Food for Soul

I Found This Long-Lost Spice Bar Recipe in My Great-Grandmother’s Cookbook

Lisa Kaminski

Lisa KaminskiUpdated: Aug. 26, 2021

TASTE OF HOME

What happens when you stumble across a long-forgotten cookbook? You flip straight to the vintage desserts.

If you ask my mom or aunts, they’re quick to tell you what a phenomenal cook my great-grandmother was. Next to sewing (she was a professional seamstress), cooking and baking were her greatest passions. After years and years, though, her favorite recipes—the ones she kept in her own handwritten cookbook like so many grandmothers—got lost. My family figured that these recipes for cakes, cookies, pies and pickles were gone forever.

I thought so too—until I found her cookbook in the back of my coat closet.

I was organizing a shelf, reached back to grab what I assumed was another half-completed crossword book and instead pulled out an old notebook with her name—Clara Brannan—on the front. As I paged through carefully, I found so many vintage recipes. I had to try one! I decided to start with one that would really make my home feel like fall: spice bars.

great-grandma clara and vintage spice bar recipe

The only issue—and the issue with almost every recipe in this handwritten cookbook—was that the recipe lacked all the directions. I felt like I was looking at a pared-down version destined for Great British Baking Show technical challenge. I’m sure my great-grandmother knew exactly what to do with each of these recipes—which size pan to bake in, what tools to use, what consistency the mixtures should be blended to—but I didn’t. All I could do was try my best and hope I inherited her baking skills and intuition.

Clara Brannan’s Spice Bar Recipe

  • 1-½ cups flour
  • ¾ cups buttermilk
  • ¾ cup brown sugar, divided
  • 1 egg, separated
  • ¼ cup shortening
  • ¼ cup pecans, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon cloves

Getting started

ingredients for spice bar recipe

The first part of the recipe seemed pretty simple. I just had to sift the dry ingredients together. I typically don’t sift anything when I bake, but Great-grandma knows best! So I started by sifting the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and spices together.

Then, in another bowl, I creamed together the shortening—something I don’t use often—with a half cup of brown sugar and the egg yolk. Once that was well-blended, I poured in the buttermilk and gave it a spin. My great-grandma’s recipe called for “sour milk,” but I wasn’t so sure about that one. I opted for buttermilk instead—it’s truly a baking secret weapon.

Once the mixture was all smooth, I added my dry ingredients and blended them together with my hand mixer. The batter smelled amazing! After taking a quick taste (a cook has to taste as she goes, right?), I hit my first snag.

The first hurdle: picking the right pan

mixing the batter for vintage spice bar recipe

Looking at my bowl of bar batter, I wasn’t quite sure what to do next. It didn’t look like much in my dish—certainly not enough for a 13×9 pan (don’t worry—it gets plenty of use with these dinners). After deliberating for a minute, I grabbed my 8×8 pan and gave it a quick coat of cooking spray. As I tipped my mix into the pan, I realized I made the right call. It was the perfect amount for my favorite pan (it’s my go-to for these smaller desserts).

The second hurdle: what to do with the leftover ingredients?

old-fashioned meringue topping for spice bar recipe

The batter for these spice bars came together pretty easily, but I found myself left with an egg white, a quarter cup of brown sugar and some pecans. Part of me thought that all those ingredients could have just gone inside the batter, but the recipe said, “for top.” I sat in my kitchen—what used to be my great-grandma’s kitchen—and puzzled. And then it dawned on me: It’s a meringue!

With that cooking conundrum solved, I got whipping up that egg white right away. As a big fan of meringues, I knew the basics of making one (though you can brush up on how to make meringue). My big question, though, was to whip the egg whites into soft or stiff peaks. In the end, I went with a bit of a softer peak. I figured as I blended in the brown sugar (something totally new to me—who adds brown sugar to meringue?) they’d stiffen up a bit more. Once the meringue was where I wanted it, I gently folded in the chopped pecans.

meringue topping with pecans

I’m not the world’s biggest pecan fan, but I made a point of adding them anyway. Ask anyone in my family, and they’ll tell you, “Everything is better with nuts,” a sentiment that surely originated with my great-grandmother. So many pecan and walnut recipes in her cookbook!

Final steps

The idea of topping a batter with a meringue was pretty foreign to me. In fact, I’d never seen that before and wasn’t so sure it was right, but I wanted to follow the recipe the best I could. Using an offset spatula, I carefully spread the meringue mix over the batter. There wasn’t much with just one egg white—my 8×8 pan decision reaffirmed. Then I popped it into a 350ºF oven for 30 minutes. I was thankful my great-grandma included a time and temperature for this recipe!

The end result

finished spice bars in 8x8 pan on cooling rack and dish towel

I’ll admit it: I was nervous to pull this bake out of the oven. A meringue on top of a spice bar? A cake made with just a single egg yolk? But as I cracked that oven door open, I breathed a sigh of relief: The bars looked perfect! The meringue was a beautiful golden brown and when I pricked the bars with a pick, it came out clean. Seemed like a technically successful bake, but how would these very vintage spice bars taste?

Let me tell you right now: They tasted like fall. The spice bar itself was very old fashioned tasting (I mean that in the best way!); I think that the buttermilk has a lot to do with that. When it came to the spices—just right. But what about that meringue topping? I was definitely worried about that one, but in the end, it formed a nice thin layer on top of the bars. It provided a little extra sweetness and a marshmallow-y consistency plus the crunch of the pecans. I started asking myself why don’t more bars have meringue on top? 

single spice bar on a plate

Now that I’ve got a taste of what baking was like for my great-grandma, I’m excited to try even more! Maybe an applesauce cake? “Twin Mountain” muffins? Or maybe one of her many pickle recipes?Old-Fashioned Recipes Like Grandma Used to Make

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This pineapple upside-down cake is a classic recipe that never goes out of style! It’s delicious with the traditional pineapple, but try it with peaches or a combination of cranberries and orange. —Bernardine Melton, Paola, KansasGo to Recipe

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This impressive hummingbird cake is my dad’s favorite, so I always make it for his birthday. It makes a memorable dessert for any celebration and is lovely with a summer meal. —Nancy Zimmerman, Cape May Court House, New JerseyGo to Recipe

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We always called this Mama’s “never fail” recipe. I guess the same holds true for me, since I’ve entered this lazy daisy cake in contests and won with it. This tasty dessert is popular in our family, and it always brings back fond memories of Mama. —Carrie Bartlett, Gallatin, TennesseeGo to Recipe

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I first made this cake for my fathers’ birthday and now it is the only cake that he requests. This cake has complex flavors and is very unique. —Cleo Gonske, Redding, CaliforniaGo to Recipe

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I just love this southern-style dessert, and so do dinner guests. With pecans, cherries and raisins in the filling and topping, this version reminds me of a fruitcake—only so much better! —Mabel Parvi, Ridgefield, WashingtonGo to Recipe

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