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Entries in cake history (57)

Wednesday
Apr032013

The Delicious Tale of Dobos Torte

Dobos torte

He may not have had nine lives, but József C. Dobos left a many-layered legacy that's considered a symbol of Hungary. It's called Dobos Torte, an elegant caramel-coated cake which, when cut into, becomes even better--because once you get past that eloquent exterior, you'll find several (between 7 and 11) layers of delicate sponge cake sandwiched with a luscious chocolate buttercream.

Dobos torte

Sometimes thought of as the Hungarian equivalent to Escoffier, the famous French foodie who was the inventor of, among other dishes, Cherries Jubilee, Dobos was a fancy chef from a long line of fancy chefs. After spending his life in the culinary arts, he settled down in his later years to open a gourmet food shop in Hungary. He created this cake as a pleasurable way to satisfy the need for a dessert that would keep well: refrigeration wasn’t as easy to come by as it is today, and the high ratio of rich frosting to cake ensured that the cake would stay moist for far longer than a plain sponge cake.

Dobos Torte

 But that wasn't the only selling point of the cake: Dobos, a true pastry pilgrim, had discovered buttercream in his travels to France--ooh la la! When he used it in his cake (at a time when most cakes were filled with cooked creams or custards), the sinfully luxuriant, sweet buttercream-filled Dobos Torte stood out. That's right: while the combination of cake with buttercream filling is commonplace today, at the time it was really quite a revolutionary dessert concept! 

Dobos Torte

Mr. Dobos also seemed to be quite the marketing expert for his time: after he grandly introduced his Dobos Torte at the National General Exhibition of Budapest in the 1880s, the cake became a sensation throughout Europe, earning devotees from far and wide. Dobos, like a modern-day pastry rock star, even toured European capitals, introducing the cake to different cities and presenting it in a special, custom-made container. Talk about hyping your brand!
 
Dobos went to the great meringue in the sky in the 1920s, but his very unique cake has lived on: among the many honors bestowed on him and his creation over the decades, my favorite remains the time when  a six-foot-diameter Dobos torte was paraded by pastry chefs through the avenues of Budapest! Dobos torte remains a classic today; look for it when you're traveling the world, visiting fancy hotels, restaurants, and pastry shops.
 

Dobos

When it comes to making Mr. Dobos' creation yourself, don't be daunted by the long list of ingredients and instructions: this is definitely a recipe that requires time and attention, but it's not very difficult to prepare, and once it's served, you'll secure a spot as baking royalty among your family and friends. The crowning glory is the caramel top layer, which, when applied, will undoubtedly make you feel as if you are adding the torch to the Statue of Liberty.

Full disclosure? When I made this cake, I made it slightly wrong. Usually the caramel is cut as triangles and then placed at a rakish angle along the cake's top, like this. I made it as a topping layer. You know what? Still tasty, even if not quite 100% traditional. So I have it that way in my tutorial!

Dobos

Dobos

Dobos Torte (Printable version here!)

Makes one tall 9-inch layer cake (16 servings) 

For the cakes:

  • 9 egg whites
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 8 egg yolks (use the last egg yolk for the buttercream)
  • 1/4 cup milk (whole or 2%)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest, from 1 large lemon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • Confectioners' sugar, for dusting 

For the buttercream:

  • 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces 

For the caramel:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons water

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Generously grease and flour the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Have ready two 10-inch cardboard circles.

 To make the cake, put the egg whites in the very clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat the egg whites until frothy, then gradually add the sugar. Continue beating just until soft peaks form. Transfer to a large, wide bowl to make later steps (folding, etc) easier.  

In another bowl, whisk the  8 egg yolks with the milk, lemon zest, vanilla, and salt until well blended. Fold about ¼ of the egg yolk mixture into the egg whites to lighten the mixture; fold in the rest of the yolks in a second addition. This will keep the mixture from deflating. Sift the flour over the egg mixture, and fold in two additions, making sure that the flour has been completely incorporated.  

Measure about 1 cup batter into the prepared pan, then spread and level it, using an offset or rubber spatula. Bake for about 4 to 7 minutes, or until lightly browned on the edges, with a dull finish on top, and the cake has begun to pull away from the edges of the pan slightly. Remove the cake from the oven, and let sit for a 3 to 4 minutes before removing the layer from the pan with a metal spatula. Dust the cake lightly with confectioners' sugar (this will keep the layers from sticking), and place on a rack to cool.

Clean and grease the pan; repeat this process until all of the batter is used, about 6 times more. As you bake, stack the layers between waxed or parchment paper, and cover with a clean towel. Refrigerate the layers until completely cold, about 2 hours.

