Stories about a tradition usually revolve around an annual event—something that brings the whole family together. In some cases, the only time a family comes together. I would say this story is about a tradition, but it’s more about the re-birthing of one. Lorraine Salvatori is the matriarch of my family, the only living grandparent. And I am her only grandchild. You could say I was spoiled when I was younger; she’d always make sure to have a toy for me, and give me lots of kisses, leaving red lipstick smudges on my forehead and cheeks. My grandmother is 82, and still makes sure every day that she looks good. Her jewelry must match, her lipstick must be perfect, and her eyebrows, of course, must be done. Tell her she’s cute, and she’ll tell you she knows. She’s always had a niche for crafts, or for perfection rather. Her small hands can master any and every detail: the most important, and most difficult, part of any creation. I hope to capture the essence of the moment my grandmother and I brought back a tradition from my childhood—a gift I never fully appreciated until now: My grandmother’s decorative holiday cakes. It began at my childhood home in Scranton.
“Is that my bunny cake, gramma?”
“Why, yes it is sweet pea!”
She shuffled through the door, purse on one arm, cardboard cutout in the other, balancing the famous Easter bunny cake. I was five and impatient, jumping up and down as she placed the cake on the dining room table. She knelt down to give me a kiss before taking a seat, the scent of her Ciara perfume mixing with the coconut confetti cake as the spring breeze came in through the window.
“Lemme see, Lemme see!”
“Well, c’mon up! Sit here.” She patted her hand on her thigh.
I climbed up into her lap, just big enough to be face to face with Peter Cottontail. He was the most perfect Easter bunny I’d ever seen. And he was even better as a cake because I got to eat him.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I managed to say, distracted by the thought of the taste. I dipped my finger in the icing, and licked it off. My grandmother giggled as she told me, “Stop that!”
The cake wasn’t a disappointment. It was as beautiful as I always expected her holiday cakes to be. A double layer—pink velvet with chocolate icing in the middle, made from scratch. The inside was not the most important part, though. It was the decorative style that made these cakes so unique. My Grandma Lorraine bought pliable baking sheets and bent them into shape herself, two trays for the ears and two trays for the head. The double layer cakes always gave her more wiggle room for embellishment. White icing sprinkled with coconut confetti to add texture, Hershey kisses for the eyes and insides of the ears (because she knew how much I liked to pick them off and eat them one by one), and my favorite, and most memorable part, of the Easter cake—red licorice for the whiskers. Peter Cottontail was more real to me in the form a cake than in the form of a man in a giant bunny suit.
“Thank you Gramma!”
“You’re welcome, sweet pea. I love you so.” She gave me an eskimo kiss as
I picked up two “whiskers” and handed her one.
“Now, don’t tear apart the cake before you actually have a piece.”
This wasn’t the first time I was so entranced by the candy details that I forgot about the actual cake. The Valentine’s Day heart cake, complete with red gumdrops around the border. The Santa cake, his big brown bag of presents sprinkled with chocolate shavings. The Snowman cake, accented with a red and electric blue scarf, always on ice skates. All cakes were precisely shaped with vibrant colors and sweets.
I could only imagine my grandmother in her trailer: bustling around the kitchen, surrounded by her knick-knacks, immersing herself in the idea of capturing the essence of the holiday. I was too young to bake with her, and as I got older, the baking of the cakes stopped. I’d ask my grandma about them in my preteen years, reminiscing on how those cake-sharing moments made the holiday. But yet, relocating and adjusting to a new school seemed to be more important. Next came my teenage years, I was too concerned with first boyfriends and homework grades to even ask. Then, off to my freshman year of college, a holiday cake still waiting to be made. These are all just excuses for something I should have done a long time ago.
