{Love & Appreciation} Dad’s Special Cake

Lordy! Lordy! Look who’s…over the hill.

I celebrated my 40th birthday over the Memorial Day weekend. I convey this information to you with a sense of pride. Life hasn’t always been easy, but sometimes it has, so I can’t complain.  It has taken me this long to understand that the hardships I’ve survived have shaped the person I am and helped me gain valuable knowledge that made the uncomplicated times run a little more smoothly.  In the last 10 years, I’ve learned to do more with less money, “stuff” and energy; made it over some life-changing hurdles, and managed to accomplish a few major goals I set for myself (Self-employed? Check, Happily settled with a family? Check, Community involvement? Check, Creative balance? Check!).

Woot! 40!

On my birthday, as milestone events often inspire, I found myself reflecting on life, my childhood in particular.  When I was three, my mother, Kay, passed away (from injuries sustained in a car accident), and although my father was working several jobs to support our family, in time he managed to recover from the shock of my mother’s death well enough to lead us through all sorts of adventures.  The years before he married my stepmom were extra-special to my older sister and me. We had ALL of dad’s attention and energy when he wasn’t working.  “Pops” taught us how to play softball (even “coaching” us as cheerleaders one year) and how to use our Easy Bake Oven.  Once he woke us in the middle of the night to drive three hours to Myrtle Beach so that we could see the sunrise at the ocean, only to find no hotels available.  We slept in the car until mosquitoes and oppressive heat (and whining) drove him to abandon the effort and head for home.  After he married my stepmom, he would take us to the movies and make smooching sounds if anybody dared to kiss onscreen. Embarrassing then, funny now.

At my maternal Granmother’s house on Christmas. Dad has always called me “Willa” (a nickname within a nickname, short for Wilhemina Katrina, don’t ask me – or him – why – there is no reason!).

My dad is chock full of personality and silliness, traits I didn’t always appreciate in him then.   Growing up, he took the time to explain life’s quirks to me in ways I could understand, taught us how to stick up for ourselves, to pose questions when something didn’t seem right and insisted we live frugally (“If you don’t have the cash to buy what you want, save up for it”, he would say. “Don’t spend money you don’t have.”).  After too many bounced checks and inflated credit card bills in my 20’s and early 30’s, I’ve finally learned to adopt that last piece of advice.

They say one sometimes looks for one’s father in a husband and I’m so privileged to have found the other father in my life: Nick (my hubs).  He’s different in a lot of ways from my Pops, but alike in his ability to be silly and spontaneous.  They’re both also hardworking, honest, forthright, smart, compassionate, stubborn (and open-minded), supportive, kind, AND willing to put up with me!  What’s not to like?  Not to mention, without both of them, we wouldn’t have our dear daughter now, whom we named after my mom.

Seeing my dad with our daughter always causes me to choke up a little….

In honor of the upcoming Father’s Day weekend, I’m going to share with you a treasured family recipe my Grandma (“Gertie”) Prust made for my dad every year on his birthday.  She taught me how to prepare this Graham Cracker Cake with Peanut Butter Icing when I was a teenager.  The recipe hails from my grandmother’s German family who settled in Wisconsin near Milwaukee after they emigrated (about 5 generations ago I think).  It’s still my dad’s birthday favorite and quickly became mine too, early on.  Nick doesn’t like sweets much, but even he enjoys this combination.

This is the only photo of the cake I could find, I made it for my sister’s 40th!


2 ½ cups Graham Cracker Crumbs
2 cups Unbleached, All Purpose Flour (you could easily substitute with 1/2 whole wheat)
4t    Baking Powder
1 cups  “Oleo” (this is what they used to call shortening, I substitute room-temp softened butter or margarine)
2 cups    Sugar (preferably raw)
4    Eggs
1t    Vanilla Extract
2 cups    Whole Milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; grease and flour three 9” cake tins.

In large bowl cream (by hand, with hand mixer or stand mixer) “Oleo” (or substitute), then add sugar, eggs and vanilla, mixing each addition well.  In small bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs and baking powder.  Alternately add flour and milk to the butter/egg/sugar mixture and mix until each is incorporated fully.  Then gradually add the graham cracker crumbs/baking powder, until just mixed.  The batter will be fairly thick.

Pour batter equitably into 3 greased and floured cake pans; bake for about 35 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean and sides of cake separate from the pan (cake should be a golden brown with perhaps a bit of light crust around the edges, center will spring back to the touch).  Cool for 10 minutes in pans on a cooling rack, then turn the cakes out onto the rack (don’t remove too soon or they will break), and cool completely before icing.  The layers will be fairly heavy and moist, so if they won’t come out of the pans, let them rest on the rack upside down for a minute or two and allow gravity to do its thing.  If you still have trouble, try tapping on the bottom of the cake pan with the handle of a butter knife, this should shake the cake free without breakage.


