Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Tale of Two Cakes or That's a lot of baking powder.

  I love baking, and I love old recipes, which you already know.  This past month a co-worker lent me some old cookbooks that belonged to her grandmother.  One was a slim collection of New England recipes and the other was a cookbook used in the Brookline, MA school system to teach Home Economics.  Both were published in the 30s and both had an assortment of unusual recipes, which are the ones I like best. 

   The New England Cookbook had a recipe which popped right out, Cambridge Favorite Cake.  What struck me were the instructions for preparing the cake.  It was like a mash up between a butter cake and a classic sponge.  Not only did you cream the butter with sugar, but in addition to beating the egg whites, you whipped the yolks with sugar and use five teaspoons of baking powder.  This recipe uses a lot of bowls, but it is worth it.  Did I mention that it makes three 9-inch round cake layers!  It is some cake.

  Intrigued with the unique preparation of the cake, I looked through my collection of old cook books to see if I could find any other cake recipes which used a similar preparation model.  I wanted to date the cake by trying to find the earliest recipe.  I found a similar recipe in a facsimile edition of the 1896 Fannie Farmer cook book.  In that book the cake recipe is called Boston Favorite Cake.  The instructions aren't as detailed as they are in the New England Cookbook, but the ingredient list is almost same, including the FIVE teaspoons of baking powder.  That amount of baking powder amazes me.  I wonder if there is an earlier account of this fine recipe?  I'll have to do some more sleuthing.

  I knew I wanted to make this cake and I mentioned it on Facebook.  A friend, Erica, asked me if it was a precursor to Boston Cream pie.  I told her I didn't know, but did tell her I was concerned about the amount of baking powder in the recipe.  I am not sure when double-action baking powder was invented, but was sure it wasn't as early as 1896, which is the earliest published date of the recipe I could find.  I thought that maybe I should halve the amount of baking powder.   This is when Stephen Exel entered the thread and  wrote that he had a copy of the recipe from a 1947 Culinary Institute of Chicago cookbook.  Since double-action baking powder was established by this time, he thought that the five teaspoons was correct.  He went on to say that:
>>the cake is meant to be 3 layers and is described as "tall, light, and elegant"<<

  Stephen also told me that this recipe appears in the latest edition of Fannie Farmer (100th Anniversary, 1996), but the recipe was modified to make two 8-inch round layers.  He also said that he wanted to make the cake as well, being equally intrigued by it.

  So with all this information and curiosity I decided to bake the cake on a Saturday morning and , Stephen was also baking his cake the same day.  I had just started the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Ariadne auf Naxos [because you need the right music for baking, or at least I do*] when I checked my email.  There was one from Stephen, he gave me a warning - Check the expiration date of the baking powder!  He checked his and it was way out of date.  I double checked my baking powder and it was fine.   I had thought I had just bought it and I was right, but memory sometimes fails.  I also decided to read the instructions on the baking powder label. Did you know that you are supposed to shake the baking powder before using it?  I didn't.  This made me think of a helpful hint, why not write the expiration date on the lid of the baking powder as well as a reminder to "SHAKE FIRST".

Okay here is the recipe Stephen emailed me, which is the same one I used:

Cambridge Favorite Cake
From the Culinary Institute of Chicago, 1947
3 1/4 c flour
5 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
2/3 c butter
1 3/4 c sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 c milk
1 t vanilla extract
    1    Line 3 9" cake pans with parchment or waxed paper and preheat oven to 350°F.
    2    Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.
    3    Cream butter and 1 cup of the sugar together until light and fluffy.
    4    Beat egg whites to stiff peaks.
    5    Beat egg yolks with remaining sugar and add to butter mixture.
    6    Add dry ingredients to batter alternately with the milk; beat thoroughly.
    7    Add the vanilla and fold in the egg whites.
    8    Pour into prepared pans and bake for 30 minutes or until cakes test done.

