The Lamb Cake has a long and storied history in my family. Lamb cakes are an Easter tradition among Eastern Europeans, and my grandmother made one every year when my mom was little. Although my grandmother’s mother admonished her to “just tell everyone you are Irish,” she was actually entirely Slovak. Yes, this was the beautiful time in our nation’s history when not only did some people of color have to try to pass as white, but white people tried to pass as other kinds of white people.
This lamb cake mold dates to the 1950s, and is a heavy cast iron number, apparently part of a limited edition casting (number 866!). Nobody really wanted it after my grandparents died because nobody made lamb cakes, so my mom and her siblings decided to put it up in the estate sale at my grandparents’ house. They had seen that these molds fetch a good price on eBay, so they priced it pretty high and figured that if it didn’t sell, they could just get a better price online later.
The day of the sale, they noticed the mold was gone. The siblings consulted each other, and none of them had sold it. My aunt took off for the antique store (because this town is so small that there is AN antique store), and found a man at the counter selling the mold. Clearly it was the same one, because it was a limited edition casting (number 866!). He claimed that somebody at the estate sale sold it to him for a dollar. Of course, after asking around, it became clear that wasn’t true. The robber made off with the lamb cake mold because he figured if it was priced that high, he could get a good amount for it at the antique store! Dummy.
After that, it seemed like maybe my family shouldn’t get rid of it. My mom took it, tried to make the lamb cake the next year using the recipe printed by the lamb cake mold company, and declared that it was awful. A few years later, I tried to make it using a lighter cake. It didn’t hold the shape and I ended up chopping it up into cubes and creating a cake/fruit/cream trifle. I referred to it as a deconstructed or conceptual lamb cake, because I took art appreciation in college.
Enough is enough, and I’ve decided that this is my year. I went to Midcentury Menu, read through all of their lamb cake recipes, and picked one (Pope Family Lamb Cake, if you’re curious). I pored over their list of lamb cake tips, because Lord knows my mother doesn’t know how anything about it. Here is my liveblog of the baking process, transcribed from my very messy handwritten notes:
* I think this is all going to rest on the right Pandora playlist. I pick Otis Redding, and dance around a bit to Bring It On Home To Me as I get the ingredients together
* Sometimes I’m kind of smug about being really good at separating eggs, which is stupid because I actually screw it up this time. In my defense, this one egg was really runny. A little yolk in the white is fine, probably?
* I always question myself when I’m supposed to beat egg yolks. How much is enough? I beat them while dancing around to I Feel Good, because this is apparently part of a cheerful montage in the film of my life.
* My ipad has egg on it now, and I wonder if I can get Salmonella. I think I could. I’m typing this up from my working notes, which simply read “mad salmonella,” so apparently my one-hour-ago self was not very optimistic about that one.
* I switch to the hand mixer to cream the butter and sugar. My standing mixer bit it recently, and today I picked up the cheapest hand mixer I could find in anticipation of Lamb Cake Day. I’m trying to quiet my doubts. Pandora has moved on to Cruisin’, which reminds me of the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Duets. I take a moment to feel for Gwyneth and her family, who are not allowed to eat lamb cakes, but are hopefully having some nice asparagus or macrobiotic sprouts for Easter.
* Whenever I have to clean out mixer blades, I’m always afraid I’ll somehow trigger the on switch and cut my fingers off. This mirrors my fear of vacuuming my own foot or garbage disposing my hand. Pandora doesn’t seem bothered, and is playing Sugar Pie Honey Bunch now.
* The mixer starts to smell of burning plastic, and Sam Cooke sings You Send Me.
* I clean my hands with what I realize is balled-up paper towel from the Lamb Cake box. It is probably about 40 to 50 years old, as is Stay Just A Little Bit Longer, which is playing now.
* I nearly empty the cupboard trying to find baking powder. The container proudly boasts that it is gluten free, making it roughly the only gluten free ingredient in this cake.
* I notice that I am cooking with organic whole milk, farm-raised cage-free eggs… and imitation vanilla. Authentic vintage baking fail. Pandora track: You Really Got A Hold On Me
* I eyeball half a cup of corn starch, worry that I’ve gotten it wrong and will ruin Lamb Cake Day, measure it, and find that it was exactly half a cup. Aretha would like a little respect when she comes home, according to Pandora.
* Where is the sifter? I can’t find one and skip that step entirely. I consult my mother, who says “we don’t sift,” as though it is a firmly-held family belief. This will probably be the cause of Easter getting ruined. Otis Redding Pandora moves on to These Arms Of Mine.
* I gingerly feel the side of the hand mixer, as though it is my feverish child. It’s hot, which is unfortunate because it is time to whip the egg whites until they are stiff. Since I don’t have grandparents to ask things of, I turn to Grandma Internet (ok, Google), which confirms that I cannot use the blender to beat egg whites. I whisk the eggs and dance around to Itty Bitty Pretty One, but do not get very far. Best to just tempt fate and use the mixer.
* I try to clean the mixer blades, but realize that I am just eating the batter off of them (it is delicious). So, I switch to another pair of whisks, only to find them clanging the whole time. I remove them when it occurs to me that they don’t go with this mixer and may come loose, fly out, and slice open my jugular.
