We call my grandmother Gummy. Madame Gumball, if you are my father and are feeling contrite. Gummy is derived from my sisters’ inability to pronounce grandmother as children. Or grandma. Or anything really. They are thus credited with the creation of the masterful name “Gummy”.
If our family has a matriarch, its most definitely Gummy. We all adore her but are frightened of her “jokes” about how when she gets a cane, she will hit her grandchildren with it to keep us in line. She is probably kidding. We don’t know.
Gummy truly is an incredible woman. At almost 83, she still teaches English as a second language a few days a week. In keeping with a tradition started probably more than 40 years ago, she houses visiting students and scholars from time to time, always for free because apparently she makes a terrible landlord. Currently, she has an computer securities professor from Italy living with her. He makes her a lot of Italian food.
Her daily routine (from what I can tell) involves eating many eggs in the morning and then reading every single page of both the Providence Journal and the New York Times. She also does the crosswords, and on Sunday, she does the word search. Which I found to be quite fun and actually something I could accomplish, unlike any New York Times crossword.
Her summers are spent at our summer house, playing bridge and being invited to dinners like the sprightly socialite she is. She also swims every day in her favorite position, which involves lying on your back in the water and having both your head and feet sticking out, above the water.
She wears sweatpants pretty much everywhere, although she has dress sweats for fancier occasions, and wears slacks to black tie event. To bridge at the club, she frequently will wear a dress of her own making.
She’s headstrong, and brilliant, kind, caring, funny, and a perfect grandmother. She has never given me a gift (although I snagged some free floss last time I was with her, that may count as a present) like “normal” grandparents are supposed to do. But I like that. Because she is not a “normal” grandmother, she’s my grandmother.
I spent last Sunday with Madame Gumball, making food for our Passover feast. Gummy always makes the matzoh ball soup and frequently makes sponge cake. The matzoh ball recipe is adapted from the back of a matzoh meal box. But it is very heavily adapted and completely unrecognizable (also illegible)
The sponge cake comes from my great grandmother, Annie Bell, a more formidable woman (so I’m told) than even Gummy.
Today, I’m going to share the recipe for the sponge cake. Light and airy, lacking any butter or oil, my grandmother calls this “healthy cake”. “Cake light”. Although with 12 egg yolks in it (9 if using jumbos) I don’t know if this cake is all that fat free. Which is good, because fat is good.
Cooking with Gummy is an interesting process. She sits in a chair in the middle of her kitchen and dictates until I mess something up and then she just does it for me (as with zesting an orange. Apparently I only zested a third of it.)
As she has made the cake gazillions of times before, there were many points in the baking process where she would just tell me something looked “right” or “good” and then we’d move on to the next step. But thats what makes making this cake so much fun. Figuring out all the moments where the batter just looks right. Making it as much a part of my baking repertoire as it is for Gummy.
I do wonder how this cake would taste with a sugar syrup on top of it (maybe a cardamom one?) but I also wonder if changing it is considered sacrilege. So as much as I may want to experiment, I won’t, at least not until I’m teaching the recipe to my children and grandchildren in the far off future, after Jethro has taken immortality pills.
Gumballs Sponge Cake:
Kosher for Passover
12 large eggs (9 jumbo ones), separated and left out for a few hours to get to room temperature in massive metal bowls. Keep them covered.
Zest of 1-2 oranges
Scant half cup orange juice (between a third of a cup and a half a cup)
2 cups sugar
1 cup walnut, chopped into little pieces (but not too chopped)
1 cup cake meal (kosher for Passover)
2 tablespoons potato starch
1/4 teaspoon salt
Extra sugar to sprinkle on top
Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Find a 9-10 inch bundt pan, preferably one with a removable bottom. If you do not have one, line the pan with parchment paper. You can grease it with a little bit of vegetable oil, although that isn’t necessary.
Whisk the potato starch and the cake meal together until well combined and with no large lumps of potato starch.
Using an electric mixer, beat the yolks together for a couple of minutes. Add sugar and beat until well combined and the batter is smooth. Beat in the juice and zest. Stir in the potato starch and cake meal until just combined and then add in the nuts.
Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites AND salt just until they reach stiff peaks. Do not over beat. Adding cream of tartar is not traditional, but you may add a pinch in before beating in order to stabilize the egg whites.
Add about a quarter of a cup of the yolk mixture to the whites to lighten it. Stir it in, but make sure not to deflate the whites too much. Then slowly begin folding in the rest of the yolk mixture, adding it in in three batches.
Add batter to pan. It should reach to about 1/2 inch from the top of the pan. If there is extra, either eat raw as lunch or put into a smaller pan and bake a mini sponge cake.
Sprinkle sugar on top of the cake to form a crust. Make sure to get some sugar on every bit of it, but don’t worry if you put too much on, it will come off later.
Bake the cake for 50-60 minutes, rotating at least once.
Immediately, put a Manischevitz bottle filled with water on a dinner plate (I’m sure a different bottle would work as well) and balance the cake upside down on top of it, with the stem of the wine bottle going through the circle in the middle of the bundt pan. This is to keep the cake from deflating.
Keeps for a week, at room temperature, well wrapped.