Today would have been my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary. Mom and Dad — Maria and Phil — were married on June 9, 1956 in the little Catholic church right across from the St. Clair River in the village of Sombra, Ontario. Their wedding photos always looked so glamorous to me: my mother was young and beautiful, only three days past her nineteenth birthday, and her dress glistened; my father, eight years older, had movie-star good looks.
The photos don’t tell the whole story, of course. Photography was black and white back then, so we can’t tell that the bridal dress was turquoise satin instead of the white that Mom had wanted. Her parents, being practical and not-so-well-off immigrants, insisted on a non-white dress, so she would be able to get more use out of it in future. I wonder if she ever wore it a second time, even though it was blue. The dress is long gone, but I still have the headpiece that she wore, a scalloped headband festooned with small pearls and mother-of-pearl sequins. I can’t bear to part with it.
As for my Dad, you won’t guess it from the photo where he looks suave and confident, but he actually passed out during the ceremony and had to be revived with the only water available: holy water. I suppose that made their union extra blessed.
Mom and Dad’s marriage endured 47 years, until Dad’s death in August of 2003. After Mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 2013, I had their wedding photo colourized to match a sample of fabric she had given me once, saying that it was the same shade as her wedding dress. When I gave her the retouched photo as her last Christmas gift from me, she wept.
I only know my parents’ marriage as an outside observer, albeit a close one. I know they had their good years and their times of strife, but there seemed to be more of the former, especially after my brother and I flew the coop (yes, they were chicken farmers). I know that when it came to running the farm and making life decisions they acted as partners. Mom was high-energy, creative and a perfectionist; Dad was laid-back, appreciated quality and liked to nap. I’ll never forget Mom telling me a few months before she died how, when Dad was no longer able to go to the monthly dances at the Canadian Belgian Dutch Club in Sarnia, they would play the old waltzes on Saturday nights and dance around the kitchen. I think that’s one of the most touching things I know about my parents.
One of my treasured possessions is a china plate that Mom and Dad received as a wedding gift. The stamp on the back says it’s ‘Tuscan Fine English Bone China,” in the pattern “Gardenia” and made in England. I have no idea if it’s valuable in any commercial sense, but it’s dear to me. As I wrote in On Ephemera and Eggs, Mom used that plate to serve company for as long as I can remember.
I think it’s only fitting that today I share a recipe for a cake that Mom often made, also for as long as I can remember, although I can’t recall the last time she made it. It’s called Queen Elizabeth Cake. Its origins are a bit mysterious; it may have been created for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, but there’s also speculation that it might have been first made in honour of the coronation of her father — King George — and the Queen Mother Queen Elizabeth in 1937. You would think that, given its reasonably recent history, the details would be a little more clear. At any rate, you can read more about this cake here.
It was a fitting cake for Mom to make. She was born in 1937, the year of King George’s coronation. More significantly though, Mom was fascinated with the visits of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to Canada in the later 1950s. Mom made a large scrapbook of magazine photos from the tours. When I was a young girl I used to get it out of her closet and pore over it — such regal glamour, such couture! After Mom died two years ago, I looked for that scrapbook, wanting it as a memento, but it seems she no longer had it.
At any rate, it makes sense to me that the Queen Elizabeth Cake was apparently very popular in Canada in the 1950s, and that my mother would have adopted it as one of her signature dishes.
It’s a straightforward and simple recipe: a date cake with a coconut topping. I first made it a couple of months ago, following the recipe exactly, and then remaking it with a couple of tweaks. I substituted coconut sugar for the white sugar, bringing a deeper, more caramel-like flavour. I also doubled the butter (!), but the amount is still within the realm of modest. One of my cousins told me she makes this cake each year for her sister-in-law’s birthday, and that she uses whole wheat flour, so I tried that change as well, with success.
