Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best of 2011: A Baker's Dozen

Why are we all so obsessed with lists?  Is it because no one has the time to read narratives any more? I think so, especially after a friend who wrote for several national women's magazines told me that the editors wanted to turn every story into a chart!

Having said that, I do love reading lists.  Compiling them is another matter altogether. There were so many wonderful recipes this year that it was difficult to choose but I managed (mostly by adding a number of honorable mentions, all of which are good enough to make the list).

And so, in no particular order, I present The Best of A Cake Bakes 2011:

1) Eleanor's Amazing Date Cake
Not an easy cake to make, but well worth the effort. And it's an important reminder of the deliciousness of dates.http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/07/amazing-date-cake.html


2) Lemon Meringue Pie
If my lemon chiffon pie had turned out better, it would have made the list.  But this c. 1935 lemon meringue pie shows that good taste never goes out of style. Light and lemony, this overlooked pie should be revived in the home kitchen.
http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/02/is-pie-new-black.html


3) Gingerbread Waffles
Just a wonderful way to start your Sunday morning and perfume your kitchen, without messing up more than one bowl.  In the unlikely event that you have extras, they freeze beautifully.
http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/11/gingerbread-waffles.html


4) Chocolate Pudding
Is there anything more comforting or evocative of childhood?  I think not.  This old-fashioned recipe will transport you back to the days before blogs, cell phones, and even Mighty Fine pudding mix.
http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/08/chocolate-pudding-under-influence.html


6) Cookie Kisses
The absolute simplicity of these (just egg whites, sugar, vanilla and chocolate chips) make them perfect for Christmas and whenever you want a light and delicate meringue cookie. Did I mention how addicting they are?
http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/12/cookie-kisses-wonderful-christmas.html


7) Pineapple Upside Down Cake
Fruit and cake make a lovely combination, and this one is a classic for a reason. Delicious, fun and dramatic.
http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/06/pineapple-upside-down-cake.html


8) Buttermilk Pie
When I originally wrote about this, I called it the Crack Pie of the 1950s.  And even though it didn't win a prize at the Daisy Flour pie contest, I'm a believer in "first thought, best thought" and stand by my initial assessment.  Fantastic.
http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/04/buttermilk-pie-crack-pie-of-1950s.html


9) My Best Gingerbread
Of all the gingerbread recipes I've tried (and there have been many), this truly is the best.
http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/12/my-best-gingerbread.html


10) Old-Fashioned Apple Dumplings
For an absolutely adorable way to serve fall's fruit bounty, this high crust to fruit ratio dessert can't be beat.
http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/11/old-fashioned-apple-dumplings.html


11) Aunt Jenny's Favorite Cake
The perfect cake for a birthday party or any occasion.
http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/12/aunt-jennys-favorite-cake.html


12) Lemon Cake Pie
This vintage pastry delivers a pudding, a cake and a pie in one dessert. Deliciously.

13) Betty's Chocolate Cake
A simple, classic one-layer cake topped by a new-to-me (but very old-fashioned) foolproof vanilla icing.  Why this frosting ever disappeared from the American kitchen is puzzling.
http://www.acakebakesinbrooklyn.com/2011/01/bettys-chocolate-cake-and-gravy-icing.html

And a few honorable mentions:
Praline Cookies
Lazy Daisy Cake
Grandma's Poundcake
Baked Custard
Television Almond Pastry

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Aunt Jenny's Favorite Cake


I know you're all stuffed with Christmas goose and Hanukkah latkas,  but you will eat again and when you do, please try Aunt Jenny's Favorite Cake. It's a winner and I am thankful for the niece or nephew who jotted down the recipe sometime in the last century.

This cake was a "recovery" cake, as in I was making My Best Gingerbread when I realized I'd added double the sugar called for in that recipe. Just as I was about to toss the butter and too-much-sugar mixture in the trash, I remembered this cake and, sure enough, it started with exactly one stick of butter and one cup of sugar.  So I quickly switched gears, and I'm glad I did.


