My family is Polish. Very Polish, you could say, especially when it comes to food. As a Polish Catholic family, there are many eating traditions we follow, some of which would curl your toes. Pierogies for dinner, oplatki (oh-plaht-key), which is blessed communion host in a special envelope brought home from mass on Christmas Eve, and stuffed cabbage are all delicious, relatively normal-sounding foods. But my Uncle Lenny always gets czarnina (cha-nee-na) from the Polish deli in Cleveland, which is a duck blood and vinegar soup, and my Momma eats kiszka (keesh-ca) for breakfast, which is a blood and organ sausage. Both the appetizing and the horrifying have been held onto throughout the years since my great, great grandparents immigrated to America. One tradition we have lost, however, is the agnuszek: Easter lamb cake.
I have heard stories of the almighty lamb cake since I was a child, a delicious cake that has become practically a legend in our family throughout the years. It was years ago, when I was tiny, that Great-Grandma used to make agnuszek (ah-goo-nuh-sheck), a lamb shaped dessert cake made to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, eaten after dinner on Easter Sunday. Great-Grandma was an amazing woman. She cooked, crocheted, baked, sewed, pickled, canned, and cleaned independently well into her 80s. She also made clothes for all my cousins’ and my dolls, making sure to take into account what she thought we would like as well as what fabric she had on the many bolts in her house. Even today, she is my hero. When it came time to make the cake, Great Grandma would take a cast iron mould and bake the yellow pound cake the night before Easter while the ham cooked. While it baked, she made a buttercream frosting for it. When the cake was removed from the mould, it would cool on the rack and everyone would admire its lamb shape. When cooled, Great-Grandma would frost it thickly and coat it in coconut shavings so it looked wooly, like a real lamb. Two chocolate chips made his eyes, a raisin was his nose, and a ribbon was tied around his neck. The cake would sit on the table, staring at us all wisely, until my Grandma cut him up after dinner and everyone gobbled up their slice greedily. This happened year after year, until one Easter eve where things went terribly wrong.
The year we stopped making the lamb cake, I was still just a little girl. As usual, the cake was baked and frosted, and set up on my grandmother’s kitchen counter in all its lamb-like glory. The family went to Easter Vigil, leaving the cake out on the kitchen counter so it would not dry out in the refrigerator. However, somehow in all the holiday hustle no one thought of the family dog, Hudson. How anyone in their right mind could forget Hudson, I do not know. He was an escape artist, a humongous pure-bred husky dog with a penchant for eating everything in sight, be it food, furniture, or children’s toy. He knew how to open the refrigerator, climb onto counters, and break into cabinets. Locked doors were barreled down and closed containers were unsealed if that was what Hudson so chose. Nowhere was safe! As usual, when we all got ready to leave the house Hudson was put in his kennel, with the latch closely fastened and bungee corded so that it was tightly closed. The kennel door was then turned to face against the wall. The family left for mass, assuming that the food would be safe, and the Houdini dog did his work. When they came home, Hudson was napping on the carpet, plastered with frosting and bits of coconut, and the lamb was nowhere in sight.
Everyone was devastated of course. All that work for nothing? And nothing for dessert but cream rolls and cookies? But this is not the end of the story, or the cake. When my aunt and uncle crawled into bed that night, they found chunks of cake and smears of icing between their sheets and under their pillows. Disgusted, they shouted and woke up the rest of the house. Apparently, Hudson had decided to save the lamb for later instead of simply putting it out of its misery. Cake was found in smudges and chunks all around the house for months. In Grandma’s shoes in the back of the closet, under the beds, in the back of the basement…there was no safe place from the cake. Apparently, there was a recent finding of a smear of icing in the back of a closet no one uses.
There has not been a lamb cake since, not for my family. Hudson died years ago, but the memory of the fiasco remains. I do not think anyone could truly forget slipping into a pair of house shoes and being coated in frosting. This gave the cake a bit of a negative connotation among the adults in the family for a while. Nobody wants to scrape coconut and frosting out of nooks and crannies for months at a time, or have to put out ant traps because there is no way of knowing where all the cake parts are. No one even knows what happened to the cast iron mould. My Great Grandma passed away not too long after Hudson, so there is no one to ask. Now, we have chocolate crosses and we hunt through the house for our Easter baskets, just as the children always have in our family. We still eat ham for dinner, and we still bond as a family, and we still tell the story of the lamb cake. However, it does not feel the same. Tradition is important to us, and this is a great tradition with an interesting back story. I feel as though this hand-crafted cake something my children should experience in the future. Recently, at the beginning of my adult life, I began searching for a new mould with my mother. Since I have been hearing this story time after time, year after year, I expressed an interest in renewing the tradition. We look at antique shops and flea markets as well as baking shops. There was one time when my Momma and I thought we found one in an antiques store. It was a heavy iron mould in two pieces, but it was incredibly small. When we asked the man at the counter, he told us it was for moulding butter. I was exceedingly disappointed. Still, it seems like half the fun may be the search. Seeking out dark corners of dusty shops with my Momma, hearing old family stories as we attempt to restart a wonderful tradition is fun and exciting. Though we are still seeking a mould, Momma and I have obtained the family recipe.
Great Grandma’s Agnuszek
10-12 servings of lamb cake, or enough to share
- Family recipe for pound cake (you can use mix if you don’t want to make it from scratch)
- Buttercream Frosting
- Sweetened coconut flakes
- Red ribbon
- Chocolate Chips (2)
- Raisins (1)
- Preaheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use lard or vegetable shortening to grease your lamb mould, and place halves on a baking sheet to warm for a half hour, then pour the extra grease off.
- Prepare pound cake mix according to box instructions, or use a family recipe (sorry, ours is a secret!) Fill each half of the mould to about a quarter inch from the rim, and bury a toothpick in each ear for support. Bake for about an hour.
- Put on a cooling rack until completely cooled, then remove carefully to keep from sticking. Frost in a swirly pattern until it looks like wool, then sprinkle with coconut shavings to make more realistic. The eyes and nose should be well placed raisins, and the ribbon goes around the neck. If you have time, dye some of the coconut shavings green and set the cake on top of them on a platter so the lamb is sitting in grass.