My favourite part of the cake as a child (and still today) is the coconut topping. I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve thought about that topping off and on throughout my lifetime; that’s how much of a treat it was. Lightly broiled, it’s slightly chewy and I’ve always thought of it as like candy. You’ll see that in the photo of the single-layer cake the topping is quite a bit darker than in the other photos. It tasted good, but the problem was that it was almost too hard to cut without squashing the cake. The second time I made the cake, I broiled the topping only until it was starting to turn golden. It was still wonderfully sticky and chewy, but far more accommodating for slicing.
I may make this cake again soon and serve it on the china plate, in honour of Mom and Dad. My kids won’t want to eat it (they don’t care for dates or coconut), but I know they’d love to sit at the table and reminisce about their beloved Metje and Petje.
Queen Elizabeth Cake
© Marlene Cornelis, Urban Cottage Life.com, 2016
I don’t know where my mother found this recipe, although I imagine she clipped it from a magazine or newspaper in the 1950s. She gave it to me, neatly typed out on a recipe card, for my own collection. Like many of our family recipes, it doesn’t include details like the pan size — some things were apparently just understood. I’m sharing it here as I’ve adapted it.
Note: I use Sayer dates for this recipe. I would guess that Mom used something similar, but possibly drier. At any rate, the Sayer dates work fine. I wouldn’t use Medjool dates for baking — Queen Elizabeth Cake was intended to be an economical cake, so that degree of splurge isn’t necessary.
This recipe makes one 8-inch cake or a two-layer 6-inch cake. Prepare the pan(s) you are using by buttering and flouring them, then placing a parchment round in the bottom. Pre-heat the oven to 350℉.
Queen Elizabeth Cake
- 1 cup dates, pitted & roughly chopped
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1-1/2 cups all purpose flour, sifted (if you substitute whole wheat flour, add the bran back after sifting)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 cup coconut sugar
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 5 tbsp butter
- 1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
- 3 tbsp heavy cream
- (optional) 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Place the dates and water in a small pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low with the lid on a slight angle for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda. The mixture will foam up as you do so. Set aside to cool while you work on the cake batter. (The date mixture can be lukewarm or cool, but not hot when you add it to the batter.)
Sift the flour into a bowl and stir in the baking powder and salt. Set aside.
Cream the butter, then add the coconut sugar and cream on medium high speed for about 5 minutes. Scrape the bowl during this process. Add the egg and vanilla and mix until incorporated, scraping the bowl once.
Add one-third of the flour mixture and half of the heavy cream alternately, stirring on low after each addition, and scraping the bowl once or twice.
Now add the date mixture to the batter. Stir for a few moments on low, then remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in with a spatula until evenly distributed.
Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan(s) — if making two 6-inch cakes, ensure the batter is divided evenly between them. Smooth the top and tap the pans sharply on the counter once or twice to release any air bubbles.
Place the pans on the centre rack of the 350℉ pre-heated oven and bake 35 minutes for a single 8-inch layer or 30 minutes for two 6-inch layers. The cake will have risen and browned nicely, and will be pulling away from the edges. Use a tester to ensure the cake is done.
Remove the pans from the oven and cool on a rack for 5 minutes or so, and then turn out onto the rack. Remove the parchment paper. I like to turn the cakes right-side up (carefully!) to complete the cooling. (Note: Mom’s recipe says to pour the topping over the warm cake. I tend to let the cake cool first, but it’s good to know you have this option.)
To make the coconut topping, pre-heat the broiler. Put all the ingredients except the nuts in a small pot and place on medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar and butter are melted, then bring to a boil for three minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the nuts if using. Pour over the cake, using as a filling and topping if making a 2-layer cake. Spread to the top edge of the cake.
Place the cake (or the top layer) on a sheet pan and put a few inches under the broiler for just 2 to 3 minutes, or until the mixture is just golden. Watch it like a hawk — if the topping gets too dark it will harden as it cools and be difficult to slice through. For a 2-layer cake, place the layer with the broiled topping on the bottom layer and filling.