2T    Butter or margarine (again, my Grandma used “Oleo”)
3/4 cups    Smooth Peanut Butter
2 lbs    Powdered Sugar (More or less, depending on personal taste/consistency)
1 ½ t     Vanilla Extract
6T    Whole Milk (more or less, depending on consistency desired)

Cream Butter, then add Peanut Butter and cream well.  Blend in Vanilla Extract.  Gradually add Powdered Sugar, alternately adding Milk if the mixture becomes too stiff.  Mix each addition very well.  If using natural peanut butter (which contains more oils), blend your PB extra well before adding or the oils and the milk will not combine; also, don’t overuse the milk with the natural PB, just a drip at time to moisten the mix should prevent clumping).

NOTE: A little warning, this is not your typical cake – it’s three rich layers so it will feed a crowd, is better after a day or two when the peanut butter icing sinks in, and it takes on a whole different quality after being refrigerated (which I recommend doing if the weather is warm and humid).  Wrap/store leftover cake well, but not too tightly or things can become a bit soggy.  Although the icing is brown, it can be decorated prettily with edible flowers, shaved chocolate or other colorful accoutrements.

These are photos of my German Great Grandmother, Charma Rahn - Gertie’s mother - after whom I am named (my middle name is Charma). Yeah, I never got teased – “Don’t squeeze the Charmin!”. I couldn’t obtain an electronic photo of Gertie before print. The older photo was presented to her parents as a gift in 1908 and in the more recent photo, she’s standing beneath her favorite Magnolia tree in front of “Happy’s” doghouse, in Peewaukee, WI

Everyone in our family has their favorite way of eating this treat…refrigerated, warmed or room-temperature; with whipped cream, ice cream or chocolate sauce.  My brother-in-law prefers it with chocolate icing, I like it best just out of the fridge with coffee ice cream myself.  These days, I’m the only one who will take the time to prepare it.  My family lives in North Carolina, so when we can all get together for dad’s birthday, everyone shares their memories of my Grandma and past celebrations.  Pops especially gets a particularly nostalgic look and all wiggly with excitement when he gets an opportunity to enjoy it.  The process of baking (and enjoying) this cake with my family has been a cherished experience for me for 25 years.

Gasp!  Are my calculations correct? I guess they are, I’m 40!  Sheesh.  I’m actually kinda diggin’ it, but even my dad can’t quite believe it.  Being married to a man 8 years younger than self, I’ve had to withstand quite a few “over the hill” jokes.  I can take the ribbing – the maturity and accumulated knowledge that 40 brings are welcome additions to life.

Cheers to approaching middle age and to celebrating all of the Fathers in your life!


11 Comments Add yours

  1. Amber says:

    Britin, this is a beautiful post.

    I’ve had a magical relationship with my father as well and I’m such a sucker for father/daughter moments and memories. These moments truly help shape who we become as women and how we choose to live our lives.
    Love love this tribute post to your Dad !!!

    and Happy Birthday.

  2. SallyA says:

    FYI, oleo isn’t another name for shortening. The real name of margarine is oleomargarine. It got shortened to oleo in the 50s and then when we all decided oleo was yukky, they started calling it margarine. As if that would make it taste any more like butter! HA! I think I love your dad! And I know I love your cake!

  3. Erika T. says:

    I really love this post. Thank you for sharing that recipe. Old hand-me-down recipes are always special. I recently got some photocopied recipes from my Danish step-great grandma. I still need to actually make them though.

  4. Thanks everybody! I have so many special memories of my dad as a child and an adult, wish we lived closer to each other. Family recipes are the best- remembered conversations and get togethers make the food taste better, in my opinion! @Sally, I had no idea that’s what they used to call margarine…

  5. Kelly Venable says:

    Brit…what a great post and what an amazing writer you are! I loved my peanut butter cake on my 40th and you are right….none of us really take the time to make it anymore. You have it down to perfection and I sure do wish you’d come home to NC to make us one! Or…I guess I should return the favor and make you one since you just hit the 40th milestone! Miss you lots and LOVE the memories you have shared here! I feel exactly the same way!

  6. Jim Prust says:

    Willa,, I do love you so,,, had no idea you could author something this sweet and wonderful. I could just go mushy. You are my baby girl and you have a special place in my heart. Thank you so much for taking the time to put feelings into words… Thanks for my granddaughter and wonderful son in law. AHHHH YES – peanut butter cake… love ya Brit. Dad

  7. I sure do miss all of you down there…I’m making the cake on Sunday at the bakery in honor of you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day! Maybe I can express mail you a piece.

  8. And it’s graham cracker cake, Pops! Dang, you’d think after 70 years… 😉 I love you.

  9. Kelly Venable says:

    Aunt B,

    You’ve drawn a tear from my eye :’ )
    LOVE YOU AND MISS YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Tell Katie and Uncle Nick Me and Carter said hey!


  10. Auntie Karen says:

    This is also your Uncle Greg’s favorite cake. Grandma Gertie always made it for his birthday too! Grandma was a good cook. She made the best Lemon Meringue pie. Instead of using cornstarch she used 3tbl. of flour and 1 cup of milk. Yummy.

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