I rediscovered this recipe from my great-great-grandmother thanks to a bit of internet serendipity.
It started when my boyfriend, browsing the New York Times for cake recipes, came across a recipe titled “Grandmother Raver’s Cake.” He pointed it out to me because I have the same last name.
Reading the article, I realized that I knew the author, Anne Raver, who is my grandfather’s cousin. The farm with the black walnut trees that she describes in her article is the same farm where my grandfather grew up, and her grandmother, Grace Raver, is also my great-great-grandmother.
I’ve only met Anne once, on a trip back East to see the family farm when I was six or seven. Although I was extremely shy as a kid, I remember liking Anne right away. This was partly because she was very nice and friendly, and partly because I had recently discovered Anne of Green Gables, so meeting a red-haired writer named Anne who lived on a farm seemed like a dream come true. Of course, I never got the chance to meet my great-great-grandmother Grace, who passed away long before I was born. I am thankful that discovering Anne’s article and recipe has helped me learn a little bit more about her.
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to black walnuts fresh from the tree as my great-great-grandmother did. On the other hand, I also don’t have multiple children and grandchildren to do the work of shelling them for me, so perhaps that’s a good thing! Store-bought black walnuts work just fine in this recipe.
Grandmother Raver’s Cake (as given by Anne Raver):
- 3 large eggs, room temperature
- 3/4 cups shortening, room temperature
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 1/4 cups flour
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 2/3 cups milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup black walnuts, ground or finely chopped.
- Beat eggs to creamy fullness. Cream the shortening and sugar. Add eggs, beating all to smoothness. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together 3 times.
- Heat milk with vanilla to wrist temperature. Add alternately with flour, using spatula to blend all smoothly.
- Turn a mixer on high, and beat 1 minute. Without stirring, pour mixture into a well-greased floured tube pan. Bake one hour at 350 degrees.
Anne’s recipe doesn’t specify exactly when to add the walnuts; I assumed it should be between step 2 and 3, after the flour and milk have been added but before everything is beaten for one minute. There is also no indication of what, if any, toppings my great-great-grandmother would have used. I opted for a simple dusting of powdered sugar on top.
Since the original recipe was handwritten with no date, it’s difficult to know exactly how old it is. The use of shortening suggests that it is most likely from the 1920s or later, when shortening became more popular. The instructions to use a mixer also indicate 1920s or later, when stand mixers would have become more widely available in homes. On the other hand, it could’ve been an older recipe which Grace adapted as shortening and electric mixers became available.
This is a wonderfully light, moist, fluffy cake. I had thought that the instructions to sift the flour three times and to beat everything repeatedly sounded a bit fussy; but if that’s what’s necessary to achieve this texture, it’s definitely worth it.
I had never tried black walnuts before making this cake. I tasted one raw before I started baking and almost changed my mind about putting them in the cake; it tasted incredibly strong and bitter, and the aftertaste lingered long after I had eaten it. Once baked in the cake, however, the walnuts are much milder and give the cake a nice earthy flavor. I do think it’s a good idea to either grind the walnuts or chop them as fine as possible, so that they are evenly distributed throughout the cake. Any large chunks will still have a stronger taste when eaten.
I often feel the need to experiment with recipes, but there is absolutely nothing I would change about this cake. My great-great-grandmother Grace evidently knew what she was doing.
Raver, A. (2002, Nov. 28). Nature; First, drive your S.U.V. over 1 cup walnuts. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/28/garden/nature-first-drive-your-suv-over-1-cup-walnuts.html