Sunday, March 28, 2010

Boston Cream Pie: A Pie in Cake Attire


I've been jonesing for one of my childhood favorites, Boston cream pie, but hadn't come across a vintage recipe until last weekend when I picked up a copy of The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1931) by Fannie Merritt Farmer at the always interesting P.S. 321 flea market in Park Slope.  (This particular book was given to "Beatrice from Helen Bishop" as an engagement gift in 1931, according to the cover and an inside inscription.)

Boston cream pie is one of the few cakes my mother used to make though, like all her cakes, it came from Duncan Hines. She added her own touch by always put a marachino cherry on top. (Making scratch cakes is just one of my rebellious acts; marrying a non-Jew was another!)

As many already know, Boston cream pie is not a pie at all, but a two-layer cake filled with custard and covered with a chocolate glaze. I've included the 1931 recipe here (though not the method, which is on another page of the book -- if anyone's interested, let me know and I'll post that). 


The cake itself was very, very good.  The custard was good (though not exceptional) and the chocolate glaze I wouldn't make again. Unlike more modern glazes (usually a combo of chocolate and cream or butter), this one called for making a sugar syrup (sugar and water), boiling it for five minutes and then pouring it over 1.5 ounces of melted chocolate.  The flavor was fine, but the glaze had a grainy texture and had to be spread at the perfect moment (which I missed) when the glaze was warm. My rarely used microwave came in handy for the careful reheating of the glaze. 

Boston cream pie is attributed to French pastry chef Monsieur Sanzian who created it for Boston's Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House Hotel).  It may have been called a pie because, in the mid 19th century, pie tins were more common than cake tins and the original version might have been baked in a pie tin.

In 1996, Boston cream pie was proclaimed the official Massachusetts State Dessert, beating out toll house cookies and Indian pudding.


I certainly had my fill of Boston cream pie and so did DH (the cherry on top of my life) who said the slice I cut to photograph looked just like the ones he remembers from the Cardinal Hayes High School cafeteria.  High praise, indeed!

Earlier today, when I met my friend Judith, an ER nurse at New York Methodist Hospital, for lunch at the 7th Avenue Donut Shop, I felt compelled (for research purposes) to try a Boston cream donut. Really quite good, but nothing beats cake, especially one called a pie.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Patron Saint of Cakes (with a Buick Six to prove it!)


"To be a good cake maker has always been the commendable ambition of every housewife...[a cake served at the end of a meal] can be compared to a lecture, an orchestral rendition, or a beautiful soprano solo by an artist."

So wrote Mrs. Grace Osborn in her c. 1919 book, Mrs. Osborn's CAKES of QUALITY, How to make them.  I first came across this volume years ago, when I picked up what is probably a prototype copy (above) at a roadside flea market in the Adirondacks.  Its home-grown appearance is endearing: a bunch of typed sheets of parchment-like paper bound within brown cardboard covers by a piece of string.

Recently, on Amazon, I was delighted to find a more professionally published version (below) of the book (the fifth edition!), which is smaller and illustrated -- and not hand-typed.  Both have a copyright by C.T. Porter of Bay City, Michigan.



What's so fascinating about Mrs. Osborn is that she not only instructed women on how to bake cakes, but also how to sell them for profit. And she had her own line of Osborn cocoa and vanilla.  (Her cakes sold for $3 each, earning her a profit of $2.30 each -- this at a time when eggs were 50 cents a dozen, sugar 10 cents and flour 15 cents a pound.)

I'm trying to find out more about the very entrepreneurial Mrs. Osborn.  Her haughty know-it-all tone (see example below) strikes me as coming from someone to whom cakes should be served, not someone slaving away week after week in front of a hot oven to earn money.  I imagine that her husband left her with five young children to support, or that she otherwise suddenly found herself without enough money to live.   Or maybe she just really wanted to share her revolutionary cake baking methods (putting the pans into a cold oven, among other things) with the world and make money doing so.


I called the Bay City Historical Society and was instructed to write an old-fashioned letter (no email here!) to the Butterfield Memorial Research Library and for $5 per hour, a librarian will do the research.  It will take a month to six weeks -- apparently they have someone working on these requests for four hours each week.

I sent the letter yesterday, but forgot to tell them about this card (below) that I found inside the prototype book.  Apparently Mrs. Osborn founded the American Culinary Society which no longer exists (if it ever did).  So now, I need dig up the address again and write an addendum to my research request, to include this information.  These days it's easy to forget how easy email is!


Mrs. Osborn's confidence and success is inspiring. 
"Make your work PERFECT," wrote Mrs. Osborn at the end of her book, "and all the rest will be easy, even to riding in a Buick Six as I do, earned by the sale of Cakes of Quality."

