How I Uncovered a 70-Year-Old Family Grudge Baked Into a Birthday Cake
Pictured recipe: Blitz Torte with Orange Curd & Meringue
I come from a long line of women who hate baking. My mother is the sort of strange specimen who would choose to take a food replacement pill three times a day if it meant she never had to use an oven again. And every time my mother's mother was obligated to get near a bowl of butter and sugar, my grandmother's mood soured into a dark, angry energy that pushed everyone out of the house.
So when I went to culinary school and opened a bakery in New York City, the whole family scratched their heads. If a knack for baking is a recessive trait, it leapfrogged over two generations before appearing again in me. There was only ever one baker in my maternal family: my great-grandmother Louise.
Louise was born in New York City at the turn of the 20th century into a prominent Jewish-American family. The youngest daughter of a German mother and Lithuanian father, she was schooled in all the social graces. She was elegant and finished, always charming and discreet, but underneath her polished facade, she was a fox. After an arranged marriage led to my grandfather's birth in 1927, Louise caused a family scandal by hopping on a train to Reno and filing for a quickie divorce. During the customary six-week stay, she met her second husband and ultimately settled in Reno for good.
The tradition in the new family was that on your birthday, Louise would make the cake of your choice. My grandfather always chose a blitz torte, an unconventional German-American layer cake that translates into "lightning cake." Made with a buttery, almost cookie-like cake, creamy orange curd, crisp meringue and a sprinkling of crunchy almonds, the cake is economical in that only a handful of ingredients come together to create a medley of textures. Egg whites go in the meringue. The yolks go in the cake. Both the zest and juice from a single orange flavor the curd. The rest is just flour, sugar, salted butter and a splash of vanilla. Simple enough, right?
After my grandparents married, my grandmother inherited the responsibility of making the birthday blitz torte. As a traditional wife in 1950, she felt that it was her obligation. But there was a catch: My great-grandmother Louise and her new daughter-in-law did not get along. So when my grandmother asked her mother-in-law for the special birthday recipe, Louise refused to share it.
When Louise finally surrendered the recipe a few years later, under considerable pressure from her son, she secretly altered the recipe. For the next 60 years, the cake collapsed into itself. Or it fell apart and had to be served with a spoon. Or it would be so dense and hard that my grandfather would flare his nostrils, smack his lips and announce that a cake slathered in orange curd was somehow, "a little dry."
When my grandmother died in 2008, my mother took over the task of making the annual blitz torte. Every March, as was tradition, my mother's mood soured as she followed the handwritten recipe that my grandmother had meticulously copied onto an index card from Louise's instructions. Right on schedule, the cake collapsed into 2 inches of dry yet goopy mess. And every year my grandfather complained. The blitz torte curse lived on.
But a few years ago, I happened to be at home in Reno when my mother was making the cake. She raised an eyebrow, untied her apron and announced, "You're a professional chef. You make the cake." Then she squealed and skipped out of the kitchen.
As I read through the recipe, I stumbled across a curious note: the recipe specified that the cake layer was to be made first and that the meringue should then be whipped in the same bowl. But as anyone who has worked with meringues knows, egg whites don't hold up if the bowl has even a trace of fat.
The manipulation was genius. The recipe was correct, but by altering a seemingly innocuous step in the method, Louise caused a half-century of birthday blitz torte ballyhoo. And while some might say that it was an honest mistake, Louise's history says otherwise. She had a way of exacting vengeance through cunning acts. As one family tale goes, my very proper great-grandmother, straight out of finishing school, was once asked to bring a glass of water to someone she didn't like. It wasn't until the guest departed that it was discovered that Louise had filled the glass from the toilet bowl.
And so I changed the method of the recipe, swapping the steps and cleaning the bowl with a splash of white vinegar to ensure that not a trace of fat remained. For the first time in almost 70 years, my grandfather got the cake of his childhood. The cake was light and creamy and delicate and dense—my grandfather's spoon cracked through the crisp yet pillowy meringue and a smile stretched across his face. He took a bite, and his 92-year-old eyes twinkled. "This is the best blitz torte I've ever had," he said, and cut himself a second piece.