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Recreating Nana's Cake 

click to enlarge Eli helps make the cake batter

Eli helps make the cake batter

My parents worked full time when I was growing up in the '80s, so my brother and I spent our after-school hours and summer days at Nana's house. I remember arriving to find her dusty with flour, up to her elbows in a crazy cooking project, singing along to West Side Story on the boom box.

Nana was adventurous — in the kitchen and in life. I never saw her consult a cookbook. Instead, she kept battered, stained, spiral-bound notebooks filled with tiny, swirly, handwritten ingredients and vague directions for dishes passed down from her mother, grandmother and mother-in-law. She often ignored those notes, too, cooking from memory, or inspiration.

click to enlarge Molasses cake
  • Molasses cake

When she had an idea for a dish, she went for it, whether or not she had all the ingredients. Beef stew, lemon chicken, her incredible meatballs. The results were always delicious, even more so because they tasted a little different every time.

Desserts were another matter. Baking is more of a science than an art, demanding precision in ingredients and measurements. This was at odds with her natural inclination to improvise. Still, she had some stunners in her repertoire.

Her plain and simple molasses cake, which her mother taught her to make, always came out perfectly. I loved the way it smelled while it baked, and she always let me sift powdered sugar over the top once it had cooled.

click to enlarge The batter
  • The batter

I often think wistfully of our time in the kitchen together. But while I own many cookbooks, I don't have her spiral notebooks; my mom and her two sisters are keeping those safe.

Lucky for me, I have the internet. Recently, when I wanted to make Nana's molasses cake for my kiddos, I searched online for a recipe.

I scanned all my favorite sites — Smitten Kitchen, the New Potato, Epicurious and FOOD52 — and finally landed on a great-looking recipe on the King Arthur Flour site.

I omitted a crumb topping, since Nana never made hers that way, and made a batch of homemade whipped cream to serve on top.

Sadie, 3, and Eli, 10, were eager to help out, especially when I told them that this was one of my favorite things to eat as a kid. They loved the cake, which tasted just the way I remember it.

Even though I followed a recipe, I think my Nana would have been proud.

Molasses Cake

(adapted from


  • 3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup cold, unsalted butter
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 1 tsp baking soda


  • Preheat your oven to 350°F. Grease and lightly flour a 9-x-13-inch pan.
  • In a large bowl, mix together the flour and
  • sugar. Using a pastry cutter or two butter knives, cut the butter into the mixture until it looks like loose crumbs.
  • Add the molasses, eggs, water and baking soda to the crumb mixture and beat with a wooden spoon until a smooth batter forms.
  • Pour the batter into your prepared pan.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool a bit — but not too much! It's delicious warm. Serve with whipped cream.

Homemade Sweetened Whipped Cream



  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tsp confectioner's sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract


  • Put all ingredients into a chilled, stainless-steel mixing bowl and whip, using an electric hand mixer or immersion blender with the whisk attachment, until the cream forms stiff peaks.



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