We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Great Cake Controversy: Maraschino Party Cake

by Linda

"I will use the world and sift it,
To a thousand humors shift it,
As you spin a cherry."
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

   My family has been making my Grandma Elsie's Maraschino Cherry Cake for over 50 years. It appears to have been, according to my research, a very popular cake back in the day. It has fallen out of favor in modern times, much like our family's Persimmon Pudding. My guess is that is has something to do with Maraschino cherries and their juice containing large amounts of Red Dye #5, a known carcinogen. But when I was a kid, we just thought the cherries were delicious.
   The Maraschino Cherry Cake was my birthday cake when I turned two. According to my mother (and photographic evidence that I have seen with my own eyes), my Grandma Elsie and Grandpa Charlie hosted my party that year, with one of Grandma's famous backyard barbecues. Grandma's Maraschino Cherry cake was the show stopper pièce de résistance of the party. My cake was a tall three-layer affair, piled high with pink Fluffy Boiled Icing, decorated with colored candy sprinkles and topped with bright birthday candles... perfect for a little girl's birthday. Apparently though, with so much excitement, presents, and attention focused on me (and with Grandma's evening parties famously running late), I decided to have a meltdown of epic proportions that is remembered to this very day by those in attendance over the age of two.

   In all truth, the last time I made Grandma's Maraschino Cherry Cake was in the 1980s. I made it for my friend Blanca's baby shower, and I decorated the frosted cake not only with colored sprinkles, but also with plastic Care Bears (very popular at the time), pink and blue bows and topped with fresh flowers. The baby that I made that cake for is now a grown up and is a very talented artist... painter, Karina Puente. Sigh... how have 20-something years passed in the blink of an eye?
   Earlier this summer, my niece Maddie made her first, all by herself, layer cake for her mother's birthday. She and Michelle decided to do an update on Grandma Elsie's Maraschino Cherry Cake, since no one in our family had made the cake in 25 years, but it is still remembered fondly. Further impetus was that our cousins have been requesting that we post more of Grandma's recipes on Salvation Sisters.
   For Michelle's cake, Maddie and Michelle decided to use Maraschino cherries that are not made with the horrible, cancer-causing red dye. They also decided to whip the egg whites before adding them to the cake batter, and to brush the layers lightly with marschino cherry liqueur. They also decided to not color the Fuffy Boiled Icing pink.

   Maddie's cake was a gorgeous specimen, and all was well until the cake was sliced at Michelle's birthday party and served to our Mother. Mom ate her slice, but was none too pleased with the changes that were made, and Michelle and I have continued to hear about it ever since.
   A few weeks ago while on the phone with Mom, when I happened to mention that I was writing the blog post for Grandma Elsie's Maraschino Cherry Cake, my mother's voice became alarmed. She stated emphatically, the cake that Maddie and Michelle made is most certainly not Grandma Elsie's cake, and should not be represented as such in our post. After some discussion, we moved on, thankfully, to another topic.
   Upon reflection, and with more discussion, (additional sigh...), here is how Michelle and I have decided to resolve the matter. We will publish Grandma's Original Maraschino Cherry Cake recipe, red dye and all, no beaten egg whites, and no cherry liqueur... along with Maddie and Michelle's updated, less toxic version, thus preserving our family history, and providing an alternative to those wishing for one. Ahhh, the sweet sound of family peace restored, and everyone is happy once more. Lovely!

Grandma Elsie's Maraschino Party Cake

   The history of Maraschino Liqueur is very interesting. Once reserved for royalty and the wealthy, the liqueur is readily available for one and all at a well-stocked liquor store. Chilled, the liqueur is quite tasty as an apéritif.
   Maraschino Cherries, free of dyes and weird preservatives, are available for purchase at Whole Foods Market. The cherries are perfect for this recipe and cocktails, too.

4-1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 Tbsp plus 1-1/2 tsps baking powder
3/4 tsp sea salt
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup vegetable shortening (or 1 stick butter and 1/4 cup vegetable oil)
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup maraschino cherry juice (from the jar of cherries)
1-1/2 tsps pure vanilla extract, optional
6 large egg whites, unbeaten 
1/3 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup maraschino cherries cut in eighths
spray oil or Bak-Klene
Maraschino Liqueur, optional, to brush cake layers

2 cups sugar
2/3 cup water
4 large egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2 tsp vanilla extract, optional
a couple drops of food grade red dye, optional

Special Equipment:
candy thermometer
three 9-inch cake pans
parchment paper

1. Open the oven door and verify that the bottom rack is placed in the lower third of the oven, near the middle. The top rack should rest in the upper third of the oven with enough room to easily slide in the cake pans below. Set a big cookie sheet on the top rack to act as a "shield" which will help prevent the cakes from over-browning during baking. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line the bottoms of three 9-inch cake pans with parchment; set aside.

