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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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A favorite family cake isn't from scratch, but authentic all the same (recipe)
Remembering Tutu
For the full Richards effect, accompany with coffee ice cream.
For the full Richards effect, accompany with coffee ice cream.
Credit:Marcelle Richards

I said my goodbyes to my grandmother, Marcelle Le Bris Richards, or as I called her, Tutu, from a distance. I received a phone call on Monday that hospice care thought she was entering the last stages of life. I dropped what I was writing and called her from the alley behind a neighborhood coffee shop. I had never heard a death rattle, but I believe I heard it then - just silence at first, then heavy, raspy breathing. I told her that I love her, that I am grateful for all she has given me: our memories, her stories, a love of food and her name. I told her I was sorry I couldn't be at her side.

Did she hear me? The nurses told me she seemed to be listening, and appeared to attempt a response. Did she know it was me?

I hung up feeling frustrated that I couldn't connect with my grandmother in a physical sense, so I attempted to reach her on an energetic level. That night, I asked my grandfather for his help as I prepared to let her know that I, and others, were with her to bring her whatever support she needed. I set the table with a dozen fuchsia roses - she had a rose garden that always supplied her with beauty - and I put out a lemon cake with coffee ice cream, one of her signatures.

I made the lemon cake with almost as much urgency as I called her. The cake was for her, but I knew she'd also want me to eat up, and I did. Something lifted for me that night, and maybe for her too.

She passed less than two days later, on April 4, in the middle of the afternoon. Hospice told my dad that most people die between midnight and 4 a.m. There was something appropriately defiant about her midday departure. She was a rebel, a tomboy, a knockout, an avid reader of all things, but especially biographies. I'm told she loved to dance. She hated Bush, but loved her roses. She was full of stories.

I don't think I ever went to Tutu's house without ice cream being offered. Although we were still full from dinner, the question would sure enough arise: "Would you like some ice cream?" she'd say in her French accent, the consonants crisp in contrast to the languid vowels. She always had coffee ice cream on hand, and even as kids this is usually what we ate at her house.

I can't think of a better way to honor her than to do what I know best. As she neared her passing, my dad and other family members sought out her recipes. Most of them are simple; some aren't even from scratch. Her lemon cake with a mandatory heaping of ice cream is probably one of her most beloved and requested.

Tutu's Lemon Cake

  • 1 package lemon cake mix (about 18.5 ounces)
  • 3/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 package lemon Jell-O (3 ounces)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9"x13" or bundt pan. Mix all ingredients in bowl. Pour into pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes; if using a bundt pan, up to 40 minutes. While cake is hot, poke holes in surface and pour lemon glaze over. Serve with ice cream.

Lemon glaze

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice

Whisk lemon juice into powdered sugar until smooth.

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