Monday, March 22, 2010

Local (if you're Canadian) Sweets: The Legendary Nanaimo Bar

While in Mexico last week, DH and I befriended a couple of fellow travelers staying at our beyond fabulous secluded resort, Rancho Pescadero.   Marina and Nicole (below, l. to r.) not only excelled at my favorite sport --lounging poolside while sipping hibiscus martinis -- but they quickly became my new best friends when they created, by accident I'm sure, DH's new moniker -- Mr. Susan. 

These lovely ladies, both natives of Vancouver, though Marina now lives in Toronto, were intrigued by my blog (not really, but being polite -- or slightly inebriated -- they feigned interest) and told me of the delicious and legendary Nanaimo Bar, named for a city on Vancouver Island. 

As soon as I got back to New York, I set about to make some.  Below is the mise en place for the bottom layer.  All the ingredients are pretty universal except for Bird's Custard, a British import, which I used, with Nicole's blessing, in place of the custard powder called for in the recipe.  I've never seen custard powder here.

These three-layer treats involve a technique I'd never before encountered (adding a raw egg to the bottom layer ingredients and cooking it all atop a double-boiler), but I'll try anything once, even folk-dancing.  It's a fairly easy recipe, made much easier if you have a small offset spatula with which to spread the second layer over the bottom one.  And it doesn't require any baking --- just a bit of stove-top cooking and refrigeration -- making them an ideal summer dessert. 

Don't be intimidated by the need for a double-boiler.  Simply put some water in a saucepan and put a bowl on top (the bottom of the bowl must not touch the water) -- voila, your own custom double-boiler!  Below, is the one I created to melt butter and chocolate for the topping.

These bars are quite good, quite sweet and a bit unusual, so definitely worth the effort. 

Nicole kindly sent me a link to the official Nanaimo website, where I found the following history and recipe. 
The Legendary Nanaimo Bar

According to local legend about 35 years ago, a Nanaimo housewife entered her recipe for chocolate squares in a magazine contest. In a burst of civic pride, she chose to dub the entry not "Daphne's Delights" or "Mary's Munchies", but "Nanaimo Bars". The entry won a prize, thereby promoting the town as much as her cooking. Some American tourists claim sovereignty over the dessert, referred to as "New York Slice" which is sold in many other places in the world. Nanaimo residents refuse to accept this theory, however, believing that once you set foot on Vancouver Island, there are no other places in the world. The official Nanaimo Bar recipe was available as a handout as well as on quality tea towel and apron souvenirs.

In 1986, Nanaimo Mayor Graeme Roberts, in conjunction with Harbour Park Mall, initiated a contest to find the ultimate Nanaimo Bar Recipe. During the four-week long contest, almost 100 different variations of the famous confection were submitted. The winner: Joyce Hardcastle.

Nanaimo Bar Recipe

Bottom Layer

½ cup unsalted butter (European style cultured)

¼ cup sugar

5 tbsp. cocoa

1 egg beaten

1 ¼ cups graham wafer crumbs

½ c. finely chopped almonds

1 cup coconut

Melt first 3 ingredients in top of double boiler. Add egg and stir to cook and thicken. Remove from heat. Stir in crumbs, coconut, and nuts. Press firmly into an ungreased 8" x 8" pan.

Second Layer

½ cup unsalted butter

2 Tbsp. and 2 Tsp. cream

2 Tbsp. vanilla custard powder

2 cups icing sugar

Cream butter, cream, custard powder, and icing sugar together well. Beat until light. Spread over bottom layer.

Third Layer

4 squares semi-sweet chocolate (1 oz. each)

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Melt chocolate and butter overlow heat. Cool. Once cool, but still liquid, pour over second layer and chill in refrigerator.  (I sprinkled the tops of the bars with crushed almonds, only because I had some left over from the bottom layer.  Not necessary, but a nice touch.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pineapple Sheath Cake...Huh?


I was intrigued by the name of this recipe  -- what's a sheath got to do with a cake? -- so I decided to find out by baking it the morning News12 in Brooklyn came to do a story on the blog. This cake was so easy to put together that by the time reporter Heather Abraham knocked on my window (our doorbell was stolen -- don't ask!), the cake was already in the oven.  But luckily, I still had the frosting to make.

This cake recipe , probably from the 1950s, was in the Texas recipe box I purchased from eBay.  The most interesting thing about it besides its name (more on that later), is that there is no shortening or butter in the cake.  It's a precurser to that trend a few years ago when people were substituting applesauce and/or prune puree for butter in a misguided attempt to produce a guilt-free, fat-free dessert. 


