In my memories of Christmas in Alabama, of smacking my brothers in the head with cardboard wrapping-paper tubes while playing our new Xbox games, there’s always a half-eaten plate of my grandmother’s orange butter coffee cake, stray pecans clinging to the glaze.
Coffee cake is a staple of Southern Christmas—something to munch on while opening gifts around the tree—and Caroline Darden’s recipe was local legend. She would spend all Christmas morning baking a dozen pans for friends and neighbors, plus a few more for her grandkids to graze on. It wasn’t Christmas tradition so much as Christmas backdrop, like three-flavor popcorn tins or Home Alone 2—it was always just sort of there. Until it wasn’t. Eventually, we all grew up, moved across three different continents, and then, when December rolled around, noticed a warm, sticky, nutty, citrusy gap in our hearts.
By then, the exact origins of the orange butter coffee cake had been lost to my grandmother’s dementia. My grandfather (who was about as welcome in his wife’s kitchen as a pigeon in the Louvre) remembers eating it in the early days of their marriage, which makes the recipe at least 60 years old. According to my mother, my grandmother found the prototype in the pages of some old cookbook, or maybe a magazine, probably opposite an ad for Rinso Soap.
I’ll never know for sure, but I imagine my grandmother in her spotless kitchen on a cold, wet Alabama winter day, KitchenAid stand mixer at the ready, wondering if this magazine recipe could be improved if she got rid of the coconut it called for, maybe added a few pecans instead. I imagine her giving those first batches to friends and neighbors, wondering if they would remember to return the crockery. I wonder if she knew that she would be tinkering with it for years, then baking it every Christmas for six decades—and that her children’s children would absently munch it while swatting one another with cardboard tubes.
And I wonder what she would think of her grandson, on a cold, wet New York winter day, standing in a kitchen the size of a pizza box, flattening dough with a wine bottle because he couldn’t find the rolling pin. I wish I could have called her and asked if the dough would take longer to rise in a chilly room, or if I’m supposed to crush the pecans even though the recipe doesn’t specify. Instead, I have to wing it, and I’m sure my first attempt is a cheap forgery at best. But when I finally take it out of the oven, drizzle over the orange juice glaze, and take that first bite, all I can think is, “god, it’s just like Christmas.”