This blog post was supposed to be a perfected recipe, featuring stylized photos of my great-grandmother’s black walnut cake on pretty china. But, like so many things in life, it didn’t turn out as planned.
I come from a long line of food lovers. My father is a baker by trade, my aunt is the chef-owner of a fabulous restaurant, and my uncle went back to school at 55 to start his own catering company. My grandmother was obviously a huge influence on them, with her home cooked meals and beautiful holiday spreads. But I think the real inspiration for our family’s cooking gene was my great-grandmother Ida, known to us as “Bomb”.
I was blessed to have gotten to know four of my great-grandparents and have many vivid memories of them. My fondest memories of Bomb are of our annual trips to visit her and my great-grandfather Pop in Annapolis, Maryland. We smiled as we gathered around her table to feast on blue crabs, fresh from the Chesapeake and messily doused in Old Bay seasoning. We always finished off the meal with a slice of Bomb’s famous black walnut cake, the salty brine of the crabs still lingering on our fingers.
My Great-Grandmother’s Elusive Black Walnut Cake Recipe
I was recently tasked with making a dessert for a neighborhood gathering. I had been craving Bomb’s black walnut cake, so I emailed my cousin in Pennsylvania for the recipe. She responded:
“Yes, I have a copy of the recipe, but it never comes out quite like Bomb’s. She must have accidentally left something out. Haha. Anyway, Aunt Al and my Dad have also tried to perfect it over the years, so I have lots of versions of the recipe. Here you go and good luck!”
I began by looking through the photos of the many tattered, old recipe cards my cousin sent me. I gathered the ingredients (including the surprisingly hard-to-find black walnuts) and borrowed a bundt pan from my neighbor. Then my four-year-old baking assistant and I got to work.
As the cake baked, I told my son about Bomb and Pop. I told him about how, when I was his age, we took long road trips to visit Bomb and Pop each spring. I told him how my sister and I explored the creek near their house, the same spot my Dad and his siblings had explored when they were young. My son smiled as I told him about how I devoured Bomb’s cake even though I “hated walnuts”.
My son and I were both more than ready to taste the cake when the oven timer finally rang. However, something must have been “off” in the recipe. We ended up baking it nearly twice as long and it was still raw in the middle. It was a disaster and I’m not sure who was more disappointed – my son or me.
By this point, I had been dreaming of black walnut cake and talking it up for weeks. Therefore, I had to try again. This time, I called my Grandma to ask if she had any idea what might be missing from the recipe. I also did some research about pound cakes, asked my baker dad for some tips, and made sure everything was measured perfectly and the ingredients were at the correct temperature (apparently that’s a thing). I made some adjustments to the recipe and the baking time, and this time the cake came out…well, just ok. My son still ate it, but that’s not saying much. It certainly wasn’t my great-grandmother’s fragrant, tender, golden-crusted cake.
After two attempts, over $25 in ingredients, and way too much time, I called up my cousin to admit defeat. She laughed and agreed when I insisted, “Something is definitely off about the recipe, but I don’t think it was an accident.”
Maybe Bomb wanted to be the only one who could make the cake just right. Maybe she wanted us to always think of her. Or maybe it was truly an oversight. Whatever the reason, here we are almost two decades after she left us, and my great-grandmother Bomb is still bringing our family together around food and making us smile.