The comic essayist David Sedaris perfectly captures the absurdity of ritual in his famous French-class skit. Sedaris, an American, attempts to describe in broken French how "the rabbit of Easter ... he bring of the chocolate ... he come in the night when one sleep on a bed." His Polish and Italian classmates scoff at the idea of a small, long-eared mammal that sneaks into children's homes each spring to lavish them with sweets.
"No, no," counters Sedaris's teacher. "Here in France the chocolate is brought by a big bell that flies in from Rome."
Resurrecting the Tradition
This is how I feel explaining Easter lamb cake to non-believers. Christians have a god who can turn wine into his blood and bread into his flesh, but this deity is also a lamb. At Easter some people transform the holy trinity of flour, sugar, and butter into a heavy batter, shape it into a small wooly ungulate, bake it Sinai dry, and then bring it to life with a sweet buttercream hide, a coconut fleece, and two licorice jelly beans for eyes. And after feasting on ham and deviled eggs, we, the faithful, cut off its head and serve slices of the body all around, communing with each other and with our ancestors. Not quite what is meant by the Eucharistic dictum "do this in remembrance of me," but there it is.
Or rather, there it goes. Like many congregations today, the community of lamb cake worshippers is in decline. In Chicago, the family-owned bakery Dinkel's has been making lamb cakes since it opened in 1922. "Up until the 1970s, we would produce 10,000 to 12,000 lambs per season," said the current owner, Norman J. Dinkel Jr. But now it's about 300.
I feel called upon to help resurrect the tradition, and I'm not the only one.
Ruth Clark launched the Mid-Century Modern Menu blog because of her interest in lamb cake. "My grandmother made them when I was younger and it was my favorite part of Easter," she told me. "When I grew older, I wanted to replicate that memory."
I had preserved my own memories of lamb cakes past in the part of my brain where I also store rhubarb pie, spinach salad with sugar-vinegar dressing, and starting a complaint with a guttural "och!" that marks my people as Germans of the Midwest (more specifically, my flock that grazes in the "Rhine of Missouri," one of the highest concentrations of German immigrants in America).
Then one night, many years later as a lost Ph.D. student wandering a Chicago grocery store, I glimpsed the lamb in all his glorious vestments of coconut and candy. I was overcome by a flood of food memories. My husband, however, was unmoved. Even growing up Catholic in Pennsylvania and able to trace his maternal line back to Germany, he had never heard of lamb cake.
A Brief History
That made me wonder about the story behind this European tradition. I discovered the cake extends from Germany to Poland, Austria, France, and Italy (where they are often made of marzipan), but not Bulgaria or Ireland, where the lamb of god symbol appears as a roast leg served as the main course instead of the sweet finale.
Get the Recipe: How To Roast a Leg of Lamb
Trying to trace the dessert's diaspora, I recently asked for the memories of other food writers. They told me of cakes made by Swedish grandmothers in the Midwest, Italian grandmothers on the East Coast, and Polish families in Missouri and Vermont. Lambs had been spotted in the 1950s Betty Crocker for Kids cookbook and in a 1960s German bakery in Queens. There was even a brief vision in southern California. But food historian Angela Heuzenroeder, who specializes in Australia's Barossa Valley, another high concentration of German immigrants, says she's heard of only one instance. The lamb had grazed west, it seems, but not east. Following this trail of crumbs raised more questions than it answered about food, history, and identity.
We can, however, be pretty certain about the heyday of the cake. "The lamb was one of our first products," said Dana Norsten of Nordicware, "added to our line soon after 1946." And mid-century food expert Clark cites the '40s and '50s as when the lamb cake "started really getting popular." She attributes it to the trend of "stylized food, " like edible centerpieces; elaborate jellos; and lamb cakes in pastel yellow, pink, or blue, as Dinkels once decorated them.
You can still find white buttercream or chocolate fudge lamb cakes at Dinkels. And Nordicware now makes a lighter-weight two-part formed aluminum mold. Clark, who has done many lamb cake experiments on her blog, helps others carry on the tradition at home. She suggests using a recipe for pound cake or an airy Twinkie-esque sponge cake. There's nothing happy about the medium in between because they tend to stick. And when it comes to decorating, "I would rather see more lambs than fancy lambs," she said, encouraging those new to the art to give it a try.
After bread and the egg, I often think there is no food more ripe with meaning than lamb. It is important to the religious teachings of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It speaks to innocence and rebirth, but also to sacrifice and memorial. But to speak about these matters directly is difficult. To help us explain them to ourselves and others, we use food, and that's perhaps how Jesus, as the Lamb of God, got turned into a kitschy cake.
"Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do," jokes Sedaris about why his French class turns to bunnies and bells that deliver chocolate. "We talked about food instead."
(Image credits: Nordicware)