a grandma-inspired cake

Memories, nostalgia and food are a theme in my life. I’ve written about food memories many times here. The taste and smell of food can bring back memories not just of eating food itself, but also of place and setting. For me, food is an effective trigger of deeper memories of feelings and emotions.  

Today’s post is about my friend Shannon’s experience with her grandma, a cocktail and a cake. Her story is a perfect example of how food and memories can be so intertwined. Shannon is a friend I met while living in the Bay Area, and she’s someone with whom it’s hard not to be impressed. Shannon is one of those people who seems to be able to do it all, and do it well. She grew up living in many different countries, she speaks multiple languages, is a fantastic cook, and is an excellent entertainer and hostess. Despite her international upbringing, she’s wildly loyal to her Wyoming roots — in a big way. Because of Shannon I know random trivia about Wyoming. Did you know that the tallest building in Wyoming is only 12 stories and there are only two escalators in the entire state? Well, thanks to Shannon, now you can impress people with Wyoming fun facts.

I first started talking to Shannon about her Harvey Wallbanger cake after she returned from a trip to visit family in Wyoming a few years ago. I was intrigued by the cake itself, and I could tell the cake was special to her in many ways. After Shannon’s grandma passed away, it seemed like a good time to talk to her about sharing this special cake with people outside of her family.

This Harvey Wallbanger cake is light, bright and a perfect dessert for spring and summer. It’s also a great complement to brunch or afternoon tea. Below is Shannon’s story of the Harvey Wallbanger cake.

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Many of my memories of my Grandma Patsy revolve around food. I remember learning how to make her flaky, lardy, ‘never-fail pie crust’ for rhubarb custard pie. I remember listening to the sizzling of her pot roast as it got the perfect brown sear. Even today, several years since she’s been gone, cracking open a treasured jar of her tangy relish brings her right back to me. Given all of these cooking-related memories of my grandma, it’s only fitting that my guest post on a food blog would have to do with her. However, what we’re talking about today is actually not one of my grandma’s classic recipes – it’s a more recent family tradition based on her favorite cocktail – a drink that evokes spring and sunshine, with a twist of something unique. Just like my grandma! 

During my junior and senior years of college I spent several weekends a month with my grandma. I would drive up to her place Friday afternoon after class, and go home Sunday night after we’d finished watching the afternoon sports (usually our mutual favorite, the Denver Broncos). The weekend after my 21st birthday, as soon as I walked through my Grandma’s door, she said, “It’s time to celebrate – go to the closet and get my bottle of Galliano!” Sure enough, tucked behind the winter jackets, was a tall, strangely-shaped bottle of yellow liqueur in a cardboard box with a picture of an Italian soldier on the front. Now, I don’t know what the college drink of choice is these days, but this was the early 2000s, and the only adult beverages I’d known until that point were Mickey’s, Jagermeister and the occasional bellini when I was feeling classy. So Galliano took things to a whole new level!

For those of you unfamiliar with this ’70s era liqueur of choice, it’s sweet but not too sweet with a touch of spice, and has notes of anise and vanilla. I wouldn’t drink it straight, but as a floater on top of something citrusy, it adds a hint of complexity. My grandma, as I learned that day, always kept a bottle of Galliano for when she was in the mood to celebrate, or to reminisce about her glory days. The most well known Galliano cocktail, the Harvey Wallbanger, is about as seventies-tastic as you can get: vodka and orange juice, a float of Galliano, garnished with orange and maraschino cherries. We had a few that weekend after my 21st birthday, and my grandma’s favorite drink quickly became one of mine.

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About a decade later, much of my family and my grandma’s best friends were gathered for Easter. My Grandma hadn’t been doing well, so in the back of our minds we knew it may be her last. We all wanted to make the most of those days and have as much fun as possible. True to form, we had been drinking Harvey Wallbangers throughout the weekend. While we were planning out Easter dinner, Grandma had an idea. Tucked at the bottom of her Galliano box was a small book of recipes. It included a recipe for Harvey Wallbanger cake – a perfect Easter dessert! The only trouble was the recipe called for ‘orange cake mix’ and ‘boxed vanilla pudding.’ We knew we could do better if we upgraded to real ingredients! Some internet research and the trusty King Arthur Flour website turned up a recipe my grandma approved. She supervised every step of the way – instructing me on the nuances of greasing a bundt cake pan and on how to get the cake out on the other end (patience – let it cool!) The result was a delightful bite of springtime – bright orange flavor with Galliano shining through to add depth. The whole family, kids included, could now enjoy Grandma Patsy’s favorite Harvey Wallbanger. A tradition was born!

I’ve made this cake every Easter since. It’s a great way to welcome spring and to remember all those who bring fun, sunshine and a touch of spice to our lives.

Harvey Wallbanger Cakeinspired by Grandma Patsy and adapted from King Arthur Flour website

1 3/4 cup sugar

1 stick butter, room temperature

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons vanilla

4 eggs

3 cups flour

3 tablespoons cornstarch

4 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 cup orange juice

1/4 cup Galliano liqueur

1/4 cup vodka

1 tablespoon orange zest

Confectioners sugar for topping

Sliced orange for topping

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Directions 

  1. Grease and flour a nine-cup bundt pan. Preheat oven to 350.

2.  In a mixer, beat together sugar, butter and salt. Add oil, then vanilla, then eggs one by one, mixing well.

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3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch and baking powder.

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4. In a small bowl, mix together orange juice, Galliano, vodka and orange zest.

5.  Add 1/3 of the whisked dry ingredients to the sugar/butter mixture and beat well. Add 1/2 of the liquid mixture to the mixing bowl, beat well. Repeat, adding 1/3 of the dry ingredients followed by the liquids.

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6. Beat well, about 1 minute.

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7. Transfer to prepared bundt pan and smooth top.

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8. Bake for 45-50 minutes. Cake should be golden brown. Let cool in pan for 20 minutes.

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9. After cooled, turn the cake out of the pan onto a serving plate.

10. Top cake with sifted confectioners sugar and sliced oranges.

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6 thoughts on “a grandma-inspired cake”

  1. I grew up knowing Patsy. We lived on neighboring farms. She was a fun person with an infectious laugh. She cut and permed our hair. I babysat her children and loved her to pieces. She was special to me and my three siblings and later became a favorite person of my youngest son who worked with her at the Holiday Inn. I didn’t know about her taste for a Harvey Wallbanger, but now that I do, I’ll mix one up in her memory and even bake a cake to share with my family. Thank you for sharing. Thank you, Patsy. 🙂

    1. Such a sweet comment, Karen! Thank you! Grandma Patsy was indeed special. I hope you enjoy the cake (& the Harvey Wallbanger!) 🙂

  2. I began making this cake soon after I was married in 1974, and shared the recipe with my mom. Patsy and Mom became friends when they went to high school together in Harrisburg, Oregon, in the 1940s–I would love to think the recipe went from me to Bunny to Patsy to her girls!

    1. Very true, Anna! I’ve always associated Grandma’s love of Harvey Wallbangers with your mom! (The “reminiscing about her glory days” I mentioned in the story definitely always included stories about Bunny!) 🙂 I didn’t know the cake recipe came from you & her also! How special!!

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