Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Five-Minute Scratch Cake

Well, five minutes is a *bit* of an exaggeration, but I did throw a cake together pretty quickly last night.  And like most things in life, the result reflected the effort.  Enough said.

My DD (dear daughter) had stopped by for dinner (in between her yoga and Bollywood dance commitments) and after a feast of farmer's market bounty -- roasted asparagus, salad of spring greens and flounder with lemon butter sauce --  she was dismayed to discover that there was nothing for dessert.

Ever the accommodating and sugar-addicted mother, I found a recipe that seemed quick and easy, albeit from the 19th century.   It is called "Altogether Cake," and was written in pencil, on a blank page at the end of Common Sense in the Household, A Manuel of Practical Housewifery published in 1884.


Like most recipes in this book (kindly lent to me by historic gastronomist and fellow blogger Sarah Lohman), the instructions are minimal.  Still, what's easier than throwing everything in the mixer and letting it rip?  I followed the recipe exactly except that I added some vanilla for flavor and salt because it's usually in cake recipes and wasn't in this one.

The butter should have been softer (if anyone knows the secret to softening butter quickly, please tell me) but I was rushed, and I probably mixed it too long to compensate for its hardness. Those Kitchen Aid mixers are powerful, especially compared to the human arm, which probably originally *powered* a rotary beater or whisk for this recipe.

What emerged from the baking pan resembled a moon crater or wheel of swiss cheese more than a cake, but after it was frosted (melted chocolate, confectioner's sugar, vanilla and heavy cream, mixed together in that order) it looked just fine.


DD, anxious to get home, didn't want to wait until the cake cooled, so we simply frosted it shortly after taking it from the oven.  And within five minutes (no exaggeration this time), with the help of DH, we had consumed more than half of it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Is Divinity Dead?


Last week, I made divinity for a friend's birthday, and along the way discovered that divinity is dead, or at least nearly extinct.

No one I asked had ever heard of this old-fashioned confection except the birthday boy (and not because he's a divinity school graduate, but because his grandmother used to make it at Christmas).

After doing a bit of research, I've concluded that capitalism may have killed the candy.  Nearly every vintage cookbook features numerous recipes for divinity (and its contemporaries fudge and taffy).  But unlike fudge and taffy, I've never seen a piece of divinity for sale.  Could no one figure out how to make this meringue-like candy commercially viable?   Since hardly anyone makes candy at home these days, if a specific candy isn't sold in stores, does it simply suffer the same fate as dinosaurs?  Apparently so.

While I knew of divinity from reading old cookbooks, the real-life candy had eluded me -- I had never seen or tasted it.  This lack of reference was challenging, and I admit to saying more than a few prayers last Saturday as the sugar syrup was boiling.  


My prayers weren't entirely answered.  My first, among many mistakes, was undertaking candy making on a rainy day but the birthday dinner was that evening and I had (as usual) waited until the last minute.  Second, I relied entirely on a vintage recipe from an old (and unillustrated) book for Ohio housewives that left out an essential descriptive detail -- beat the candy until it loses its shine. It said to beat until it held its shape, but that's pretty subjective.   I was afraid to go too far, having once turned whipped cream into butter by overbeating, while I had a room full of dinner party guests awaiting dessert.

I wish I could say that the divinity (pictured above) at the very top was the one I made instead of an image I pulled off the internet.  My divinity (too shiny, too flat) are pictured below.


Still the flavor was pretty good and I probably ate just as many as I boxed up for the birthday gift.  I suspect I'll be making them for Christmas, on a very dry and sunny December day, and with an added teaspoon of confidence.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Of course it's good; it's my MOTHER'S!


We're talking about kuchen here (German for cake), specifically the recipe pressed into my hand by one Ron Gordon, a colleague's husband, when I saw him at Henry Street Settlement's recent Art Show gala.

The ringing endorsement (see headline above) was Ron's enthusiastic response to my innocent enough (I thought) query: Is it good?


It is good, but it takes practice.  The first time I tried it, I made three near-fatal errors: I rolled it out too thin (see above), I didn't let it rise nearly long enough (though I followed the directions exactly) and I didn't bake it long enough (see "flattened" result below).  Luckily, I had some leftover dough, so the next day, I formed another loaf, let it rise overnight and popped it in the oven about 6 a.m. About 30 minutes and two cups of coffee later -- success. The kuchen was just right.


What intrigued me about this recipe is that it came with a "template," a small piece rectangular of paper folded very precisely, which Ron told me to use as a guide when folding the dough to form the kuchen.  It took me a while (luckily, the dough is very forgiving), but finally mastered the folding.