Sifted flour measures about 1 tablespoon less per cup than scooped flour. Therefore, sift a larger amount of flour, then measure 4-1/2 cups, and sift once more with the baking powder.
2A. Gradma's method: Sift together flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add vegetable shortening; mix. Add cherry juice, cherries and milk. Beat for 2 minutes. Add egg whites; beat. Fold in nuts.

2B. Maddie's method: Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add cherries and walnuts and toss; set aside. Combine the milk, cherry juice and vanilla; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and oil, add sugar (reserving 1 tablespoon for whipping egg whites) and blend until well combined. Separate eggs - yolks into a small bowl and whites into a large bowl. (The egg yolks are not used in this recipe, so you may discard or reserve for another use.)
   Add the flour mixture in thirds, alternating with half the milk mixture, and mix until  incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, if necessary. In the separate bowl, whip egg whites until soft peaks form when the beater is raised. Sprinkle on the reserved one tablespoon sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form; careful not to over beat. Carefully fold in 1/3 of the beaten egg whites into the cake batter to lighten and then fold in the remaining egg whites.

3. Spray the cake pans and parchment well with spray oil or Bak-Klene. Divide batter evenly between three round 9-inch layer pans and smooth the tops. Bake at 350°F for about 30 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean (rotate pans after 15 minutes for even baking). Remove the cakes to a rack and let cool in pans for 10 minutes. Unmold the cakes and remove parchment liners. Turn the cakes right-side up and cool to room temperature on racks.

4. For the frosting: Put sugar and water on to boil over medium high heat until it reachs 223-225°F, the thread stage. In the meantime, beat egg whites until soft peaks and then beat in cream of tartar. When the sugar syrup is at the thread stage, carefully add into the beaten egg whites while constantly beating. Add vanilla, if using.

8. On a cake plate, dab a quarter size dollop of frosting in the middle of the plate and place first layer, flat side down, centered on the plate. The dollop of frosting will help anchor the cake to the plate. Slide in four pieces of wax paper between the cake and the plate (to protect the plate from frosting smudges.) If desired, brush cake layer with 2 teaspoons Maraschino Liqueur and follow with a thick layer of frosting.
9. Place second layer, flat side down. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons of Maraschino Liqueur, if using, and again spread a thick layer of frosting.

10. Place third layer, flat side up. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons Maraschino. Apply the rest of the frosting to the top and sides with a swirling motion. When frosting is set, gently remove wax paper.
11. To set the cake and meld the flavors, refrigerate until an hour or two before serving. At this point, if you wish, embellish the cake further with additional maraschino cherries. You may also choose to use pesticide free flowers and leaves. Whatever you use, make sure it is edible. For example, the leaves and petals of poinsettia and oleander are poisonous. Lovely choices are pansies, roses and orchids. Pansies are fragile, roses are long lasting, and orchids are hardy. Complement the blooms with ivy and citrus leaves, if desired. Serve the delicious cake simply at room temperature or with ice cream, preferably homemade.


  1. Wow! This looks amazing. My grandmother made a maraschino cake for me each and every birthday with her silky smooth boiled/7 minute frosting that was tinted with cherry juice. I am now 40 and she has been gone 10 years but her cake lives on in my mind forever. She would top the cake with little pieces of cut of cherries. I remember each year she would bring out a carefully wrapped plastic bag containing her birthday candle holders which were made of brightly colored plastic.. Each one holding a little wax candle. Ahhh if only I could go back in time! Thank you for posting this recipe!

  2. So many memories from across the years came rushing back at the mention of your grandmother's cake decorations. Both of my grandmother's kept cake decoration boxes.
    My Nana kept all of her cake adornments in a white cake box that had a half a sphere of styrofoam in it. After the birthday party, all the items were washed and carefully stuck back in place for the next occasion.
    Michelle now has possession of these treasures. Among these heirlooms, there are tiny handblown glass candle holders as
    well as tiny handblown cups that can be put a top the cake to hold a miniature toast of bubbly or liqueur for each guest. Good times!

  3. I knew the minute I glanced at the picture of this cake that it was the boiled or 7-minute icing that my grandmother used to make. Can anything top it? I love that frosting so much that if I cannot serve it on my own cakes, I will serve them with whipped cream instead. No powdered sugar glop for me? ;-)


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