Monday, May 31, 2010

Is This Cake in Season?


Yes, if it's strawberry shortcake. And this is a very special strawberry shortcake, indeed.

I waited months until the first strawberries appeared at my local farmer's market to try this recipe, one of a dozen I copied from a book owned by Mrs. Lloyd E. Johnson, the grandmother of my work colleague Renee.


So many of the recipes in this c.1940s Kansas cookbook are appealing; this is the third I've made and by far the best.  As DH, a sports enthusiast, would say:  Mrs. Johnson hit one out of the park with this recipe.

What's so good about it?  Instead of the traditional dry-ish biscuit, Mrs. Johnson repurposed a one-egg cake to serve as the shortcake, or base.  Now, a one egg-cake isn't lacking anything (like an extra egg).  It's simply a smaller cake -- a one layer affair as opposed to two (which would take two eggs).

Mrs. Johnson was on to something, as her note next to the recipe says:  "very good for strawberry shortcake."



Indeed, why bake the traditional biscuit for strawberry shortcake, when you can make an even more delicious version of this springtime favorite?  She's turned the very good dessert into something sublime.

This cake is nothing like those commercial yellow sponge cakes (below) sold everywhere this time of year.  (I just saw someone buying them at the Peaceful Valley Farm in rural New Jersey where DH and I picked strawberries yesterday). These cakes were probably baked six months ago in a factory somewhere far away from where you live, and they taste like it too.


Readers who want to try Mrs. Johnson's delicious homemade treat -- and I suggest you do, bake the cake and let it cool.  Try to use really good ingredients, like wholesome organic milk and heavy cream and the freshest strawberries you can find.  While the cake is baking, wash and slice a bunch of strawberries into a bowl.  Sprinkle them with sugar and let them sit until the strawberries begin to release their juices.


Assemble the dessert:  Cut the cake into squares and spoon the macerated strawberries and juice on top.  Whip up some cream until it forms soft peaks (it's always nice to place the bowl and beaters in the freezer before whipping the cream) and put some of the cream atop the cake.


Enjoy. And you'll never go back to a biscuit again.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Red Velvet: The Thrill is Gone


For several years, I baked and sold red velvet cakes to a couple of local cafes.  I even made the wedding "cake" -- 200 red velvet cupcakes -- for a wedding at the Montauk Club. All this was back when red velvet cakes were a special treat.  Now, they are everywhere, from Duncan Hines mixes to the corner bodega.

I would bake two cakes at a time (my decidedly non-commercial oven could only accommodate four round pans), and the ritual became so routine that I felt like I could put these together in my sleep.  The only excitement was trying to shave off time, to try to top my personal best which, if I recall correctly, was two cakes baked and frosted in 1.5 hours.  I couldn't cut the time down much more, because the layers had to cool before frosting.

The last time I made one was in February, but just to enter a contest. (See entry below.)



So when DH asked me last week to bake a red velvet cake to serve colleagues at a screening at work, I resisted.  I once heard that Billy Joel had stopped performing his perennial favorite,  I Love You Just the Way You Are, when mid-song on stage, he found himself thinking that if he could get to his hotel by midnight, he could still order room service, all the while continuing to sing.  His heart clearly wasn't in the song.  My heart clearly wasn't into making a red velvet, but I complied.  After all, DH would do it for me (if he baked, that is).

Of course, the cake was a huge hit at his office; I got lots of emails from his co-workers using all manner of adjectives describing the deliciousness of the cake.  It is a good cake.  It's very moist (thanks to the vegetable oil), sweet and pretty.  It's just so predictable.  And baking without the possibility of surprise isn't thrilling at all.  Even if it is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Happy Ending


I can't lie.  It's been a difficult week, so after work today I decided to self-medicate with something healthy (yoga), followed by a  lovely dinner with DH at Provini, a very charming northern Italian restaurant that just happens to be located halfway between the yoga studio and our house.

At dinner, I ended up drinking my wine (and his) and upon our return home, instead of doing something rational like watching Nurse Jackie reruns, I decided to bake a jelly roll -- something I haven't made or tasted since high school home economic class.


This retro dessert fell out of favor decades ago, but it appears in nearly every vintage cookbook and recipe collection I have.  This one is from a 1957 Betty Crocker pamphlet DH found at last week Nasty Jacks, an antique store in La Connor, Washington.


