My formal education began with all-day kindergarten in Hayward, Wisconsin, and continued through first grade in the same old building. After being shown the way a couple of times by my mother I walked the mile by myself and enjoyed the walks immensely.
When I was seven years old we moved out of the city about four miles to a small house that my father built. No long living in the city, I entered second grade at Blair School, the same country one-room school that my father had attended. Two facts about this school are pertinent when I consider my love of Grandma Rang’s boiled raisin cake. The school was only a quarter mile north of Grandma and Grandpa’s farm, and Winifred Larson, our school cook, resigned after my third grade year.
Mrs. Larson was a generous person and a great cook. She was also the dietitian and nutritionist. The food she ordered through the federal surplus commodities program turned into roast turkey, fried chicken, creamy macaroni and cheese and the most wonderful breads, cookies and cakes you can imagine. We had dessert with every lunch, but we also ate our vegetables. If we didn’t, Winifred made sure that we took home a note to our parents. I don’t remember the name of her replacement, but the food quality plummeted. The greasy hot dishes and store-bought bread quickly drove me to act.
When I asked my father if I could have lunch at Grandma and Grandpa’s, he told me that I could ask them. I decided to ask Grandma; Grandpa was a rather formidable figure with a big mustache. As I feared, she told me to ask Grandpa. Later I learned that even she asked Grandpa when she wanted to invite someone for lunch. But I was desperate, so I asked. And Grandpa said yes.
When I told my father he said, “He did?” I guess that Grandpas were just the same then as they are today.
Back then students had a full hour for lunch. As I recall Grandma’s lunches were not really very special, but there was always fresh bread with homemade butter that Grandma stored in a little cage that hung in the well. We had fried potatoes, sausage and cabbage and soup and a few times there was chicken and ham and baked beans. But almost every day lunch ended with a big piece of Grandma’s boiled raisin cake. With some sweet butter on top it made me feel like the luckiest kid in school.
My mother made it often too, because it was my father’s favorite cake. It has a unique texture and flavor that I think you will enjoy. Here is how to make it.
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup buttermilk (or sour milk)
3 cups sifted flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. salt
1 cup raisins boiled in enough water to cover
Sugar to sprinkle on top of the cake
Grease and flour a nine by thirteen-inch cake pan. Preheat the oven to 350º. Put the raisins in a small pan and cover them with water. Bring them to a boil and simmer them for about a minute. Cover the pan and turn off the heat.
In a large bowl, cream the sugar and shortening. Stir the egg into the sugar, then stir in the buttermilk. Put the flour and other dry ingredients into a flour sifter and sift by thirds into the milk and sugar mixture, stirring thoroughly after each addition. While they are still hot, pour the raisins with their water into the batter. Mix well and and spread the batter evenly in the pan. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of sugar over the batter. Bake for about 30 minutes. Check for doneness with a toothpick inserted near the center of the cake; if it comes out clean, the cake is done.
NOTE: If you don’t have buttermilk, put a tablespoon of vinegar in a measuring cup and fill it with whole milk. Let it stand for five minutes and use the soured milk to make the batter.