The Enchanted Castle Cake by
(80 Stories)

Prompted By Recipes

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It’s been over thirty years since I spent an evening awkwardly curled up on the couch, sniffling through a movie based on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Pregnant with my third child, my heart was captured by 6-year-old James, a blonde charmer in a sailor suit. The last of six children, James Ramsay had a special place in his mother’s heart: he was “the most gifted and sensitive of her children.” James wanted desperately to go to the lighthouse, enticingly visible yet painfully distant from the Ramsay’s summer home–a daylong trip that would have been a very big adventure for such a small boy.  In the story, young James does not get to the lighthouse; not until he is a surly sixteen year-old and far beyond his childhood longing does the day finally arrive. I’m not sure why I reacted to the movie with such strong sentiment, barely able to stop the flood of tears– maybe it was hormones, or maybe it was because I knew I was carrying a boy, my last child, just like Mrs. Ramsay’s James, and watching the unraveling of his innocence was almost more than I could bear.

It was more than just a cake; it was an architectural marvel. 


We named our son James, partly because of Woolf’s moving story. He was born blond, like James Ramsay, and had big blue questioning eyes. My James was a quiet observer. We would catch him staring intently at the white-on-white chevron pattern of our couch. It was a bit odd, but we put his little infant seat near the couch so he could stare to his heart’s content. As he got older, James was fascinated with many things, especially letters and words. He read his birthday cards out loud at his fourth birthday party. He has always been happy around books and, like me, rarely goes anywhere without something to read.


When James was small, we had a few children’s cookbooks.  Every now and again we would do a baking or a cooking project together–snickerdoodles were a big hit with all three kids. At a garage sale, I found a true classic: Betty Crocker’s  Boys and Girls Cook Book, written circa 1957. It was fun to read and to look at. The drawings were priceless, and the recipes hark back to my childhood favorites, especially cinnamon toast, pigs in blankets, jam-filled thumbprint cookies, and macaroni and cheese. But James was entranced by the Enchanted Castle Cake.

It was more than just a cake; it was an architectural marvel.  The castle was constructed by cleverly sawing a 9-x-13 inch cake (yellow, from a mix) into smaller squares, rectangles and arches, then artfully stacking and arranging the pieces, applying frosting (also from a mix), and decorating the whole affair with marshmallows, chocolate, inverted ice cream cones and toothpicks to create an impressive castle with flags, turrets, and a drawbridge. James really, really wanted to make that castle cake, but there was always something more pressing to do. Promises were made to make it some day, but that day never came.








In October 1991, when James was 5, our house burned to the ground in the Oakland hills fire. Although my husband thought to rescue our big binder of hand-written recipes, the Boys and Girls Cook Book was lost, along with everything else. I don’t think I understood how much this book was missed until James started talking about the castle cake again. How would I ever find a copy of this book, long out of print? As it turned out, a neighbor whose house didn’t burn made it her job to help the rest of us replace our favorite cookbooks. To those of us starting all over, having our favorite recipes again allowed us to start putting our lives back together. In an unfamiliar rental house, an unfamiliar neighborhood, and a different kitchen, being able to cook family favorites was a blessing.

I gave up trying to replace my vintage Betty Crocker, but then Paula, the neighbor with foodie connections, put me in touch with a man from General Mills, Betty Crocker’s parent company.  We talked about the Boys and Girls Cook Book, and I explained my 5-year-old son’s fascination with the Enchanted Castle Cake. Oh yes, he was familiar with the castle cake. Yes, he had a copy of the cookbook. No, I couldn’t have it. But he offered to copy the recipe and illustrations and send it to me, which he did, and hope was restored in James’s heart. I confess I did not jump right up and bake the cake. It was still a huge hassle, and besides, I didn’t have anything to bake with yet. In fact, it was nearly a year before I felt like baking anything.


There is a happy ending to our story, however. One summer day, when James was 12, we made the castle cake. Our cake had a definite starboard list to it, and I doubt the turrets would have survived even a minor earthquake. We took some license and liberally doused the whole structure with multi-colored sprinkles–it was a party castle. We did all of it together: placing the marshmallows like puffy luminaria atop the castle walls, frosting the upside-down ice cream cones, creating waves of blue icing (for the moat, of course), placing jaunty little paper flags into the tops of the tilted towers–the whole shebang. Our special touch: chocolate dorsal fins placed menacingly in the moat. I took several pictures, for it was a sight to behold. If, after all those years, it didn’t meet his expectations, James never let on.

James is now a father himself, no longer that dreamy bookish 5-year-old or the not-yet-teen who could still have fun baking with his mom. No matter how much time goes by though, we will always share the sweet memory of the day we made the Castle Cake.


A version of this essay was published in the San Francisco Chronicle many years ago. The little boy with the castle cake is the illustration that accompanied the  published article. So perfect for this piece. A friend gave me her well-used copy of the cookbook after she saw the article. It’s falling apart, but I’m hanging on to it in case some other little boy or girl wants to make the Enchanted Castle Cake one day.

