Hobbit Seed Cake & Baking to Laugh
The Family That Laughs Together … um, Laughs Together
I’m grateful my family never took ourselves too seriously. Until we did. Then we fell apart.
Dad was a sweet, laid-back guy, except when intent on fulfilling the abstractions the world foisted on him. Mom would tell me stories about him growing up, and of course those tales made me laugh. But sometimes it was a nervous laugh, like the ones she told of when he was a late teen and young adult. They were so different from the times when he did his best to be the manly husband and father. He couldn’t help from cracking a smile and ushering a long “Ummmmmm” in the back of his throat till one of us cracked up at him.
It Was in Papa’s Genes, I Tells Ya!
I never knew my paternal grandfather, who died of a massive heart attack some six years before I was born. Long after Mom and Dad divorced, Mom still still talked affectionately about Pap Otis, my Dad’s dad.
“Oh, your grandpa was such a sweet man. Nothing ever seemed to get him down!” Mom would say.
“He was always happy-go-lucky, even though he worked hard for the railroad through the Depression to make a home for Grandma Gert, your dad, and Uncle John. And your dad and John would mercilessly make fun of him! Why, not too long after your dad and I were married, we were staying one night at your grandparents’ place. Pap Otis loved his cake doused in milk! He’d even sleepwalk to get it in the middle of the night. Well, your dad and John were up late, bullshitting and laughing in the living room, when they saw Pap Otis stumble to the kitchen in his pajamas. They snuck me to the edge of the kitchen with them, to watch Pap Otis, fully asleep, eyes closed, pull from the fridge Grandma Gert’s chocolate cake, cut a piece, plop it in a bowl, and pour milk over it. Then he stood by the open fridge, spooning down the whole thing, all the time, your dad and Uncle John slapping my arm and snickering at their father!”
Mom went on. “I couldn’t see what all the fun was and smacked them back! ‘Why don’t you two idiots let your dad be and enjoy himself!?’ I whispered.
“‘Enjoy himself?’” they asked. “‘Norma, he’s not even awake!’
“Sure enough, Pap Otis would finish his cake, put the bowl in the sink, and stumble back to bed, none the wiser to your dad and John snickering behind him all the way to the bedroom.”
Not Sleepwalking Through Bullshit
Our family laughed like that a lot. We had small tolerance for bullshit. It wouldn’t take long for one of us to burst into guffaws at the ridiculousness of the others.
I’m told that, as a toddler, I had some quirks in my accent, hovering between an Italian patois and Pittsburgh-cabbie dialect. Every night when my parents put me to bed, I commanded them to “Tro-up da covers!” meaning to pull up the blanket over me.
One night in bed, Mom complained to Dad about being cold, and he looked at her and said, “So? Tro-up da covers!”
Distracted Enough to Spit
My dad was a spitter, but we owned no spittoons. He didn’t do snuff or chewing tobacco. He just didn’t like swallowing his loogies, I guess. Routinely, he’d waltz to the bathroom toilet, lift the lid, and hock-tooey into it. But he’d get easily distracted, one time scuttling into the bathroom while Mom brushed her teeth. To Mom, it didn’t sound like the usual ploip of a loogy into the toilet.
“Otis?” she asked Dad as he trundled to the hallway, “Did you just spit into the clothes hamper?”
Dad came back into the bathroom, looking at her like she had three heads. Then, he opened the hamper to see for himself.
He looked up at her. “Yeah, I did.”
As I grew up, my choice of friends confirmed this self-idiocy. One of the favorite junior-high pastimes for me and Bob Lombardo, was to do improv over a cassette-tape recorder. One of us would flick it on, with no plan in mind, and take on a character, do an impression, sing a song, and expect the other one to follow along, crafting an improv skit.
The funniest recordings were the ones where we sounded like total buffoons—two morons trying to be something we weren’t, but acting like we were dead serious. For instance, I turned on the recorder and said in a radio-crackly voice, hand cupped around the mic, “Space Station, this is Houston *BZZSTTTZAT* Do you read?”
