Sunday, February 28, 2010

Baking as Therapy



Earlier this month, my dear friends Stephen and Jay took me (and DH) to a lovely, geographically inconvenient (for them) and expensive French restaurant to celebrate my birthday.  So when Stephen's birthday rolled around last week, I wanted to acknowledge it.  And what better way to do that than to bake a cake.

Jay suggested German chocolate cake, an endearing choice because of its deliciousness and intentionally homey appearance.  But it was not to be.  Finding a bar of German chocolate at 9 p.m. in my neighborhood proved impossible.

After a bunch of panicked texts with Jay (and kicking myself for always waiting until the last minute), I decided to make Chocolate Cake and Creamy Honey Icing, from the same recipe collection as the Moonlight Chocolate Cake that I made a few weeks ago.


Now I can whip up a chocolate cake pretty easily, but that night I was worried. After getting some rotten news at work earlier, I was seething with anger that even an after work cocktail didn't assuage.  I feared that my bitterness would somehow seep into the cake, like some unwanted ingredient.  But just the opposite happened.  As I started to bake, my anger began to dissipate.  The sifting of flour, measuring the sugar, the orderly preparation of the batter all proved soothing, as did the thought that the finished cake would make the birthday boy very happy indeed.

Because I didn't attend any of Stephen's birthday weekend festivities, I didn't get to eat a slice of the cake with frosting.  But I did taste it.  You know when you bake a cake, and it rises with a dome in the center?  That's no problem at all if you do as I do:  take a long serrated knife and carefully slice off the dome. Not only does that make the top of the cake as flat as the bottom, it's also a delicious treat to yourself (and is there a better kind of treat than that? Really!)

Layer cakes are easier to frost and look better when this step is taken.  (One can also buy Magic Strips, which are bands of fabric that you affix around a cake pan that prevent the cake from forming a dome, but they're a pain to use and need to be soaked in water for 10 minutes or so prior to use which requires planning ahead, something I'm not good at.  And if they work, there's no dome for the cook to eat.) 

This chocolate cake, despite its plain Jane name, was actually better (or at least equal to) Moonlight Chocolate Cake.  I sort of followed the frosting recipe, but thought it needed *something*, so I added more of everything, plus some cream cheese for good measure. And topped the whole thing with silver sprinkles I bought at the Bon Marche Grand Epicerie in Paris.


Jay brought the cake to Stephen's birthday lunch at an East Village restaurant (where I'm told they weren't charged a "cake-age" fee to have it served). Jay wants everyone to know that he took these pictures there (and also that he went to Yale for graduate school...but not that he's a priest!). 


Jay said the cake was FABULOUS and Stephen said it was the first home-baked cake he'd had since he was a child.  And that was just a few years ago.  Really!!


Monday, February 22, 2010

"Better Than Sex Cake"? Not this one!



Faithful readers:  I did something I said I wouldn't.  I bought a recipe box on eBay, instead of discovering it serendipitiously at an estate sale or flea market.

I justified the purchase because it was the recipe collection of a southern home cook, one that I would be unlikely to encounter in my usual midwest or northeast haunts.

The box contains a lot of interesting (and very southern -- cornbread, hush puppies,sweet tea, etc.) recipes, some handwritten on yellowed slips of paper, including one I made today, Pineapple Sheath Cake (and which I'll write about soon).

But the recipe card that caught my immediate attention was entitled "Better Than Sex Cake." Now I will concede that maybe, possibly, perhaps a very, very special cake might in someone's world view be better than sex, but certainly not this cake! Its first ingredient is Duncan Hines Butter Cake mix, followed by two other offenders: instant vanilla pudding and Cool Whip!  Of course it was meant tongue in cheek and was maybe a tiny bit risque at the time, among the Texas housewives who swapped this recipe.  And I'm certainly the last person to discourage anyone from having fun with food (or the naming of same).

This recipe is outside of "my" era of baking, as the inclusion of convenience ingredients suggests.  Most of the cards in the box are older than that, with recipes calling for real foods, like butter, flour, sugar and eggs.  But it's interesting to see the progression (if that is considered "progress") of time in one homemaker's recipe box -- from cinnamon rolls made with yeast and mashed potatoes (very popular in the 1930s) to that Better Than Sex Cake that I truly hope isn't better than sex for anyone!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Icing on the Cake

Just want to let you know that ACakeBakesinBrooklyn has received some nice press lately.  A story appeared in the New York Daily News, and the Village Voice blog called me a "rising star."   And just yesterday, News 12, a Brooklyn television station ran a very nice feature on the blog which I'll post once I figure how to do it (maybe after I've baked 100 cakes).