The baking experience wasn't perfect.  I temporarily misplaced my camera (my iPhone) so I couldn't take photos of the cake-making in progress, and I *may* have overbeaten the eggs and/or underbaked the cake.  Let's just say that it wasn't as "feathery light" as the recipe promised.

But the idea that I could whip this up, from cracking the first egg to enjoying the first bite, in about 30 minutes, was quite appealing.  And to make something so delicious and evocative of another era -- that's my kind of happy ending.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Accidental 'Black & White'


I didn't mean to make the Black and White.  Really.  I don't even like them.

The Black and White, a New York native cake disguised as a cookie, enjoyed its 15 minutes of national fame in 1994 when it was featured in a Seinfeld episode as a metaphor for racial harmony.  If it were named today, it would probably called the Diversity.

Anyway, how I came to make these went like this.  Last week, I bought a Metropolitan Cook Book pamphlet at an antique store in Copley, Ohio.  The beauty of this book, besides the gorgeous cover (below), is that it contains several hand-written recipes. One of them, Brown Sugar Cookies, looked pretty good, despite the fact that the recipe was just a list of ingredients, with no method (i.e., instructions).



I figured I had enough baking experience to make these work.  But early on, I realized that these were not cookies, but really small cakes.  The addition of a cup of buttermilk (odd for a cookie recipe to have to have so much liquid) was the first clue.  Then, when they baked and rose in the center, I knew for sure.  And any doubt I harbored vanished when I examined (and ate) the finished product.  Definitely a cake.  




So I did what any enterprising baker would do.  Flipped them over, and frosted the bottoms (which then become the top), half black and half white.



Years ago, I had done some picture research for Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food and remembered reading about the Black and White.  Arthur noted that it was a cake, not a cookie, and put forth a theory that they were invented by a baker at the beginning of the 20th century who was looking for another use for his yellow cake batter.


The recipe in Arthur's book is much more complex than the one I used (above), but it is interesting that both are flavored with vanilla and lemon.  I used his frosting recipe which I can't give here because of copyright laws, but you should consider buying his book for this and other recipes, lore, history and more.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Baking a Brownstone in a Brownstone

After many years of house-envy -- and my family of four living in a tiny apartment -- we moved into my absolute dream house, a three-story c. 1897 brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  This was many years ago, when these houses weren't particularly desirable (hence, still somewhat affordable), and I give thanks every single day (this is not an exaggeration) that I get to live here.

So, I was very excited to find an original recipe for Brownstone Front Cake, aka Caramel Cake and Burnt Sugar Cake.  (Full disclosure:  I had made a cake like this once before, from Marion Cunningham's book, Lost Recipes, and my recollection is that it wasn't very good, which is one reason the recipe may have been "lost.")


My "new old" recipe appears in a c. 1938 book that belonged to Mrs. Lloyd Johnson, the grandmother of my work colleague Renee.  Nearly every cake recipe in this book is extremely appealing; I scanned pages of them and plan to bake them all pretty soon.  That said, this Brownstone Cake was sadly disappointing.

In fact, it was beyond disappointing.  Just look at the picture at top, for starters.  I was going to name this Slip Sliding Away.  I obviously did *something* wrong with the frosting.


The cake itself, which I made first, was also a problem.  The caramel syrup (which is supposed to give the cake a rich dark color, hence the brownstone reference) didn't work.  It hardened too much so that, instead of the liquid form it was supposed to have, it hardened into caramel candy threads (see picture above). I broke it into pieces and added it to the batter, hoping some magic would happen in the oven causing it to "melt in" to the mixture.  That it did -- the finished cake did not contain any stray bits of candy.


I cut the cake into slices before bringing it to work and each slice looked amazingly normal, considering the aesthetic of the intact cake.


When Renee stopped in my office and I told her my disappointment with the finished product, she said that her grandmother, a very sweet and upbeat lady, would have found something very nice to say about the cake, no matter what. Well,  the "brutally honest" gene must have slipped into the family two generations later, because as Renee took a bite, she said quite frankly,  "It's dry."  She was right, and I truly appreciated her honesty.

