Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hot Sugar: Adventures in Candyland




If cooking is an art and baking is a science, then candy making is nuclear physics. Unlike my niece Jessica, a science whiz headed off to medical school, I've always been challenged in that area. Nonetheless, I love to make candy, even though my failures (like today's) probably outnumber my successes.

I set out to make Butterscotch Candy from a c. 1940s recipe card. As you can see in the picture above, I had three candy thermometers and each registered a different temperature! (Part of the problem is that the numbers next to the mercury had peeled off, making reading the temperature very difficult.) When the sugar syrup got to 284 degrees on one of the thermometers, I poured it into the prepared pan. I sensed immediately that I had overcooked it and just abandoned the whole thing. That, I learned was my mistake. The candy was fine -- if it was meant to be hard candy (and not of caramel consistency). But by the time I figured that out, it was too late -- I didn't cut the candy into pieces when it was still warm and somewhat pliable. So now, I have a whole mess of butterscotch candy that's either too big or awkwardly shaped to really eat (though I've been enjoying it all day -- tastes like the gold cellophane wrapped Schraft's candy, without the chemical aftertaste). All I need is one of those machines that tumble rocks into smooth stones, and I'd be all set.

The candy apples, pictured above, were a success this past Halloween, but made from a modern day recipe available (for a couple of bucks) at BetterBaking.com, a site run by Marcy Goldman, a wonderful baker and writer.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Gold Cake: The Best Ever




This is a lovely, moist and flavorful cake -- the best of 2010 yet. The recipe's author calls it Gold Cake, giving a somewhat richer name to what most would call yellow cake. I call it the Lipitor Special -- it has FIVE egg yolks. This is simple to make (though the technique is a bit odd) and I used vanilla for flavoring, as I didn't have any lemon flavoring.
I paired it with mocha cocoa frosting (from a 1934 Hershey's cookbook) because I had all the ingredients and that recipe said to spread the frosting on a warm cake. It was getting late and I didn't want to wait for the cake layers to cool, so it was perfect! (You can see my "whoops" moment, in the photo above, when part of the cake and frosting collapsed. I simply removed that piece -- ate it -- and frosted over the error until it disappeared.)
Note: The tiny bit of salt in the frosting really enhances the flavor -- this must be an early reference to today's ubiquitous marriage of salt and chocolate.


Monday, January 25, 2010

On the subject of war, and baking

Even if you don't give your child toy guns, there's a good chance he'll find weapons -- and often right in the kitchen. I doubt my son Peter (pictured above at 10, but who is now nearly 21) was channeling his inner baker when he gathered several of my rolling pins, struck an offensive pose and declared himself "Rolling Pin Man."

Unfortunately, his early exposure to rolling pins, and all manner of things cooking and baking at home, did little to further his own culinary skills. These days, he favors takeout pizza and all-you-can-eat sushi!! I did do one thing right. Took him to the legendary Difara's Pizza in Brooklyn, and he often makes a pilgrimage there when he's home from college.

Up next in the kitchen adventure lineup: Either Magic Cream Pie, Moonlight Cake or Chocolate Pudding -- all from a housewife's recipe collection I bought last year at an estate sale. Hope you'll stay tuned!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Canada War Cake (WW I)


Even though the United States is fighting two wars at the moment, there's no evidence of it in our local supermarkets. That wasn't the case during both World Wars, when food (like sugar) and other goods were rationed, here and in Canada (which, during WW I, sent more than 600,000 troops to battle).

Wartime rationing created a cuisine borne of economy and necessity. Canada War Cake is a perfect example -- "no eggs, no butter, no milk!" -- or casualty, since it was the only thing I've made this year that wasn't worth the calories. It was rather dense and heavy and looked like a brick.

This version of Canada War Cake -- and there are so many others as to almost have its own genre (chocolate cakes, pound cakes, war cakes -- who knew!) -- was printed in the c. 1970s South Street Seaport Museum cookbook, where it was renamed Pioneer Cake, after the museum's historic schooner, pictured below in a sketch by maritime historian Frank Braynard. (Off topic, but I encourage everyone to experience NY harbor aboard this lovely vessel -- she sails from spring to fall; check the museum website for details.)

