Italian Cream Cake

My great-grandfather, William “Bill” McKinney, lived less than a tenth of a mile from our house, down our little gravel road in a rugged but sturdy little house on a small bluff overlooking Lizard Creek — the “creek” is actually more like a river, but what’s in a name? My two brothers and I were, naturally, closer to him than most great-grandchildren could be. I spent many a summer day, for instance, mowing his giant lawn and painting his old house (picture me scrambling down the ladder to escape the carpenter bees).

Paw Paw Bill lived a very quiet life, rarely extending beyond a 20-mile radius of his home in Springfield, Louisiana, where he hunted, fished, and farmed/gardened. His wife, my great-grandmother, Annie, passed away about a year after I was born. There’s a picture of me in her arms, but unfortunately I never really knew her. The picture is on their front porch — they each had their own rockers and whiled away the hours sipping coffee, him smoking camels, she swatting mosquitoes, and both of them watching down the road for approaching visitors (always family).

When Paw Paw Bill passed away in the early ninties, it sent shock waves through the family. He was quite the patriarch. My grandfather was his only son, but he and Annie had several daughters, scores of grandchildren, and countless great-grandchildren.

A few days after the funeral, my father and grandfather gathered me and my brothers together and walked us up to Paw Paw Bill’s house. There were some other distant relatives there, too. We waited outside the front door for a few minutes. Some of the relatives came out with their hands full of Paw Paw Bill’s belongings. I began to realize why we were there just as my grandfather said, “We’re gonna go in for a few minutes and ya’ll can each get one or two things that you want to keep.” Had it not been such a somber occasion, I’m sure that my adolescent excitement would’ve been more pronounced.

Once inside, it was clear that things had been picked over already. There were stacks of “forbidden” things that someone had ear-marked for themselves. What my brothers and I were interested in, though, were things that we forever associated with great-grampa. My little brother — who was great-grampa’s nearly constant companion in the last years of his life — took Paw Paw Bill’s old portable radio, for instance. Most of my experience with great-grandpa was work experience, incidentally. So, I had to think carefully about what I would take. It wasn’t long before I happened upon a table with a small stack of books.

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It was there that I found a treasure — one of my great-grandma’s church cookbooks. For those of you who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up knowing the significance of a church cookbook, suffice it to say that church cookbooks are like GOLD. They are the work of a community of women (and sometimes men) who pool together their best recipes to create a cookbook to raise money for their church.

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This particular book was made in 1977. Given the date, I have to assume that it was a gift from one of her daughters as Maw Maw Annie was not likely well enough to attend church regularly by that time. Still, the pages were pretty well-worn and there was even some handwriting inside — including some recipes written in by my relatives.

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I’ve treasured this cookbook, over the years. I love the extra goodies it has in it: advice for stain removal, nutrition advice, handy kitchen tips, home remedies, etc. I’ve only made a few recipes from its pages, but I plan to change that, now that I’m a more experienced home cook. By far, my most favorite recipe that I’ve tried has been the Italian Cream Cake, written by a lady named Josephine Kennedy (who I’m almost certain that I’m bound to be related to in some way, if not evidenced alone by the fat content of this cake).

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I first made the cake when I was a freshman in college. I brought it to an extended-family Christmas Dinner. People are still talking about that cake, so I can assure you that not only is the recipe great, it’s apparently sturdy enough to withstand an inexperienced, clumsy beginner.

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I’ve made a few edits to the recipe to accommodate the modern cook. Don’t bother trying to lighten the cake, though… I did make that mistake in later years. It’s a cake to make for a special occasion and it’s meant to be shared with friends and family. In fact, I most recently made this cake for James’ birthday.

I know someone will ask, “Flour in the frosting?!” Trust me… it works. I learned this from an Amish cookbook. A lot of homemade frostings have that pasty, overly-sugary taste about them. The cause is powdered sugar (which often contains an anti-caking substance like corn starch). If you use a little flour in place of some of the sugar needed to thicken the frosting, you counteract the raw taste of powdered sugar (plus you end up using less sugar).

Italian Cream Cake
Yield: 16 slices

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
2 cups granulated sugar
5 eggs, separated
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup chopped nuts, toasted (I use a mix of walnuts & pecans)
Cream Cheese Frosting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Coat the bottoms of two 9-inch or three 8-inch cake pans with cooking spray, line with parchment paper, and coat parchment with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Set aside

In another medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt.

In a large bowl at medium speed, cream together the butter, shortening, and granulated sugar until fluffy. Add egg yolks; beat until nearly incorporated. In three additions, add the flour and buttermilk alternately beginning and ending with flour. (I find it helpful to not fully incorporate the flour before adding the next addition of buttermilk.)