Luckily, I have many more of Rose Johnson's recipes left to try.  I'm sure one of them will be perfect.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tunnel of Fudge: A 1960s Icon


Tunnel of Fudge is a cake that Betty Draper might make, if Mad Men continues (fingers crossed) for a few more seasons.

This unusual cake -- yes, there really is a tunnel of fudge running through its center -- was the creation of Ella Rita Helfrich who won second prize in the 1966 Pillsbury Bake-Off.  (For her efforts, she received $5,000; the first place winner took home $25,000 for a bread made with cheese spread and onion soup mix.)

For a second place winner 44 years ago, this cake has legs.  First, it popularized (or saved from extinction) the bundt pan, which was only rarely used at the time.  (Its legacy is enduring; many remember the small, yet pivotal role the "cake with a hole in it" played in the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.)  Pillsbury reported that it received 200,000 calls from home bakers looking for bundt pans following the 1966 contest.

When Pillsbury discontinued making the packaged frosting mix called for in the original recipe, there was such an uproar that the company went back to the drawing board (read: test kitchen) and developed a completely scratch recipe.  That's the one I used, and pasted below.

Was it good?  Yes, though it seemed more like a brownie than a cake, not that there's anything wrong with that! The brownie reference may be due to the two cups of walnuts in the recipe. One is instructed not to skimp on the nuts, as they are considered critical to the formation of the gooey center.  Most experts in the chemistry of baking attribute the tunnel creation to the excessive amount of sugar in the recipe.



DH, who brought some cake to work, wrote the following email to colleagues:
For those who like my wife’s baked goods….
 I have with me the most extreme chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted – the unfortunately named ‘tunnel of fudge’ cake – that I’m going to put out at 2:45 in the 5th floor bullpen. Be forewarned – it can put you into a diabetic coma!! And must be cut with a gallon of coffee….I only had one bite and gave up….
 This is why I was at yoga and spinning at 7 a.m. twice this week…..

For those who want a diabetic coma of their own, may I present the Tunnel of Fudge recipe.

Cake:
3 1/2 sticks butter softened
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar 
6 large eggs 
2 cups confectioners' sugar 
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder 
2 cups chopped walnuts

Glaze:
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar 
1/4 cup cocoa powder 
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons milk
1.     Heat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease a 12-cup Bundt pan or 10-inch angel cake pan. Dust with flour and tap out the excess.
2.     In a large bowl, beat the butter and granulated sugar using an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
3.     Gradually add 2 cups confectioners' sugar, beating until well-blended. By hand, stir in 21/4 cups flour, 3/4 cup cocoa and the nuts; mix until well-blended. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
4.     Bake for 58 to 62 minutes. (Because this cake has a soft tunnel of fudge, an ordinary doneness test cannot be used. Accurate oven temperature and baking time are critical.)
5.     Let the cake cool upright in the pan on a rack for 1 hour, then invert onto a serving plate and let cool completely.
6.     To make the glaze: In a small bowl, combine 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar, 1/4 cup cocoa and 1 1/2 tablespoons milk. Mix until well blended, adding the remaining 1/2 tablespoon milk to make a spooning consistency.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

In Search of Panela: From Guatemala to the Lower East Side


Last year, I accompanied DH to Guatemala where he attended a writing workshop led by two talented authors, Joyce Maynard  and Laura Lippman.  Although I didn't participate much in the workshop (instead spending my days practicing yoga and getting massages -- tough life, I know), I was a full participant in workshop meals. Each morning, a delicious breakfast was served al fresco on the garden terrace at Joyce's beautiful house on Lake Atitlan.
There was oatmeal and fresh fruit, tortillas and beans, and a special of the day, all presented buffet style.  One of the highlights was an unusual sugar that sort of resembled brown sugar, but tasted much better. The cook (an American ex-pat who was a raising her daughter in Guatemala) said it was panela, and that it was sold in blocks. She grated it each morning so we could sprinkle it on the oatmeal.
Thus began my search for this elusive sweet.  I couldn't find it in San Marcos, the tiny town where we stayed.  We took the boat to Panajachel, the largest town on the lake,  where we roamed through an enormous labyrinthian outdoor and indoor market, asking for it at each likely stall.  
Most times, the vendor had no idea what we were talking about.  After what seemed like hours of trudging through the very hot market and coming up empty, I was about to give up.  Then, under a canopy of yellow plastic, I found it -- a big brown block of delicious sugar.  I bought it immediately. 
According to Wikipedia, panela is an unrefined food product found in Central and South America, and is basically a solid piece of sucrose and fructose obtained from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice.  The panela I purchased (pictured at top) looks quite unrefined -- like is that a piece of straw embedded in the sugar?
So I've had my prized panela for more than a year and haven't used it yet.  Maybe it lost its cachet.  A few months ago, I was telling a colleague (a South American native) about my difficult search for panela through the markets of Guatemala. 
 "Panela?" she said. "You can get it at the Fine Fare on Clinton Street!"   
Sure enough, panela is on the shelves of the supermarket around the corner from my office.





Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bad News from Bay City

Today I received a long-awaited letter (well, six weeks, but in this age of texting and email, it seemed an eternity) from the Bay County (Michigan) Historical Society.

Some of you may remember that I had written to them in an attempt to find out more about Mrs. Grace Osborn, author of Cakes of Quality and How to Make Them, published in Bay City, Michigan in 1919.  I wrote about her in an earlier post, calling her the Patron Saint of Cakes.


The disappointing news was that Maureen McDermott, the research librarian at the Butterfield Memorial Research Library, was unable to find any information about Mrs. Osborn, who I speculate that, despite her haughty tone, was an impoverished matron attempting to make a living baking cakes and publishing a cookbook.

I won't give up my search for Mrs. Osborn, but I'm not sanguine that I'll find anything much.  Meantime, she lives on through her recipes and just today, fellow blogger Sarah Lohman posted about Mrs. Osborn's Puff Cake.

Monday, May 3, 2010

One is Silver, the Other Gold


The energetic Sarah Lohman, the historic gastronomist who writes FourPoundsFlour, suggested we swap recipes and cross bake and cross blog. So here's the bake-off report from Brooklyn.

Sarah often cooks from very early (and very exotic) recipes.  Me, I prefer to stick to the 20th century, because the recipes seem both modern enough (providing the pleasure of recognition) and more delicious than the current day versions (providing the pleasure of discovery).

Still, I selected two recipes -- Gold Cake and Silver Cake from Sarah's c. 1884 book, Common Sense in the Household.   The idea is to make them simultaneously, as Gold Cake calls for 10 egg yolks, while Silver Cake puts those 10 leftover egg whites to good use.


I made Gold Cake first and while the flavor was excellent -- very citrus-y -- the layers sagged in the center, always a disappointment. (I'll never know if it was because I nearly forgot the flour, and added it only at the very end.) And the top of the cakes formed a crust that cracked easily, something I haven't encountered before. I paired it with the suggested icing, basically raw egg whites (weird but true) into which confectioners' sugar is whisked, with the juice of a lemon for flavoring.


I really recommend getting one of these old-fashioned glass citrus extractors (or whatever they're called).  They're excellent for getting out all the juice with very little effort. And no moving parts to break!


Silver Cake looked much better with its even layers and fine crumb, and I preferred the taste, even though I forgot the vanilla flavoring.  What torpedoed this cake for me was the icing.  I made the same egg white-confectioners' sugar mixture, but added the suggested rose water for flavoring.  It was like eating tea rose perfume, a perfume I used to wear in junior high school, at that.   Guess I should have thought twice when the sales clerk at the middle eastern store where I bought it suggested that I splash the rose water on my face.



The very best part about these recipes is the introduction to the cake chapter in which the author Marion Harland, writes about cake making and life lessons:

"There is no royal road to good fortune in cake-making...Yet sometimes when you believe you have left no means untried to deserve success, failure is your portion.  What then?
"If the cake be uneatable,throw it away upon the first beggar-boy who comes for broken meat, and say nothing about it.
"If streaking or burned, cut out the best parts and make them presentable as possible, and give them to John and the children as a 'second-best' treat.  Then keep up a brave heart and try again.  You MAY not satisfy yourself in a dozen trials.  You certainly WILL not, if you never make another attempt."

I still have a lot of these cakes here; no beggar boys have knocked at my door and DH really isn't into "second best" treats, though the Gold Cake seems to be disappearing.