Top 100 Cake Blog

Top 100 Cake Blog

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Date Squares (orig. old recipe)

Date squares may seem an unusual choice for a birthday celebration, except these sweeties were made for my friend Stephen (who's pretty sweet himself) from a recipe in the collection of his late mother, Olive Facey.  I have a feeling she made these a lot -- there were three cards bearing this identical recipe.

Date desserts were very popular in the 20th century.  They are still a big hit today -- my work colleagues finished these in record time.  (I'm not sure about the small birthday package filled with date squares I gave Stephen's partner to give to him.  Last I heard, said partner had eaten one, and possibly all.)

These date squares are technically a filled bar cookie.  The date filling is sandwiched between the base and the topping, but since the topping and base are the same, it's simpler than it appears.

As with many old handwritten recipes, one must know *something* about baking to follow them correctly. For example, to make the base, the card says: Mix all ingredients as for pie crust.  This means that the cold butter is cut into the other ingredients (for cake, softened butter is blended with the sugar).  You can use a pastry cutter, two knives or a food processor fitted with a steel blade.

The end result is a crumb-like mixture.  Put a little more than half into an 8 or 9-inch square pan, which you've greased with butter or Crisco.

Press it into the pan.  I used my non-latex gloved hands to do this.

Next (or first, but separately in any event), prepare the date filling.  Chop the dates -- I put a little sugar on them to make them less sticky.

Cook them with the sugar and water.

Spoon the date filling atop the base.  (You need not make the continent of Africa, as I did.)

Smooth it out carefully until it reaches the corners.  An offset spatula or the back of a spoon is good for this task.

Sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture on top.  Use it all, even though it seems like you have too much.

An aerial view.

Production notes: I followed the recipe exactly.  For "1 pkge dates" I used eight ounces of pitted dates. Mixing like a pie crust means to start with cold butter cut into cubes, and "cut" with two knives, a pastry blender or a food processor, into all the other ingredients until the mixture resembles small peas.
For the date filling, mine never turned "clear" and it's very forgiving, so just cook the mixture until it's the consistency you want.
For the topping, simply spoon it on top until the date filling is no longer visible.
I also used an 8-inch pan (don't own a 9-inch one), and it worked fine.  Be sure to grease it well, or line the bottom and sides with parchment paper.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Grace Johnson's French Bread, by way of Brooklyn

Though I write from Brooklyn and that name is in my blog title, I rarely come across vintage recipes from born-and-bred Brooklynites.  But I did just that a few months ago, at a stoop sale just two blocks from my house.

The story begins last year, when Jackie C. discovered that a house two doors down from her Tenth Street apartment was sold, and the new owner was planning to discard the contents of the basement. Jackie asked if she could have a look.  Once inside, she discovered a treasure trove of items, spanning the whole 20th century, that once belonged to Mae Neis and her sister Grace Johnson. Included was this 1952 Executive Record & Travel Guide that Grace repurposed into a handwritten cookbook,  

complete with index!  The recipes reflect many of the ethnic groups in Brooklyn at the time: Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Irish, Welch, British, etc.

According to Jackie, who spent many hours going through the items in the basement, Grace Johnson was born in 1906, raised in Park Slope, and attended the nearby St. Saviour's School. She worked as a stenographer in the 1920s and married William Johnson, who worked for RCA.  They had no children but entertained and traveled extensively -- Jackie found all the postcards they sent to Mae. She thinks Grace, who was predeceased by her husband, died in the 1980s, and all of her things were inherited by Mae who died in 1991 or 1992.  Jackie, who never met either woman, deduced from Grace's belongings, that she loved to read about astrology and palmistry, play bridge and collect ashtrays and spoons from her travels. She also loved to cook -- there were tons of baking and cooking utensils among her things.  And, of course, this cookbook.

I dove into the cookbook by making French bread.  It's remarkably easy, and quite delicious.
Start by dissolving the yeast and then simply adding all the ingredients into a bowl.

Mix it all up together, and turn out onto a floured board and knead for about ten minutes.

Put the dough into a buttered bowl, cover with a cloth and place in a warm spot to rise until ...

it doubles in size, below.

Then, punch it down.  Literally, put your (clean) fist right in the middle of the dough.  Aside from kneading, this is the most satisfying part of bread making.  Oh, and biting into the finished product.

Divide the dough into two balls and form two baguettes.  Slash the tops with a knife.

Bake until it looks like this.

Cool, slice and enjoy.

Below, is the recipe as Grace wrote it.  And below that is my modern day "translation."

Grace Johnson's production notes: "Moist heat key to French bread. It is made like our regular bread. The difference is in the baking.  During the baking period, a pan of boiling water is placed on the bottom rack of the oven to provide the moist heat necessary to make a crisp crust."

French Bread

1 pkg. dry yeast
1/4 c. lukewarm water
1/2 c. scalded milk
1 T. melted butter
1 T. sugar
1 1/2 t. salt
1 1/4 c. lukewarm water
5 c. all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 400 F

Sprinkle the yeast over 1/4 c. lukewarm water and let stand five minutes.
Combine the scalded milk, butter, sugar and salt and cool to lukewarm.
Add the dissolved yeast and lukewarm water.
Gradually mix in the flour to make a dough.
Turn the dough onto a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, about ten minutes.
Place the dough in a buttered bowl and brush the top with melted butter.
Cover and let rise until double in bulk, about one hour.
When doubled, punch the dough down and let is rise again, about 30 minutes.
Divide the dough in half and form two long loaves.  Let rise about one hour.
Place a cake pan or similar on the bottom of the oven (or bottom rack) and fill with boiling water.
Brush the tops with milk and bake for about 60 minutes -- but start checking for doneness much earlier.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Butterscotch Cookies with Burnt Butter Icing

When my friend Elaine extended an invitation to a cookie swap for preschool parents at the Third Street Music School (and mentioned that among the parents would be Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen fame), I jumped at the chance to meet one of my culinary idols.  Everyone would bring a batch or two of cookies and then we'd all share, just like in preschool.  But unlike preschool, the wine flowed freely at the swap.

