How disheartening and defeating is it when your own mother laughs then lightly dismisses your secret, chosen, dream profession? I knew in my eight year old heart-of-hearts that I was meant to be a nun. I had a serious girl crush on my Saint Anthony catechism teacher, the young and beautiful, hip Sister Cathy, and I was going to be just like her. Down to her cream colored habit, I too would have a glossy, black rosary swinging back and forth from my waist as I quickly made my way to…. oh, I don’t know…. vespers? And I would look just like Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story”. Yes, I was ready to give my life up to our Lord and look good doing it. So when Mama laughed in the kitchen and pooh-poo’d my top-secret confession I was astounded and overwhelmed. How could Mama discount my desire so lightly? Mama… who, my entire life, maintained we could do and be anything we wanted with hard work, perseverance and a few phone calls to the right people. Straight away she understood my sincere sadness, that she had hurt my feelings and knelt down in front of me. Cupping my face in her hands, she smiled and sweetly suggested, “Cielo, I know you love Sister Cathy. Why don’t you bake her a cake?”. I recall thinking, “Okay. I can do that!”. I had never baked a cake in my life but I thought of it as a simple undertaking, much like pouring a bowl of cereal or making a sandwich…I mean, how hard can baking a cake be? I took down Mama’s one cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, flipped over to cakes and began perusing. I wanted a cake that was rich and it HAD to be exotic. After all, if it was to be for Sister Cathy it had to be exceptional and flawless. And I had found it. Banana Cake. In retrospect I probably decided upon that particular cake because while we never had chocolate in any form, we always had bananas. We also lacked butter but that was easily replaced by the oleo margarine Mama used and although I had not the time nor the patience to let it soften to room temperature I felt certain that if I just beat the margarine harder the cake would be just fine. For some unknown reason we had flour in the pantry and it truly is a small wonder as Mama never baked nor fried. I quickly discounted the baking powder and baking soda called for in the recipe not knowing their purpose. Besides, we didn’t have any. We had plenty of eggs, milk and sugar and, quite frankly, I felt that was all that was needed. And it was perfectly fine that we didn’t have measuring cups or spoons because at such a young age I didn’t know those things existed and, anyway, what difference could they make? I used tea spoons, soup spoons and Mama’s formal, china tea cups for measurement. For those of you who don’t know, Mama didn’t know how to cook or bake but she could dress an exquisite table. No. Cooking and baking were overrated in her world. There was always someone to do that for her and if not, well, you either ate the charred, black food she had prepared or you went to bed hungry. It’s your choice. Not knowing any better, ingredients which were to be at room temperature were incorporated ice cold. Flour and sugar were not leveled and I didn’t feel the need to mix the ingredients in the suggested order. They were all going to end up in the same pan, right? I remember cold, pale blobs of margarine suspended in the weighted batter. The recipe clearly stated to be gentle with the batter and only stir in the ingredients until they were just incorporated. But how would I get rid of all the lumps if I didn’t beat it? Arms flailing, I beat that batter until I no longer had life in my arm and into the oven it went. In one pan. Because we didn’t have cake pans. We had one pan. So although it was meant to be divided into layers it was baked in.one.pan. “It’ll be fine.”, I thought. Clearly I had tired of that chore and only wanted to get my beautiful creation over to Sister Cathy. The cake finally finished baking and although it smelled wonderful it was so dad gum heavy I could barely pull it out of the oven. It had browned nicely but with no leavener never rose. Breaking off a tough crumb I tasted it. The cake was flat tasting…and kind of salty. It was a disaster. And I didn’t care. Looked good, though, so maybe the inside was okay? I’ll never know but I’m pretty certain that cake was an inedible, culinary catastrophe. I couldn’t wait for it to cool; I had to see my girl crush. I danced with excitement. I knew this cake would open her eyes to the perfect miracle of ME and she would favor me above every other classmate. Mama called the rectory or the convent at Saint Anthony and was told Sister Cathy was at the parish school taking advantage of Saturday hours, alone, doing busy work in her classroom. Mama drove me over; the church and school only minutes from our house. I sat with the leaden cake in my lap, the hot plate slowly burning through to my thighs as I looked out the window and felt my shyness take over. What if Sister Cathy didn’t like it? What if she didn’t like ME? Oh, those “what ifs”. They have plagued me all my life. Being the weekend, the school was deserted, Mama and I walked through the courtyard and I called for my heroine. It was hot, and muggy out, the plate was so darned heavy and the heat radiating from the cake had turned my small hands red. Looking up to the second floor of the lovely Spanish style building I could see into her classroom but no Sister Cathy. I called and called as I liked but to no avail. I put the cake on the ground. I picked up a rock. And then this tomboy whipped it at her classroom window. Well, that got her attention! Her window popped open and out came her head looking for the hoodlum, the rabble rouser who was throwing rocks. Her angry face melted into a sweet smile when she saw it was me… just a student, a little girl. “Sister Cathy! I have something for you!”. She hurried downstairs and met me outside. She was so kind and gracious with me. She pulled me close, her eyes sparkling, as I explained I had baked this cake for her…and no one else. Earnestly I urged her to keep it for herself, not to share it with ANYONE! Can you imagine? Advising a nun not to share? Ha! She probably took my advice as I imagine the cake probably tasted beyond awful. Sister Cathy probably didn’t share it because it was inedible! It didn’t occur to me to ice it. Or follow the recipe. Bleah. But she knew I adored her. All the girls and boys did. I believe she was only in her mid to late 20’s but she had such grace and love for us all, far beyond her actual age. She made us want to be the best little Catholics we could be. And today, 50 plus years later, I am eternally grateful. Wherever you are, Sister Cathy, we were blessed to have you!
Like most baked goods containing bananas, this cake is best baked when the bananas are really ripe. Certainly not rotten, but good and ripe; yellow with lots of little, dark speckles. And, as with all cakes, the less you mix the batter, the lighter and more tender the final product. The consistency of the icing depends on the moisture content of the pineapple. I like a loose, somewhat runny icing so I pressed and pressed the juice out of the fruit through a sieve. If you prefer a thicker, more dense icing then you would need to squeeze all the juice out through a clean, linen kitchen towel. The excess juice may be frozen for future use.
BANANA CAKE yield: two 8-inch layers PINEAPPLE ICING
Sour Cream Banana Cake with Pineapple Cream Cheese Icing
yield: two 8-inch layers