"I'd baked my special spice cake, Anne's favorite."
It's funny how those we've never met can move us, I thought this morning, as I brushed back a tear after reading Miep Gies's obituary in the New York Times. Back in my high school theater days, I had played Miep in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank, and ever since then, I've felt a curious kinship with her.
Already in her thirties when she hid Anne Frank and her family from Nazi discovery, Miep survived the occupants and the other protectors of the "Secret Annexe" by decades. Every now and then I would look her up, ask Google whether she was still on this earth, and trust the open-ended birthdate on Wikipedia, taking no news as good news. Every time I did, I marveled at her incredible longevity—this woman who lived through the First World War and the Nazi occupation, watched so many close to her carried off to concentration camps, and lived to see the twenty-first century. She died just yesterday, a month before her 101st birthday.
Each day for more than two years, Miep brought food, conversation and news of the war to the eight grateful occupants of the Annexe, endangering herself and sacrificing many of a wartime woman's meager comforts for the sake of Anne and her family. In a particularly moving scene from the production, lifted straight from Miep's memoir Remembering Anne Frank, she saves her rations to bake a tiny spice cake for her friends in hiding:
For Christmas, Anne proudly presented me with little creamy confections that she'd made herself... she'd beaten me at my own game, which made me more determined to make the most beautiful cake possible for her and the others in return. My bits of butter and sugar were adding up.
[On New Year's Eve,] I'd baked my special spice cake, Anne's favorite. The sight of our parade was like an elixir of pleasure. Before us, eight mouths began to salivate at once at the sight of the cake. Mrs. Frank put on some water for imitation coffee. Beer was poured as we all stood around the table. Anne noticed the message that I'd carved into the top of the cake and called it to everyone's attention. With beer and coffee, we all paused to toast the message: PEACE 1944!
She did not take a piece for herself—a characteristic act of self-sacrifice from a confessed sweet tooth. The image of the Frank and van Pels families gathering around the cutting of that tiny loaf, childlike in their anticipation, is one I've never been able to forget.
Over the course of that production, I must have baked four dozen of these little loaves, and to this day I can't look at a spice cake without thinking of Miep Gies. I'd always guarded the recipe (one, I should note, from my mother's cookbook, not from the Amsterdam of 1945). But in honor of Miepje, I'll print it below. It's simple, to be sure, nothing sophisticated, but warm and satisfying.
Best savored with close friends, and with profound gratitude for the spice, sugar, and selflessness baked therein.
"Miep's" Spice Cake
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 3/4 teaspoon baking soda 3/4 teaspoon cloves 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup shortening, softened 1 cup granulated sugar 3/4 cup brown sugar 1 cup buttermilk, or sour milk 3 eggs
1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
2. Cream shortening, sugar, and brown sugar. Add eggs, one at a time. Beat in buttermilk.
3. Mix together flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and spices. Add to wet ingredients, a bit at a time, and beat until well-incorporated.
4. Pour batter into two 9" greased round pans (or, for smaller cakes, 4 to 5 mini-loaf pans). Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean: 20-25 minutes for smaller pans, 30-35 for round pans. Cool for ten minutes; remove from pan and cool completely.
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