This is a delicious, old-fashioned cake, perfect for a birthday party. It has a delicate crumb, but can easily support the chocolate frosting I chose from the same recipe box.  Once upon a time, yellow layer cakes with chocolate frosting were called chocolate layer cakes.


The frosting recipe called for two tablespoons of shortening and one tablespoon of butter, but I used all butter. (I also doubled the frosting recipe, to make sure there was enough to cover two layers.)  I can understand using shortening (sort of) in pie crust as it does add a flaky texture but the only reason to use it in frosting is to save money.  I'm lucky enough to be able to afford flavor over economy.  (I also buy butter in bulk.)


The frosting is delicious, but unless you work out in the gym all the time and have amazing arm strength, you'll definitely need an electric mixture to whip it to the right texture.


Some production notes:
Like many old, hand-written recipes, Aunt Jenny's Favorite Cake is simply a list of ingredients.  Here's the method:
Aunt Jenny's Favorite Cake
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose or cake flour
2 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
3/4 cup whole milk
Beat butter and sugar until very well blended.  Add the eggs and beat.  Mix the flour, salt and baking powder together and add this to the first mixture alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.  Add vanilla.  Be sure not to overbeat.  Pour into two 9-inch pans, which you've greased and floured.  Bake about 25 minutes (It's done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and/or the cake springs back when pressed lightly on the top.)


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cookie Kisses -- A Wonderful Christmas Cookie


It's not too late to prepare a festive, unusual, delicious-yet-light Christmas cookie.  These are spectacular and addicting (all the better to make them last minute).  This sleeper of the holiday cookie season is a snap to make and has just four ingredients:  egg whites, sugar, chocolate bits and vanilla.

Cookie Kisses are simply meringue cookies with chocolate chips folded in, though when this recipe was written, in the 1930s, chocolate chips hadn't yet been invented, so the author suggests breaking up a large Hershey bar.  You can use the convenient chips.


Just beat the two egg whites until stiff, adding the sugar while continuing to beat until the mixture is glossy.  Add the vanilla, fold in the chocolate chips and simply drop onto a parchment covered cookie sheet.  Bake for 35 to 50 minutes at 250 degrees, though I misread the recipe card (again!) and baked these at 200 for a bit longer and they were perfect.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Cake Bakes in The New York Times

 I was shocked and thrilled to discover that A Cake Bakes made the "What We're Reading" list in The New York Times dining journal blog (along with Epicurious, Al Jazeera, the Washington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward and more!).  The link is below and what writer Julia Moskin was reading was the praline cookie story.

http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/22/what-were-reading-337/

My Best Gingerbread


Because so many recipes over-promise and under-deliver (the Better Than Sex Cake, for one),  it was with some trepidation that I set out to make the gingerbread on a recipe card titled "My Best Gingerbread."

But perhaps hyperbole wasn't as pervasive in the 1940s, when this housewife typed My Best Gingerbread on an index card.  It was her best gingerbread, and now it's my best one too.  My tasters agreed; they were still talking about it -- and looking for more -- days later.

Each gingerbread season I bake several, and I've rarely found one with this level of baking value (roughly the outcome v. the effort).  The only modification I would make is to increase the amount of ginger if you like a more assertive spice kick.


This is a beautiful recipe, with clear instructions and very little guesswork.  I baked it in an 8-inch square pan, which was fine, but a 9-inch round pan would probably yield a better looking gingerbread. It took just a few minutes to put together.  At first the batter is stiff, but becomes very liquid-y once the hot water is added.


One of the joys of gingerbread is that it's a homey kind of cake, typically served without frosting, but I'm sure you won't hear any complaints if you make a lemon glaze (confectioner's sugar and fresh lemon juice) to drizzle on top. Or just slice and enjoy with a cold glass of milk.





Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Praline Cookies


Wow! These are fantastic, their taste equal only to the when-worlds-collide story of how I got this recipe.


It comes courtesy of Ed Cahill, above, my date for the Firestone High School senior prom (way back in 1973). Ed posted the recipe cards to my Facebook wall a few weeks ago, explaining that they are his mother-in-law's who is still baking these at age 92!   Ed, who is now a grandfather (!), is a wonderful artist and though you can't see it in the picture, made the jewelry (an abstract necklace and matching earrings) I wore to the prom.  (I got him that carnation boutineer.  Very classy.)