M.F.K. Fisher, the prolific food writer and essayist, included a War Cake recipe in her 1942 book, How to Cook a Wolf , and Sunmaid Raisin (quick to capitalize on a cake whose main ingredient is raisins) developed a three layer Canadian War Cake, complete with icing.

The hardest thing about this cake (aside from the texture) was trying to find mace (the spice, not the weapon) in one of the many bodegas and little markets close to my house. (I finally copped a jar, but I'm sure it's from the last century.)

My experience with Canada War Cake is just another reason to wish for peace on earth (and cakes made with eggs and butter).









Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Rochelle's Oatmeal Cake






Taste, like all the senses, can transport us to another time and place. And so, wanting to recreate a childhood favorite of my dear friend Jay, I baked this cake. And you know what? It worked!

"I haven't tasted this in 30 years," said Jay, as he had a slice in my office the other day.
It always amazes me how everyday things like flour, butter, eggs and sugar -- put together in a certain way -- can become a time machine. Forget H.G. Wells; a good piece of cake is all you need!

Printed in a c. 1960s spiral-bound cookbook from the Immanual Lutheran Church in Spirit Lake, Iowa, this recipe surprisingly calls for the batter to be beaten for 20 minutes. When questioned about this unusual instruction, Jay's mother, Rochelle, (who kindly sent me the recipe), wrote: "This recipe is a golden oldie -- time was measured differently way back then." Still, without a standing mixer, one would need not only time, but patience and arm strength.

Bottom line: The cake is delicious albeit very sweet (not that there's anything wrong with that!). And very simple to prepare. So far, it's my dear husband's favorite, and he especially loves the topping which (as he noted) is almost identical to the frosting used on German chocolate cake.

(If you want to attempt it without a standing mixer, go ahead. I found two similar recipes in my copy of the Indiana Rural Letter Carriers' Auxiliary Cookbook, and neither call for the 20 minute beating.)

Oatmeal Cake
1 cup quick oatmeal
1 stick butter
1 1/4 cup boiling water
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 1/3 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. soda

Pour water over butter and oats. Cover.
Let stand for 20 minutes.
Add sugar and eggs, nutmeg, flour, salt
and soda. Beat with mixer for 20 minutes.
Bake in greased 13" x 9" pan at 350 degrees
for 35 minutes.

Topping

1 stick butter
1/3 cup evaporated milk
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Bring to a boil, add 1/2 cup chopped nuts
and 1 cup coconut. Spread on cake and
place under broiler until brown.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Birthday Cake




What birthday celebration is complete without a cake? Certainly not Martin Luther King's and by total coincidence (unless you believe there are no coincidences), I baked a birthday cake today with both dark and light layers.

Birthday cakes are the quintessential home-baked cake, and I was especially interested in a recipe in the South Street Museum Cookbook (really, just a pamphlet), printed in 1972. This "Mocha and Spice Chest 3 Layer Cake" is very unusual in that two of its three layers are vanilla spice and the center one is cocoa, making for, as the recipe's contributor, Patricia Wander, says, "a very special looking cake." This recipe predates the book's publication -- it was the childhood birthday cake of Mrs. Wander's husband and she wrote, "the recipe was found in the notebook of his grand aunt after we had tried to duplicate it without success."

My tasters (thanks Bev and Paul) really liked it. The flavor is quite sophisticated, especially for a child's birthday cake, but I think that reflects the era before super-sweet confections were de rigueur.

If you make this, and I hope you do, be very careful not to overbake the layers, and when making the frosting, double (or even triple) the amount of butter called for. I knew the frosting needed something as I was mixing it, and luckily recalled the words of Chef Robert, my inspiring cooking school teacher, who told us on the first day of school, "The answer to every question you will ask is: more butter." This frosting can take a lot of butter -- so bring it on.

Coming up next: Two more fabulous and unusual cakes! Stay tuned.










Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pre-Poppin Fresh








I've long been intrigued with earlier generations' ideas of convenience. Like, before dinner rolls could be instantly "popped" from a cylindrical container purchased at the supermarket, what did people (i.e., women) do to make putting dinner on the table easier?

One way -- and it seemed quite popular in the 1930s and 40s judging from the dozens of recipes I found -- was by having "refrigerator" dough at the ready. This dough -- leavened with yeast or baking powder, or sometimes both -- was simply mixed together and stored in a bowl in the refrigerator. When rolls were needed for the dinner table, or luncheon sandwiches (or cinnamon buns, for that matter -- this is a very versatile batter!) the amount of dough required was pulled from the refrigerator, shaped into the desired form, left to rise for an hour or so and popped in the oven for 15 minutes. Voila -- fresh, fragrant and convenient.