I decided to try the yummy sounding Butterscotch Cookies with Burnt Butter Icing from my collection of handwritten vintage recipe cards.  (For insurance, I also made the much beloved Creole Praline Pecan Bars.) Although they were a big hit, the pecan bars were unnecessary -- the vintage cookies were delicious, made extra special by the burnt butter icing.  These soft, cake-like cookies, have a big old-fashioned taste.

Because I'd only recently encountered burnt butter, I suspected that this was a more modern recipe. But apparently housewives in the 1940s (and maybe earlier) discovered the secret kick of letting the butter brown (hence the term burnt). This exact cookie recipe won first place in a 2012 Ohio contest, submitted by a grandmother of 12 who learned it from her mother when she was about ten years old.

The batter is easy to whip up and its method resembles that of a cake more than cookies, as one adds the liquid (in this case, sour cream) alternately with the dry ingredients (flour,salt, etc.)

These are drop cookies, so you needn't fuss with how they look on the baking sheet.

The oven will smooth out all the rough edges.

While the cookies are cooling, make the icing (which I did, but neglected to photograph).

The school had provided guests with charming *small* containers to fill with cookies, but I was having none of that.  I filled my Tupperware (the one that I had transported my cookies in), intending to share the bounty with work colleagues.  Let's just say they didn't get that far.  The chocolate heart-shaped cookie (the chocolate hazelnut linzer heart) was baked by Deb and you can find the recipe here.

And here are Deb and I at the event.

The original recipe card below.  And below that, an easier to follow typed version.  (I was inspired by Deb who really cares about her readers.)

Production notes: The only tricky part is the burnt butter.  Let the butter melt and turn brown, watching carefully to make sure it doesn't burn.  I used the tiny dark brown bits in my frosting, but you can discard them.

Butterscotch Cookies with Burnt Butter Frosting
1 stick butter
1 1/2 c. brown sugar
2 eggs
2 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1/2 baking soda
1 c. sour cream
1 t. vanilla
2/3 c. chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 400 F.
Cream butter, add sugar gradually and cream thoroughly.
Blend in well-beaten eggs
Sift flour with baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add alternately with the sour cream to the creamed mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.
Blend in walnuts and vanilla.
Chill until dough is firm.
Drop by teaspoon on a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet.
Bake 10 to 15 minutes.

Burnt Butter Icing
6 T. butter
1 1/2 c. confectioners sugar
1 t. vanilla
hot water

Melt butter, keeping it over the heat until golden brown and smells nutty.  Watch carefully, lest it burn.
Blend in confectioners sugar and add vanilla.
Stir in about 4 T hot water until icing is right consistency to spread smoothly.
Spread over cooled cookies with a small butter knife or offset spatula.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Fredelle and Nina's Poppy Seed Cake

If you're looking for something to win your honey's heart on Valentine's Day, do consider this moist, delicious and oft-requested poppy seed cake.  But you need to comfortable enough with your beloved to engage in a flossing duet, as this cake is so packed with poppy seeds as to make that task de rigueur. (My friend Allen said he counted and found 11,234 poppy seeds in the tiny slice he enjoyed. Not sure how many yards of floss he required.)

This recipe is not from a vintage hand-written card in my collection.  I got it from Joyce Maynard in the 1990s in exchange for signing up for her newsletter or buying one of her books -- the details escape me. And, as there often is, there's a story with the cake. The exact details also escape me, but I think she originally got the recipe from a friend (Nina), made a few changes (adding sour cream and maple syrup) and then made it numerous times for her mother (Fredelle) and family friends while caring for Fredelle during her last weeks and days.

To begin the cake, bring to the boil one cup of poppy seeds and one cup of whole milk.  Take it off the fire, and let the seeds absorb the milk while you prepare the batter.

During the penultimate step of the batter, add the seeds (and whatever milk has not been absorbed). 

This is one of those cakes that require the separation of yolks and whites -- kind of a pain as it involves using an extra bowl to beat the whites, but the technique does lighten the cake enough to make it worthwhile.  I always add some cream of tartar to the whites to ensure they are not overbeaten (and therefore too dry). Fold the whites in, gently, using a spatula.

Spoon or pour the batter into a bundt pan which you've coated with baking spray or greased and floured.

When done, place the pan on a rack for about ten minutes before flipping it over to cool.


Sometimes the cake releases perfectly from the pan (as above).  If it doesn't (as below), don't worry.  

Simply -- and carefully -- remove the cake stuck to the pan and get it back to where it once belonged (can you tell  I'm watching a Beatles special?)

The repaired cake, made a few weeks ago for the DD's birthday, below. At her request, I punched the cake with a lemon glaze (lemon juice and sugar cooked to a syrup).

And now, without further ado, the recipe.  I followed it exactly, but only used a tablespoon each of sour cream and maple syrup.