I am a picture of concentration in my pale blue velvet party dress. Minutes earlier, the snapshots show me smiling, even laughing, as my Aunt Stella helps my sister take her turn at blowing out the five candles on my birthday cake. But in this last photo, my eyes are focused as I concentrate on a serious task: cutting the cake. I reach forward with the knife, my mother’s hands over mine as if wedded, as we slice into the chocolate frosting, my aunt and cousins looking on.

The cake is a long and slender rectangle, the confectionery equivalent of Holly Golightly in her little black dress. But slicing through the icing reveals the cake’s pink, white and green layers, and it immediately becomes more Goldie Hawn than Audrey Hepburn— psychedelic, daffy and thoroughly quotidian. After serving the others, I spend the next few minutes deconstructing my slice, pulling the raspberry jam-joined layers apart one by one and eating them as long ribbons, favorite green first, conventionally girly pink second, then dull white.

The same cake shows up in quite a few family photos, usually in ones commemorating a birthday, like the one taken at my grandfather’s 64th birthday celebration. Grandpop is all smiles, holding a young me and my toddler sister on his lap. We look ahead greedily to the cake before us, and not at him. Ribbon Cake from Silber’s Bakery trumps family every time.

Founded by Isaac and Dora Silber in 1907 on Lombard Street near Central Avenue— and eventually growing to a chain of 32 locations— Silber’s was known throughout Baltimore for its high-quality baked goods. My mother always bought rye bread and a couple of napoleons for my dad from the Silber’s in Eastpoint Mall. A colleague swoons over the memory of Silber’s pound cake, while a friend recalls the boxes of chocolate-topped or jelly-filled butter cookies her mother brought along when she visited her at college. My dentist remembers the glazed twist doughnuts, and yes, ribbon cake, her father’s favorite, that he would buy from the Silber’s in Lexington Market.

Silber’s never quite recovered from a series of health department infractions in 1979 and finally closed its doors in 1980, leaving me to search hopefully for Ribbon Cake at the city’s other old-fashioned bakeries. Woodlea Bakery in Gardenville sells a version that has fat violet- and orange-tinted layers amongst the pink, green and white. Sharon Hooper at Hoehn’s Bakery in Highlandtown occasionally makes the cake at Easter, she says. She “mess[es] around with [the cake’s] flavor using either extracts or fruit bases” and uses “just the tiniest layer of butter cream or jelly to hold it together.” My dentist told me she even found a version at Sam’s Club for her dad last Christmas. But none are quite like the cake I remember. So I call Sidney Silber, Isaac Silber’s son, who ran the bakery after returning from World War II and into the 1960s, and ask him to tell me the secret of the cake.

Although Ribbon Cake wasn’t his favorite (he preferred the bakery’s Danish pastries), Silber describes to me how the half-inch layers of pound cake were baked in large 2-by-3-foot metal sheet pans. Once the cakes cooled, they would be stacked, spread with raspberry jam and cut into the trademark rectangular shape before being frosted.
“Do you know where the idea for Ribbon Cake came from?” I ask him. He doesn’t.

“But,” he says, “the trick was to make it right and use the very best ingredients.”

“Do you have a recipe you could share?” I ask.

Alas, the answer is no. “The recipes were in 100-pound batches,” he says. “But, you could make a good Ribbon Cake yourself. Use a good quality sweet cream butter. Use good quality vanilla. Fresh eggs. Your flour should be cake flour. And use a good solid jelly in between, and good chocolate. You can make it as good as anybody makes it. No problem.”

Growing up, nearly everything I ate was home-baked, so it’s more than a little odd that my family holds so dear a commercially made cake, much less one so luridly colored (my mother remembers thinking the green and pink layers looked “horrible” the first time she saw the cake). But in the same way my sister and I preferred McDonald’s to Mom’s, the thrill of a bakery cake— especially a green and pink bakery cake— was unparalleled for us, an exotic treat that we’d never make at home and a remnant of the days when the locally owned bakeries, with their wide range of preservative-free wares, dotted Baltimore’s dessert scene.

So I will follow Sidney Silber’s advice and make a Ribbon Cake “as good as anybody creation that reminds me of the fountains near the Silber’s Bakery at Eastpoint Mall, the dusty blue plastic candleholders my grandmother pulled out for birthdays, my mom’s pink and green paisley dress. It won’t be the cake that tastes, to me, like celebration. That cake will live on solely in my memory.

Ribbon Cake
If time is at a premium, skip the tinting and bake the cake in 9-by-3-inch loaf pans. Slice the loaf cake into 4 or 5 layers, spread each layer with jam, stack and ice, and voila. The cake recipe is from the “Fannie Farmer Baking Book.” The ganache is from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “A Passion for Chocolate.”

Pound Cake

Chocolate Ganache

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