The ship carrying my dad and his parents from Norway to their new home in the United States docked in New York 57 years ago this month. From that moment on, the family of three would strive to settle into a new life in a new country, in a place where everything was foreign and at times incomprehensible. When May rolls around each year, I think about that anniversary and how life permanently changed course with that solitary decision. I think about the future that unfolded because they immigrated, and I wonder at their experience in those first moments and in the weeks and months that followed.
Arriving in a new country, my dad and his parents were eager to adjust and acclimate, to learn the language and make new friends. What would have caught their eyes as they perused book covers, newspapers, and magazines, as they familiarized themselves with a new language and practiced reading and speaking every chance they could?
With her love for hospitality, I can picture my grandma buying a cooking magazine in New York to read on the journey west to Seattle. Would she have opened the cover and started on the first page, mouthing the words that popped out on advertisements and studiously reading the articles and recipes? That’s what I would have done. All I can do is speculate, but with that in mind I dug into the online archives of Gourmet magazine to see if I could find anything from the month my family arrived in America.
With just a little searching I found an article called “Classes in Classic Cuisine: Pâte à Biscuit and Pâte à Génoise,” by Louis Diat, originally published in May 1956. “When I was a young man,” he begins, “I liked to devote my free Sunday mornings to a busman’s holiday.” He goes on to describe the pleasure he would take in baking at home with his daughter after a strenuous week supervising kitchens at the RItz-Carlton. Diat speaks as though talking with a friend, and candidly admits to his feelings of self-doubt when it comes time to teach his readers in Gourmet how to make classic pastries, as it had been years since he had worked as a pastry chef. With a refreshing amount of transparency, he brings his readers into the kitchen with him as he studies up on the craft. And then he begins his lessons.
This is the type of article my grandmother would have appreciated. Honest and instructive, with practical takeaways designed to ensure success in the kitchen of a home cook. As I read the article for the first time, I scanned the recipes–pâte à biscuit au beurre, pâte a génoise, gateau aux matrons, gateau à l’orange. Steeped in the French tradition, the collection of cake recipes would equip anyone with a solid repertoire of cakes from which to experiment and build upon. One in particular caught my eye: pain de gênes, an almond cake.
It doesn’t take much more than the word “almond” to convince me to give a recipe a try. Despite its distinctly French origins, the cake seemed like it would appeal to a woman who had left her heart back in Norway so I soon set out the ingredients and started baking.
Beating a half pound of almond flour in my stand mixer with fine sugar and eggs, I watched as the batter formed, slowly taking on a light and fluffy consistency. Adding more sugar and another egg, as well as butter, I continued on with the recipe, then mixed in the flour and salt and a little bit of Cointreau as a flavoring (the original recipe called for kirsch). The results the first time around were spectacular, with a cake tasting almost as rich and nutty as pure marzipan. Remembering reading something about temperatures in the body of the article, however, and noting that the cake was rather short, I revisited the text and noticed that the author stressed the importance of beating the batter in a bowl kept warm with a towel wrapped in hot water. The key here is in the temperature, as the cake contains no leveners such as baking powder. Trying it again, I baked the cake in a smaller pan and flavored it with aquavit. Delicious again. Still a little short. Perhaps that’s how it’s supposed to be.
In any case, I offered the cake to my parents on a recent visit. I was off to an event and they had come to babysit. Normally I pay them in wine, but this time there was cake. The evening came and went, and at the end we said our goodbyes. Later, though, came the news.
We’ve had that cake, they excitedly announced. You’ve had that cake, they said, trying to trigger my taste memory back to the days at my grandparents’ cardamom-scented Ballard home. Could it be that I was on to something when digging into the Gourmet archives? I don’t know. It seems like such a longshot. Pain de gênes is, after all, a traditional cake. A traditional French cake, however, not a Norwegian one. And therein lies the key. My grandmother clung to the Norwegian cooking traditions when she immigrated; I remember no French items in the meals she prepared while I was growing up. Somehow, from somewhere, this one slipped into her culinary repertoire.
Could this recipe, published 57 years ago, been the one she used? All I can do is speculate. However, since so few of my late grandmother’s recipes remain to this day, I like to think it’s possible.