A few days ago, I made "Refrigerator Rolls," from a recipe pasted in a large scrapbook I bought in a thrift store in Akron. (They are attributed to Ida Zepp, and a line at the bottom of the recipe notes: "These rolls were served hot at Ida's announcement party, May 1, 1937.") Like many of the yeast roll recipes from the era, it calls for mashed potatoes. I'm not sure whether potatoes are added for flavor or texture, as a way to stretch the dough economically or simply as a waste-not-want-not way to make use of leftovers. Whatever, these are delicious -- my husband and I had fresh rolls every day for nearly a week (but had to stop eating them, lest we start to resemble the Pillsbury Doughboy).

Speaking of which, refrigerator rolls like these (but more specifically the southern biscuits made with baking powder) are the precursors to today's supermarket staple. Supposedly in 1930, a baker in Kentucky sliced and stacked unbaked biscuits, wrapped them in foil and placed them in cardboard tubes. When the compressed dough was removed from the icebox, it "exploded." He sold the process to Ballard and Ballard Flour Company and Pillsbury bought it from them in 1952.














Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cake Wrecks and Other Unsuccess Stories







Being a fearless baker for many years, I've had my share of kitchen disasters. The recent gingerbread debacle was the latest in a long line of near misses.

Regarding the failed gingerbread: I'm certain that my Eastern European Grandma Jean (who died a few years ago at 100) would have found some way to salvage it (gingerbread meatloaf anyone?) But I didn't and have the pictures to prove it. (If I did save it, I could have used it in Gingerbread Pudding, a 1919 recipe from When Mother Let Us Cook, which is basically gingerbread served with a vanilla sauce -- an early, simple version of creme anglaise.)

One thing I've learned about baking is that it's not one perfect cake after another. In truth, it's all about recovery, not initial success. Years ago, in a dessert class, the chef instructor put a pecan tart into the oven. When he checked on it, he discovered -- to his horror -- that the filling was leaking at a rapid rate from the crust. Before I could cry out, "It's ruined!" he opened the oven and, with the calmest possible demeanor, began to scoop the filling (with a spatula) back into the crust, a procedure he repeated every five minutes or so until the tart was done. When it emerged from the oven, it looked perfect. I don't remember anything else about that class, but the lesson from that one tart looms large.

Now I've probably baked and frosted dozens of chocolate cakes, but the one I most remember was for an event at my daughter's school. I made the cake and frosting the night before and left the frosting in a pastry bag on my high kitchen counter; I planned to frost the cake after work. When I returned home the next day, the pastry bag was on the kitchen floor! Somehow my tiny five-pound dog had managed to defy gravity, leaping so high as to set a new toy poodle pole-vaulting record. I momentarily panicked; I had only 20 minutes to show up (cake in hand) at the school. While Midnight, the dog, had gotten to some of the frosting, I could tell he hadn't touched a lot of it. After carefully transfering the "virgin" frosting to a new pastry bag, I began to pipe the frosting, but it was clear that I wouldn't have enough. A quick trip to the corner fruit store was my salvation. I simply placed some strawberries (and coconut) atop the cake and -- voila! -- a lovely presentation. (My dog was not nearly as thrilled.)

So here are some photos of some of my past "creations gone awry" and some divine salvations. Gingerbread overboard anyone? How about the angelfood cake that bedeviled me? (It simply fell out of the pan to the kitchen counter.) And the Christmas seven layer cookies (which look fine here, which is the point. You'd never know that I took the red cake layer out of the pan too soon and it fell apart. But a quick patching worked beautifully --one could never tell that they weren't perfect from the start -- the beauty of recovery.)

Happy baking -- the good news is, you can (almost) always eat your mistakes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My Gingerbread Runneth Over...and Over

















Before gingerbread season officially ends (at 12:01 a..m. January 29th), I thought I'd whip up a couple of cakes. Now, I do love a good gingerbread but it's not holy grail for me that it was for the late great Laurie Colwin (Gourmet columnist, novelist and home cook extraordinaire) who spent years in seach of the perfect gingerbread. (She seemed to have found it in Home Cooking, but the sequel More Home Cooking has even more gingerbread recipes!) I like it because it's the quintessential home-baked good. It's pretty unusual to find it in bakeries (with the exception of Lady Bird Bakery in Park Slope which, when it opened a dozen years ago, sold a signature gingerbread), and even the name evokes an earier, simpler era.

