The closest thing I have to a grandmother is Eleanor, my 90-year old Great Aunt who lives in one of those gated retirement communities in Boynton Beach, Florida. You know which ones I’m talking about, right? The ones that bookend expanses of strip malls filled with medical supply stores, vitamin shops, wheelchair rentals, and any kind of healthcare practice you can imagine. Ok, you got the picture. Growing up in San Diego I only spent time with her in spurts. A few hours at my brother’s and my bar-mitzvahs, a wedding here, and a funeral there. But it doesn’t take much to fall in love with this inspirational ball of outspoken indifference. “I’m too old to worry about that stuff anymore,” She’s always saying, reminding us life’s too short to have regrets.
On a recent trip to Miami for a friend’s wedding, we made a point of spending a few days with Aunt Ellie up in Boynton. One day we had plans to pick her up and take her to lunch. But before we could step a foot into her condo, she was trying to feed us.
“Ellie, we’re going to go eat.” I said.
“I know, but you’re hungry. Come sit in the kitchen and I’ll take something out.”
She’s too cute to argue with, and did I mention she’s 90-years old? Her frail crooked body, manicured red nails, sunken eyes, and blown out hair…you don’t want to mess with her. Jonathan and I took seats at the round table in her kitchen, and she pulled out a basket of bagels cut in half, and a glass bowl of melon balled cantaloupe.
“Oh this is too much, we’re taking you to lunch,” Jonathan said. The two of us laughing out loud, but soft enough that she couldn’t hear us.
“Oh!” she shouts, as if she’d forgotten something.
“Do you like herring?” Before I could answer, she was pulling away the plastic wrap from a small bowl and set it on the table. “I made pickled herring because I thought you liked it.” I happen to like Aunt Ellie’s pickled herring, but a bite or two at most. “For this, you’ll want some rye. Do you want it toasted?” It became clear to us that Ellie had spent the entire morning, or week, preparing for our visit, and we didn’t want all the effort (and food) to go to waste.
She’d sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onions for the bagels. She had two kinds of schmear, three different types of cheese that went with the sliced deli ham and turkey meat. Two kinds of mustard, “I like deli mustard, but the kids like that Frenchy stuff.” It was a feast for ten! There wasn’t enough room on the table for everything she had to put out. But everything was delicious, so we just hung out in the kitchen and enjoyed the spread. [For those of you who know New York and New Jersey Jewish grandmothers, you know what I’m talking about]
Three plates of food, and a recap of the latest family mishegoss later (that’s Yiddish for crazy or senseless activities)—Jonathan and I needed a nap.
“Here!” Ellie said, getting up to grab something else. “Have some coffee cake.”
Cake was the last thing either of us needed. Especially after Ellie had pretty much said we needed to watch our weight and be careful about diabetes and heart disease, “which runs in our family you know.”
“I can’t believe you made us a cake Aunt Ellie. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Do what? I didn’t do anything.” She said, “I pulled it out of the freezer.” And behind a single layer of aluminum foil was her infamous coffee cake. “These days I always have one or two of these in the freezer.”
Suddenly I felt a little deflated, knowing she didn’t make the cake for us, but I got over it. “Who are you entertaining for that you need a coffee cake to defrost at a moment’s notice?” I asked.
“Nobody,” she said. “This is my shiva cake!”
“Bernie called it my shiva cake, because I always bring it to the people’s house when their sitting shiva. You know…”
“Yes we know. When someone dies.”
It was a morbid thought, but hilarious just the same. Her late husband Bernie had a great sense of humor, and it made sense that he’d come up with a nickname like “shiva cake.” The curse of being so healthy and “with it” for being 90-years old, is that everyone else is sick and dying. So, since turning 85, Ellie makes a habit of keeping at least two or three coffee cakes in the freezer just so she has them on hand in the event a neighbor kicks the bucket.
“It’s horrible,” she said, “My friend Ilene from around the corner just died, and now I have to find a new bridge partner. And my neighbor, Oy-vey! She’s not doing good either. She’s very sick. Something to do with her stomach, she’s really fat! and she’s having trouble walking, and you know what….she’s not a nice person. So I wont mind it so much when she goes. It’s the way things are around here and I hate to see it, but what are you gonna do.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely sad, if death was something she’d been wrestling with, or if it was just a way of life for Floridians in the late 80s and 90s? She wasn’t naïve enough to think she’d live forever, but she still drives her cherry red Toyota Celica during the day. She substitute teaches a few days a month at the local pre-school. Up until recently, she’d been volunteering at the Javits Center, because she likes to keep busy and she got to see all the performances for free! And in her spare time, she knits pink and blue beanies for the newborn babies at the hospital. Every time she finishes a dozen, she brings them to the nurse’s station and plays with some of the newborns. But was she finally winding down? Was her independence slipping away? Was talking about death as if it’s something people did between going to the movies and dropping off the dry cleaning, just a coping mechanism?
Not knowing what to say, and saddened at the thought of a world without Ellie, I decided a joke was in order. “So what you’re saying is this is the cake you bring to a wake,” And we all burst into laughter.
