My Mom Barely Baked During My Childhood – But When She Did, It Was Perfect

Cookies from scratch were a rarity growing up, but my mom’s doctored-up box cake still lives in my memory. Here’s how I recreated it as a pastry chef.

May 25, 2021
By: Joy Cho

Photo by: Joy Cho

Joy Cho

As a pastry chef, I live and breathe all things sugar- and butter-laden. But I didn’t grow up eating brownies my mom made or smelling cookies freshly pulled from my grandma’s oven – rituals many consider a staple of a stereotypical American childhood. Ironically, my exposure to homemade baked goods was pretty limited until I took up baking in high school (which may explain my now-tireless sweet tooth, but that’s another issue altogether). It wasn’t that my family was overly health-conscious or opposed to sweets; just that homemade goodies, and a mom who regularly baked, weren’t defining features of my childhood — an experience that many other Asian Americans seem to share when they compare notes.

In fact, there are memes on how fully functional ovens are hilariously under-used in the Asian diaspora. It’s an “Asian thing” to use the appliance not for frequent cooking, but to store pots and pans. In Minari (2020), seven-year-old David tells his grandmother, visiting the U.S. from Korea, that she’s “not like a grandma” because, among other things, she doesn’t “make cookies!”

It’s not to say that every American mother is some baker extraordinaire or that Asian moms never make desserts. But compared to many white moms, my mom did not bake much ... or really, at all. Sure, we would have Pillsbury Crescents and cinnamon rolls out of a can from time to time, but homemade treats like blueberry muffins or apple pie were items I’d only see referenced in books or on television. Our oven was reserved for warming up pizza rolls or baking Thanksgiving casserole once a year, not for cranking out a weekly, rotating assortment of baked goods.

There is, however, one thing I do remember my mom baking when I was growing up: a hefty, unadorned chocolate chip-sour cream bundt cake. No frosting, glaze or garnishes – just plain chocolate chip-studded yellow cake served by the slice. When it was my family’s turn to host our church’s small group at home, my mom would bake the bundt cake to accompany a spread of chips, fruit and beverages. The cake was objectively nothing fancy, for a mundane occasion, and I likely ate it back then without much thought or fanfare. Even though it’s been years since I last had a bite of her bundt cake, it lives on as perfect in my mind: rich and moist, with a tender but substantial crumb and just the right amount of chocolate chips embedded in each slice.

As it turns out, the cake wasn’t even technically homemade. Using a “recipe” she found somewhere and jotted down on a notepad, my mom worked magic by adding a few extra ingredients to boxed cake mix: sour cream, instant vanilla pudding mix, oil and chocolate chips. The cake didn’t boast hours of meticulous work, but was fast, crafty, resourceful – and somehow just right. It was so much more than the sum of its parts, transforming standard yellow box cake (specifically the one noted “Butter Recipe Yellow”) into a scrumptious, memorable treat.

As someone whose day-to-day as a pastry chef revolves around granular details and precise measurements, reflecting on this simple, straightforward cake feels like a breath of fresh air, a welcome break from the endless pursuit of creativity that’s sometimes invigorating, other times exhausting. Years later, my mom’s semi-homemade bundt cake reminds me that at the end of the day, good cake needs only to be a joy to eat — whether it comes from a box or a decades-old family recipe.

In this loose interpretation of my mom’s cake, similar to my Gem Cakes, I incorporate a combination of sweet rice flour (which adds a subtle “springiness” to the cake’s texture), all-purpose flour and a healthy amount of sour cream to produce a rich, plush cake. Instead of a large bundt pan (which I actually don’t own), I opted for a versatile 8-inch square pan, which produces a scaled down, snackable cake that doesn’t skimp on taste or decadence. And though I experimented with chopped dark and milk chocolate and mini morsels, I found that nothing can quite replace classic semi-sweet chocolate chips — especially when they’re still delightfully melty as you dig into that first square of cake.

Since I finished high school, my mom has started baking more, turning out mouth-watering treats like walnut-banana bread; boxed brownies spiked with instant coffee and peanut butter chips; and a moist, seasonal apple cake. Though one might call this unfortunate timing (homemade banana bread would’ve been an ideal after-school snack, if you ask me), there’s a certain beauty in the fact that as I’ve discovered and grown into my culinary self as an adult, my mom also found renewed interest in exploring and creating food, both sweet and savory, for the fun of it. Perhaps this snack cake recipe will be next on her to-bake list, bringing all of this full-circle (insert bundt imagery here) in the most poetic way — the past and present meeting, mixing and meshing into something beautiful and delicious at the intersection of sour cream-packed, chocolate chip-filled cake.

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