Bob hopped right in.
“Roger that, Houston *KSZTTTZAT* We have reached optimal orbit. Ready for your instructions. Over.”
“*CRZATSKRKL* Roger that,” I returned. “Space Station, report findings of monkey experiment. Over.”
(We loved putting the other one on the spot, having to think up something, anything, to stay in-time and character.)
Wearing the look of a deer in the headlights, Bob soldiered on.
“Uh, Houston. *PAUSE TWO BEATS* Uh, Houston … erm … monkey floated.”
That is all.
With an upbringing and friends like that, I’ve never been able to sustain over-seriousness … unless it was for abstractions I held sacrosanct.
And I Do NOT Hold Baking Sacrosanct
No. Baking is a playpen, a sandbox, a ball pit. It’s the opposite of an endeavor; it’s a place to romp in for a while, goofing and trying earnestly at the same, without the demands of our goal-driven American work ethic. The only bottom-line I have in baking is scraping the bottom of the pan while something cooks, to save myself later scrubbing.
Looked at this way, baking is a bottom—not reached by incongruity, as is humor. I start at the bottom, say, with a recipe I haven’t tried before. And feeling like a deer in the headlights, I, with no plan in mind, take on a character and improvise. I record the results in tastebud memory, eating mistakes and successes. It’s the place, the zen comfy chair, where I best learn. Baking heals me to be me.
Unexpected-Party Hobbit Seed Cake
Prep Time: 15min Cook Time: 35-45min Total Time: 1-1.5hr Difficulty: Medium Servings: 8-10 slices
Bilbo Baggins makes seed cakes on the regular. It’s part of what’s baked into him as a hobbit. Bake this goodie into your soul.
9.5in-dia x 2.5in-depth (23x6cm) springform pan
Stand mixer w/ bowl and whisk & beater attachments
Med mixing bowl
Baking thermometer, w/ probe Wire rack
Airtight container (for storage)
1C (200g) unsalted butter softened (2 sticks)
1C (180g) granulated (caster) sugar
3 lg eggs, beaten
1t vanilla extract
2C (250g) plain flour
1T milk powder
1t baking powder
pinch sea salt
1T caraway seeds
1⁄4t nutmeg, ground
1⁄4t ginger, ground
1⁄4t cinnamon, ground
1-4t turbinado sugar
1a. Preheat oven to 325°F/160°F (350°F/180°C, High Altitude).
1b. Oil springform pan and line with parchment paper.
2. In stand mixer bowl at high speed (KitchenAid 8- 10), whisk butter and sugar till fluffy.
3a. Lower mixer speed to med (KitchenAid 4-5). Scraping sides between additions, add one egg at a time, fully combining each egg before adding another.
3b. Add vanilla and brandy, mixing till combined.
4. In med bowl, sift in flour, then add other dry ingredients, hand-whisking till thoroughly combined.
5a. Change mixer attachment to beater.
5b. With mixer at low speed (KitchenAid 1-2), gradually add half of dry mixture to wet mixture, till combined.
5c. Slowly pour in remaining dry mixture. Don't over-mix, as baking powder is starting to do its thing; you don't want to beat the air out of the batter. Batter should be thick, but not doughy.
6. Tip batter into pan, scraping into pan any excess from sides of mixer bowl.
7. Sprinkle turbinado sugar over top of poured batter.
8. Bake 50-60 min, till internal temp is 206°F (97°C) or toothpick poked into middle of cake comes out clean. (The seed cake should be mystically golden brown.)
9. Set out 5 min to cool, then release springform and grip parchment paper on opposite sides to remove seed cake and finish cooling on wire rack (15-30 min).
10. Divide into pie slices and serve. Store leftovers in airtight container. Freezes well in cling film or airtight silicone bag.
 Funniest, at least to me. Pam was mystified as to where the comedy was when I later played them for her, though our kids got the joke … erm, till they hit a normal age of emotional development, like, um, seven.