My kids took piano lessons from an elderly, Arkansas woman, who came to the house each week. She gave them instruction on our ugly, upright piano, that I’d paid $10 for at a one-room school auction and painted antique white.
As it turned out, my children were not apt music pupils, though they would later play the trumpet, drums and tuba in the junior high school band. So I gave up on the piano lessons, besides, the cost was busting the household budget at $2 per child each week.
Not a Total Loss
Though the kids learned little, I picked up a lot of cooking tips from their music teacher, who knew her way around the kitchen and often brought me a taste of something she’d made. I included her recipe for Baked Rice with Mushrooms in my cookbook, Christmas at the Mansion. Her holiday recipes for Lemon Squares and Cherry Squares made it into other cookbooks that I assembled. I considered her bourbon-rich fruit cake a culinary masterpiece.
But my favorite of all was her Blackberry Jam cake. I’d never tasted the fine Southern delicacy before, but I made it a few times. It’s basically a spice cake laced with jam and black walnuts. At the time, my young kids were far happier with cupcakes from a Pillsbury box.
When I recently thought of the dense, flavorful dessert with the caramel icing, I dug through old files and drawers to find the recipe. In my mind, I could see the 3×5” card written in the teacher’s handwriting, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. After several moves to different cities, as well as a house fire, some things never turned up again.
Martha replicated the cake of my memories. As best I can tell, the cake dates back to Civil War times.
Dense, Dark and Delicious
When I bemoaned my loss, my neighbor, Martha, said she was interested in making the old-fashioned cake, that included not just blackberry jam, but buttermilk, several spices, and black walnuts—- which, fortuitously, she had in the freezer.
Martha went with a version by P. Allen Smith. Watching his video, I understood what Martha meant when she said it took more bowls and utensils than she ordinarily used for cake baking. But the outcome was splendid!
Hmm. . . an Easier Way?
Even so, I’m thinking there’s a version that’s as good, but a little less arduous to combine. I scoured the Internet. It seems that nearly every Southern family has a hand scribbled recipe handed down from a mother, grandmother or aunt and no two are quite the same.
I passed up those that required home-churned butter or blackberries handpicked in the spring and made into jelly—though the recipes with bourbon-soaked raisins caught my eye. Nor did I want to forage for black walnuts and pick them from the shell, though, heaven knows, we have a ton of them on the farm.
In Time for the Holidays
Right now I’m looking at Big Momma’s Blackberry Jam Cake from the Loveless Cafe in Nashville. I can easily get all the ingredients from one grocery store and assemble the cake in no more than two bowls. That’s a bonus. I hope to complete my “research” on jam cakes before the holidays, when they’re traditionally served.
In the meanwhile, I’d love to hear your memories of eating jam cake. Do you, or does anyone in your family, make the cake?