Note from curator Rozanne Gold: Evan Nisenson, a father, husband, and Director of Alumni Relations at Newark Academy, among many other virtues (he has even been featured on Martha Stewart), wrote his Master’s thesis on “The Characteristics of Collectors.” He, too, is a collector of things, including Nisenson Hats made by a distant relative in Newark. He especially respects this quality in others, and so was smitten by a collection of recipes belonging to his beloved grandmother. I am grateful to Evan for many things, including these wonderful remembrances punctuated by a delicious cake. But it is his wisdom and technological prowess that have allowed me to live my life more fully and with greater calm. He is one of my own life’s key ingredients.
Beatrice Nisenson's Prune Cake by Evan Nisenson
When I think of my life’s recipe thus far, my grandmother, Emilie Nisenson, is one of the key ingredients. She has shared her love of cooking and baking since I was a kid spending a week every summer in Spring Lake, New Jersey, with my grandparents.
Often tasked with snipping chives from the garden for morning scrambled eggs, prepping salads for dinner, and assisting in the production of wondrous desserts, I quickly became enamored with being in the kitchen, preparing family meals, and copying recipes from my grandmother’s collection onto recipe cards for my own keeping. Over the years, I began to understand where my father’s love of the kitchen came from. I attribute my love of cooking to him (a well-respected podiatrist) as well.
During a recent visit to the Jersey shore with my wife Lauren and 18-month-old son Harris, I spent some time thumbing through my grandmother’s silver tinned box of handwritten recipes, weathered by the salty and bittersweet years but still intact, legible, and organized by genre. I jumped to the cakes tab to see what I could find.
Simultaneously, my grandmother sauntered to her bookshelf trying to find a certain book. She carefully pulled out a composition book whose bindings were failing. Having never seen this book before, I was intrigued. Like Indiana Jones, I delicately opened the book, wondering if my handling of its frail pages would release a giant booby-trapped meatball from the rafters. My knife and fork were at the ready.
I was told that this manuscript belonged to Beatrice Nisenson, my great-grandmother, who had handwritten an entire book of recipes. Many were her own but some were those of her friends, their names included in the recipe titles. I had never met my great-grandmother, but felt an immediate connection to her. My grandmother then told me that one of great-grandma Bea’s favorite recipes was her prune cake.
Prunes are not the most glamorous dried fruit, yet I had the urge to bake this cake. But first, I had to find the recipe. I turned fragile page after fragile page until I saw it before for me: “Prune Cake.” I noticed there were additional comments made in red, and a wine jelly stain, somewhat faded in the upper right-hand page corner, which came from a syrup that was poured over the cake. I also found a typed version that had been altered slightly, most likely by my grandmother, evolving with the taste buds of time. The recipe I used when I returned to my kitchen was a combination of old and new, bridging together generations of Nisensons. The tradition continued as I watched my 18-month old son take a bite of the moist cake, which he very much enjoyed.
My wife and I recently devoured the third season of The Great British Baking Show, which is a delight for those of us fascinated by the art of baking. In each episode, the bakers are presented with a technical challenge, tasked with recreating a complicated recipe given to them with incomplete baking directions.
Upon noticing that the prune cake directions were incomplete, I realized this would be my own technical challenge. For the seasoned baker this would not be a problem, but for those of us who need step-by-step instructions, it poses a serious issue. Luckily, I successfully navigated the recipe, taking notes along the way and ended up with a very flavorful cake.
With every chop of prunes, with every stir, with every glorious scent, I was instantly reconnected with the past, transported to my great-grandmother’s kitchen, which I had never seen but could immediately envision. Such is the power of a handwritten recipe.
Beatrice Nisenson’s Prune Cake
Moist and flavor-packed, this version was inspired by my great-grandmother’s original recipe and adapted by me – her great grandson. Whereas this recipe does not mention salt, it is always good to add a pinch of it, along with the spices.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until creamy. Add sour cream and chopped prunes and slowly mix until evenly distributed. In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking powder, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Slowly add the flour to the butter and egg mixture and mix thoroughly. Stir in chopped nuts and orange zest. Pour batter into a bundt pan and bake for 55 minutes. For glaze, simmer orange juice and sugar until sugar dissolves. After the cake has cooled for 30 minutes, pour glaze over cake. Serves 10
¼ lb unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour cream
1 cup prunes or dates chopped
½ cup walnuts chopped
2 tablespoons orange rind
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp cloves
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup orange juice
⅓ cup sugar