Joe Cooke is serious about watching his weight and looking for ways to cut the calories of meals he makes.
But those rules go out the window when the 68-year-old Galloway Township man heads into the kitchen to reconnect with a delicious memory from his childhood.
"I'm not going to do that with my Poor Man's Cake - I wouldn't substitute. It is a hand-me-down. I would never ever change it and make it with Splenda," he said.
Cooke learned the recipe from his mother, Betty, while growing up in Hatboro, Pa. The only change he has made is that he bakes his cakes in a bundt pan while his mother had made hers in a loaf pan and then cut it into slices.
"Some people call it Depression Cake, I call it Poor Man's Cake," Cooke said. "Back then, homemakers only had flour, raisins, water and sugar - if they were lucky. It tastes like a spice cake. Anyone who has had it has enjoyed it."
Cooke savors the cake's aroma almost as much as he loves the taste.
"When it is baking in the oven, the smell brings me back to childhood, when (my mother) used to make it. It's a remnant of old days that are never coming back," he said.
Betty Cooke died young. Her son was only 14 when he lost his mother. That's what gave Cooke the push to begin assuming duties in the kitchen.
"My dad worked at a steel mill. I figured that since he worked, I might as well start doing something to help," Cooke said.
Cooke enrolled in a junior chef program for boys at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden. The extra-credit program taught boys the fundamentals of working in the kitchen. Cooke remained enrolled for three years, impressing one instructor enough that he recommended the boy pursue a culinary education.
"I said, 'No - Hell no, I don't want to leave home,'" Cooke recalled.
Even with his training, Cooke made some mistakes. He remembers once making a cake for his father that did not turn out well.
"I wanted to surprise him, so I made a cake. I had no powdered sugar, so I used regular sugar. It turned out horrible, but he didn't say anything. He ate it - he didn't want to crush a 14-year-old kid," Cooke recalls with affection.
Cooke gathered recipes from family, friends and where ever else he could find them.
His cooking remained a personal passion as he worked for 33 years as a computer technician for the federal government at Naval Air Developmental Center in Warminster, Pa..
His interest in food took a different tack in 1994, when he enrolled in Weight Watchers with a goal to lose more than 80 pounds.
"I had tried it before in 1976 - I lost a lot of weight, but it came back," Cooke said "When I went back, I was real serious about it. I made up my mind that this was it, I'm not getting any younger."
Following the Weight Watchers program, Cooke lost a total of 82 pounds. He gained back a few pounds after determining he'd lost too much and now tips the scales at about 165 pounds. It's a weight he has maintained, even after moving to this area 12 years ago. He now works part-time at Showboat Casino in Atlantic City.
Even now, Cooke said, he still keeps an eye on what he eats. He looks to lighten his recipes whenever possible.
"It's a commitment, but its working," he said. "I do the old Weight Watchers program - I use as many sugar-free products as possible. I use as much fat-free food as possible. This way, if I want to cheat and go to someone's birthday, I can have the birthday cake - that's a reward."
Watching what he eats hasn't kept Cooke from the kitchen. He still enjoys cooking and subscribes to cooking magazines and scans for recipes he'd like to try. He frequently experiments to see just how light he can make a meal, but he doesn't sacrifice taste in order to reduce calories as much as possible.
"If I see a recipe that I really like, I will try to cut it down as much as I can without ruining it," he said.
He's known for his Jewish Apple Cake and he also makes a mean Hungarian Goulash.
Cooke is a frequent contributor to the monthly pot luck dinners at Shady Pines development in Galloway, and his dishes always seem popular, he said.
"I'm not tooting my own horn, but they always look forward to what I'm going to bring," he said. "I made Calico Beans from a recipe I got out of a little cookbook. I made it and everybody loved it. It has a pound of bacon - but you don't eat that everyday."
And that, Cooke says, is one of the secrets of life - knowing when there are times to sacrifice, but also knowing that, sometimes, it's time to relax and enjoy the bounty before you.
"I had to learn that the difficult way," he said. "When I made my goal, I went to my sister's anniversary party on Sunday and my weigh-in was on Monday, so I didn't have the strawberry shortcake. On Monday I stepped on the scale and boom - I made my goal."
"Life is a celebration, and everybody has to celebrate different things in life," he said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Poor Man's Cake
•2 cups sugar
•1 pound raisins
•1 tablespoon Crisco
•2 teaspoons salt
•2 teaspoons cinnamon
•1 teaspoon nutmeg
•2 3/4 cups water
•2 teaspoons baking soda
•2 teaspoons water
•4 cups flour
Boil sugar, raisins, Crisco, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and water in a large pot for 5 minutes. Cool for 45 minutes. Dissolve baking soda in 2 teaspoons of water, mix and add to pot and stir well. Take mixture from pot and add flour, a little at a time, until well mixed. Batter will be thick. Grease and flour a bundt pan. Bake at 300 degrees for approximately 1 hour 35 minutes. Test with a toothpick for dryness.