 Kentie's notes:
  • I used cake/pastry flour and I sifted it before measuring it and then blended the baking powder and salt into it.
  • I beat my egg whites with 1/4 teaspoon of cream or tartar.  I also used a metal bowl which I wiped with vinegar beforehand.   I also did this before creaming the butter and beating the egg yolks.  If there is any oil on the beaters or in the bowl, the egg whites won't whip up.
  • I beat the yolks until they were a pale yellow and very thick. I mixed this into the creamed butter/sugar on a low speed for 30 seconds or so.
  • The butter should be very soft.  I used the microwave to soften it.  I put it in a bowl and zapped it at 10 second intervals until it was very soft, but not melted.
  • I added the vanilla extract to the milk. I increased the amount of vanilla to two teaspoons.
  • When adding the flour alternately with milk, I started and ended with flour.  I added 1/3 of flour, 1/2 milk; 1/3 flour, 1/2 milk; and ended with the last third of flour.  I read about this technique somewhere and I think it is so that you don't over beat the flour and toughen the gluten.  While, adding the flour and milk, I beat on medium speed until the flour and milk was incorporated.  It took maybe 30 seconds.  After all the flour was in, I beat it at high speed for a minute and scraped the sides of the bowl.  Make sure not to over beat!
  • Be delicate when folding the egg whites into the batter and fold them in just until you can't see any more egg white.
  • I divided the batter between the pans using a spoon.  I put a dollop of batter in each pan,  repeating until the batter was evenly distributed among the pans.  Make sure you spread the batter to the sides of the pan before baking.  There should be a noticeable dent in the center of the batter.  This will reduce the risk of a round cake top.
  • A note on oven temperature:  My copy of the recipe indicated baking the cake layers in  a 375º oven.  Since I used dark non-stick metal pans, I reduced the temperature to 350º.   But even this was too hot. When I checked my cakes at the 25 minute mark, they were done, and almost starting to burn.  I should have checked it at the 18 minute mark.  Next time I make this cake, I'll reduce the oven to 325º, if I use the dark metal pans again.

  So what do you do with three layers of delicious cake?  You fill and frost! 

  My filling and frosting idea came from John.  He suggested banana cream filling with a chocolate frosting.  Stephen filled his with a lemon curd and blueberry jam and covered it with a coconut butter-cream frosting.

Here are the recipes:
Lemon Curd
From Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book 14th Edition (aka “the Red Plaid”)
1     c sugar
2     T cornstarch
3     t finely shredded lemon peel
6     T lemon juice
6     T water
6     egg yolks, beaten
1/2  c butter cut up

  1.  In a saucepan stir together sugar and cornstarch. Stir in lemon peel, lemon juice, and water. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly.
  2. Stir half of the lemon mixture into the egg yolks. Return egg mixture to the saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly over medium heat until mixture comes to a gentle boil. Cook and stir for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat. Add butter; stir until melted. Remove from heat. Cover surface with plastic wrap. Chill 1 hour.

The coconut butter-cream frosting recipe will be in the April 2010 issue of Traditional Home.

The banana cream filling and chocolate frosting both come from the Fannie Farmer cookbook, 11th edition.

Banana Cream filling
1     c milk
1/2 c light brown sugar
3    T flour
1    egg
1    c pureed banana
2   T lemon juice

  1. Puree banana with the lemon juice.
  2. Cook the milk, sugar and flour until thick.
  3. Add the egg and beat.  Cook for a few more minutes.
  4. Add the banana and beat. 
  5. Press some wax paper on the surface of the filling and cool in the refrigerator.

Creamy Chocolate Frosting
Note:  Don't make this frosting until your cake is ready to be frosted.  This frosting is put on the cake immediately after it is cooked.  It is almost like a thick pudding.

For a triple layer 9-inch cake, double the recipe (if you're frosting the outside only).
2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate
1   c light brown sugar
3  T cornstarch
1  c boiling water
1  T butter
1  t vanilla

  1. Melt the chocolate and add the sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan.
  2. Add the boiling water.  Mix well and cook until thick and smooth. Stirring constantly.
  3. Remove from heat and add the butter and flavoring and beat for 3 minutes.
  4. Frost your cake right away, don't dally!

If you decide to make this cake. Leave a comment. Better yet, send me some pictures to post.  You'll love this cake and I am sure it will be the one you will make for special occasions from now onward.  It's that good!


STEPHEN EXEL is a freelance food editor, writer, and recipe developer. He is contributing food editor for Traditional Home and a former food editor for Better Homes & Gardens magazine. His work has appeared in FreshHome, Cooking Club of America, DSM, Country Home, Figure, Deck Patio & Pool, and Beaverdale Living magazines. Recipe development clients include Quaker Oats and Heineken. A native Chicagoan, Stephen’s culinary career spans almost 30 years and includes food editorial; restaurants; and public relations and marketing for chefs, restaurants, food commodity boards, and branded food clients.

