My grandfather passed away the weekend before last. At a loss for what else to do, I decided to bake a cake in Grandpa Bill’s honor. He had a sweet tooth like his granddaughter.
You would have liked him. “Well, hi there,” he would say, reaching to shake your hand with a chuckle. He had a deep baritone voice that rumbled, burnishing each word with warmth, tobacco, and a touch of the South.
He and my Grandma Sarah, who survives him, weren’t what you would call home cooking enthusiasts. Instead they were the regulars at restaurants who the owners and wait staff knew by name: “Mister Bill! Miss Sarah!” Waitresses would circle like seagulls to keep Grandpa’s mug topped off with diner coffee. He could drink five cups of black coffee in a sitting, any time of day.
“If cigarettes and black coffee got me through World War II, three children, and a half-century of marriage,” he used to say. “They can’t be all bad.”
All told, it was 64 years of marriage, which is so beautiful it makes me cry.
Writing this post, I found myself wondering: Who was he before he was Grandpa? I visited him last month and heard him say, once more, how full his life had been. But in truth I know only a patchwork history of stories from around the dinner table.
He was one smart cookie. An only child from southeast Georgia, he enrolled at Georgia Tech at age 16 and served in the Navy. By his early twenties he had earned a PhD in electrical engineering and become an associate professor. Later, he worked for prominent aerospace and defense firms and supported the Apollo Space Program.
I picture him in the early days of his career like the young engineers in Mission Control in the movie Apollo 13. Short-sleeved dress shirts and skinny ties, black-rimmed glasses and neatly parted hair, all smoking like chimneys. Which is somewhat ironic given that Grandpa Bill was known for walking out of movies he deemed historically inaccurate. He would have spoken with a Georgia drawl, not a Texan one.
He and Grandma Sarah introduced my brother and I to roots unfamiliar to us: Our distant cousins in their hometown of Jesup, an hour and a half drive from Savannah. The white sand and Spanish-moss-draped oaks of St. Simon’s Island on the Atlantic. The bizarre world of Okefenokee Swamp Park and its alligators named Oscar near the border with Florida. And of course, Southern cooking replete with hushpuppies, grits-n-cheese, sour cream biscuits, and boiled peanuts. So it seemed only appropriate to bake a good old-fashioned Southern pound cake.
This is a family recipe. The citrus twist is a tribute to the orange grove that stood in my grandparent’s acreage in Yorba Linda, California, where my dad grew up. I remember my grandfather happiest walking his malamute, Timber, between the sweetly smelling orange trees.
So humor me: Slice a thick piece and ignore the calories. Just don’t forget the black coffee.
Clary Citrus Pound Cake
3 cups of cake flour
½ pound of butter
3 cups of sugar
½ pint sour cream
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
zest of 1 orange
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Cream butter; add sugar, ¼ cup at a time and beat until light. Add eggs, one at a time, then add the sour cream. Sift the flour with the baking soda and add to the above mixture. Add vanilla and orange zest and beat for 2 minutes. Pour into a lightly buttered and floured angel food cake pan or loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes until a toothpick come out clean. Optional: Frost with orange glaze (see recipe below).
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tablespoon frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
Mix all ingredients together well. Add more confectioner’s sugar or orange juice to make the proper consistency for a barely pourable glaze.