Still, it was a pretty tasty cake, was plenty moist and had the requisite creamy nutty topping that DH desires. And Heather (seen here reporting this breaking story) emailed me later that the cake she brought back to the station disappeared within minutes. (I didn't get too worked up about that. You see, DH is a journalist and, thanks to him, I realize they are akin to locusts and will eat virtually anything related to food -- especially if it's free and put in front of their faces.)

A bit of research revealed that the term sheath cake first appeared in the 1950s and that today most food historians believe that "sheath" is another pronounciation of sheet (which first appeared in the early 1900s).  Could it be a Texas malapropism or, as one source suggested, the pronounciation when people have poor fitting dentures?  Or as another suggested, perhaps the word "sheet" is "too close to something that can't be printed here."

There's something called Texas sheet cake, which would be called chocolate sheet cake in any other state, but this pineapple version (though it's from Texas) is something different altogether.

Don't Despair

 
More cake posts are on their way (or in the oven).

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Avocado Tart & South o' the Border Donuts


Although I’m vacationing in Mexico at the moment, and don’t have access to an oven, I haven’t forgotten my faithful readers.  In tribute to you, I have made it my mission to try every baked good I encounter and report back.

So far, I've discovered  three noteworthy items, i.e.,  sweets worthy of the calories.  First is an avocado tart, very similar to a key lime tart, but “healthier,” according to the lovely ex-pat who sold it to me (350 pesos, about $3) at an small outdoor market near Todos Santos.  It was delicious, a bit creamier than key lime.  Healthier?  Don’t know about that.  Inside the buttery graham cracker crust was fresh avocado blended with lime juice, cream cheese and sweetened condensed milk.


The other two items are both from Café Todos Santos, a bakery/café in town.   First, some sort of meringue and almond cookies (slight language barrier issues, as I don’t speak much, ok, any Spanish, so I’m not positive exactly what’s in the cookies).  I do know that they are very  flavorful, yet light.  Second, the most amazing, amazing donuts I’ve ever had.  (Sorry, Donut Plant.)  These small donuts are simultaneously spongy and dense and moist with the most addicting yeast flavor (tastes MUCH better than it sounds, but that’s the only way I can describe it).  It's as if you could take the aroma of freshly rising/baking bread, coat it with sugar and pop it in your mouth.  I dreamed about them all night, so DH and I made a pilgrimage to town this morning, just to get more.  I take my research very seriously.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My First Time...And the Morning After


Despite years of baking cakes, I was a chiffon cake virgin.  I had never made one and wasn't even sure what chiffon cake was. But since we were having dinner guests on Saturday night, I thought, why not try something new?

Chiffon cake, I learned, was considered the first really new cake in 100 years when it was invented in 1927 by amateur baker Harry Baker (his real name), a Los Angeles salesman turned caterer.  He sold his cakes in Hollywood and they were the first dessert on the menu of the famed Brown Derby restaurant.

For nearly two decades Mr. Baker kept his recipe a secret until selling it for a reportedly large sum to General Mills.

With great fanfare, General Mills released the secret recipe (i.e., Betty Crocker "gave the secret to the women in America") in the May 1948 issue of Better Homes and Gardens, and it took the country by storm. 

Indeed, in one recipe box in my collection there are no less than six chiffon cake recipes: party chiffon, chocolate chiffon, lovelight chiffon banana layer cake, maple nut chiffon, chiffon peanut butter layer cake, and the one I made: lovelight yellow chiffon cake. Turns out that General Mills had sponsored chiffon cake contests in the 1950s, inviting people to suggest different flavors and variations, and otherwise heavily promoted the cake (along with two of its products needed for the cake: Softasilk cake flour and Wesson oil.)

So, what's the big secret?  It's simply replacing the shortening (butter or Spry or Crisco) with vegetable oil, considered pretty revolutionary back then, I guess. It also calls for making a meringue (whipped sugar and egg whites) and folding it into the batter (pictured below).

Chiffon cakes all somewhere between butter cakes and sponge cakes (which, like angel food cakes, have no fat) on the cake spectrum.

So the verdict on the lovelight yellow chiffon cake?  Alan and Racine (pictured below), our dinner guests, had seconds. DH, as always, only really liked the frosting (a chocolate mocha from Mrs. Osborn's Cakes of Quality).  I thought the cake was light in texture and, unfortunately, a bit light on flavor.


But that brings me to the morning after, when I developed a new love for lovelight yellow chiffon cake and ate slice after delicious slice.  It seems that this one is better when it's not just out of the oven.  In fact, in a one-week cake decorating class I took from the fabulously talented Toba Garrett, she told us that her go-to buttermilk cake tastes better the day (or days) after it's baked, when the flavors develop and meld.  I always knew soups and stews benefited from age, but cakes?  Who knew?











