Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sugar cakes

A couple years into our marriage, after I realized that Kim was something of a magician in the kitchen, I asked her if she'd mind making Moravian sugar cakes over the Christmas holidays.

The request was a simple one, prologued, as it was, with my big, sorrowful brown eyes, and a promise of my annoying unending sadness if my plea went unfulfilled.

Shame on me. Heh, heh, heh.

After all, my Nana Kessler made sugar cakes, and her daughter – my mother – also made them.

Somewhere along the way, Kim got hold of a sugar cake recipe from a real Moravian. She and her mother would set aside a Friday night in December and begin the labor-intensive process of making sugar cakes. They usually ended up making about six or eight of them, and we'd even hand some of them out (despite my completely legitimate protests) as Christmas gifts.

I point out the labor intensive part because it usually took Kim and her mom most of the evening to make them. They used the old Moravian recipe that required potatoes and yeast, which meant at some point you had to wait for the dough to rise before you could continue the baking process. It's exhausting work that requires a serious commitment of time.

One of Kim's sugar cakes is ready to go. Mmmm. Smells good..
 I was usually covering basketball games for The Dispatch on Friday nights in December, but when I came home – usually sometime after midnight – Kim would be there, sugar cakes in hand, a touch of flour on her face, smelling curiously like a bakery.

But, man, we had honest-to-goodness sugar cakes for the holidays.

Over the course of time, however, Kim's mom passed away and I no longer needed my sugar cake nostalgia fix. Kim had little interest in making sugar cakes anymore and I couldn't blame her. Especially since you can walk into almost any grocery store in town and buy sugar cakes from Dewey's Bakery.

Years slipped by. Some Christmases we just didn't bother to have sugar cakes, even though it was something of a family tradition to have some with your morning coffee. And that was OK.

Then, a month or so ago, we were at the Marketplace Mall in Winston-Salem. We were walking around aimlessly killing time until we strolled into the Winkler Bakery outlet store. The Winkler Bakery, of course, is the 200-plus-year-old establishment in nearby Old Salem that still makes the sugar cookies, the Love Feast buns and, yep, sugar cakes for both the tourists and all of us nostalgia-starved Moravians.

The outlet store (which is actually a working bakery that mass produces its product for Old Salem) had packages of sugar cake mix for sale.

"Do you want me to make sugar cakes this year?" asked Kim, holding a package of mix in her hand and reading the instructions.

"Nah," I said both thoughtfully and maturely. "I know how hard it is to make them. You don't have to do that."

"I don't mind," said Kim. So we bought a package.

Yesterday, while I was watching Army beat up Houston in a college football bowl game, Kim was working in the kitchen when a familiar scent began to fill the house.

"It smells like a bakery in here," I said, walking into the kitchen.

"Go outside, take a breath of fresh air, and then come back in," said Kim. "Cleanse your nose."

Well, that was something I'd never done before. But I did as she said. When I came back in, the delicious aroma of cinnamon, brown sugar and butter, warmed to about 350 degrees, gently co-mingled into my nostrils.

I think tears welled up in my big, brown eyes.

Kim was able to make four cakes out of the package of mix. We're giving three away as gifts, but I'm selfishly keeping the cake with the deepest reservoir of brown sugar for myself. I guess I won't be keeping it long, though.

"I know how hard it is for you to make this, Kim," I said, my head virtually swimming in the sinfully rich smells from the oven. "You must be tired, and I'll never ask you to make sugar cake again. I've had more than my share over the years."

A knowing nanosecond flew by.

"Yes, you will," she said, smiling. "You'll ask me every year."

Indeed, I will.

Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to all...

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