If you were a cake, what kind of cake would you be?
Italian rum cake is the birthday cake of my childhood; carrot is the birthday cake of my adulthood.
Carrot cake isn’t everyone’s favorite. It’s an eclectic cake with a curious combination of ingredients: a surprise chew of pineapple and raisins, kooky and cheerful carrot strips, occasional solid bites of walnut, and a base of bold spices all encased in a not-too sweet cream cheese frosting.
I like to think that it’s me — in a cake. But Italian rum cake is special.
If you’re thinking of a Bundt cake, wipe your vision clean. It’s three layers of sponge cake sprinkled with a precise amount of rum so that the cake doesn’t become soggy but delivers a rum-plosion in every bite. Vanilla and chocolate Italian pastry cream connect the layers and the whole thing is frosted with a whipped-cream frosting that is so far from being like whipped cream it’s almost a shame it doesn’t have a different name, like Substantial Cloud frosting. The epicurean creation is encrusted with an edge of humble crushed peanuts or almonds.
Reagan was president when I moved away from my home state, but my mom was having knee-replacement surgery and I was going home to be her lady-in-waiting during recovery. My twin brother, DJ, lives near mom, and I was going to be there on our birthday.
Also, near mom? The street of Italian bakeries — Franklin Avenue — that made the cake of my sweet memories.
The surgery went very well, so mom went home and for three, five ... seven days we stayed in. There wasn’t time to make the drive to the street o’bakeries, but I failed over and over to shake the powerful childhood cake memory.
Being with mom was better than any cake, right?
Then, on day eight, my sister-like friend since kindergarten, Debbie, texted: I’m busting you out.
My text back: We’re going to Franklin Avenue!
I drove, Debbie navigated; I took wrong turns, she led me down wrong streets. We drove past our target bakery, there was a suggestion, and a rejection, of hanging a U-ey on Franklin Avenue.
When was last time I was in a bakery? Not the bakery section of a grocery store, where you get a cake in a plastic container that sends a loud “SHE’S GOING FOR MORE CAKE” noise as it opens, but a bakery with long display cases filled with perfectly lined-up pastries. Cannoli, cookies, macarons, puff pastries, breads, pies ... all so perfect that they look fake. A warm bakery that smells like bread and sugar; a bakery that sends you off with a cardboard box of confection tied with a string.
“An Italian rum cake, please.”
Size?! “What are my options?”
“How many people?”
How many? Good question. Math paralyzed my brain. Well at least one. I guess I would have to share it with Debbie and Mom ... “6? 8?”
“Small. Pink or blue?”
Why are there so many questions? “Pink.”
“Anything written on it?”
I said, “No,” but Debbie was standing right next to me and said, “Happy birthday, Susan.”
The clerk fled and was back before my mind registered: Hey, Sweet-Cheeks, you share a birthday.
We left the bakery with a box of cake, a small box of cookies and two slices of pizza for the car ride back to mom’s ... where DJ was going to be.
In mom’s kitchen, I dug around and found a Hail Mary option: a tube of blue decorator icing. The “& D.J.” was ... awful looking.
When my brother saw it, he laughed and sent a text of his own to his wife and kids who were out of state.
Ever feel like an afterthought?
Italian rum cake is a rare treat. The crunchy exterior hides a special combination of unique components with a heady finish. It’s not too gushy and has a unique bite that makes you think fondly of it long after it’s gone.
It’s DJ — in a cake.
Susan Vollenweider lives in the Northland. To listen to the women’s history or historical media recap podcasts that she co-hosts or to read more of her writing visit www.thehistorychicks.com or www.susanvollenweider.com.