Above is the entire mise en place for these cookies. Butter, flour, brown sugar, an egg, vanilla and pecans.  How simple is that!


Like most cookies, these are simple to mix and very time-consuming to bake.  But so worth it because they are so unusual.  They are incredibly thin, almost like lace, but packed with an intense praline flavor.

You can see how thin these are.  That's a dime, at left.
 Ed warns that they must be removed from the cookie sheet almost immediately, or they will be glued to said sheet.  I didn't find this to be the case, either on the French Silpat or the greased and floured parchment paper I used.  I found that if I waited a few moments, they released beautifully.  You need to leave lots of space between the cookies, as they spread quite a bit during baking.

 Ed said that the recipe cards, below, were typed on a 1960s Selectric, but the recipe goes back much further than that.  Do try these, for an unusual and delicious treat.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sugar Cookies Redux: My Go-To Recipe


This is a repost from last year, but every bit as delicious today.
I love sugar cookies -- they're simple, direct and satisfying.  Every Christmas I make a batch of these delicious cookies from a Martha Stewart recipe.


The dough takes about five minutes to put together.  Rolling out, baking and decorating is another matter entirely. Have some company in the kitchen or call your mother to pass the time and before you know it, voila! a gorgeous batch of homemade cookies.

My idea of a starry night.

After the cookies have cooled, just mix up some confectioner's sugar with a small bit of milk (or lemon juice) in a shallow bowl to create the frosting.  Keep mixing it until it's smooth and creamy. I find it easier to hold each cookie carefully on the edge and dip it in the frosting, rather than spreading it with a knife, but you can frost the cookies either way.



While the white frosting base is still wet, add some sprinkles for decoration.  No need to be as obsessive as I am -- carefully placing tiny holly- and ball-shaped candies atop each cookie with a tweezer! This design was created several years ago by my uber creative daughter, so I like to carry on the tradition, even if it means staying up til 2 a.m. to finish.  But I do think it's worth it -- see how festive they look, especially with a silver dragee added for sparkle.

Here's a link to the recipe I use.
http://www.marthastewart.com/recipe/basic-sugar-cookies

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bake Sales and Beyond - A Must-Read New York Times Article


"The baking life is one of many sorrows, and I have seen or tasted them all," writes Jennifer Steinhauer in today's New York Times.  Has there ever been a more brilliant story lead? I think not.  (Which is why Jennifer writes for the Times and I write for A Cake Bakes, but I digress.)

The article in the Dining section can be read here and I encourage insist that you start it. (After that, you'll be hooked and read to the end.)  The author -- using humor and insight -- bemoans modern-day bake sales, whose tables are more often laden with store-bought treats than the homemade goodies that gave rise to the practice.  Jennifer highlights the contradiction between the food-obsessed (who eat only local-origin foods in restaurants where even the waiters are grass-fed) and the lack of love (for what is baking if not love) proffered at these old-school fundraising events.  And she is profoundly sympathetic to the non-bakers among us:  "I do not have anything against people who do not bake. The culinary arts, for those with no interest in them, are nothing more than housework," she writes.

Are you hooked yet?  If not on baking, then at least this wonderful story.

Pictured up top is some gingerbread I made last night -- and will write about tomorrow. Come to think of it, gingerbread would be a fine addition to a bake sale table.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Monday Morning Pancakes



Here's a cake anyone can make -- pancakes!

As I whipped up a batch of this morning, I thought how brilliantly easy they are and what instant gratification (and gratitude) they provide.  With just a few simple ingredients that are probably already in your pantry, you can start the day with these toothsome and nourishing breakfast cakes.

Perhaps the most appealing part of this recipe (from a "new" box just purchased from a Colorado eBay seller), is its simplicity.  It's just "pancakes,"  and not some triple cream macadamia nut concoction that's found on a million restaurant brunch menus. 


