The Irish in America


Day 20 of Irish American Favorites: Ma’s Spice Cake

I don't claim to be a food stylist!

I don’t claim to be a food stylist!

It may not look like much, but boy, nothing beats Ma’s Spice Cake. It was one of the few recipes in my grandma’s book attributed to a specific individual. “Ma” was my great-grandmother Mary “Minnie” Foley McMahon, first generation Irish American. If you follow the blog, you have met her before – click here to learn more about Minnie.

One bite of this cake and I become a time traveler. I imagine myself in Minnie’s kitchen about 100 years ago, sitting at the big farmhouse table enjoying a a piece of her spice cake warm from the oven. The combination of cloves, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice taste like the “old days” to me. The cake is dense and moist, made with molasses and buttermilk. It is chock-full of nuts and raisins (Grandma said Minnie sometimes included or substituted dates) and finished simply with a sprinkle of sugar, Ma’s Spice Cake is perfect for dessert or with a cup of coffee or tea in the afternoon. It is delicious with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a dollop of whip cream, or if you are my grandma, a spoonful of Cool-Whip.

Over the years, my mom and I struggled to recreate several of my grandma’s recipes. Don’t get me started on the “soft ball” stage! There are a few items that just never quite turn out. When Grandma was still with us, we were forever trying to get her to get her recipes down on paper. She was vague about measurements, temperatures, and times. “Add enough milk until you can handle the dough” and “Cool until you can bear your hands on the pan” and “Bake until golden” are typical instructions from Grandma. We wanted so much to learn her secrets and bake just like her.

The funny thing is, I bet my grandma did the same thing with her mom. The recipe for Ma’s Spice Cake is written in my grandma younger hand and is so precise. I can hear her asking Minnie, “But how much ginger, Ma? A teaspoon? More? Less?” I am sure Grandma faced the same challenges as my mom and I did in trying to get accurate recipes in order to make beloved items on her own.

Minnie and her children, 1915

Minnie and her children, 1915

Ma’s Spice Cake is one of my favorite recipes from of my Irish American family. It’s amazing to think about all of my relatives who have loved it as much as I do. Click here for pdf of Ma’s Spice Cake.