Monday, March 8, 2010

Are Even Today's Recipes SUPERSIZED?


This morning I reprised the best-ever Gold Cake with Mocha Cocoa frosting in honor of a visit this evening by my most faithful and enthusiastic reader, Margaret (who also happens to be my extremely lovely sister-in-law).



While I was frosting the cake, praying that there would be enough icing to cover the layers, I had a deja vu moment: Almost every time I make a vintage frosting recipe, there's just barely enough to cover the cake, even though the recipe specifies that it's enough for two layers.

This rarely happens with more modern recipes.

Today, abundance is, well, so abundant.  Not only is there plenty of frosting for the cake (and for DH to lick the bowl to his heart's content), but over-the-top confections are appearing in bakeries like never before.

Take the  Momofuko Milk Bar's Compost Cookie, which has pretzels, potato chips, coffee, oats, butterscotch and chocolate chips, among other ingredients.  It is beyond delicious, and so 2010.  It's even trademarked!

Meanwhile, I will continue to spread myself (as well as my vintage-recipe frosting) thin and will succumb to the modern luxury of a Compost Cookie whenever one is placed before me.   (Not that I'm hinting or anything, Ryan!)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

"Yer darn tootin', I like Fig Newtons"


So sang a cowboy in a c.1950s Saturday morning television commercial.   Now this post isn't about Fig Newtons, but DH (who is always right) insisted that I mention them, and I do find that lyric oddly appealing.

Instead, this post is about a homemade version of a similar cookie -- Date Crackers -- that turned out to be the biggest sleeper so far in my recipe collection.

These are amazingly delicious, with a surprisingly complex flavor.  Plus they're addictive.  Just ask an employee (who shall remain nameless) at Henry Street's Abrons Arts Center , who singlehandedly consumed inhaled all of the cookies I had brought in, cookies meant to be shared with the entire staff!  And then he texted me the following: "Would you please go back home and get me more of those date things."  (I'm happy to report that he has recently entered a 12-step program and may be eligible for the Witness Cookie Protection Program.)


This Date Cracker recipe is from about 1915 or so, but its precursor --  fig rolls --  are much older, dating bake to early Egypt.  And they were quite popular in America up until the turn of the 20th century when doctors believed that biscuits and fruit were essential to good health.

In 1891, a machine to mass produce Fig Newtons was invented, but they continued to be made in home kitchens, as the recipe below, from Mrs. Grace Olsen's Cakes of Quality, published in 1919, attests.


I know some of you (Suzy A. perhaps?) will try this recipe.  Here's what I would suggest:  Follow the filling recipe exactly.


For the pastry, I used Quick (not instant) Oatmeal because that's what I had left over from Rochelle's Oatmeal Cake. Regular or Quick is fine.

Don't add all the water immediately; add a bit at time until the dough is moist enough, but not sticky.  I think I added about half the amount called for, but it all depends on the humidity in your kitchen, the type of flour you use, etc.

To make a lot of cookies efficiently, roll out two 6 to 8 inch square of dough.  Flour your surface well (or use a Silpat if you have).  Then, making sure the date mixture is warm, spread it in a thin layer atop one of the squares of dough. Using an an offset spatula makes this task easier, but if you don't have one, just use the flat side of a spoon or a knife.  When the date mixture is spread (and don't worry too much how it looks), using a spatula, or metal bench scraper, if you have one, carefully lift the second square of pastry and place on top of the first.  Use a large sharp knife, or the bench scraper, to cut into the desired sizes.  The sides can be "open" unlike what the recipe says. The scraps from trimming are your treat!


Place the cookies on parchment on a baking sheet and bake at about 375 degrees.  Not sure for how long, as I never set a timer. I usually can smell when something is done, but not so much with this recipe.  After five minutes of baking, just check every two or three minutes and when the pastry turns golden, remove from the oven. And I'll bet you can't have just one.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What's a pork chop doing on this baking blog?

Check out the "before and after" photos of this pork chop. Except for some browning, they look pretty much the same right? My point exactly.

But baking, that's something else again. When you combine ingredients like flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, eggs, etc., and expose them to heat, something brand new emerges, something that doesn't resemble any of the original ingredients at all. It's kind of like magic!

For me, baking is a way to create (and be creative). I may not be able to sing, dance, draw or act but I can bake. (Is the High School of Performing Arts open to us bakers yet?) And the best part is, anyone can do it -- mix some dry ingredients with some wet ones, pop it in the oven and voila -- a cake, a pie, muffins, etc.

As you might suspect, in my house there's always dessert. Dinner (pork chops or otherwise) is a *bit* less predictable.