So I began this weekend with "Rochester Gingerbread" from the Wilkens Family Home Cooking Album, a collection of recipes from a family that once produced a Wilkins whiskey that advertised "Always $1.00 or under [for a] Full Pint." The recipe is pretty straightforward and easy (though I cook from old recipes, I use modern equipment like mixers). It baked up beautifully, with a fine texture and mild (maybe too mild?) flavor.
While that was still in the oven, I began a gingerbread recipe from Mrs. Osborn's 1919 recipe collection that the contributor boasted was 100 years old (putting it at 1819, before my "era of baking" but since it was still being used in 1919, I considered it fair game). Into the oven it went, and before long my usually lethargic son ran down to the kitchen, yelling: "Something's burning; I smell it all the way in my room!" Turns out I had miscalculated the size of the pan needed (these types of details are often left out of early recipes) and the excess batter was spilling onto the oven floor where it quickly turned to something more like charcoal than cake. Still, I was sure that once the extra batter expelled itself, what remained would rise and form a lovely cake. Maybe that would have happened, but the black smoke that quickly filling the house and the 26 degree weather (which prohibited leaving the kitchen door open) prompted me to remove the entire mess from the oven.
This morning, after cleaning the oven (by hand because the self-cleaning oven feature would endanger the lives of my dear husband's birds) I remade the cake, halving the ingredients to fit in my 9" round pan. It turned out quite well, very flavorful with a "damp" texture -- trust me, this is a good thing in gingerbread.
Meantime, 24 hours after the first batch my house still smells like gingerbread, slightly overdone.
Which leads me to baking blunders, a topic with which I have great familiarity. Look for a recounting of my personal "agony of defeat(s)" in my next posting. Complete with pictures!
















Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Creamy Caramel Icing




I made this to frost the Spice Cake (good one) on Sunday. I found it in the same box of type-written recipe cards and, though there was no frosting suggested for that cake, I thought this would be a good match. It was delicious, but took a bit of tinkering with the recipe. The boiling to the softball stage was fine (thank God for candy thermometers), but when I beat the sugar syrup with the rest of the ingredients, something *happened.* Perhaps I beat it too long, perhaps the recipe was written for a hand-held or beater less powerful than my standing Kitchen Aide. Whatever, the frosting had a weird consistency; it was almost the equivelant of chocolate seizing (though this was caramel). I instinctively added a small amount of boiling water, rebeat the mixture, and voila -- a lovely creamy caramel icing, just as the recipe card promised. But be warned, this is VERY SWEET. Not a problem for most of us, but dear husband found it a tad too sweet. However, he still enjoyed the cake AND frosting.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Spice Cake (good one)


On Sunday, knowing my daughter, Alex, and her sugar-loving boyfriend, Josh, were stopping by for dinner, I decided to bake a cake. After pouring through the contents of a recipe box I purchased at an estate sale in Akron -- (I remember the person making the sale kindly offered to dump all the cards -- she thought I just wanted the box!)-- I was all set to make Sugarplum Spice Cake, mostly because I liked the name.

Then, I discovered a recipe card simply titled "Spice Cake." On the reverse side was the notation: (good one). So with that endorsement (from an unknown 1940s home cook) that's the one I made. It's a keeper. Simple to make and absolutely delicious. Josh said it was like carrot cake, but without the carrot. All of us liked the fine crumb, moist texture and bold spice of the cake. And having just eaten two more pieces, I can guarantee that it's as good, if not better, the day after it's baked.

Like many butter cakes of the 1940s (and those popularized more recently by Rose Levy Beranbaum in The Cake Bible), this is made using a rather uncoventional (by today's standards) method. The butter is initially mixed with the dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking soda, etc.), not with the sugar. This method produces a very fine textured cake, according to uber baker Nick Malgieri, who notes that it was called high ratio baking when it was introduced by Proctor and Gamble in the 40s.
Tomorrow: The caramel frosting for the cake.