Friday, February 19, 2010

If it seems too good to be true....

Loving the wholesome satisfaction that baking with yeast brings,  but not always having the time it requires, I was delighted to come across Double-Quick Coffee Bread in the 1955 Gold Medal Jubilee pamphlet.  Here was a "coffee bread" made in one bowl. Beating the dough with an electric mixer took the place of kneading (which, while quite enjoyable, can be messy and time-consuming).

What a disappointment.

Not only did the rising take twice as long as the recipe said, negating the appeal of "double quick," but worse, the finished product was simply strange.

First of all, what the heck is "coffee bread?"  I came to realize (too late) that it's basically a bread that gets its sweetness from one of the "variation" toppings.  But there was no synergy between the sweet topping (I made the butterscotch pecan variation) and the plain bread.  A sweet topping on bread can certainly be sublime; there's nothing lovelier than a fresh baguette spread with raspberry jam.
 
There were other problems.  Most of the "upside down" topping stuck to the bottom of the pan, giving me the messy and time-consuming task of peeling the pecans one-by-one from the pan and transferring them to their rightful place atop the bread.

It's no wonder that this recipe, probably invented in some Gold Medal test kitchen, didn't survive the 1950s.   (Of course, DH still enjoyed his piece!)

Here's the recipe (not that I'd recommend making it, though).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Moonlight Chocolate Cake with Seven Minute Buttercream


To celebrate President's Day (and the holiday from school and work), the beautiful, talented and smart Allie, 14, (the daughter of my beautiful, talented and smart friend Lisa), stopped by to bake with me.  Together Allie and I poured over my collection of vintage recipe cards. And when she chose the "Moonlight Chocolate Cake" card, I was thrilled -- that's exactly the cake I wanted to try.  Something about the name "moonlight" was so intriguing -- was the recipe that special? Or was it the cook trying to distinguish her chocolate cake from her neighbor's? Or was she a creative sort trying to layer her world with a name that conjured up images of romance and mystery? (Or, as DH suggests, perhaps it was named after Moonlight Graham, a baseball player immortalized in Field of Dreams.)

The cake was fairly easy to put together, especially with Allie -- a young woman who truly knows her way around a kitchen -- helping out.  We quickly got it in the oven and started on the frosting. The recipe's author had recommended a lemon cream cheese frosting with this cake, but Allie (not a lemon lover) wasn't having any part of that.

She selected a chocolate Seven Minute Frosting, a true classic from Good Housekeeping's 1958 Cake Book "With decorating ideas for many occasions."  This old-fashioned frosting is basically egg whites and sugar beaten with a hand-mixer in a bowl atop a pot of boiling water until firm peaks form.  It's tedious work; the seven minutes is simply an "ideal" and the actual beating usually lasts longer.


Things were going well: the peaks formed and  the frosting was fluffy and very marshallow-y.  Not a bad thing at all.  But then I misread the recipe and added the melted chocolate (instead of taking it off the fire and beating it further -- and then adding the chocolate).  Immediately, the frosting lost its volume and became almost like chocolate pudding.  I couldn't decide whether to toss it and start anew or risk throwing good ingredients after bad to try to save it.  The latter option won out.  First one stick of butter went in the mixture, then some confectioners sugar, then another stick of butter -- the basis of modern-day buttercream.  The frosting got a bit thicker, and the butter and sugar certainly didn't detract from the flavor. 

"It tastes like chocolate mouse," declared Allie, who having recently returned from a Paris vacation, was quite the authority on these things.  She promptly named our new creation "Seven Minute Buttercream."

After a bit of refrigeration (a longer time would have been better), we frosted the cake. It needed to set up in the refrigerator before it could be moved to Allie's house around the corner, where it was enjoyed by her family.

This is another example of a cake that tastes better the second day.   The actual cake is very soft with a subtle flavor.  The Seven Minute Buttercream -- my most delicious disaster to date -- is spectacular anytime!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I Love Lucy



Now most Midwestern Jews might find cooking and baking for their New York Italian mother-in-law a bit intimidating.  Not me, because my MIL Lucy, unlike 99 percent of Italian-American grandmothers, does not like to spend any time in the kitchen.

Born in a tenement on Mulberry Street in Manhattan's Little Italy, and raised in another in East Harlem, Lucy grew up in a large family whose matriarch cooked enormous Italian meals from scratch.