Esther Gordon's Kuchen
Cream 1/2 pound of butter with 3 tbls. sugar
Add 3 egg yolks and 3 1/2 cups flour
Dissolve 1 cake yeast in 1/2 to 3/4 cup lukewarm milk to which 1/2 tsp. sugar has been added.
Mix all together.
Refrigerate (covered) overnight.
Form three balls of recipe
Roll out dough rectangle shape
Butter dough and spread any jelly to 1/4 inch of edge
Fold
Let rise in pan two hours.  Brush with milk before baking
Bake 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.

Ron reported that it tasted just as he remembered ("You've brought back lots of good memories," he wrote), and that his mother would be happy to know that her recipe lives on.

This is more of  a breakfast bread than a cake, and I've since learned that this is just one of many types of kuchen, all derived from recipes brought overseas by Germans and popular wherever Germans settled. In fact, kuchen is the official state dessert of South Dakota (see picture and recipe below), and other types of kuchen are found in bakeries in Chile, a sweet legacy of the mid-19th century German immigration there.

Thin Crust---Thick Custard Kuchen*
1 roll sweet roll dough---Thaw and spread in pan.  Use jelly roll pan for thinner crust, a 10x14 pan for thicker crust.  (Dough and custard may be divided into 2 portions and deep-dish pie plates used if round kuchen are desired.)  Spread up sides of pan.  Let rise.
  • Custard:
    2 cups cream  
    1 cup sugar  
    2 eggs  
    2 tblsp. corn starch  
    1 tblsp. vanilla
    Mix together in microwaveable bowl.  Microwave 5-8 minutes until thick, stirring as it begins to thicken.
    Add favorite fruit filling on crust (canned cherry or blueberry pie filling, prunes, peaches, raisins, etc.)
    Pour custard on top of fruit and sprinkle with cinnamon.  Add chopped nuts, if desired.
    Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until crust is golden brown.
    *Submitted by Wanda Jundt.  This is very good, very easy, and is a modern version of kuchen, bypassing some time-consuming steps.


    Saturday, April 17, 2010

    Not Cheaper by the Dozen, But Worth Every Penny


    Each Saturday, I make my way to the Grand Army Plaza Farmer's Market to buy, among other things, two dozen eggs. My Depression-era mother would faint if she knew I paid $6 for twelve eggs, but it's truly money well spent.


    These eggs are definitely NOT the supermarket variety.  First, the shells come in all colors (Araucana chickens lay the beautiful blue ones) and inside, well, let's just say that the yolks are almost in Technicolor, they're so rich and yellow -- perfect for custards (see the lemon curd atop the cake below) and just about anything else.


    Not only is the taste superior, but the safety factor is too. Because a lot of the recipes I use, especially frostings, call for uncooked egg whites, I'm less likely to poison co-workers and family members who enjoy the sweets of my labor .  In fact, before factory farms took over egg (and chicken) production, raw egg whites were considered an ideal food for both the ill and the young.  In the 1908 New York Evening Telegram Cookbook, one entry under "Dainty Desserts for the Nursery or Invalid's Tray" suggests surrounding a baked apple with the white of an egg "beaten stiff with a bit of sugar."

    I first encountered Araucana eggs years ago at the Crooked River Herb Farm outside of Akron.  The day didn't start well.  Imagine it's Easter and you're at your Jewish parent's house and there's nothing to do and your young children are cranky.  So you pile them in the car for a drive in the country (secretly hoping they'll fall asleep, just to end the whining) and almost like magic, on a back road a sign appears, "Fresh Fudge," so you pull into the driveway and even though it's Easter, the small shop is open and inside there are three kinds of fudge made with goats milk from the owners herd, and dozens of gorgeous blue eggs displayed in baskets, and maple sugar candy and, to the added delight of the children, two friendly llamas right outside, with the Araucana chickens underfoot.

    We all felt like we'd discovered something wonderful that day, and I guess we had.

    Monday, April 12, 2010

    Breaking the Three-Cookie Rule


    When DH was growing up, he was never allowed more than three cookies at a sitting, so one of the things he likes best about me is that I don't say anything if he has four.   In fact, I'm flattered!   

    He was especially pleased with this past weekend's baking adventure.  I discovered a tattered brown spiral composition notebook, purchased at an Indiana flea market, its pages filled with a treasure trove of recipes from the 1930s to the 1950s, including the one above, on page 38, with the invitation to "TRY THIS NEW RECIPE."

    They didn't have to ask me twice.  It's for the famous Toll House chocolate chip cookies,  before they were famous.