* The mixer smells like burnt plastic. The eggs whites are stiffer than if I hadn’t done anything to them. Isn’t that enough? I switch to hand-beating the eggs until my arms hurt. This is fine, as I skipped my arm workout today. See? That’s why women in yesteryear didn’t need gyms. I pour them in and maybe THIS is the part where I ruin everything, because their texture is more foamy than anything.
* After Midnight Train To Georgia, Pandora goes silent and my hands are too dirty to tell it I’m still there. Great. I’ve been at this so long that Pandora has come to doubt my existence.
* I grease the heck out of the inside of the mold. I considered cooking spray, but the only kind I could find was olive oil flavored, and that sounds like a weird and incompatible taste pairing – pound cake and olive oil. The paper towel just isn’t delivering the cooking oil, so I load the Crisco onto my hand and just go for it.
I’ve clearly given up at this point, as evidenced by applying Crisco by hand and appearing on the internet post-workout with no makeup.
* Am I pouring too much batter into the mold? Possibly. I remember to put sticks into the ears and head so they don’t fall off, using bamboo skewers from the dollar store. I hope they don’t have lead in them or anything. Actually, how do I know the lamb cake mold doesn’t have lead in it? I don’t know if there was an oversight crew or anything at the cast iron factory.
* According to Grandma Internet, I ought to use twine to keep the two halves of the mold together. It doesn’t seem to be knotting that tightly, and I wish I had a Boy Scout around. Not for anything weird, I just think they know knots. A sailor would be useful too, I suppose. I think there’s a good chance that the string will bake into the cake a little. I’ll just tell my relatives that whoever finds the string gets a special wish, or since it’s Easter, is the Apostle for the Day or something.
* The internet says that some people used to put bricks on top of the mold to keep the top half from rising up, but it says it in a lighthearted “ha ha, people were crazy in olden days” way. It doesn’t sound like a half-bad idea, so I grab a brick from the garden and put it on top.
This is probably symbolic of Jesus being sealed into the tomb or something.
* This is way too heavy to carry to the oven safely (okay, I probably shouldn’t have skipped that arm workout after all). The mold alone is so heavy it could knock out a grown man, and the brick doesn’t help. I burn the top of my arm a bit putting it in the oven. At the time I blame my arm (stupid arm! Stupid, wimpy arm that doesn’t have muscle on it! What do you have so many freckles for anyway?). Later on, I blame my brain — why couldn’t I have put the brick on it once it was in there?
* In all that jostling, I wonder if the batter shifted and worry that all of the cake will end up in the lamb’s ass, as opposed to tomorrow, when I will eat it and fret that it will migrate to my ass.
* I have 55 minutes while the cake is baking, so I clean up a bit and make an open-faced sandwich. Ingredients: toasted rye bread, a half-ounce of neufchatel cheese, sliced tomato, my feelings.
* I check the cake a bunch of times, but the toothpick (okay, dollar store lead-bamboo skewer) doesn’t come out clean. Eventually I just take it out anyway because the ears are probably getting crisp.
* I take a shower while waiting for the cake to cool. I find a round brush while blow-drying my hair, and use it to curl my bangs under like I did in fifth grade, just to see if it still looks ridiculous. Still got it: I look like a 10-year-old from the late ’90s.
* I take the back off of the cake. So far, so good. The cake looks well-proportioned, though there is a troublesome crack that I hope doesn’t spread.
See! The back of the lamb. Not awful.
* After consulting Grandma Internet, I decide to loosen the cake from the mold then leave it in there overnight. I’m a little afraid that grid marks will appear in the back if I cool it on the rack. The mold is very detailed, with hair curls and rib bones, and it would be a shame to lose that. Of course, once I frost it, that’ll all be for naught anyway.
* The next morning: I slather a ton of frosting on a serving tray so the lamb will stay upright. The lamb is not easy to frost, in case you were wondering. I use a spoon and, while I’m not positive what elbow grease is, probably that.
Canned frosting. Shhh. I’m already more ashamed of myself than you are of me.
* The lamb is bedecked with frosting and shredded coconut, with jelly bean eyes and nose, and is sitting on a bed of Easter basket grass. It makes a great centerpiece. At this point, I remember that I don’t even really LIKE pound cake very much.
Cute, right? Please ignore how the eggs are about 1/5 the size of the lamb. Or, if you prefer, pretend that they are dinosaur eggs.
* Moment of truth: the cake looks nice but taste-wise, it isn’t my favorite. It’s perfectly serviceable for what it is, and I know from experience that you need a heavy, dense cake to stay in the mold. For aesthetic and nostalgia values, this cake gets a ten out of ten. But in terms of flavor? My sister-in-law made a funfetti cake, and that is WAY more my speed.
Charley-approved! We have a winner.
* The head of the lamb is left at the end. It looks like that horse’s head in the Godfather. I would not be surprised to find this on my pillow at some point, unless I eat it all first. With me and cake — even cake that isn’t my favorite — that is quite likely.
Postlogue: This recipe makes a lot of batter, and I make cupcakes with the excess. Over the course of the week, I realize that I actually really DO like this cake. It’s not dry, which is my way of trying to avoid using the word “moist.” It’s also lightly sweet and pairs well with sliced strawberries. It’s a good cake. The disembodied lamb head is creeping me out, though.