When Lucy went on to have her own family, she didn't carry on that tradition.  She raised three fabulous children (one of whom I married) but none will remember her for her culinary skills.  My husband jokes that even today, at age 83, her diet is similar to that of our 20-year-old son:  fast food, anything fried, and anything sweet. And she is no locovore. The further the food is from its source the better -- she recently gave me a dozen eggs that were purchased directly from a farmer, saying she preferred to get hers from the supermarket.

Lucy has been under the weather lately, so DH and I have been visiting a lot, bringing her groceries and home-made food (though she would truly prefer entrees from Wendy's or Burger King -- maybe next week).

Last week, short on time before our visit, I whipped up a Kitchenette Cake, a simple one-egg cake with a broiled icing.  The recipe, originally from 1890, was updated to 1955 standards in the Gold Medal Jubilee cook pamphlet, "A treasury of favorite recipes modernized by Betty Crocker."  It's a delicious cake; DH says it's his favorite (but he says everything is his favorite). While I normally follow these old recipes to the letter, I cheated on this one.  Knowing Lucy would love more sweetness and more of a "candy" topping, I embellished the broiled icing with extra butter, sugar, nuts and coconut.  Both she, and her companion Perdy (she's perdy good, says DH) enjoyed the cake.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Breaking News! Marty Markowitz liked my cake best!


 I just returned from The Red Show's "Best Red Velvet Cake in Brooklyn" contest. 

When I arrived at the Brooklyn Historical Society and saw all the beyond GORGEOUS cakes (my iPhone photos do not do them justice), I was mortified.  Really, I wanted to drop off my cake and and sneak away.  But after several encouraging emails from DH (that's dear husband), I decided to stick it out.
What a great decision that was!

After preliminary judging, my cake was in the top three!  While I did not win best overall (that went to the beautiful cake with the raspberries and iron heart on top), I was singled out by Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn borough president, who was one of three judges.  "Who made this cake?" he asked, pointing to mine.  The organizer announced my name, and when I approached the table Marty told me that he liked mine the best, but decided to defer to the other judges.  (He whispered that I would have won had I not tinted the frosting pink.) Whatever.  In my mind I did win! 

I encourage everyone to visit The Red Show at the Brooklyn Historical Society today and tomorrow.  There won't be any cake, but the first floor is filled with craft vendors and is a perfect place to buy that special someone a Valentine's Day gift.

Regret, the Most Wasteful Emotion...



That was the title of an article I wrote for a women's magazine a long time ago. (I regret that it was rejected, but that's another story.)

Yesterday, while working from home on account of the snowpocalypse, I *happened* to click on Ebay in the middle of the day.  And there, under "vintage recipe cards," I discovered a treasure trove -- a collection of hundreds of old hand-written and typed recipe cards for cakes, frosting, pies, biscuits. Recipes on scraps of paper, newspaper clippings and illustrations from the 1930s including a full article on candy making from The Ohio Farmer, all in "vintage/used conditions, spots and stains are abundant!"

The lot was selling for $77.  I bid and then was outbid in a minute.  When the auction ended, the final sale price was nearly $230!

I immediately regretted not bidding higher, especially when I saw that it was from an estate sale in Ohio. It would have quadrupled my collection of vintage, hand-written recipes in an instant. But then, something seemed wrong about the ease of simply clicking a button (and paying big bucks) to do so.  I like the hunt through flea markets, estate sales, stoop sales and antique stores, the lovely serendipity of discovering a box, a scrapbook or notebook filled with memories -- and recipes.  (As my husband said, "Would Jacques Cousteau go to an aquarium?")

So I guess I'm going to continue to find my old-fashioned recipes the old-fashioned way, with no regrets.

*The cake pictured above is what I'm entering in the Red Show's red velvet cake contest this morning.  (I regret overbeating the batter last night, and having that cheap glass of wine that made me too sleepy to spend more time perfecting the frosting, but that's another story.)



Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Cadillac in My Kitchen


Some of you have asked me about my vintage stove* (the backdrop for many a cake picture on my blog).  It's a c. 1950 Chambers, manufactured in Shelbyville, Indiana, and once called the "Cadillac of Stoves." 

 Its tag line was Cook with the Gas Turned Off!, which was designed to "liberate" the housewife.  It is so well insulated that supposedly when the oven reaches the desired temperature and the chicken (or whatever) is placed inside, the oven can be turned off and the cooking will continue just fine.  I've never tried it, mostly because I didn't want to risk removing a half cooked chicken (or whatever) when it was time to serve dinner. 

