Dirty Pages My ex's favorite icing

as told to Jennifer Justus by Mindy Merrell

Dirty pages are the messiest recipes in our collections. Dusted with cocoa powder and ringed with coffee stains, handed down from family or shared by friends, they offer good instructions and deliver the best stories.

Dirty Pages, the ongoing recipe exhibit, launched in Nashville in 2015, a collaboration with Erin Byers Murray and Cindy Wall. The series peeks into the homes of cooks across the South. In this installment for Gravy, we hear from food writer Mindy Merrell, who still makes her ex-husband’s grandmother’s frosting. She stores the recipe between the pages of her grandmother’s 1964 paperback edition of Joy of Cooking. – Jennifer Justus

This July, on my former husband’s birthday, I’ll once again make his favorite angel food cake with fluffy white icing. It’s the classic cake his maternal grandmother, Nana, made every year when he was a child. I’ve been making it for him for about thirty years. The last fifteen or so we haven’t even been married.

Cary Dunn, a native of Newport News, Virginia, is a reserved guy who doesn’t gush about his childhood, but he gushes about this cake. He’ll tell you how the billowy icing develops a thin, crispy crust in dry air and how it shatters to reveal soft insides. He knows every stage of icing according to that particular birthday’s humidity. Don’t make a lemon curd filling with the leftover egg yolks or garnish the cake with fresh raspberries. Cary wants his cake minimalist, pure, and white. Doesn’t that sound just like an architect?


My early icing attempts weren’t always successful. Cary was nice about those grainy years. Not long before she died, Nana handed me an index card with the handwritten recipe. I learned that I needed to make the icing over a hot water bath to keep the sugar syrup from crystallizing. For this recipe, I trade my stand mixer for a little handheld number. Nailing this icing still makes me do a victory dance in the kitchen. It’s a food science marvel.

I like making what we call “the cake.” The whole family eats it, but Cary owns it. His continued friendship is a good excuse to keep baking it, and more than that, it’s a way to share our kids’ Virginia roots with them. Maybe when they’re older they will make the cake, too.

Mindy’s take on Nana’s Seven-Minute White Icing

2 egg whites

1 1⁄2 cups sugar

1⁄3 cup water

Small squirt of corn syrup (about 1 1⁄2 teaspoons)

1⁄4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine all ingredients, except the vanilla, in the top of a double boiler or in a stainless steel mixing bowl set over a saucepan of boiling water. Beat with an electric hand mixer for 7 minutes.

Remove the icing from the heat and add the vanilla.

Continue beating until the icing cools slightly, has a thick spreading consistency, and can hold onto the cake, about 2-3 minutes longer.

Spread a thin layer all over the cake to set the crumbs. Add a second thick layer.

Photos by Mindy Merrell.

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