There's no secret to this Happiness Cake
My Aunt Betsy's carrot cake-poppyseed bread hybrid is perfect for birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas or Tuesday, but it's not really about the cake, is it?
Do you have a favorite cake? A cake your oldest kid requests at each birthday? A cake whose recipe you’ve memorized because you’ve made it so often?
I’ve written about so many story-rich cakes like this over the years, including the coffee cake that starred in Monday’s newsletter or the family lemon poppyseed loaf known as “moosebread.”
But today’s dispatch from The Feminist Kitchen is a slightly different confection, one that requires pumpkin puree and boxed cake mix and that I’ve eaten three times in less than a month.
It’s what my Aunt Betsy calls “Happiness Cake.”
“We call it that because Betsy likes to make it, and Chris likes to eat it. Also, it has sherry in it,” she tells me.
But I think there’s something else at hand.
This cake is versatile. It can be baked into cupcakes, a sheet cake, a Bundt cake. It can be made with regular yellow cake mix, spice cake mix or even carrot cake. You can add sherry or Grand Marnier or skip the poppyseeds if you want.
It’s the kind of cake that you can make using ingredients you find at a convenience store the night before Christmas.
It’s the kind of cake that changes each time you make it.
It’s the kind of cake you share with family members who have gathered from half a dozen states for a first-of-its-kind Thanksgiving reunion.
Chris and Betsy, who live in San Diego, hosted an epic gathering this year in Southwest Missouri, not far from Aurora, where Chris (and I and my mom and my sister and their brother, Curt) all grew up. (See “Class Reunion: The Podcast.”)
They rented an AirBnB for this feast, and although we had more desserts than we could possibly eat, the Happiness Cake was the one I made sure to pack up for our road trip home.
It has the flavor of spice cake with the texture of a tres leches cake but without the leches. The pumpkin and sherry make you forget you’re eating a cake from a mix, and the pudding. Well, let’s just say that I will no longer be snubbing cake recipes that call for boxed pudding.
I’ve never seen a recipe that calls for 1/3 cup of poppyseeds, which I really liked in Betsy’s original cake, so if you’re not into poppyseeds, just skip ‘em.
But that’s all yadda yadda yadda — make this cake or don’t. Skip the sherry or double it. I say that you’ll be happiest if you make the cake the way you like it.
Because we all know that food and recipes are portals to tell other stories, I want to make sure I get to the nugget of what I think this cake is really all about.
I lived with Chris and Betsy for two summers during college (so I could intern at the NPR station in San Diego — what a gift they gave me all those years ago), so you’d think I’d have had this cake before, but I don’t remember it.
What I do remember is how hard both of them were working then. My cousin, Nick, was still in high school, and Betsy was the principal of a middle school, where she had to be the disciplinarian, the inspiring leader and the cruise director who kept everything running on time and under budget.
She’d already earned the title of Dr. Cook by this time, and my uncle would follow her a few years later by pursuing his own PhD in musicology.
He’s a professional organist taught hundreds of kids piano, organ and voice lessons over the years, in addition to leading church music programs throughout San Diego County and performing at places like the famed Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park.
What a fun job, right?
Nobody says that about being a middle school principal.
Betsy would be the first to say that she wasn’t drawn to her career in education administration because it was fun, but she made it fun. Even when it was hard. She was the first to volunteer for something goofy if it meant getting her students to participate. She hosted end-of-semester celebrations for the teachers and somehow managed to deal with all those parents who cared too much and who cared too little.
I saw how stressed all of this made her.
She didn’t have the energy to cook, much less bake, at the end of the day.
But I’m sure at some point, she discovered this cake made from a boxed mix that her son and her husband loved. She could make that without adding any stress/drama/decisions to her day.
When I was a little kid, I got to know Aunt Betsy as an accomplished artist, maker and craftswoman. We’d weave or paint or make paper crafts any time we visited them in California.
As a college student on the cusp of adulthood, I got to know her as a top-level administrator who carried the burden of all that power.
Betsy retired a number of years ago, and she’s back to those maker roots.
She spends her days toiling in her studio, making quilts out of old ties or using old sheets to make rugs on her loom. She teaches batik to anyone who wants to learn and makes hand-stitched dolls for the young children in her life.
I really loved hearing Betsy’s humor and wit in the recipe she shared below, so I left all of her comments about how she changed the cake for this year’s Thanksgiving and her tips on putting it together.