Only recently have I found myself thinking about the process behind the cakes. When I was young, I believed my grandmother to be magical, and these cakes, well, simply appeared. They were effortless. Gramma Lorraine is still magical, of course, but her thoughtfulness takes dedication and energy. I decided a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t want to simply reminisce on the holiday cakes, I wanted to recreate those moments I was never able to experience with my grandmother. I am the only one who can pass on this holiday cake tradition. It had to be done as soon as possible.
I wanted to bake the famous Santa cake so my mother, grandma, and I went out to buy all the supplies. We could not find the Santa shaped tray my grandmother used to buy. We came to the conclusion that they simply don’t sell them anymore.
“Awe, that’s stinky.” My grandmother searched the tray section three times. “Let’s go back to my house. I have one I made somewhere.”
We took the drive to gram’s trailer. The geranium and hibiscus flowers were holding onto their last bit of color before the December frosts took over. We rushed inside to open the cupboards in the kitchen. We threw tray after tray onto the ground and the table trying to find Santa.
“He must be hiding somewhere deep.” My grandma let out a grunt as she pulled out Christmas tree trays, “But I have these!”
“Ah, a Christmas tree. How’s that, Leeshee?” my mom asked.
“Perfect,” I said.
We drove down dirt roads until we reached my parent’s house. Tucked away in the woods of Pennsyltucky, blue with a balcony, overlooking the lake. It’s far from, basically everything, but it’s worth the drive. My mom, grandmother, and I were all gathered in the kitchen. December was almost here, and Christmas music played from the old stereo in the dining room. We were here to bake a Christmas tree.
First thing’s first: make enough pink velvet cake batter to fill two trays. Cake mix, eggs, milk, and stir. Got it.
I watched as my mother and grandmother spread Pam around the trays with a paper towel. My grandma motioned towards me with her free hand,
“Want to put some flour in there, honey?”
I took the flour and sprinkled in into the trays. My grandmother stopped me. “Now this.”
She took the trays and turned them sideways, tapping the bottom, to get the flour in every nook and cranny. Full coverage is important; don’t forget the nooks and crannies.
We poured in the pastel cake mix. My grandma smoothed the batter to perfection, into every curve of the tree tray.
“Gotta do this or we will have a sad tree,” my grandma said with a wink. The three of us helped to put the trays in the oven.
“Alright, that’s lovely!” my mom said.
I whisked my grandmother away and began slow dancing with her and serenading her in the dining room, although my backup vocalist, Dean Martin, was doing a better job. My mom joined in, and we were three-generation soul train.
Once the cakes were done baking, we opened the oven, and my grandmother stuck a toothpick into the delightfully rosy trees. She looked up at me, and presented the toothpick.
“If there’s a piece of cake on the toothpick when you take it out, they’re not done.”
We observed the clean toothpick, and moved the cakes onto a tray.
While the trees cooled, I asked my grandmother about her experiences with the cakes she used to make and how much I enjoyed them.
“You was just little, ya know? You would kinda just look, and smile.”
“Well Gram, thanks for being here with me now to make one.”
“Oh, it’s my pleasure. Mhm, I love to do it. Grandpa Chuck told his friends about them at work one day, and his one friend liked, uhm, big boobs, ya know? And he wanted me to make a cake for his birthday. And I thought, well, I don’t know about that.” She let out a chuckle while rolling her eyes.
Grandma Lorraine has a heavy Scranton accent. I misheard her and asked,
“A boot cake?”
“No. Boobs!” she said as she cupped her own.
“Oh my god,” I said.
“I said no at first, but then I thought, well alright. And I made it and it turned out good!”
“What did it look like?”
“Well, she had big lips and long eyelashes. I gave her brown curls for the hair.”
“What about the boobs?”
“I made two round trays and coated them with peach icing”
“And what about the nipples?” I asked.
“I used two little cherries. Mhm, it turned out nice!”
My mother and I exchanged glances, and we all began to laugh at the thought of such a proper lady making such a pornographic cake.
My grandma got up and felt the bottom of the trays. “They’re ready!”
