Paper Dresses and Bunny Cakes

As a little girl, I used to sneak up the stairs to my grandma’s attic on 85 Henderson Street, disregarding her warnings that it was “too hot and stuffy!” or “too cold and drafty!” It was never the right season for attic visits. Therefore, I took it upon myself to inspect the place, with or without my fickle grandma. Inside, I could spend hours poring over old photographs and report cards. A plethora of creepy things inhabited the attic bedroom: dolls with missing eyes, old backscratchers, and mysterious boxes of musty wigs. Before it became a dumping ground of all things nostalgic, the attic was once the bedroom of my Mom and her older sister, Aunt Donna. I could find trunks of her old clothing from the 1960s. As a lover of retro fashion, I had to try this stuff on.

“Grandma, look!” I’d cry, toddling down the stairs in a delicate paper dress that was too baggy for a childish figure. These garments were very fashionable during the British Invasion, apparently. If you can imagine the texture of a disposable toilet seat cover, you have a pretty good idea of a paper dress.

At the end of my day with Grandma, my mom would come to pick me up. Normally, we would stay for a few hours longer over tea and fruity ice cream. I would relay to my mom all of the things I found in the attic, the relics of her childhood I had unearthed. I could reminisce with my grandma and mom over memories I did not experience but could feel just the same. How many kittens did you have growing up, Ma? What was the name of Uncle Danny’s puppy, again? You know—the one that was ran over by that oil truck?

I have always felt the strong bond between the women in our family, like a tiny thread connecting our hearts across generations. I can feel the devotion when I take my grandma’s weathered hand in mine. Hearing the stories of my mom’s youth reminds me of this devotion to family. Mom often referred to my aunt as her “second mommy” growing up. Aunt Donna has a penchant for cooking, and would bake a bunny cake every year for Easter Sunday. A cake face and ears, white icing with coconut fur, jelly bean nose and eyes, and pink food dye cheeks make a perfect Easter treat. The bunny cakes of Easters past are sugary proof of my aunt’s kindness—in fact, I always call her “Cupcake”” in honor of her sweetness! As a little girl, I would imagine my aunt dressed in her chic paper dress, cat eye glasses, and red bouffant, whisking a bowl of cake mix.

Mom always tells me, “boys are wonderful but daughters are your heart.” Daughters make up the emotional framework of the home. They are the guardians of their mothers’ feelings, protecting an undercurrent of sensitivity that flows throughout the household. Mom and Aunt Donna are no exception. As adults, they are closer than ever to Grandma and to each other. Growing up, they helped bring the family together and added to the coziness of 85 Henderson Street. Mom and Aunt Donna took control of the interior design as teenagers. Grandma has always been too much of a borderline hoarder to bother with the feng shui of her home. The resourceful teens would move furniture around, arrange some flowers, and vacuum the rugs while Grandma was out on errands. SURPRISE, Mom! How do you like the new living room? Along with baking whiskered cakes, this is another mother-daughter story that stands out amongst so many other teatime reminiscences.
Forty years later, I decided to revive the buried bunny cake recipe after decades of its neglect. I wanted to be a part of a family tradition, and I don’t mind being that family member who brings the same dessert every year, for the same occasion. So, the bunny cake has been baked for two Easters, savored each time by my baby nephew.

Reusing family recipes is like communicating with the past—minus the candles and séance, of course. A cherished meal can be savored throughout generations. In a way, you are sharing an experience with past relatives. Although the baking of a cake is generic, the details of the bunny cake are what make this recipe personal and unique to my family. Two nine-inch baking pans are filled with generic cake batter—any flavor you prefer but I would not recommend chocolate, since the cake emulates a traditional Peter Cottontail bunny. Once the separate cakes are baked to perfection, one is placed on a larger cooking sheet, covered in foil. The second cake is cut in half and reversed, to imitate perky bunny ears. Here comes the sweetest part: cover your bunny in white icing. Do not skimp on this part. The icing will act as glue for the bunny “fur.” Shredded coconut is copiously sprinkled on the bunny. It should look as fuzzy as a carrot-nibbler in a garden—no bald spots. Pink food die can be mixed in a separate, smaller bowl with shredded coconut. Sprinkle this pink coconut in the center of the ears and cheeks to create a blushing face. Place black jelly beans for eyes, toothpicks (or black Twizzlers) for whiskers, and draw a bunny smile with food gel.

Finished Product

Finished Product

I decided to try this recipe as a surprise for my baby nephew. At the time, he loved bunnies. This marked the first obsession in a long list of two year-old preoccupations: bunnies, trucks, bugs, and now deep sea creatures. I had always heard my mom fondly recall Easters in which the bunny cake was present. So, I wanted to give it a whirl. My mom and I worked together on it—two perfectionists in one kitchen leads to a pretty perfect bunny face. The foil around our bunny was then decorated with plastic Easter eggs and Easter grass. My nephew was doubly pleased to discover we had hidden candy inside these eggs, and that they were not only for display. Marveling in the success of this cake, I had an odd, maternal sensation. It was as if I had completed a test—am I now second-in-command, lieutenant of the household? I had shared an experience with my mom and aunt: a devotion to family and the happiness of the home.

To me, the bunny cake represents the love between generations of women in my family. I feel blessed to have such a close relationship with my mom, aunts, and Grandma. I mark the third generation, and I refuse to let the recipe fade. Aunt Donna baked this to make her family happy and to uphold the warmth of the house. I will do the same with my family for posterity. Of course, I wouldn’t be gushing over this silly little cake if it didn’t stand for decades of family history. Adopting the recipe honors 85 Henderson Street and the bustling family who once lived there.

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