I opened up the house today to air it out before the fireplace season really kicks in. The sun was out, there was a great, chilly breeze, and I wanted to finally flush the house of a spent Summer and fill it with the winds of Fall and the scent of holiday pine. It’s invigorating and has the feel of a fresh, new start. Like a clean sheet of paper on the first day of school. Jotting down my thoughts, I wrote . . .
the cool, crisp breeze
brings sweet aroma of cakes baking.
Hey, that was fun! I haven’t written a haiku since it was an English assignment back in high school. Long, long time ago. I tried another one . . .
no money for gifts,
bills pile up, treats go to my hips.
Ok, so much for that. Before my unemployment anxiety has a chance to take hold, I shake it off and try to cast a positive glance toward the incoming holidays. Tis the season to be jolly, right?
But it’s going to be a bit difficult this year to be jolly when all around me are holiday traditions I can’t participate in as I normally would, such as planning a shopping list for just the right gifts for friends and family, or making a long grocery list for a table so full of food that it might appear to be the last supper, sharing laughs and a glass or two of wine with longtime coworkers at the office party, frantic last-minute treks to the mall, evenings spent wrapping a mountain of gifts on my huge coffee table while watching an old holiday favorite like White Christmas or Pocketful of Miracles.
Time for concessions — or reinventions. This year I’ll revisit the simple gifts of the season in the one place that has always been the center of holiday festivities for as long as I can remember: the kitchen. Hanging my wreath on faith, hope, and love — instead of Macy’s, Visa, and Amazon.com — I’m looking forward to losing myself in the midst of sweet treats and baked traditions that were the basis for my joy of cooking and baking.
Anticipating the upcoming festivities, I sat down on the couch with my mother’s recipe box, which includes scraps of paper, magazine clippings, and a small recipe journal where she has recorded ingredients and instructions for creating her family’s favorites: simple, familiar, delicious gems like chicken tortilla casserole, layered strawberry Jello salad, and the ever-popular sherry wine cake that she usually reserved for the holiday season.
Whenever I need a little holiday cheer, I make this cake. Depending on my position in life, that can sometimes happen in July. As it bakes, the aroma weaves itself through the house until every room smells like a tiny, crowded French bakery. The house seems to swell as it inhales the spicy sweet aroma, and the fragrance lingers like an undisturbed patch of snowflakes hiding in the shade of a thicket.
It’s a glorious food memory of my youth, of Christmases past, of holiday parties long over. In December, when the decor in my childhood home took on a red and green hue, we’d find this cake on a dining table that proudly displayed mom’s homemade fudge, my dad’s special penuche, and many other sweet offerings that friends and relatives had come to expect out of our holiday kitchen. I can close my eyes today and easily recall the many aromas and the memories that stroll hand-in-hand with them through my mind. Certain traditions are meant to live on, even as they outlive the home cooks who happily prepared them for family and guests. This cake is one of those traditions.
I don’t know where it originated before the recipe ended up in my mother’s recipe journal, but I know ours isn’t the only household to bake a version of this cake. And, as I’m always tempted to tweak, especially in my current reinvention state, I added an ingredient to glam it up and take it to another level.
It’s good practice, this practice of reinventing. It increases interest and promises something new — even when the original is an oldie.
If you’ve got a home appraisal coming up or prospective buyers walking through, this is the cake you want in the oven for that special moment. The house will smell fantastic. My mother’s version of this cake never called for pecans but, what can I say? I love to tweak. I’ve added candied (or glazed) pecans as opposed to plain pecans because I like to live on the edge. And I think they go very well with the sherry and nutmeg. Switch it up if you have a dark side.
- 1 box yellow cake mix — not the one with pudding in the mix
- 1 small box instant vanilla pudding
- 1 healthy teaspoon nutmeg — if using jarred, make sure your jar isn’t outdated; freshly grated nutmeg is wonderful, but potent
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 3/4 cup sherry wine (I used dry sherry)
- 4 large eggs
- 3/4 cup candied or glazed pecans, chopped
- 1/2 cup or more powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees; prepare a Bundt or fluted pan with non-stick cooking spray. With a fork, combine the cake mix, dry pudding mix, and nutmeg. Add the oil and sherry, and beat with an electric mixer until combined. Add the eggs one at a time and, using medium speed, beat well after each egg. Beat batter for another two or three minutes until thoroughly combined and smooth. Using a spatula, blend in the pecans. Pour batter evenly in prepared pan and bake for 40 to 50 minutes. Cake is done when it is golden brown and the edges start to pull away from the pan. Insert a toothpick into the middle; if it comes out clean, it should be good to go. Allow to cool in pan; use a knife or spatula to loosen cake from sides of pan; invert onto a plate or platter. Dust with powdered sugar before slicing and serving. Great with a glass of champagne or a rich cup of tea!