Pia Z. Ehrhardt’s hand-me-down coffee cake

My friend Pia Z. Ehrhardt first published in webzines. She quickly developed a legion of online fans and started winning prizes. Last year MacAdam Cage published her debut collection, Famous Fathers and Other Stories. At the moment she’s working on Speeding in the Driveway, a novel set in New Orleans, where she lives.

I’ve been hoping to bake and eat her coffee cake on a lazy, snowy Sunday, but I haven’t experienced one of those in a while. Moving, you know. Here’s the recipe, for those with weekends more tranquil than mine.

I grew up with a young, restless mother who had old ladies for friends, lovely women with good manners and coiffed hair who treated her like a daughter who could never get on your nerves. Both of my parents toured with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians after I was born, and when they came off the road and picked me up from my grandmother’s, we settled down in Minisink Hills, PA.

My mother would take me with her to visit Aunt Yvette, a friend-aunt and the wife of Fred Waring’s drummer, Poley. Aunt Yvette wore flowered dresses and her furniture was upholstered in chintz. Cut flowers from her garden filled vases: nasturtium, foxgloves, peonies, which my mother called Pia’s Knees.

Aunt Yvette sewed costumes for the Pennsylvanians and she taught my mother how to knit — a soft scarf and matching hat studded with a pompom, a mohair blanket to keep your legs warm while you read in the chair by the window that leaked cold air. She kept a crystal candy dish on the coffee table, within easy reach of a five year old, and her next door neighbor was Mr. Greenjeans from Captain Kangaroo, but I was too taken with him to make eye contact the few times he waved from his yard.

My mother had other friendships with older women, a rail-thin Israeli stewardess when we lived in Italy, a funny, fiery Parisian violinist when we lived in Canada, but I think Aunt Yvette came the closest to being the mother she hoped for but didn’t have. She seldom visited her own, but at Aunt Yvette’s she seemed calm, daughter-happy, like she was right where she wanted to be.

This recipe is for Aunt Yvette’s Mother’s Friend’s Coffee Cake. My mother wrote it out for me in her immaculate handwriting twenty-something years ago, before I married my second husband.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

1 stick butter
1 cup sour cream + 1 teaspoon baking soda (combine before adding)
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix the above ingredients together into batter.

1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons chopped nuts
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Turn 1/2 of batter into a greased layer cake pan. Sprinkle 1/2 of topping. Pour remaining batter over and sprinkle top with rest of topping.

Bake approximately half an hour in 350 degree oven.


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