We all got to mixing food dye into the white icing and separating the candy beads by color. My grandma spread chocolate icing on the first layer, and gently tapped the second layer out on top.
“How about instead of just spreading the green icing, we use a different tip on the tube to give the tree texture, like you did with the other cakes?”
“Oh! That’s sounds great, Alicia.” She nodded her head and hummed along to Silent Night.
As I worked on bringing the Christmas tree to life, my grandma took Ghirardelli square chocolates, stuck them together with chocolate icing, and stuck them in the bottom of the tree for the trunk.
“Wow, gram that’s a great idea!”
“I know,” she said.
Once the green tree was done, we put white icing on the sides, to make the green really pop. My mother, grandmother, and I stood over the cake, each tackling a separate area. I had a struggle getting the icing to evenly coat the curves of the tree, so I tried my best, and my grandmother took over, filling in the spaces. I was amazed with her finesse. Even in her 80s, she makes sure to give extra attention to the missing pieces.
I began placing the candy beads on the tree for the garland. My grandma stayed close by my side to guide me. She gave me her most important cake decorating advice,
“Be careful where you place things. The more you try to fix it, the worst it will get.”
She knows my need for perfection. I accidently dropped a bead out of place, and as I went to pick it up, she said “Leave it!” This was something she repeated to me throughout my decorating to encourage me, and keep me letting my anxiety take over.
“Done!” The white, pink, red, and silver candy pearls were shiny and vibrant against the green of the tree.
I chose to do bows instead of ornaments because since I was a child, we placed red, cloth bows all around the Christmas tree. My grandma wears bows in her hair everyday as well, so I felt it was only fitting.
I tried one out on a piece of paper, and thought it looked alright. Unfortunately, I didn’t take into account that I was putting icing on icing, and things got messy. The tube I was working was flimsy, but it had the smallest tip for details like this. The green and red icing started to mix together. Brown globs began to appear. My bows were turning into a disaster.“Stop that!” My grandma came over to look at the bows, “They look fine!”
“No, they look like poo.”
“Alicia!” My mom stopped her cleaning and threw the rag on the counter.
“I don’t mean that, I’m sorry. Can we fix it?” My mom came to the rescue with a knife and slowly scraped off the bows.
“Now, try something else,” she said, wanting to avoid another episode.
My stubbornness got the best of me. I didn’t say anything, and began the bow process again as my grandmother placed red candy beads alongside the cake into the white icing.
“Oh, they look like holly berries!” Pausing for a moment, I giggled and said, “Ha, Halle Berry.”
“Halle Berry!” My mom exclaimed as my grandma sat there in confusion.
We decided together to place a glittery, plastic poinsettia (one of my grandmother’s favorite flowers) for the tree topper. When the cake was finished, I couldn’t look away from its vibrant green branches and intricate designs. It was both festive and edible.
I couldn’t even fathom cutting it open and eating a piece, but then I remembered the joy my grandmother always got from watching me as a child scarf down the holiday cake, icing stuck in my hair and all over my fingers. My grandma, mother, and I danced around the dining room, hugging and cheering as if our favorite team just won the super bowl.
I thought in that very moment that my choice to leave Kutztown and come back home to be with family was the right decision. My grandma and I gave each other a kiss, and made plans to bake a Valentine’s Day cake.
At the beginning of this cake-decorating endeavor, I believed I was recreating a memory. But after the cake was baked and the icing spread, I realized that memories can’t be relived, they can only inspire. I baked this cake with my grandmother, not to dwell on my childhood memories, but to use those memories to inspire a new tradition. My own tradition, inspired by the most wonderful person in my life.
I sat on my grandmother’s lap in the dining room chair, my head now far above hers instead of face to face with the cake in front of us. I gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“Thank you, gramma.”
“Mhm, I love you so.” She wrapped her arms around my waist and starting humming to me.
I smelled the scent of her perfume, always the same since I was little.
“I love you so.”