“That’s right!” she said. “Only don’t bring one to my shiva, because I’d rather have sushi!”
Aunt Ellie is alive and well. She’s speaking her mind and giving out wisdom whether you want it or not. Just when she makes a new friend, they croak! So if you want to write Aunt Ellie and keep her mind as sharp as tack, email us at email@example.com and we’ll make sure she gets it. She’ll email you back too, so make sure we have your email address. She’s very good with her computer. Here’s Jonathan showing her how to download books to her Amazon Kindle, even though her eyes were closed most of the time….and yes, there’s more coffee cake.
Aunt Ellie’s “Shiva” Coffee Cake Recipe
You don’t have to be going to a funeral to make this cake. It’s good all year round, and it’s super easy. This version is a slightly different twist on the original. Take a look at the “Tid Bits” at the end of the recipe to see how you can make it just like Aunt Ellie does.
For the coffee cake batter
- 2 cups of flour (I was out of regular flour so I used 1 ¾ cups whole wheat flour and ¼ cup regular flour…but Ellie calls for regular flour)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 eggs
- ¼ lbs butter (1 stick of butter melted)
- ¼ tsp salt
For the walnut filling
- ¼ cup of sugar
- ⅓ cup light or golden brown sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ½ cup walnuts roughly chopped
Pre-heat the oven to 350°
Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl and set aside.
Using a non-stick spray or Crisco vegetable spread, coat the nooks and crannies of a standard Bundt cake pan. If you have a slightly different shaped pan (IE: it doesn’t have the ridges or is some other shape) that’s fine, as long as it’s a ring pan with a hole in the middle. Place the greased Bundt pan on the side.
Toast the chopped walnuts on the stovetop (high heat in a dry skillet for 5 mins) in the oven (350° on a sheet pan for 6-10 mins) until they start to darken in color, and become aromatic.
Once the walnuts are starting to roast, remove them from the heat, and let them cool for a few minutes in a small mixing bowl before adding the rest of the filling ingredients. This is like a streusel topping only it’s going to be a layer running through the middle of the coffee cake.
This is what it looks like once it’s mixed.
In the bowl of a standing mixer with the paddle attachment attached, mix the sour cream, eggs, vanilla and sugar for 2-3 minutes on medium-high speed. Once the mixture is well combined, slowly add the melted butter. The butter shouldn’t be hot, or it will potentially curdle the eggs, so let it cool down after melting it if needed.
With the mixer on medium speed, add the dry ingredients in two batches, only adding the second half after the first is completely combined. The batter will be be thick…not as thick as cookie dough, but thicker than you might expect.
Finish mixing the batter by hand, scraping up any unincorporated bits near the base of the bowl.
Fill the Bundt pan with a quarter of the coffee cake batter.
Then drizzle the walnut streusel filling around the ring, trying to keep the mixture in the middle of the track.
Then pour the remaining batter over the streusel walnut mixture. Use the back of a spoon, or an offset spatula, and gently level out the batter. Ideally you won’t see the cinnamon walnut mixture when you’re done. Like this.
Bake the cake for 45-50 mins (depending on the heat of your oven), rotating halfway through. When the coffee cake is golden brown and a tester comes out of the center with only a crumb or two (no wet batter), then it’s done.
Let the cake cook on a rack for 15 minutes before removing it from the Bundt pan.
Let it cool for another 30 minutes on a rack before slicing in.
When the cake is cooled, you can dust it with powdered sugar.
We had some strawberries in the fridge that needed to get used, and I had some leftover sour cream in the carton….so I chopped up the strawberries and macerated them in fresh lemon juice and some granulated sugar. I added some coconut extract to the sour cream and a spoon full of powdered sugar. And I ate my cake with a dollop of the coconut sour cream, the syrupy strawberries, and some sweetened grated coconut I had in the pantry. Enjoy!
- My Aunt Ellie actually creams the butter at room temperature with the sugar, then adds one egg at a time, and then alternates between dry ingredients and sour cream before adding the vanilla at the end. For some reason, I thought it would be best to melt the butter. In the end, it came out great, so I’m not sure there’s much of a difference.
- Ellie also called me up to tell me she adds half her walnut and sugar mixture in the middle of the cake and uses the other half for the top, before backing the entire thing. Didn’t make much of a difference to me, but if you’d prefer to disperse your walnut mixture more, well then you have my 90-year old Great Aunt’s permission to do so. So her’s looks like this, with the streusel topping in the middle and on top:
- Using whole-wheat flour did make this a heartier cake, which I happened to like. If you want it a little lighter, then the regular flour is the way to go. It will also be lighter in color with white flour. Hey, that matters to some people.
- If you over bake the cake, and I’ll be honest, the time I used whole-wheat flour I over baked it a little; it will come out a little dry. No worries, serve it with some ice cream, sweetened crème fraiche with your favorite flavor extract and some powdered sugar, or drizzle some coffee liquor or rum on it!
Check out our previous post titled When Too Much…is Just Enough or our next post titled My Dog Pooped In IT
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