The Cake Lady

The legacy of a go-getting grandmother.

Yellow Cake with Fudge Icing
Yellow Cake with Fudge Icing
The key to making this cake's rich icing is to stir it vigorously once it has cooled to the proper temperature.Todd Coleman

The thermometer on the bank building in Anniston, Alabama, flashed 98 degrees, but inside Mama Clio's air-conditioned Mercury the air was cool and sweet. It was a Friday morning in August; the year was 1967. I sat in the front passenger seat in a pink lace dress, inhaling the scent of freshly baked pound cakes, caramel cakes, lemon cakes, carrot cakes, banana bread, German chocolate cakes, devil's food cakes with white frosting, and—my favorite—yellow cakes iced with chocolate fudge (see ** Yellow Cake with Fudge Icing**), all carefully stacked in the backseat.

Almost every Friday for more than two decades, my grandmother Clio Hilley loaded up her car and drove the 19 miles from her home in Heflin, Alabama, to the neighboring county seat of Anniston to deliver her weekly orders of cakes. A former school cafeteria cook, she'd always loved baking, and eventually she realized she could make a tidy sum selling her homemade baked goods. Her regular stops included the bank, doctors' offices, the courthouse, Moore's Business Forms, and Tyson Glass. The cakes sold for $2 for a pound cake and $4 for layer cakes; Mama Clio would snap open her red billfold and make change with authority. We grandchildren were always thrilled to come along.

Mama Clio would begin making the cakes on Wednesday. In the morning, she'd sift Softasilk brand cake flour and start mixing up her various batters in her Sears electric mixer, which was about as high-tech as her kitchen got. She measured ingredients with a coffee cup, beat egg whites by hand, and tested her fudge icing—made on the stove top, with cocoa, milk, and butter—by dropping a bit of it into cool water. If it held together, it was done. While the cake layers cooled on the kitchen table, my sister and I would sit on the porch with the used mixing bowls, scraping out the last traces of that rich, faintly savory chocolate icing.

Mama Clio was good with numbers, instantly figuring out how much butter, sugar, and flour she'd need to fill a week's orders. She didn't work from written recipes. She kept it all in her head. But eventually I wrote down the recipe for that cooked fudge icing, an old-fashioned topping for a yellow cake that is almost impossible to find nowadays—unless, of course, you make it yourself.