Best Cook: The Cake Lady
In the town of Madison, New Hampshire, if you’re getting married, you’d better hope you’re related to (or friends with) Ruth Shackford, a sprightly 81-year-old farmer’s wife, whose cakes are so desired they can be raffled off at the annual church fundraiser for sometimes as much as $100. Ruth has been baking “ever since I can remember,” she says. “I used to stand beside my mother and watch. She’d let me stir; pretty soon she’d let me measure. That way she could keep an eye on me. When I went off to college, I took two courses in cooking, so I had a pretty good start once I got married.”
Ruth is in her kitchen of 60-plus years, in the house where her husband, Buddy, was born, a mile and a half from where she was born. This is Lucky Boy Farm in the village of Silver Lake, the center around which everything in her family orbits.
After she married Buddy, Ruth took lessons in cake decorating at Madison’s town hall from a woman who’d once taught at Fannie Farmer’s cooking school in Boston. And then came an opportunity. “There was a lady in town who used to make cakes to sell,” she remembers. “She felt she couldn’t do it anymore. She asked me if I would take over. She gave me her decorating tools and her cake pans. I was very hesitant, not sure I could do it, but I started taking orders, and I learned and I learned. I learned things no one can teach you.”
Ruth has a bulging envelope full of snapshots of the cakes she’s made over the years. When asked how much she might charge for such a cake, she’s surprised: “I think that the most I ever charged for a cake was $25. It takes sometimes two days to bake the cakes, all day to frost, so maybe three days overall.” She gazes out at the pasture beyond the big kitchen window. “But you know, I love it.”
Today Ruth bakes just for family and friends, and for them, of course, the cakes are free. This year she’ll bake four cakes for the church auction, her contribution to Madison’s Baptist church. Angel-food cakes are very popular at the auction. “People are afraid [to bake] angel cakes,” she says. “They’re afraid they won’t turn out.”
Ruth has advice for anyone who wants to bake cakes: Plan ahead and allow time for failure, so that you have enough time to rectify the problem; clean up as you go; use fresh ingredients. But one of Ruth’s most important tips is to make a thin glaze out of the frosting you’ll use: Thin the frosting with hot water; when the cake is cool, apply the glaze and let it harden for a couple of hours. That way, your frosting will go on smoothly–no crumbs.
Ruth and Buddy have been married 62 years, with a multigenerational family of 28 now surrounding them within a few miles of their homestead–a measure of their loyalty to their parents, or else their love of Ruth’s cooking. Probably both. Ruth has made all of her children’s and grandchildren’s wedding cakes. “I’ve taught them all how to cook, too,” she says. “For some reason, they all want to learn how to make rolls. So I show them. We’ve got a great family of cooks now. And they all live just a few miles away! We have wonderful holidays together.” I wonder how much the church could make if it auctioned off a membership in the Shackford family. I’m betting they’d fill their coffers.
FROM YANKEE’S RECIPES: Cake Recipes