 Still, it is a fabulous appliance:  The three burners have a lot of btu's and it has a Thermowell, a recessed well  (complete with pots and a rack) where one can bake muffins, cook soup, and more.  The top broiler is very convenient, and you can use its aluminum covering as a griddle.  And it has a real, old-fashioned pilot light, which was very handy during a NYC blackout a couple of years ago when my daughter wanted an omelet.  Most modern stoves have electronic ignition and don't work without electricty. 



The Chambers oven is a bit small, which is why I also have an electric baking oven. But I'm on my third modern oven in 12 years; they keep breaking, while the 60-year-old Chambers hasn't failed yet.  (In fact, during a multi-month Kafka-esque nightmare with Con Ed when my electric oven wasn't working and I was supplying cafes with cakes, it was the Chambers oven that kept me in business.)
Chambers stoves have become quite popular in the past few years. Rachel Ray uses one on her television show, and there are a number of internet sites devoted to them.  

We've had ours for nearly 20 years. When we were renovating our kitchen, I fell in love with a vintage stove -- a gorgeous robin egg blue 1939 Quick Meal -- but simply couldn't afford it.  (Those were the days when I believed in delayed gratification.)  Anyway, we found our now beloved Chambers on Long Island, where it was being sold by a family who had just modernized their own kitchen.  I've never looked back,

*Full disclosure: No one asked me about the stove.  I just wanted to write about it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My "Birthday" Pound Cake


Today I was going to celebrate the coincidence of my birthday falling on the same day as the New York Daily News was scheduled to feature a story about my blog.  Well, there must have been some bigger breaking news (Brangelina  changing a diaper, perhaps?) than my cake blog, because the story didn't appear. I'm hoping it will run next week.

When the Daily News sent a photographer to my house last Thursday morning to take some pictures, I decided to bake a cake so there would be something to photograph besides me.  This c. 1945 recipe for pound cake seemed perfect. And it was.  I put the batter together in a matter of minutes early in the morning -- it could not have been easier.  I popped it in the oven, and even though the recipe author cautions NOT to open the oven door for the first hour, I cheated.  And the cake was still fine. 


We all enjoyed the cake; even the Daily News photographer posed while eating a slice for breakfast.  I brought the cake to work that morning but fearing that the co-workers in my department were suffering from cake fatigue, I brought it over to the Abrons Arts Center where one of the artistic types who works there was overheard saying that it was the best pound cake he'd ever had.




It would have been lovely plain, but I made a simple confectioner's sugar and milk icing for it.  If I'd been slightly more alert that morning, I would have used lemon juice instead of milk; the citrus note would have played well against the creamy vanilla-ness of the cake.





And if anyone's wondering what cake I ate on my actual birthday, there were two. Some lovely colleagues brought me cake (and cookies) from Momofuko that were beyond delicious, and at dinner, my daughter's boyfriend had arranged for a truly special raw chocolate cake (with candle!) to be served to me. Believe me, its flavor was wonderful and complex, the perfect ending to a terrific meal.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Joy of (Children's) Cooking


Whenever I bake bread, I am so astonished at how simple (and rewarding) it is, that I vow not to let so much time go by before baking another loaf.  But then, months or sometimes years pass before I tear open another package of yeast.

Finally last weekend, I ended my hiatus by baking two loaves of white bread -- something I knew my daughter's boyfriend would enjoy at our family dinner that evening.

And to showcase the simplicity of bread baking, I used a recipe from the 1946 Cookbook For Girls and Boys by Irma S. Rombauer, the author of the Joy of Cooking

Baking bread may take a lot of time -- but it doesn't take a lot of the cook's time.   After mixing the dough and kneading it (very therapeutic!), just leave it alone.  The dough is very forgiving: you can let it rise three or more times, or for twice as long as the recipe says and it comes out perfectly.  And part of the appeal is that you can go about your day (I took a yoga class and met a friend during times when the dough was rising), knowing that the yeast is hard at work in your kitchen, even while you're not.  (And there's nothing like aroma of baking bread -- the perfect kitchen perfume!)

Everyone (especially Josh) enjoyed the bread at dinner that night -- it was still warm and had a lovely texture and flavor.  It brought me back to the magical moment when I first tasted home-baked bread.  I was at the Rosen's, my next door neighbor's, when friends of theirs arrived, fresh loaf in hand. My entire bread experience to date had been informed by Wonder; as I took my first bite I couldn't believe something this delicious (and addicting -- I couldn't get enough of that bread) was in the same food group!   Now, whenever I bake bread, I can return to that transformative childhood moment, thankful that all it takes is some yeast and a bit of time.