My dad was always called by his middle name, Dale. Yet, he was known by another name in print and sometimes even in conversation – H. Dale. I don’t know how many people ever asked him what his first initial H stood for, but one person’s interpretation of it provided the title for one of my favorite cakes and a story from my childhood that I annually revisit by making that cake.
Martha, a farmer’s wife, lived back in the hills on a goat farm. Her face was round and dark brown eyes watched from behind her glasses. Soft, white hair covered the top of her head and her movements were quick and efficient. She was strong and self-sufficient and a smile always played around the corners of her mouth. On occasional Sunday afternoons my dad would accept the invitation to bring his family to join Martha and her husband for Sunday dinner. By the time we arrived, Martha had fried mountains of freshly cut up chicken, was ready to mash the potatoes, and had just taken out of the oven the cake that always met us on these visits. From the produce of her own land she put into the cake apples, black walnuts, eggs, and “figs” made from Roma tomatoes grown in her garden and dehydrated on sheets of paper underneath her kitchen sink. This cake was baked with ground cinnamon, allspice, and cloves – the perfect autumn apple cake. She made it especially for my dad and developed a moniker to suit the occasion. She called it Hurry Dale Cake – because she said he was always in a hurry. Yet, on those sunny afternoons, he was anything but in a hurry; happy might have been a better name for the cake. Sometimes before the meal I helped by picking and shelling sweet peas from the garden, but we children pretty much were called upon to stay out from under foot of Martha and my mother as they finished preparing the meal. Afterwards, we each took a wedge of that spicy apple cake and went exploring, following the sounds of the bells tied around the goats’ necks, dipping our feet into the icy creek water that encircled the farm, climbing the rocks and hills like the goats who led us on our merry chase. When we returned to the house for more cake, or perhaps some of Martha’s home-made horehound candy, we’d see our parents uncharacteristically relaxed, resting in the cool, lengthening shadows inside the house, enjoying the hospitality of their two very special hosts. No telephone. No television. Just the richness of kindhearted generosity spilling out of two very large hearts too small to contain all of the love they shared with each other.
I sometimes feel that I live a million light years away from my childhood home. It’s silly to think that way about a place that is more about a time in my mind than a location on a map. I can cross the distance that separates me physically from that place within a matter of a few hours, but it is not the same. Still, I go there to remember the way life should be, the way I thought it was, the way I experienced it, the way I want it to be. Every year I make a Hurry Dale Cake in the fall and bring to life again the joy of those Sunday afternoons. That cake is very nearly like the accident of something sacramental that, by the anamnesis of this ritual baking, imparts the same grace bestowed upon me and my family as the sharing of it from the bounty of Martha’s goodness those long years ago.
HURRY DALE CAKE
Preheat oven to 350
2 cups peeled and diced apples
1 cup granulated sugar
1 and ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup cooking oil
In a bowl, cover apples with sugar. Set aside until syrup forms. In another bowl, sift the dry ingredients. Blend the egg and cooking oil and add to the apples. Stir in the dry ingredients until thoroughly blended. Pour into oiled 8-inch square pan. Bake for 30 minutes. Vary by adding nuts, raisins, dates, figs, coconut, etc., to your taste.
NOTES: I use cut up dried figs or when I don’t have them prunes. I substitute pecans for the walnuts. I am very generous with the spices and highly recommend Vietnamese cinnamon for a robust flavor. You may frost this cake, but I find it quite sweet enough without any toppings. I like to make ahead, cut into squares, and individually wrap in plastic wrap to preserve moistness.
This amazing Martha accompanied her husband, when they were quite young, to homestead the farm where we encountered them in their elder years. When they first arrived on the rocky hillside, he was delirious with a prolonged fever. Martha tended him in his illness and dug out the foundation of their house, tending their small start of livestock and putting out the first crops all by herself, bringing in the water from that cold spring before they had a pump, chopping wood for fire, and laying by for the coming winter. She was quite learned in natural remedies as I recall. And as sweet a person as you could hope to meet.