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Having Your Cake and Giving It, Too

There are people who accept gifts graciously, no matter what may lie under that heap of ribbon and wrapping paper.

My late-Mom was not one of those people.

My siblings and I joke that whenever we gave my Mom a gift, we braced for what would come next.

She’d pull the present out of the box, inspect it thoroughly, turning it this way and that, before putting it back down. She’d furrow her brows, and hem and haw that we shouldn’t make such a fuss. Then, she’d flat-out say, “Don’t spend your money. I don’t need anything. Here, just take it back.”

Sigh. Once again, after my brothers and I had wracked our brains to come up with what we thought was the perfect gift, my Mom would burst our bubble.

It’s not that she meant to do so. It’s just that Mom was being a mom.

When I was little, I would save my quarters and dollars to go to the store to buy my Mom a card and a tiny box of See’s candy or a Walt Whitman Sampler for her birthday or Mother’s Day.  I do believe I remember her smiling, too, whenever I presented them to her eagerly in my outstretched arms.

The irony, of course, is that once I got to be an adult and could afford to buy her much nicer gifts — such as clothes or jewelry — she didn’t want them.

For years, I was downright perplexed by that until I realized the lesson she was teaching me. For her, it truly was the thought that counted. As long as you remembered her with something as simple as a phone call or note, that’s all that mattered. She didn’t need anything beyond that to know that you cared. Everything else was just superfluous.

That hit home after my parents both passed away four years ago, and I found tucked away in a drawer, every card I had ever given them since I was a child. Some were hand-drawn, others store-bought. But there they all were, stored away like some precious treasure worth more than any fancy cashmere sweater or snazzy electronic gadget ever could be to them.

Even though she’s no longer with me, I still think of my Mom each and every Mother’s Day. That’s why I couldn’t resist making this simple “Coffee-Orange Angel Food Cake” in her honor. The recipe is from the new cookbook, “The Fearless Baker” (Little, Brown and Company), of which I recently received a review copy. The book is  by San Francisco Pastry Chef Emily Luchetti of Farallon and Waterbar restaurants, and Bay Area food writer Lisa Weiss.

I even baked it in the shiny angel food cake pan that used to belong to my Mom.

This light-as-air cake is flavored with instant coffee and orange juice, both of which I remember my Mom sipping every morning at our kitchen table.  It’s a simple cake, with sweetness and subtle bitterness, unadorned except for maybe a fluff of whipped cream, if you like.

It’s a cake for times when you want to make a gesture, but not a grand one, just to say that you remembered.

Made in a hand-me-down pan with ingredients already in my fridge and pantry, it’s one gift that I think even my Mom would have sweetly approved.

Coffee-Orange Angel Food Cake

(Makes 1 cake, serving 8 to 10)

Emily Luchetti and Lisa Weiss write, “Don’t grease the angel food cake pan or use a nonstick pan because the cake needs the ungreased sides to stick to as it rises)

1 1/4 cups cake flour

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons instant coffee granules

12 large egg whites

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

Grated zest of 2 oranges

2 1/2 tablespoons orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Over a bowl or piece of parchment, sift cake flour in a sifter or in a fine strainer by gently tapping your hand against the edge. Add salt and coffee granules. Set aside.

Put egg whites into a clean, dry, large bowl and, using a stand or hand mixer, begin beating on medium speed until frothy. Add cream of tartar and increase mixer speed to high. Slowly add sugar in a steady stream. When the egg whites have reached a stiff, shiny peak that looks like thick marshmallow fluff, decrease mixer speed to low and mix in orange zest and juice.

Add half of the sifted flour and, with a rubber spatula, fold the flour into the whites until they’re almost but not quite completely combined — you still want to see some streaks of flour. Add remaining flour and finish folding it into the whites so that the mixture is thoroughly combined and no pockets of flour are visible.

Using a spatula, drop big scoops of the batter evenly into a removable-bottom angel food or tube cake pan. Gently smooth out the top of the batter. Lift the pan up a couple of inches from the counter and let it drop to get rid of any air pockets.

Bake until a bamboo skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Turn pan upside down onto its “legs” or invert over a wine bottle and let the cake cool completely. To remove the cake from the pan, use a serrated knife and move it in a sawing up-and-down motion along the inside of the outer edge. Holding the pan by the tube, lift the cake out. Next, “saw” along the bottom surface to release the cake from the pan entirely. The can can be made 3 days in advance and kept at room temperature wrapped in plastic.

To serve, cut cake with a serrated knife using a sawing back-and-forth motion. Serve each slice with a dollop of whipped cream, if you like.

From “The Fearless Baker” by Emily Luchetti and Lisa Weiss

More Emily Luchetti Recipes: Lemon Squares

And: Gingerbread with Warm Apples and Cider Sabayon

And: My Q&A with Emily Luchetti