To make the buttercream, start by melting the chocolate in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, or in the top of a double boiler. Stir slowly and constantly until the chocolate melts. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer, whisk the eggs and egg yolk on medium-high speed until they reach the ribbon stage (“ribbons” will drip when you hold up a whisk, rather than just drips). Turn off the mixer, but leave the egg mixture in the bowl.

In a small saucepan combine the sugar and water, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Stop stirring and let the mixture come to a boil; cook to 240 degrees (the soft-ball stage) on a candy thermometer Take pan off the heat.  

Return to the egg mixture. Whisk on low speed,and pour the hot syrup into the egg mixture in a slow but steady stream. Increase the mixing speed and whip the mixture until it is roughly the texture of whipped cream and has cooled to room temperature (the mixing bowl may still feel slightly warm). Add the butter in 3 parts, stirring so that it gets mixed in. Then add the melted chocolate (it should be just slightly warm). Continue to whip until smooth and well blended.

To assemble the cake, start with one layer of cake; set it on one of the 10-inch rounds; cover the top surface with some buttercream ( a slightly overflowing 1/3cup), and then press down with another layer to make a good seal. Repeat this with all but one of the cake layers. Wrap the torte in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 6 hours; also wrap and chill the remaining buttercream (you should have about 2 cups left). Place a sheet of parchment paper on top of the other cardboard round, and place the last layer on it; wrap and refrigerate.

To make the caramel topping, in a medium saucepan, cook the sugar and water over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until an amber caramel forms, about 5 minutes.

Unwrap the single cake layer. Carefully pour the caramel over the cake layer and spread it thinly, using a small offset spatula. Don't worry if some of it drips off of the cake while you spread it. Working quickly, use an oiled or buttered sharp knife to indent the top of the caramel into 16 wedges (this will ensure that the caramel doesn't crack when you cut slices). Allow to cool slightly, and then retouch the indents with the knife again. Place the layer onto a countertop dusted with confectioners'sugar, and allow the caramel to cool completely.

Place more buttercream on top of the chilled torte, and top with the caramel round. Frost the sides with the remaining buttercream. Cover loosely, and chill the torte for about an hour before serving; let come to room temperature before serving.

Store, loosely covered, in the refrigerator, for up to 3 days. 

Wednesday
Feb272013

Teatime Tastiness: Lady Baltimore Cake Story and Recipe

Lady Baltimore cake

Here’s a cake that was built for genteel tea parties: a large layer cake filled with chopped nuts and dried fruits and topped with a dramatic (but ever ladylike) billow of boiled frosting. But while one might suppose that this distinguished cake was named after Lady Baltimore, that's not quite how the story went. Like many cakes, its origins are disputed--but like any teatime gossip, this makes the story so much more fun to delve into. A very helpful resource in my delving was The Old Foodie, by the way. Oh, and if you like tales like this, you should probably pre-order my new book, The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts.

Lady Baltimore Cake

Let's start with the tales that are likely false. First: the Lady Baltimore connection. Highly unlikely that the cake dates back to her day: the Lady, whose Irish husband inherited Maryland in the mid-seventeenth century, never even lived in America, and in any case baking powder leavening agents were not invented until well into the nineteenth century – making a cake of this sort not very likely to have been invented as a casual teatime treat during her day. The Big Fella of American Cookery, James Beard, says of Lady Baltimore that it is “said to have originated in Maryland, this one one of the first fine-textured cakes mentioned in old cookery books. It required a delicate touch in mixing and exact measurements--this, in the days of no standard measuring cups, teaspoons, or tablespoons.” Second: the Dolley Madison connection. Some say that the cake rose in popularity due to the fact that it was similar to a cake enjoyed by Dolley Madison, the fourth First Lady but this story fails to explain why it is not then called Dolly Madison cake. Also, she's already got an ice cream named after her—isn't that enough?

And now, the favored explanations for the cake—likely, the true story is a combination of the two. First: It originated in Charleston at the end of the nineteenth century, at “The Lady Baltimore Tearooms”, and was a variation of another popular cake.

Lady Baltimore Cake

Second: novelist Owen Wister is the one who made this cake famous--while writing his 1906 romance, Lady Baltimore, set in a fictional city based on Charleston, he was extremely taken with the city and a cake he ate there. In fictional form, it is described as being not unlike a wedding cake, and the suggestive passage is as follows:

"I should like a slice, if you please, of Lady Baltimore," I said with extreme formality. I thought she was going to burst; but after an interesting second she replied, "Certainly," in her fit Regular Exchange tone; only, I thought it trembled a little.

