Sep 24, 2015

From Scratch: Pumpkin Cake & Silk Gowns

It was a cold day in early December when my mom and I entered our first bridal boutique. A woman greeted us wearing six inch heels, tight black trousers and a silver slinky blouse. She led us around the quiet store that was lined with gowns glittering in the afternoon light. Soon I found myself undressing next to this high-heeled woman and then climbing into a gown whose price tag had a lot of numbers on it. Stepping out of the dressing room, my mother smiled and I stared curiously at myself in the mirror thinking about the idea of summer. It wasn't even Christmas yet and I was trying on dresses that'd I'd need to wear six months later. Dresses, plural, that would become dress, singular, that I'd wear for just one day.

Walking down the street afterwards we discussed the pros and cons of the various styles, the outfit of the sales woman (those heels! and she was already tall!) the beads, the silk, the lace. I mentioned the idea of finding a cup of coffee. What if I made your dress? My mom said.

It was white of course. Made of antique silk crepe back satin, with a smooth, almost buttery texture. The style was reminiscent of the 1930's (despite being adapted from a 1980's pattern), not tight but form fitting, with old fashioned princess-cut lines, a modest neckline and hand beaded lace belt. And my mom had made it from scratch.

photo by Ashley O'dell

More than once during the dress making process together my mom mentioned Cindy, an old friend who'd passed away many years ago from breast cancer. My brothers and I grew up playing with her & her husband's kids; Cindy had an amazing room in her house dedicated to the clothing she designed and sewed in a dazzling array of patterns and textures. If Cindy were here she'd know exactly how to deal with this pattern, or Cindy would love this fabric, and I'm sure she wouldn't mind how slippery it is.

My mom has another friend—an energetic woman named Jeanne who used to work with a German seamstress and knew all about sewing techniques—who came over occasionally to help with the dress. I'd stand in the sewing room, a small room on the third floor of my parents house.  VHS home-videos lined a bookshelf and my mom's fabrics filled every surface, the scent enchanting like a library of old books. The family cat, Billie Holiday lay asleep on the windowsill. Jeanne would be telling a story, mom would be listening but fretting about her stitching, brow furrowed. I felt like I was in an old Jane Austen novel, turning this way and that, being measured for my wedding day. Every time I stepped into the gown, pins poking me, seams undone, it felt like the room was abuzz with women, both alive and in spirit-form.

photo by Ashley O'dell

Photo by Ashley O'dell

Photo by Ashley O'dell
In celebrating the beginning of fall I am also celebrating all the things women make from scratch. My mom made me, for starters, and then made me countless dresses, costumes, cakes, eggs-on-toast, iced teas, paintings, BLT's, blankets, cookies, casseroles, valentines, flower crowns. 

Not to discount what my father makes (for he too, is as industrious and creative as they come) but especially come autumn, when the temperature drops and it's OK to turn the oven on again, the kitchen fills with a comforting scent of cinnamon and ginger, apple and pumpkin, maple syrup and clove. It's the season of baked goods, of butter-smeared aprons and the hush of sugar measured into a bowl. It's the season when spices reign supreme—the cupboard doors flung open like a wardrobe to reveal the glamorous beauty of crystallized ginger, the sultry scent of Ceylon cinnamon, the shy elegance of vanilla. In my family it's the season of my mom's pumpkin chocolate chip cake, a moist and utterly autumnal cake. If this cake were a dress I'd wear it every day for the fall season.

The recipe for this cake came by way of Cindy, my mother's friend whose spirit guided us as mom sewed my wedding gown. It seemed fitting to share the story of my dress along with this cake. And to celebrate all the women who make things from scratch.


Note: My mom has translated the recipe into her own vernacular. To "bung" means simply to throw or add. Don't skimp on the spices!

1 can pumpkin (14-15 ounces)
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
4 eggs
1/2 cup canola oil 
1/2 cup apple sauce
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground clove
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp ginger
12 oz. bag of chocolate chips

Bung it all together, chips last.

Bake 350* in greased loaf pans or bundt pan for 1 hr. Can also bake in cupcake tins for 20 min or so. 

optional: top with powdered sugar or cream cheese frosting. 


  1. I love your prose; your dress amazing. Hug your mom for me. Mary

  2. I love this post so much the I'd to go through all your FB posts to share it with a friend. It took me a good 45 minutes search. Miss you!