Throughout this recipe, mixing may be done by hand or with an electric mixer.)
In another bowl, beat the egg whites until foamy. Gradually beat in 2 cup sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until soft peaks form. (An electric mixer is especially useful here, but of course it can be done by hand– as Mashula did!)

Beat the flour mixture and the milk alternately into the butter/sugar mixture. Combine until smooth, but do not over-mix. At the end, gently fold in the beaten egg whites. Divide the mixture among your prepared pans. Run a knife through the batter in each pan, to break up any air bubbles, and rap each pan sharply on a flat surface, about 5 times, to distribute batter evenly.

Arrange the pans evenly in your preheated oven. If you are baking four layers, you may need to bake them two at a time, as Ellen did. The pans should have at least one inch between them. Bake until the layers are lightly browned and begin to pull away from the pan edges. When the center of a layer is touched lightly with your finger, it should spring back. This will take about fifteen minutes, depending on the thickness of your layers. To keep your cake tender, do not overbake. Cool on racks for ten minutes after removing from oven, then turn out on racks to cool completely. (Remove the cake papers at this point, and enjoy the “golden scrapement.”) Keep covered with clean dish towels. Assemble cake as soon as layers are cool.

For the filling (which you will probably want to make first, so that it has plenty of time to chill):

2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks, slightly beaten (or 8-10 guinea egg yolks)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoon almond extract
4 ounces almond paste
about 2 teaspoon rosewater, if you are using purchased almond paste

Combine the sugar, salt, and cornstarch. Whisk in the milk, working very slowly at first
to avoid lumps. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring often, and boil for one minute. (You may do this on the stovetop or use the microwave, as I do. Again, a whisk helps to avoid lumps.) Remove from heat. Beat in egg yolks very quickly. Then place about one cup of the mixture in a bowl and work in the almond paste thoroughly; this will take a few minutes. Return the almond mixture to the whole and bring to a boil again; boil for one minute. Remove from heat and add flavorings. Refrigerate until entirely cool.

For the frosting:

In a large bowl, combine 2 cup softened butter with 1 2 teaspoon vanilla, 2 teaspoon almond extract, 1 teaspoon brandy (optional), and a pinch of salt. Mix well, by hand or with electric mixer. Then beat in one one-pound box of confectioner’s sugar, adding enough light cream or whole milk to make a spreadable mixture. (Add the liquid cautiously, in small increments.) Taste. If the frosting needs more of flavoring extracts, add.

To assemble your cake:
You will need cake layers, frosting, filling, about 2 cups grated or flaked coconut, and twenty-four perfect almond halves.

If you have a cardboard cake round (available at a baking shop), use it as a base; it makes the cake easier to handle. But this is not essential.

Start with your thickest layer. Spread it with filling. Don=t take the filling quite to the edges of the layer, or it will ooze out. If the filling seems too thick to spread, thin it with a little milk. But it should be fairly thick. Repeat with the remaining layers, but do not spread filling on top of the top layer. Your thinnest layer should be on top. If you are afraid your layers are not secure, you may anchor them with a couple of toothpicks. (However, experienced bakers pride themselves on not needing toothpicks!)

Ice the cake with your prepared frosting. I recommend doing the sides first and then spreading the remaining frosting “thick on the top,” as Ellen does. Then cover the entire cake with the grated coconut, pressing lightly to make it adhere. Let the cake firm up for a few minutes, then do a cleanup/grooming job, brushing away the excess coconut. Decorate with the twenty-four almond halves, arranging them “close enough to touch.” In Delta Wedding style, present the cake on a footed glass cake stand and serve it on your best small china plates (like “those little Dabney plates” [242] that Ellen uses).

Ann Romines Alexandria, Virginia February 2004

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