Ship a cake and memories, too: Anne Byrn's tips on gifting cakes through the mail

Anne Byrn
Between the Layers

Margaret arrived at my book signing outside Memphis for more than just a book. She wanted my opinion of a cookie she planned to bake and ship her son in Germany. It was a family recipe, dark, moist, heavy, full of fruit.

I told her it was perfect.

Those heavy cookies wouldn’t shift or crumble and would stay fragrant and moist until her son opened the box.

This is the time of year that if you’ve got a loved one many time zones away, the thought may have crossed your mind to bake and send them something to remind them of home. It’s no wonder when distance separates us, we try to soothe the heartache with something from the oven.

That’s what Lucile Plowden Harvey of Tampa, FL, tried to do during World War II. She shipped fruitcake to her sons and other servicemen in 13 foreign countries, something I learned while researching my book, American Cake. To Mrs. Harvey, as she was known in Tampa fruitcake circles, it was more than love. It was duty.

Even after the war, Mrs. Harvey still baked fruitcakes, winning the local newspaper recipe contest in 1956. According to her daughter-in-law Betty Harvey of Bradenton, Mrs. Harvey wrapped her loaves in foil, not too tightly, and placed them in a chest of drawers to wait until Christmas. Betty herself bakes four fruitcakes each year, sending one to her sister in Atlanta, one to her daughter in town, and two to serve during the holidays.

Pound cake ships well.

When did we stop baking cakes to send to people? The catalogs full of decadent cakes to order are enticing, but you know and I know that those cakes will never look or taste as good as home-baked.

I think we’d bake and ship more often if we had been on the receiving end. If we had opened the box even once and smelled home.

Several times during my freshman year in college, my friend Helen received care packages filled with fried peach and apple pies from her mother in Franklin, Tennessee. The pies were wrapped in brown paper grocery bags, and I can remember how we watched Helen open that box just hoping she was feeling generous.

In truth, fried pies aren’t the best food to ship because they get soggy in transit and the wrapping becomes soaked in oil, but freshman girls cared little for those details. We all got terribly homesick from the taste of them, even if our mothers never fried pies!

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What is it about shipped food that appeals to us so viscerally? It’s more than just sustenance. Could it be the deep memories associated with the particular food being shipped? The apples plucked from the tree on the farm? Or the care of the sender to enclose a note inside, written in the same handwriting you remember seeing on grocery lists and recipe cards back home?

No doubt, baked goods — cakes, breads, cookies — are better shippers than a sandwich, or a roast, or chicken casserole, which is why we send them. Baked goods travel well.

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Even small, sweet, soft tea cakes became emblematic of the African American migration as they were shipped to family members who had left the South. Elbert Mackey created what he called the Tea Cake Project more than a decade ago to preserve the lore of the tea cake, which he describes as ‘’a lovely, warm bite of hope, optimism, and the promise

My Favorite Cakes to Ship

We live in an old house my grandfather built in 1928, and we bought it from a couple — Boo and Bob Collins — who had lived here for 50 years, raising children who would move away to other parts of the country.

Mrs. Collins and her husband grew sweet potatoes in the garden out back. Those were happy years for them, and their children helped with the gardening. She once told me she baked a spice cake with the sweet potatoes and shipped this cake to her sons on their birthdays. She said for the cake to taste fresh when it reached California, she would cool and freeze the cake after baking, and then place it in a FedEx box frozen so it would thaw en route.

I ship cakes to friends and family, especially when I am promoting a new book. And this is how I do it. I choose unfrosted Bundt or pound cakes, and like Mrs. Collins, I try to ship them frozen. I wrap them in plastic wrap and then foil and place them in a box that just fits the cake with little wiggle room. Surround with peanuts or popcorn or crinkled paper, anything to buffer the cake from the ups and downs of transit. Or pad the box with bubble wrap.

Glazed vanilla bundt cake

And then I send the cake by the fastest means I can afford. Domestically that means overnight or two-day, either by UPS or FedEx or fitting the cake into a flat-rate USPS box. If the cake is traveling to an international destination, check those shipping schedules as some of those deadlines have passed and few remain. And check into military rates, too, especially if you are shipping to a U.S. military base.

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The cakes I ship are Stacy’s Chocolate Chip Cake or the Hershey’s Bar Pound Cake from my new book, A New Take on Cake. Or from American Cake, Chez Panisse Almond Torte — what with the eggs and butter and almond paste, it stays moist for a week! Or I ship a pound cake or fruitcake such as the Martha Washington Great Cake, in which currents are soaked in white wine and keep the cake moist and lovely.

So that when the box is opened, the recipient gets more than just a cake. They get the nostalgic whiff of home.

COOK THE BOOK

Recipe: Stacy’s Chocolate Chip Cake