Irene’s Alexander Cake
I am a daughter of Latvian immigrants. My parents, through fate and sheer determination, made their mark here as proud people who loved what America had to offer and what she gave to them; safety and prosperity.
In their youth, my parents had lived on farms but they left their families in the country, as young adults, eventually drawn to the cultured and cosmopolitan capitol city of Riga. Unfortunately, not for long. World War II wreaked its havoc across Europe and my parents immigrated to the United States in 1950, after experiencing loss of family and property and living in a displaced persons’ camp in the American zone, in Germany, for several years. When finally sponsored by a refugee relief agency, they and my three brothers crossed the ocean docking in Boston, Massachusetts, where they resolutely started living the American Dream.
There were a few obstacles. English was not their first language and they sometimes encountered those who thought they didn’t belong, but they did what most immigrants do: maintained a low profile, and worked hard. I was born in the early fifties and my father became a US citizen a bit later, as well as the owner of a successful building company. My parents were not pining to return to Latvia quite yet, and having settled in a suburb with only my father able to drive, we children did not attend Latvian school in Boston as many émigrés’ children did (how I wish now, that I had, as the language is tough to pick up at this late stage). But my parents, though very busy, maintained other traditions of which preparing the delicious foods from the homeland was the most memorable for me. My mother had loved going to the opera and after to the ubiquitous konditori – cafés where rich coffee and pastries were enjoyed. Having been a country girl, she had learned from her mother the art of baking, because, though far from the city, one still was expected to cook and bake well, especially for guests. My mother was a gifted baker, she would prepare tortes for my school bake sales which were the first to be snapped up, appreciated for the art they were. The mouthwatering cakes were frosted with real buttercream and always had her signature decoration of nonpareils gracing them. For a less competitive venue, say the dessert table at home, one of her best received pastries was her Alexander Cake, a pastry first created to commemorate a visit to Riga by the Czar more than 100 years ago. Though appearing to be a simple bar or slice, it is sophisticated and rich. It should be enjoyed as in the konditori or after a special meal at home; eaten with a silver fork from a china plate, with a delicious cup of coffee.
My parents visited their homeland several times in later years. My father, who lived to the age of 98, saw his wish realized to see a free Latvia, visiting after 1991 when it was no longer part of the Soviet Union. More recently one of my brothers and I have visited, too. I am happy to say we’ve reconnected with our remaining extended family in Latvia where they maintain productive lives and continue to have a very close family support system. The city of Riga is once again thriving as a newly discovered tourist destination, its city center a World Heritage Site having what is recognized as the finest examples of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. The opera house thrives, as do bakeries where Alexander Cakes are still made and enjoyed.
First published August 2014