Erica keeps a blog at

*As a side note, I found out that Stephen was listening to Maria Callas when he baked his cake.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Kentie's Delightful Nutmeg Cake

Preheat oven to 350º

2 1/4 c cake flour
3/4    c light brown sugar
1/2    c white sugar
1/4    t salt
2 1/2 t baking powder
1       t ground nutmeg
3/4    c Crisco
3/4    c milk
1       t lemon extract
3         eggs

    1    Sift together in a bowl the dry ingredients, including the nutmeg.
    2    Add the Crisco, most of the milk, flavoring and 1 egg.  Beat with an electric mixer 2 minutes or 200 strokes by hand.
    3    Add remaining eggs and milk.  Beat with an electric mixer 2 minutes or 200 strokes by hand.
    4    Divide into (3) 8-inch round cake pans or (2) 9-inch round cake pans and bake at 350º for 30-35 minutes.  Or make as cupcakes and bake for 20-25 minutes.  This recipe makes about 20 cupcakes, you can probably stretch it out to make a full 2 dozen.

Note:  Preparing your pans by greasing them with oil and lining with wax paper.

Also, use shiny silver pans, or disposable aluminum pans.  If you are using dark pans, reduce the oven temperature by 25º

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Memories, Friends and Ketchup

  Over the past few weeks I've been reading through The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph.  I bought a facsimile of it  in P-Town in 2008 while I was shopping with Kalvin of San Fransisco, from Hello Waffles fame. Kalvin was in P-Town for a Bear convention and I wanted to meet him.  I'd  communicated with him for over a year, but never met him.  So I popped down to P-Town, had lunch with him and then we went shopping.

  Since that time I've perused it many times imagining the dishes.  It may be my favorite, post colonial American cookbook.  It was originally published in 1824 and came about after Ms. Randolph's fortunes were diminished.  She was a well known for giving the best dinner parties before she lost her money, and afterwards ran a boarding house, which only sharpened her cooking savvy.  So what's a gal to do when she's down and out?  Collect her recipes and publish them.   This is similar to how The Joy of Cooking came in to being.  Do I see a pattern?

  The first recipe I tried from The Virginia Housewife was Walnut Ketchup.  We have a Black Walnut tree and it just seemed like fate.  I had just bought the book when the walnut tree just sprouted young tender green walnuts.  Just what was required.  Also, it sounded unusual and I really was curious about the taste.  And how did they taste?  Young walnuts, that were soaked in brine, taste like lime.  I was surprised.  The finished product, the Walnut Ketchup, was closer in flavor to Worcestershire sauce.  I will make it again, when I don't forget to harvest the young walnuts.  Maybe this summer.

  Until that time, there are plenty of other ketchups and sauces to make.  Just the other day, while I was looking through the book and thinking of the Walnut Ketchup I made in 2008, I come across a recipe for Oyster Ketchup.  At first I thought it was kind of disgusting, but then I remembered that fish based sauces have been around a long time. The Romans had Garum, a type of fermented fish sauce.  Today, cooks use anchovies for flavor and the Asian cooks was all sorts of fish sauce, which can be purchased in the international food aisle in the grocery store.  So I decided that Oyster Ketchup might not be so bad.  Also the recipe was super easy to make.

Oyster Ketchup
8 oz Fresh Oysters or canned [I'll talk about this later.]
8 oz dry white wine 
2 T kosher salt
1 t ground mace
1 t cayenne pepper

1.  Put the ingredients, except the brandy,  in a blender and liquefy the oysters.
2.  Put into a pan and boil for 15-20 minutes, skimming off the scum.  Reduce to about 1 1/2 cups.
3.  Put into a 2 cup bottle and add 1/2 c of brandy, more or less.
4.  Keep in the refrigerator.  I've had mine for several weeks and is still fresh.

  That's my take on Mary's recipe.  I've made it twice.  The first time I used 8 oz. of  'fresh' oysters and the result was a thin, milky, tasty liquid.  The second time I used two 4 oz cans of oysters and the result was thick and green, but still tasty.

  Mary suggests that Oyster Ketchup is best used in white sauces.  So I made a white sauce with the oyster ketchup and served it with fish.  It was good.  It is hard to describe the flavor.  You can taste the oyster but together with the mace and cayenne pepper, you have a unique flavor.  Try it out and let me know what you think of it and how you use it.  I was talking with a friend of mine, Leila, and she thought it would be good cooked with olive oil and garlic and served over pasta.  I haven't tried that, but I think it is a good idea.

  Next time I may write about the Mushroom Ketchup I am making right now.