Using a mixing spoon or a rubber spatula, stir in the vanilla, coconut, and chopped nuts.

Add about 1/3 of the whipped egg whites and stir gently to incorporate. Add the next 1/3 and fold in very gently, being careful not to deflate the egg whites. Fold in the remaining egg whites.

Pour batter into the prepared pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Cake should spring back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted in the middle should come out clean. Cool for 10 minutes in pans on a rack, then remove from pans to cool completely before frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting

8oz cream cheese or neufchatel cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
3-4 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/3 – 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
chopped, toasted pecans (to taste)
whole pecan halves (for optional garnish)

In a large bowl, whip together the cream cheese and butter until completely smooth. Add the vanilla extract and salt; stir until incorporated.

Add two cups of confectioner’s sugar and 1/3 cup of flour. Stir until smooth. Add more sugar and flour as necessary (being careful to use more sugar than flour) until frosting is of desired consistency. This should make enough frosting to frost the top and sides of either 3 8-inch layers or 2 9-inch layers. Sprinkle the top of the cake with the chopped pecans and place the pecan halves along the bottom of the sides. (I find the pecan halves dress it up while helping you determine the proper serving size!)

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~ by Jason on May 26, 2010.

8 Responses to “Italian Cream Cake”

  1. I love this story, Jason! I can perfectly picture all those special moments your recounted. I feel the same way about my grandmother, and I have *many* of her church cookbooks and grange cookbooks (equally gold) on the shelf. And the flour in the frosting is a wonderful secret. In fact, I’ve never been able to really enjoy any frosting other than those made with flour because I grew up on it (lot of Amish heritage in my hometown). I’m thrilled to see that you’ve spread the gospel. 🙂 Lovely photos too with the book and glasses! Can’t wait for more recipes….

    • Thanks, Jennie. I was hoping that I wasn’t going on toooooo long before getting to the actual recipe! I imagined folks sitting down with a notepad to write down the recipe, but then finding themselves taking notes on my lineage and drawing out my family tree and finally realizing that they STILL didn’t have the recipe they were looking for!

      What is a Grange cookbook?

      • Oooh, you haven’t discovered Grange cookbooks yet? Time to go on the hunt, my renaissance man friend! I’m pretty sure each state has its own branch of the “Grange” which is an old-fashion homemaker and farmers social club that focused on lovely things like town square dances, all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts, quaint festivals, AND cookbooks. The cookbooks may very well surpass the church compilations because these are usually for the entire state so it was very important to only submit your best and the books are quite large and diverse. Here, I found a link for ya: http://www.illinoisgrange.org/

        I like the ones from the 50s and 60s because they are modern enough to follow the recipes easily but still old enough to have some nearly-lost gems to uncover. 🙂

      • Interesting… I’d never heard of the organization growing up in Louisiana. Naturally, in IL, they seem to be well to the south of us. I’ll have to see if I can uncover one of their cookbooks, though. Thanks!

  2. As Jason’s favorite aunt….aunt is the official title, favorite was added by me…lol. I watched him grow up and I too spent some time at the home of his Great Grandpa Bill. Affectionately know as Paw Paw Bill to some, and Paw Bill to others. It seems there were always things for the kids and I to do at Paw Bills. He even once had a baby deer at his home in a cage, and we got such a kick out of it.
    Now on the subject of the Italian Creme Cake, Jason brought it to one of our family Christmas dinners at my mom’s house, Maw Maw Vern to him. It was the BOMB…..and I mean AWESOME!!! Every year after that we hoped he would bring that if he came. I must say that I didn’t get to taste it again until may years later, but each time I have enjoyed it immensely!!!
    Jason did not get his culinary skills from me, as I do not LOVE cooking the way that he does. I am tempted however to venture outside my little box and try to make this cake one day. Now, while I have every intention of trying this task, it does not mean that I will ever actually get “around to it”. I will however put it on my “bucket list”, probably somewhere close to seeing the grand canyon and Niagra falls….lol.
    Thanks Jason for the memories of Paw Paw Bills house(no he wasn’t my Paw Paw, but everyone called him that). Thanks for sharing the recipe with us!
    Love ya much!

  3. Yep, you’s my favorite aunt! Getting compliments from you about my cake, that Christmas, really meant a lot to me.

  4. Hello Jason– While we have not met yet, I have to tell you how very special you are–I know this only from reading your blog–it is wonderful. I hope to meet you one day–! -Gina, friend of James (and former co-worker).

  5. Oh yes–and I know you are wonderful because you are married to James–and I loved your wedding blog and site, as well!

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