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Post details: Grandma's Cake

Grandma's Cake

A Norwegian journalist, Terje Englund, once wrote a book about the Czech culture as seen through a foreigner's eye. He praises some aspects of it and criticizes others. At the extremes, he sees the Czech language and the Czech cuisine. He extols the former with these words: "Czech is the Rolls-Royce of the Slavonic languages, and a star player in the Indo-European linguistic league. Czech is so rich, precise and, unfortunately, also complicated that a foreigner trying to learn the language may be driven to suicide. Either because he or she never manages to learn it, or because of the utter depression that follows when the foreigner realizes how primitive his or her own mother tongue is".

On the other hand, the section about the culinary arts begins on a sour note - "Czech culture has produced astonishing achievements in a wide range of disciplines, but in one field the result is more than depressing: the country's cuisine". He does acknowledge that many Czech are skillful cooks, mostly tinkering with creations of foreign provenance, but when he comes back to the local foodage, his verdict is uncompromising: "dull and fatty".

Being of Czech descent, I can feel the tidal pull of these two extremes. I'd much rather write a two page essay than cook anything that involves stirring. I am the anticook if there ever was one. I misplaced my cooking genes when I was about 4 and haven't found them yet. I am to cooking what Michael Richards is to fine manners.

So you can imagine my unmitigated panic, when the hostess of the Thanksgiving dinner to which I was invited asked me to contribute a Czech dish. Gulp! Not only could I think of no decent Czech dish that might be capable of holding a candle to the Mighty Turkey, but even if I could, I wouldn't be able to prepare it without an industry strength magic wand and some pre-prepared packet that I could discreetly slip in the microwave.

For several days I'd wake up with a cold sweat on my forehead and an unresolved dilemma in my head. Should I go for potato pancakes, the traditional meal of poor farmers, or the Grandma's Cake, a dessert usually prepared for the Sunday afternoon tea time? Finally, at the last moment, while driving to pick up a friend of mine that was to help me, I decided to go for the cake.

We borrowed a hand-held mixer and a baking form from my friend's house, we bought ingredients at the grocery store on the corner and before we knew it, we were prestidigitating in the Land of Flour and Eggs. We made the dough from scratch, which involved lots of esoteric sorcery - like separating yolks from the egg whites or beating the separated substances with an electric contraption that resembled a moose's head turned upside down and felt like a jackhammer when it was churning in my hands. Since I was unwilling to sacrifice the spatula-free status of my apartment, not all the utensils we had were proper. We stirred the dough with a pancake flipping thingamajig and when it came to measuring 300 grams of powdered sugar, the bag label and my mathematical skills had to substitute for the lack of the scale.

The production of the dough was the high point of the whole operation. The stuff we conjured up in the bowl tasted delightfully. In retrospect, I think we should have terminated the kitchen maneuvers right there, put the dough in a container and present it at the dinner as an exotic Czech Spread that is to be scooped up with crackers like a peanut butter of sorts. That would have been a dazzling success.

Sadly, we decided to evict the dough from the bowl, put it in the form and stick it in the oven. Bad move. We timed it right, mind you, but it turned out that my oven was a different type than the one for which the timing was right. Long story short: when we opened it, the cake looked as if it spent the whole afternoon in a sun-tanning saloon. The feeling of devastation was overwhelming.

My grandfather taught me not to throw food away recklessly, so when I returned home from Thanksgiving, I surgically removed the blackest layer and actually ate part of the cake. But I sure am glad that I am not a blast furnace, for having charcoal for breakfast every morning would drive me nuts.

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