The cake came in the spirit of aloha, a welcoming gesture from a much-loved neighbor to the young family in the new subdivision.
The crumbly-topped treat marked the Higdons’ move to Kailua. And, like its bearer, it quickly became beloved.
More than 60 years later, Aunt Gaynelle’s Spanish Coffee Cake continues to serve as a reminder of the kindness of the woman who first shared the favorite recipe. Her gift still gives, spreading aloha – or, love – across an ocean, around a continent and now, finally, to Spokane.
“I have given her recipe to all who ask,” said Alexis Higdon, who was just 3 when Aunt Gaynelle carried the cinnamony cake across the street.
She wasn’t really a relative.
In fact, Higdon, now 66, never even knew her last name. But, like other folks in the community, she and her family called Gaynelle “aunt” as a term of respect for the elderly Hawaiian woman.
When Higdon, her parents and two brothers – one older, one younger – moved to the neighborhood in 1951, “We didn’t know anyone, and we had to start from scratch making new friends.”
Aunt Gaynelle was the first to show the family kindness, sharing her “most awesome, delicious Spanish coffee cake” and, even though they didn’t know her long, leaving a lasting impression. A few months after giving the Higdons her cake – as well as the recipe for it – Aunt Gaynelle died.
Every year after that, Higdon’s mother would make the cake on Christmas morning as a tribute to their friend.
“We had it every year in honor of Aunt Gaynelle who was so good to us,” Higdon said. But, “That’s just family tradition. You can have it anytime” – not just in the morning, not only on Christmas.
You can even enjoy it without a cup of coffee. The practice of enjoying cake with coffee dates to the 17th century.
Higdon isn’t sure why Aunt Gaynelle called her coffee cake Spanish. Perhaps it was the cinnamon-scented streusel topping. Or maybe it was simple batter and texture, reminiscent of Bica Gallega, a spongy cake topped with toasted sugar from the Spanish region of Galicia and popular for breakfast or with coffee.
Recipes for Bica Gallega feature clarified butter, but no nuts or warm spices.
A similar recipe for Spanish coffee cake on the website epicurious.com only varies in its amounts of sugar. It calls for less; 1/2 cup granulated and 3/4 brown sugar compared to 3/4 and 1 cup, respectively.
Higdon wrote Aunt Gaynelle’s recipe on a 3-by-5 card when she was 16 or 17, taking over the tradition of making the “humble little cake” on Christmas morning from her mom “because it meant so much to me.”
“Aunt Gaynelle befriended our family,” Higdon said. “I felt a responsibility to carry that forward for her.”
In her submission for “In the Kitchen With … ” she wrote: “After I left home and moved to the mainland, I continued this tradition, filling our home with a wonderful aroma, and sharing it with neighbors, friends, and, eventually, my own family. Fortunately, it is very easy to make and can be enjoyed year round. Its tender texture and homey flavors never fail to bring a little bit of Aunt Gaynelle’s aloha to others.”
Higdon, a retired veterinarian, graduated from the Punahou School in 1967, a dozen years before President Barack Obama. When she moved – first to Boston, then Miami, with extended road trips to North Carolina and California, then back to Hawaii and on to Seattle, Pullman, Boise and Spokane – the recipe traveled with her.
“It’s sweet, but not too sweet,” Higdon said. “Everybody loves it.”
In 1993, at 45, she graduated from veterinary school at Washington State University in Pullman. Four years later, she and her then-partner and now-spouse, Kath’ren Bay, 67, opened a feline hospital in Boise. They ran it together until 2010, when they retired, moving to Spokane a year later. They married last August.
Bay prefers to enjoy the cake while it’s still warm, using leftover crumbs from the crumbly streusel to top ice cream.
“It’s impossible not to pick at the top,” said Higdon, who – throughout all of her moves, has “never not missed Hawaii.”
Aunt Gaynelle’s Spanish Coffee Cake reminds her of birthplace, childhood and old neighbor.
“I really don’t think she’d mind one little bit, knowing that for more than a half century, her generous heart and warm, comforting coffee cake has touched many more lives than just those of her lonely new neighbors so long ago,” Higdon wrote in her submission.
Said Bay, “It just conjures up warmth, comfort, happiness. It’s the aloha feeling. It’s so perfect it comes from Aunt Gaynelle in Hawaii because it makes you feel like family.”
Aunt Gaynelle’s Spanish Coffee Cake
Alexis Higdon uses pecans or walnuts, but almonds would work, too. She warns against mixing the batter too well; it should be a little lumpy. All in all, “It’s really easy.” Stored in an air-tight container or covered with plastic wrap, “I am sure it would last for up to a week,” Higdon said. “But it has never been around that long!”
2 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 to 1 cup chopped nuts
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg, beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8-by-11-by-2 baking pan.
In a large mixing bowl, combine ingredients through vegetable oil. Place ¾ cup of this mixture in a small mixing bowl and add nuts and cinnamon. (This will become the topping.) Add sour milk to the first mixture. (To sour the milk, remove 1 tablespoon from a cup of milk, replacing it with 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar.) Stir to combine. Add baking soda, baking powder and egg, and stir, taking care not to over mix.
Pour batter into greased pan. Crumble topping mixture over batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 55 to 60 minutes. Cover tightly to store.