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Mom and her slab cake were cornerstones of our family. Without them we are crumbling

DREW SHANNON/The Globe and Mail

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My mother had eight children, of whom I am the youngest. In the haphazard family album I keep beneath my nightstand, the composition of each of our birthday photos is identical: the beaming celebrant flanked by siblings, cousins or friends; the unsubtle faux-bois backdrop of our kitchen; and, on the table, always the same cake.

That cake. An airy yellow slab, divided in half and repaired with a seam of yellow pudding, then painted with mocha frosting, piped with small rosettes and sprinkled with chocolate hagelslag. Candles, too.

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The cake was the bedrock of the party – unflashy, unpraised, dependable. I want to say "cornerstone," but that is only because it's a word I used in my mother's eulogy, describing her. The cornerstone of our family. Not just an elegiac turn of phrase, I'm learning: When cornerstones are removed, buildings crumble.

I have recently thrown a lasso over the idea of that cake, drawing it toward myself with a steady tug. Today, I begin in earnest to hunt down the recipe. I send texts to my five sisters and to my eldest brother's wife. They're all on speaking terms with me, if not necessarily with one another. Do they have the recipe? Or even a sense of how the cake is made?

"Sorry, i dont. Dad should have it in moms recipe box," one sister responds.

"I *wish*! Maybe it's in her recipe box above the stove …" writes another.

I learn that an attempt was made, by my American sister-in-law, to recreate the cake for my brother several years ago, but the instructions passed on by my eldest sister turned out not to be correct. I also learn that the recipe box, key to all mysteries, is in Michigan. But the recipe, my sister-in-law says, is not inside. However, she is not Dutch like us and may not know what to look for.

On the streetcar after work, I send roughly 15 texts in 30 minutes. I have become genuinely hungry for the cake. I imagine myself baking it in my married friends' large kitchen, with their registry stand mixer the colour of pistachio ice cream.

My eldest sister writes a message so long it is split into four parts. She will try to scare up a recipe that looks right later tonight (I will have to decide how far to trust it). She does seem to remember the frosting recipe: "margarine (1 cup?) and icing to consistency, plus a bit of hot water with instant coffee granules. I think licking the beaters makes it taste better," she texts.

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Instant coffee. Margarine. Every ingredient betrays the kind of life we lived. I will use butter, I decide. And real coffee.

In the early evening, the sister closest to me in age sends a text that leaves me wondering at her mythic memory: "She had a recipe for the cake (eier cake – don't ask why it wasn't eier koek) and then fill the middle layer with one or two vanilla :pudding cuos." Her uncharacteristic mistakes tell me she is typing quickly, excitedly. Or is she simply irritated with my fervent mission?

I text my sister-in-law: "Do you mind checking in the box for a recipe for 'eier cake'? I think that's the one."

Egg cake, then. Dutch egg cake? If nobody has the recipe, perhaps it can be Googled. Will it count, though, if I'm not following the measurements and steps written out in my mother's hand? Frustrated, I wonder why the recipe hasn't survived, or why we never insisted our mother teach us what to do. And why do I focus on this cake? The idea of cooking from vintage recipes usually unsettles my stomach, like old photos of food. My mother hadn't made it in ages, having become enamoured with an almond cake from a nearby bakery, which she relied on for special occasions.

I am glad we lost the cake before we lost her; glad to have said goodbye – or not – to something along with her. Just as it is strange and comforting to remind myself of the funerals I attended at her side.

When I was eight or nine, I sensed that our beige-and-brown slab cake was not quite the thing. Designed to feed large crowds, the cake bore little resemblance to those I saw in colouring books or magazines. A relentless sketcher, I drew up a new design: a perfect cylinder with undulating icing around the edges and a clown's face in the centre, an oval racetrack for a mouth, dragged up at the corners.

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I presented it to my mother. "Can you make this?"

She studied it. "I think so."

I was so surprised at this response – or perhaps afraid my siblings would accuse me of being spoiled, as they did when I was allowed to drink 7-Up even when I refused to eat nasi goreng – that I returned to my blueprint and went wild, adding five or six extra tiers and flourishes in unlikely places, stopping just shy of pyrotechnics. I showed my mom again.

"No," she replied. I got the slab cake.

I have changed my mind. When I find a workable recipe, I will not use butter in the frosting. Not that it matters, as I'm sure whatever cake I come up with will be a pale shadow of the memory we now circle around, holding one another's hands even as we eye one another suspiciously. In truth, I rarely bake.

But it will be something like it, at least. I wait, patiently now, for the next message.

Lisa Svadjian lives in Toronto.

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