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Lovely story Risa!
    I have a son who loves to cook and bake. When he was a toddler we gave him a toy stove which came with a set of pots and pans. He called it his “toy stove and oven” which we still smile about.

    To the Lighthouse and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway are gems in term of style, characterization and sentiment, both well worth rereading.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thanks for your comment, Dana. I love that my son is teaching his son how to bake these days! My grandson is the same age James was when he started dreaming about that castle cake. Amazing to think about!

  2. Suzy says:

    Risa, this is a wonderful story! I was expecting to read about the Coffee Blond Brownies from the Silver Palate Cookbook, which I have been thinking about ever since you posted on facebook. But I love this story too! How great that you named your son James after the Virginia Woolf character! And that you and he finally made the cake that he was so desperate to make, even after the fire destroyed your copy of the cookbook. Your cake is beautiful, with the sprinkles and the shark fins, much more interesting than the one in the book! Thanks for sharing it!

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thanks, Suzy! The brownies my daughter refers to as “Brownies from God” might get their own story one day…Glad I got the chance to share the castle cake story on Retrospect!

  3. Marian says:

    This brings up so many associations, both happy and teary, Risa. What an inspiration to name James after the little boy in To the Lighthouse, a book that mad a huge impression on me. Love the photos of those castles. I hope James has as much joy in baking with his kids. And, I’m so sorry about what happened to your house in the Oakland Hills fire, what a scary and awful time. My parents had a house there that escaped by about 1/4 mile.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thanks, Marian. James is really enjoying baking with his kids as they shelter in place. I hear that the 5 yr old has nearly perfected his egg-cracking technique! I’m glad that your parents escaped the fire. (Shameless plug for my book, “There was a Fire Here.”)

  4. Such a sweet and beautifully crafted story, Risa. Weaving together the strands of Virginia Woolf, the movie, the lighthouse, the fire, the cake, and your son growing up and becoming a dad with a son of his own gave it an enchanting storybook quality, with the perfect illustration and photos to bring it to life. It also made me look up “To the Lighthouse” and now .I can’t decide whether to watch the movie or read the book. Maybe I’ll do both.

    Always so happy to see you’ve posted another story here!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a sweet story, Risa. I’m so glad James finally got his cake. Do you think he will create the cake with his kids now that he’s a father? I remember many of the recipes in that cookbook well. I had a children’s cookbook as a kid with many of the same recipes.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Hi Laurie, and thank you. I would not be at all surprised if he and his kids try their hand at the castle cake! He’s sentimental in that way, and it would be so much fun for his son if they did this together (with a helping hand from his baby sister)!

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    Risa, I confess, I was so excited when I got the notification that you’d posted a new story. Your voice is missed here.

    And what a touching story it is! I love your observant little blond James (my first-born also liked to stare at people and things…we lived in the city at the time and I shopped with him in a Snugglie, where he was eye-level to people in front of me in the check-out line. It made them uncomfortable at times as this little head with big eyes just stared them down!)

    I shared your heartbreak as you described the fire and dislocation, but am relieved that your family was unharmed, though your possessions were lost. How sweet that your neighbors came through with replacements as much as they could.

    And I loved the finished Enchanted Castle Cake, with your own flourishes. How wonderful that you came back to it and made it your own! I confess, since we had our grown children and our London son’s girlfriend here at Christmas time, at their suggestion, we started watching The Great British Bake Show. Your cake reminded me of something they would bake on that show – so impressive! Watching has given me a whole new appreciation for what goes into making something as grand as what you accomplished. Bravo! Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thank you so much, Betsy. It’s nice to be back in the fold at Retrospect. Here’s another thing about the cake: when James was applying to college, I asked him what he was going to write about in his personal statement. He said, “The castle cake!” Well, he changed his mind, but that was the inspiration for me to write this essay. I am also a fan of TGBBS, but this reminds me more of the show called “Nailed It,’ where amateur bakers attempt to replicate some high concept cake! Thanks again!

  7. John Shutkin says:

    What a moving story, Risa, and with a happy ending!. Like others, I loved the tie in with Virginia Woolf, right down to the naming of your son. And thrilled you were able to recover the recipe and bake the cake and even take photos of it. (By the way, here in MA., they would be called “jimmies,: not “sprinkles.” Don’t ask. )

    Thank you and hope you continue sharing your stories with us.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thank you John. I’m glad you enjoyed my story.For so many reasons, this is one of my favorite memories. I wrote it the year we sent James off to college, so it’s very close to my heart.

  8. John Zussman says:

    Such a sweet story about the power of food, and love, and a child’s dream to overcome loss and adversity. I envy your son, and his, learning to cook at a young age. In my day, or at least in my house, boys did not venture into the kitchen except to raid the refrigerator.

  9. You had me at the title. Just flat out wonderful, Risa.

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