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I was about five years old and I had already discovered that it was far more pleasurable to satisfy the wishes of my parents than to rebel. Maybe it was because my mother lost her mother at the age of five. She must have told me the story, though I don’t remember, but for some reason I carried this vision in my mind. I know she told me more about it later in life.

She always referred to “Stepmother” when she talked about the woman who had replaced her mother after her untimely death. “Stepmother never let us into the kitchen,” she would say, “I want my kids to know how to cook.”

So when she said I needed to learn how to bake a cake, I agreed. She took out the big tan crockery mixing bowl with blue stripes round the outside, the wooden spoon, and the essential ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, salt, baking powder, flour, vanilla and milk.

The wood stove had been fired up so that the gauge on the front of the oven read “350*F.” It was winter and the stove was always hot and ready for baking.

She scooped an egg-sized sphere of butter and slapped it into the bowl. “About a half cup is right”, she said. Then she poked the butter with the tip of the wooden spoon making indentations that looked like so many commas in a row. This was to soften the butter, she said.

Then she added sugar in twice the measure of the butter, about a cup and stirred it until it was all creamy. She added eggs, two of them, stirring really fast so that the liquid of the eggs was whipped into the butter mixture. She went on to mix in the flour and baking powder, and explained that one teaspoon of baking powder to one cup of flour was the best proportion. Vanilla for flavor and enough milk to make a smooth, pour-able batter and the cake was ready for the baking pan.

“Taste it” she said, “If it tastes flat – add a pinch of salt. We did, and we mixed it in. Then we scraped the batter into the buttered pan and stuck it into the oven to bake until a straw plucked from the corn broom and stuck into the center of the cake came out clean and dry.

I tried to memorize all this. I hadn’t yet started first grade and couldn’t read or write so I couldn’t take notes. It was some time later and my mother was in labor, not an uncommon occurrence – there eventually were ten of us. Dr. Van Valkenberg (Floodwood’s resident physician) and my father were in the bedroom with her. I wasn’t allowed into the room. The kitchen stove was fired up because they needed boiling water to sterilize stuff. My job was to open the side lid of the wood stove and add a piece of firewood every fifteen minutes or so.

I decided then to bake a cake for “Mummy”.

I took out the bowl and spoon and tried to remember all the ingredients. I mixed the batter as I remembered it. Last of all, I tasted it. It was flat. I added a pinch of salt. Still flat. I added another pinch of salt. Still flat. Finally I was tossing handfuls of salt into the batter and it didn’t help at all. The batter looked good. So I poured it into the pan and put it into the oven. Pondering what could have been wrong when the cake was half baked, I realized that I had forgotten the sugar.

The cake turned out golden and beautiful. It looked good! I proudly served my mother a square. She didn’t say anything about it being salty. She only said that it looked beautiful.

Many years later she admitted that the cake I had made was so salty it made her mouth pucker. That was Mummy – always encouraging and always looking for the best in others.

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Beatrice Ojakangas

Food writer Beatrice Ojakangas grew up as the oldest of ten on a farm in Floodwood, Minnesota and learned to cook and bake on a woodstove. Author of 31 cookbooks, Beatrice has a degree in home economics, has been inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame, was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota, has written for magazines such as Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and Woman's Day, and appeared on the television shows of both Julia Child and Martha Stewart. Her specialties include baking, Finnish and Scandinavian cooking, and writing well-tested, simple recipes that use wholesome ingredients. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota.

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