    The recipe is nearly identical to the one printed on millions of Nestle semi-sweet morsel bags, except when this recipe was introduced, there were no morsels. Home cooks were originally instructed to purchase two 7-ounce "economy" size Nestle's semi-sweet candy bars and break them into pieces the size of peas.  Putting pieces of chocolate into batter was so unusual back then, that a special note at the bottom of the recipe reminds bakers NOT to melt the chocolate.

    Since I couldn't find any Nestle semi-sweet chocolate bars (do they even exist?), or even any semi-sweet chocolate that I thought was worth eating, I used a combination of Lindt Excellence, a dark chocolate, and Lindt milk chocolate.  I mean, doesn't dark chocolate and milk chocolate equal semi-sweet?

    The cookies were invented in the 1930s by Ruth Wakefield who, with her husband Kenneth, owned the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. Legend has it that while preparing a batch of Butter Drop Do cookies, Ruth cut a bar of NestlĂ© semi-sweet chocolate into tiny bits and added them to her dough, expecting them to melt. Instead, the chocolate held its shape.  The new cookies became quite popular; the recipe was published in a Boston newspaper and sales of the chocolate bars soared in the northeast.


    Ruth approached Nestle and, in exchange for giving them the recipe, she received a lifetime supply of chocolate.  Seems like she got didn't get the dough she deserved.  (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

    In 1939, Nestle introduced chocolate chips, so home bakers no longer had to chop their own chocolate.  Of course, in the past couple of years, the trend toward chocolate chunk cookies has emerged, an unusual return to the recipe's first incarnation.

    Chocolate chip cookie baking is one of the great pleasures of childhood and adulthood, for that matter.  Two things make it much easier: always start with softened butter and invest in a small ice cream scoop.  With the scoop, it's a snap to shape the cookies perfectly and without the messy ordeal of scraping the dough off spoons and onto the cookie sheet.  


    DH, pictured with a whole plate of cookies, wants everyone to know that he only had two.  But he could have had as many as he wanted.



    Wednesday, April 7, 2010

    Harvard v. Princeton: The Cake-Off


    The names of vintage cakes in my collection of recipe cards and old cookbooks are so evocative. Moonlight cake, and Lovelight cake. Lady cake.  Cold Water cake. Hot Water cake. Burnt Sugar cake.  Lady Baltimore. Puff cake. Sand torte. And the unfortunately named Tunnel of Fudge cake (itself the subject of an upcoming post).

    So on Saturday, when I came across both Harvard Cake and Princeton Cake just pages apart in my 1931 Boston Cooking School Cook Book, I couldn't resist baking both to see who performed best in the kitchen (as opposed to on the field).

    The two couldn't be more different.  The Harvard is a buttermilk spice cake topped with a marshmallow-raisin frosting.  The Princeton is a citrus cake, probably chosen because the Princeton color is orange.


    The judging proved harder to accomplish than baking the cakes.  DH much preferred the Princeton because, while he generally dislikes anything in New Jersey, he dislikes marshmallow frosting even more.


    I brought both cakes to work, where the staff at Henry Street was split down the middle.
    Wanting to get more feedback, I decided to feed some cake to my colleague David (below), a Brooklyn neighbor, the executive director-elect of Henry Street, all around good sport and, most importantly, a graduate of Harvard College.


    David ate his alma mater cake, and took a bite out of the Princeton, too.  His verdict:  "It doesn't surprise me that the Harvard cake is delicious, and that Yale has none."  For there was nary a recipe for Yale cake in the entire Boston Cooking School Cook Book.  So much for that ivy rivalry!


    Some baking notes:  I've included the cake recipes, but honestly wouldn't make these two again.  (In fact, I feel like I *owe* David a really delicious piece of cake.)
    The flavor of the Princeton was excellent, but its texture was not; it didn't even rise -- and in fact sank in the center -- during baking.  And the frosting needed a stick of butter (not called for in the recipe) beaten in at the end for flavor, texture and to make enough to frost the cake.
    And while the Harvard had an excellent texture and nice flavor, the frosting was a bit odd.  Perhaps chopped raisins folded into a marshmallow frosting was all the rage in the 1920s, but it is perhaps best left to that decade.
    A microplane, pictured above, once found only in the tool shed, is an excellent and efficient kitchen device for zesting  the two oranges needed in the Princeton cake and frosting.

    Sunday, April 4, 2010

    The Easter Bunny Brought Waffles


    Instead of hosting a houseful of relatives and serving a big ham, we started a new, more relaxing Easter tradition this year -- waffles for breakfast.

