The quest for Grandma's cake

Matriarch left a sweet legacy but no recipe, so our food writer looks for clues in the past.

Staff WriterJuly 24, 2011 

I never knew my Grandma Weigl. She had a stroke when I was 5 and died a few years later, without ever recovering the ability to walk or talk.

She was a legendary matriarch, her life the classic immigrant tale that defines so many American family histories.

In our family lore, she is remembered as a woman of amazing energy and determination, a meticulous housekeeper, a prodigious cook and a talented and skillful baker. Her porcupine cake is a vivid taste memory for my father, who's about to turn 80, and for the past few years, I've tried to find and re-create the recipe as a gift to him. Grandma's porcupine cake was an almond-flavored confection with nine layers and a coffee-flavored buttercream frosting. Toasted slivered almonds stuck out from the frosting, hence the name.

My father, George Weigl, last ate this cake in 1979, when my grandmother made it to celebrate my brother's high school graduation. He first tasted it in the 1950s, when he was on leave from the Navy, and she made it for him.

Before that, Grandma only made the cake for the woman for whom she worked as a cook and nanny, who would order it for card parties. My father and his sisters would lick the spoons. The ingredients cost $6 and my grandfather only made $60 a week, so it was too expensive a treat for the family.

My aunt, Margaret Cronin, once tried to make the cake but it was so difficult and took so long that she never tried it again. Aunt Margaret hasn't found the recipe, so I've been trying to re-create it based on my father's and aunt's descriptions. Along the way, I've learned a lot about my grandmother.

German heritage

Anna Pfennig was born in Germany in 1907. Her family lived in Munnerstadt, a small Bavarian town. At age 19, she attended a Catholic vocational school for poor girls who were trained to be cooks, nannies and maids. A school photo shows her among a dozen or so girls holding platters of baked goods. On the back, she scrawled: "In remembrance of when I learned to cook."

She went on to work as a chambermaid at a hotel in nearby Bad Kissingen, a resort town whose healing waters drew czars, emperors and kings from across Europe in the 1800s. It amazes me that she saved enough money to immigrate to the United States, but in 1927, when she was 20, she told her father she was going to Pittsburgh, where a great uncle lived. At first, he forbade it, but when she told him she'd go anyway, once she was 21, he acquiesced.

She found work as a nanny and a cook for a well-to-do family who owned a department store in Braddock, Pa., then met my grandfather through the German community in Pittsburgh. They married in 1930 and had four children, a boy and three girls.

My grandmother was a force. She canned a bushel of peaches the day she gave birth to her fourth child. One weekend, when she came to watch my three older siblings while my parents went out of town, Grandma Weigl had them tear up carpet on the stairs, chop down a tree in the backyard and clean the house. In the 1940s, my grandfather opened a tailor shop in Perrysville, a northern suburb of Pittsburgh. Every morning, Grandma would join him there after she'd started dinner preparations. She would become as accomplished a tailor as he, and my grandfather would say about her: "She can outwork me any day of the week."

Her energy didn't wane even she was into her 70s. My brother recalls her climbing ladders to paint the house and wash walls - the last time at 73 and a few weeks before she had a stroke.

Many Grandma Weigl stories are about cooking. My brother talks longingly about her nut rolls. My cousins and aunt talk about the care packages she would send at Christmas, filled with nut horns, snickerdoodles and iced walnut drop cookies. My father remembers that she would go through 25-pound bags of flour and sugar baking for the church's annual sale.

The cake quest begins

When I began my porcupine cake quest, I thought Grandma must have learned this recipe in the United States, and I chose a baking powder-leavened cake and a frosting made from powdered sugar and butter. Too heavy, my aunt said when she tried it. I got a new clue when my mother stumbled upon a recipe in an Austrian cookbook for "hedgehog cake," a small sponge cake topped with a coffee-flavored frosting and spiked with toasted blanched almonds. The recipe was brief and not my grandmother's nine-layer affair, but it gave me some direction.

I decided that Grandma's culinary training in Germany may have been more sophisticated than I had thought, so I started experimenting with sponge cakes, leavened with eggs and a favorite among German bakers.

After several unsuccessful attempts, I spent an afternoon with Wake Technical Community College pastry instructor Caralyn House. She showed me how to make a perfect sponge cake, weighing the ingredients for accuracy, whipping the egg yolks and whites separately and then combining them. She taught me how to cut straight cake layers; I hope someday I can cut nine layers with a knife or by using fishing line, as my grandmother did.

Then we tackled the frosting. We made a French buttercream, which requires streaming soft-ball-stage sugar into whipped egg yolks and then folding in butter. It was an almost mousse-like frosting and seemed closer to what my aunt had described. Later, I found a buttercream recipe in a German cookbook using the same technique, which confirmed the choice.

I made my latest version of the porcupine cake for my parents during their visit to Raleigh for Father's Day. My technical skill isn't anywhere near my grandmother's. I have yet to cut more than three layers from a sponge cake. I can't seem to get the frosting to emulsify correctly. Despite those failures, my dad's verdict was: "That's very close."

I'm relieved to be on the right track, but I'm not settling for "close." I'll keep baking, and I'll keep tweaking. The porcupine cake may be an impossible dream - how can one person really understand what something tastes like to another, and how do you measure love?

But it's one delicious way to do something special for my father and to honor Grandma Weigl. I think she'd be proud. or 919-829-4848

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