And don’t get me wrong: It’s an amazing cake.
But knowing that she’s spending this chapter of her life indulging in the creative part of herself fills me with more joy than any cake possibly could.
Dr. Cook’s Happiness Cake
To be honest, I never made this version of a Happiness Cake before, and I don’t usually frost the original version. I only frosted this one because I was using someone else’s Bundt pan, and Chris convinced me I should also flour the pan, which I did against my better judgement. This resulted in a powdery exterior to the cake that didn’t suit me, so I pretended like I knew how to make frosting. Ask Nick sometime about my great frosting debacle of his youth, and you’ll know I was taking a BIG risk here. But, hey, what’s Thanksgiving if not a time to increase the anxiety level by taking chances in the kitchen!
— Betsy Cook
1 box yellow cake mix (or carrot or spice cake!)
1 small box instant vanilla pudding
1/3 cup poppy seeds
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup sherry (Walmart didn’t have any sherry, but Sis said GaGa had a little bit in the cupboard, so I just guessed that the pumpkin puree flavor would make up for the missing booze. Grand Marnier would have been good, too, but Walmart didn’t have that, either)
1 (15-ounce) can of pumpkin puree
Prepare a Bundt pan by making sure all the crevices are coated with a slick substance. I have used sprayed oil or a paper towel with butter or Crisco. Doesn’t matter what it is, just make sure everything is well greased (sounds like a life lesson, huh?).
Put all the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and — wait for it — mix it up.
Whisk together all the wet stuff. Incorporate the wet stuff into the dry stuff and mix it up using a spoon or an electric mixer until it looks like a giant pudding with freckles.
Stick your finger in it and taste it. This is wrong on so many levels, but you know you’re going to do it anyway, so why not make it a step?
Pour that baby into the Bundt pan and spread it around to make sure everything is even.
Put it in a 350-degree oven for 60 minutes. Check it for doneness using your favorite method (toothpick test, bounce back method, etc. I usually just yell at Chris to come and tell me if he thinks it is done).
Let it cool enough to handle the pan, but don’t wait to too long to remove it from the Bundt pan onto a cake plate, because even though you greased it up really well, sometimes there are hiccups and you end up making a trifle instead of a cake.
Cream cheese icing:
1 package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup softened butter
4 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
For the frosting: Wait until the cake is completely cool before you frost it. You’re going to want to use a stand mixer for this, but with tenacity you can mix it by hand, too.
Whip the cream cheese and butter together. Add the powdered sugar, vanilla and salt. You want the texture to be fluffy and spreadable, so add more powdered sugar if you need more volume.
Pile it all on the top of the cake and then use the back of a spoon to ease it down the inside and outside of the cake. Et, voila!
— Betsy Cook
Two cake posts in one week! I promise I don’t have another cake story on the horizon, but I hope you’ve enjoyed these newsletters as we approach the holiday break.
Readers know that I often squeeze in a little news or some extra photos at the end of each Feminist Kitchen newsletter, and both of these pics are tied to Betsy. (She’s going to blush with all this attention, but it’s well deserved.)
In the top photo, my mom keeps warm with the baby quilt that Betsy made for me way back in 1983. The quilt still gets much love in our house, especially during the winter months, and now that I’ve become a quilter myself, I appreciate this not-so-little project more and more with each passing year.
And finally, a photo of Betsy and me, from 2015, when my mom pulled out my old Raggedy Ann doll that she made for me thirty some odd years ago. We were all gathered for my grandmother’s 85th birthday, and it was the last time we were all together and she was in good health.
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It’s been so fun to drop these pretty little cards in the mail to folks who are curious about having their first tarot reading or who want to dig deeper into their own spiritual healing journey with someone like me.
What exactly do I do in these tarot readings?
If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you know how much ancestry and grief work has shaped my life over the past 10 years, and I bring a lot of that to my tarot readings. Tarot isn’t therapy, and isn’t fortune telling, so I’ve started explaining what I do as a reframing, so, getting a new perspective on something that’s nagging you or new insights into something you didn’t even realize was percolating under the surface.
Maybe that helps give you a sense of what I do when I’m not writing this Substack or consulting with food companies or running my kids all over the city.
What a beautiful life.
I hope yours feels beautiful today, too.
Looking forward to connecting over the holidays and into the new year.