    During triangle pose in yoga class this morning, DH whispered to me, "I really want waffles today."  Not being a big fan, I was pretty unenthusiastic, but then realized I could make the batter from a vintage recipe in my collection -- and then blog about it later.  Kinda like having my cake and eating it too.


    I found a recipe in the Gold Medal Flour Jubilee pamphlet, which takes recipes from 1880 onward and "modernizes" them to 1955 standards.  The waffle recipe was in the 1900 to 1910 section -- the same decade the New York City subway opened (1904) and Commander Perry reached the North Pole (1909).

    The batter was very easy to make, but certainly not thin as the recipes said it would be.  The tricky part involves the waffle iron -- Is it hot enough?  Is it too hot?  Should I spray it with oil? Should I open to see if the waffles are done -- and risk ruining them?


    We had a couple of sticky disasters (see above) to start and then DH figured out the right timing.  The last two batches were waffle perfection: a slightly crunchy exterior with a smooth, almost "eggy" center.

    The Gold Medal pamphlet helpfully told the story of the creation of waffles:  During the Crusades, Lady Ermintrude greeted her knight with some special oat cakes.  He accidentally sat on a cake, smashing it flat and leaving its surface marked with the pattern of his armor.  She feared the cake was ruined, but he ate it anyway and was thrilled that the indentations caught and held the butter.  According to this tale, Sir Giles was so delighted that he put on his armor every Friday night and sat on the cakes.

    Next year, I'm buying a suit of armor for my knight to avoid waffle iron anxiety (now listed in the DSM, by the way) and enjoy an even more peaceful holiday.

    Thursday, April 1, 2010

    Matzos Cookies: Don't Pass These Over


    I always plan every dinner party around dessert and Passover Seder is no exception.

    This year, in addition to the usual suspects of a flourless chocolate souffle cake (from Room for Dessert by David Lebovitz), coconut macaroons (from a recipe published in The New York Times a few years ago), and caramel matzoh crunch (just the very best, most brilliant Passover dessert ever, pictured below with matzos cookies) I wanted to bake something from The Settlement Cook Book for a couple of reasons, not least of which is that I work at New York's most venerable settlement house, Henry Street Settlement. 


    Henry Street is not affiliated with the book, which was written by Mrs. Simon Kander, the head of a Milwaukee settlement house in 1901. (Cliff note: Settlement houses, most founded around 1900, provide social services to improve the lives of immigrants. And I'll be writing more about very interesting  Settlement Cook Book in a future post.)  The edition I use, one "borrowed" from my mother's bookshelf a few years ago, is from 1953.

    I was planning to make a recipe from the book called "Kiss or Schaum Torte," which is basically a big, round meringue filled with fresh whipped cream and fruit.  I imagined it the perfect (if not Kosher) light ending to the traditional very heavy meal.

    But it was not to be because, if I've learned anything it's that weather, especially humidity, can determine baking success or failure.  And because it was raining in New York on Tuesday, I knew the torte would never set up properly, and few things in life are more disappointing  than a damp meringue.

    Instead, I made "Matzos Cookies."  These are simple -- if you don't follow the instructions to roll the dough and cut with a cookie cutter.  The batter is soooo sticky that trying to roll it is an exercise in frustration.  After doing battle with the dough (and employing my secret weapons of Silpat, a miracle non-stick mat, a French rolling pin covered with a non-stick stocking and an offset spatula), I was about to surrender the whole mess to the trash.

    In a last ditch effort to save the batter (for it was quite delicious raw), I dropped small balls of dough onto the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet and popped it in the oven.  I watched as, like in a time-lapse film, the roughly shaped balls "melted" into perfect circles from the heat of the oven.  


    These cookies were devoured at the Seder.  They are very unusual, sort of gritty (in a pleasing way) on account of the almonds and matzoh meal, very sweet and almost addicting.  While they will never rival caramel matzoh crunch, their simplicity and unique character have earned them a place at my Passover table.


    Here's my version of the recipe.

    Matzos Cookies
    1/2 cup butter
    1 cup sugar
    2 eggs
    1/2 cup potato flour*
    1/2 cup matzos meal
    1/2 cup ground almonds

    Cream butter and sugar, add the rest.  Gather dough in a flattened ball and place in refrigerator for at least an hour.  Pull of pieces of dough and drop on baking sheet.  Bake about 10 minutes (keep checking) in a 375 degree oven.  Remove when the edges begin to turn golden brown.

    *I couldn't find anything called potato flour, so I used potato starch. Worked just fine.