My kitchen smells sweet and homey, a loaf of pound cake is baking in the oven. I’m making this for Erik’s birthday. When he was growing up, Erik’s mom, Sarah, used to make sour cream cake for birthdays and special occasions. Before she died she typed out several of her recipes and placed them in a three-ring binder. I have that binder somewhere in the house, which includes the recipe for her cake, but since it’s hiding and I don’t feel like digging, I’ve used ol’ Google to find a similar recipe. Behold, Paula Deen’s sour cream pound cake. I don’t think Erik will mind the imposter.
I should be using my standing mixer to make this cake, the split-pea green KitchenAid which used to be Sarah’s. And not just because the recipe calls for it, but that for years this mixer has been creaming the butter and sugar for Erik’s birthday cake, and even though Sarah is not here anymore, her mixer is. It only seems right and honorable that I hold to tradition…but I don’t. It’s easier to just use a bowl and spoon. I justify my actions by telling myself that this is how they used to do it, back in the day, before kitchen appliances.
In spite of my laziness to seek out the original recipe and use the sacred mixer, I take great care in following the recipe instructions—the order of ingredients, sifting and such. I reduce the sugar to one cup based on reader reviews (many said it was too sweet as written), and I increase the vanilla to a full teaspoon based on personal preference. I cream the butter and sugar, immediately beginning to doubt my decision to do this by hand, but it comes together. Then I add the sour cream and vanilla, the wet ingredients melding into golden goodness. As I crack and beat one of the three eggs, I think that if Sarah were here, we’d be making this cake together, probably in her kitchen with her mixer, and instead of me relying on the internet, I’d be learning the secrets to sour cream cake from a living, breathing, Southern woman, and she’d be telling me stories about Erik as a boy, the kinds of things only a mother remembers.
I never got to meet her. She died of breast cancer just months before Erik and I started talking. But I’ve heard only good things about her, that I would love her, that she was smart and funny and beautiful and resourceful, an excellent homemaker and a supportive mother. So often I daydream of how different our lives would be if she were still here, if Sayla had a grandmother. I imagine going to Erik’s parents’ house for dinner, going shopping or walking together, sitting on the screened-in porch drinking iced tea. I’m nearly certain our lives would be better in terms of stronger family ties and the kind of support system a grandma offers. But even in the dark, empty moments, when Erik and I feel like orphans, we are reminded that we haven’t been abandoned. Yes, our mothers have died, but we have neighbors who have adopted us as family; I still have my dad and his fiancee; aunts, uncles, siblings; a church family. It’s not the way we would have it, to be motherless, but we are still nurtured and cared for.
It’s been fifty minutes and the timer goes off to pull the cake from the oven. The cooking time ranges from forty mintues to an hour, which makes me uneasy because the last time I made this cake I just slightly burnt the bottom. I think it’s done—the edges are beginning to pull from the sides and the top is a mound of golden brown. If Sarah were here, she would know.
I haven’t held fast to the sour cream cake tradition—I’ve made it only a handful of times since we’ve been married. But maybe I will keep this thing going, for Erik and Sayla. And when Sayla grows up we can pull out Sarah’s mixer and recipe, and together we’ll cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs one at a time, and hope we pull it out of the oven at just the right moment.