Simply mix the wet ingredients (milk, egg and melted butter) in one bowl and the dry (flour, baking powder, sugar and salt) in another.  Combine until the flour is incorporated, but don't overmix -- this should be a lumpy batter.


Spoon onto a preheated frying pan and let cook until the small bubble holes begin to appear. Flip and let the other side cook for a few minutes. And voila!  It's breakfast.  Add a pat of butter and plenty of real maple syrup.

You can make the pancakes in any shape.  When my children were young, I used to form their initials to their great delight.  These days, I favor silver dollar pancakes -- small and round.

Below is the recipe card.  Because I didn't have any buttermilk on hand, I made the top recipe but I'll bet the buttermilk one is pretty good too.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Scandinavian Christmas Cookies: "Little Jewels to Grace Your Table"


"They sparkle like little red and green jewels & your guests will love them," noted the late Olive Facey on this recipe in her collection.  She was right. These may be the perfect Christmas cookie.  Light and delicious, these aren't overly sweet or cloying like so many holiday cookies.

Couldn't resist creating a cookie tree with these.
The Scandinavian Cookies in this recipe are also known as thumbprint cookies, as the depression in each cookie  is made by pressing one's thumb into the dough.  They are then baked and the depression is filled with jelly when they've cooled.  Once the jelly is added, the cookies should be served the same day.  As per Olive's instructions, I used both red currant and mint jelly.

The mise en place for coating the cookies with egg white and chopped walnuts.

Although there are several steps in making these cookies, all are simple and straightforward.  In fact, these are the perfect cookies to make with children.  The only tricky part is rolling them in the egg white and then the chopped nuts.  It's most efficient to do the egg white part exclusively with your left hand, while the coating with nuts can be handled with your right hand. If you don't keep these operations separate, the nuts will invade the egg white mixture, making quite a mess. But if you have a young helper, the tasks can be easily divided.

It's easy to overbake these cookies, as they don't really brown much.  It's best to pull one from the oven to test after about 12 minutes.  Overbaked cookies (as mine were) are a bit crumbly in texture, though still quite delicious.

Note the butter to sugar ratio. These cookies are not very sweet on their own,
but are perfect with sweetness added by the jelly.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Jack Berch's Mahogany Cake of 1947


On the rare Saturday night when I'm in the kitchen baking (as opposed to sipping martinis at an A-list celebrity studded penthouse party in Manhattan -- just kidding), I always tune the radio to Danny Stiles, the "Vicar of Vintage," and listen to the dreamy, romantic and scratchy records he plays of music from the 1920s to the 1950s.  (Think Steve Buscemi's Seymour in the film Ghost World, and you'll get the idea.)

So you can imagine my delight when in a newly arrived recipe box, I discovered this mahogany cake recipe typed in a real letter (remember those?) from old-time radio host Jack Berch, who chatted, whistled and sang for audiences from 1935 to 1954. "Keep a listenin' while I'm a whistlin" was his motto. The show was sponsored by Prudential Insurance and I'm not sure if it was aired nationwide or only in California.


I have all manner of mahogany cake recipes in my collection -- and I'm still not sure what distinguishes it from a chocolate one.  Most, but not all, have coffee as an ingredient, and some include a small amount of vinegar (which I hope has some purpose other than to make the batter a lighter shade of brown).



This is an easy batter to put together and can be baked in two pans, as opposed to three which is what the recipe specified.  Please grease and flour the pans, crucial step omitted in the instructions.


The cake was quite good but to me the real star was the frosting  -- a whipped cream confection flavored with cocoa and coffee.  Perhaps tastes have changed since 1947, but I found I needed to DOUBLE! the frosting recipe to have enough for three layers.  (And perhaps therein lies the root of our current obesity crisis.)


I made this cake for DS who lobbied for a chocolate cake (when I wanted to make a white one).  At the end, he didn't care for this cake calling it simply "round," and he described the frosting "whipped cream nastiness."  So in this case, the apple did fall far from the tree.

Old-time radio still has its fans. Below is a Jack Berch album on eBay at the moment.  And while I do enjoy listening to Danny Stiles, it's Saturday night and I'm headed out with the DH.  Happy baking to all.