I returned to the table and she brought me the cake, and I had my first felicitous meeting with Lady Baltimore. Oh, my goodness! Did you ever taste it? It's all soft, and it's in layers, and it has nuts--but I can't write any more about it; my mouth waters too much.

Upon reacting in a strongly favorable way, the narrator realizes that the girl he’d been speaking to was the cake-maker. He finds that it has broken the ice, and their sweet flirtation continues. Some say that it is an instance of art imitating life: could it be possible that Wister had been served some delicious cake by an appealing Southern belle, and was inspired to immortalize the experience?

Supporting this is the fact that there seems to be no mention anywhere of a cake called “Lady Baltimore” until the first known publication of the recipe in 1906. Suddenly there was a flood of newspaper articles mentioning the cake; one writer in 1907 only agreeing to part with the recipe ‘with the sanction of Owen Wister’. Most likely? The cake preceded Wister's novel, but was renamed toute-suite after the novel's popularity became evident. Perhaps some entrepreneurial cake-shop owner took note after reading the book and tweaked the recipe to live up to the novel. Perhaps it was even the ladies at the Lady Baltimore Tea Rooms in Charleston.

Lady Baltimore, in cake form, has a male companion: the Lord Baltimore Cake. This yellow cake variation was created as a clever way to use up all of the egg yolks discarded while making the Lady version of the cake, yielding a rich, decadent counterpart.

Lady Baltimore Cake

Delicate and fine-crumbed, this cake is nicely paired with the rich fillings and toppings which keep it from being too light and angel food-like. Precision with the cake is necessary to get the “lift” from the egg whites, but it's worth the effort: it makes for sweet, easy eating, and the cake's history will make for some fascinating conversation.

Lady Baltimore Cake (printable recipe here!)
16 servings

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup milk
  • 7 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Boiled frosting (recipe follows)

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and flour the bottoms and sides of three 8-or 9-inch round cake pans; line with rounds of parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes on medium speed. Stir in the vanilla.
  4. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in 2-3 additions, alternately with the milk, and stir the batter until it is just combined.
  5. In another large bowl, beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks.
  6. Stir a portion of the egg whites into the batter to lighten the mixture; follow by gently folding in the remaining whites.
  7. Divide the batter evenly among the prepared pans. Use a spatula to smooth the top of the batter in the pans.
  8. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.
  9. Let the cake layers cool in the pans on racks for 10 minutes, turn them out onto the racks, and let them cool completely. If the cakes have formed a dome on top, slice using a serrated knife to level. 

Boiled frosting

  • 6 large egg whites
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped dried figs plus sliced dried figs for garnish
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted lightly and chopped fine, plus pecan halves for garnish
  • 1/2 cup raisins, chopped
  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the sugar and the water, stirring occasionally. Once it comes to a boil, continue stirring, more frequently, until the sugar is dissolved; boil the syrup until it registers 248 degrees F on a candy thermometer.
  3. With the mixer running add the hot syrup to the egg whites, in a slow, steady stream.
  4. Add the vanilla, beating the icing until it is smooth and cool.
  5. Transfer two cups of the frosting to a bowl. With the remaining portion of frosting, fold in the chopped figs, pecans, and raisins.
  6. Place the first cake layer on a serving plate, flat (un-cut) side up. Spread it with half of the fruit and nut-filled frosting, keeping a ½ inch margin around the edges—the weight of the next layer will spread the filling to the edges. Place another cake layer on top of the frosting, once again so that the flat side faces up. Spread the remaining fruit and nut-filled frosting on top of this layer, once again leaving a margin. Place the third cake layer on top, flat side up. Use the reserved plain frosting to frost the top and sides of the cake. Garnish with any remaining fruit or nuts.
Sunday
Jul292012

Sweet Cake Alabama: Lane Cake Recipe

Lane Cake: now there's a tall southern belle of a layer cake. It's filled with coconut, chopped fruit and nuts, and a generous serving of whiskey or brandy, and topped off with a snowy range of fluffy frosting. Cutting into this cake is particularly enjoyable: the white frosting gives way to a creamy-colored cake, with a slightly more yellow-toned custard that's flecked with a confetti of nuts and fruits.

Credit for the cake goes to Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, who published the original recipe under the name "Prize Cake" in a self-published cookbook around the turn of the century. It had been titled "Prize Cake" because she had entered it, and won, in a baking contest in Georgia. As time went on and the cake's popularity was spread, Lane's name was attached to the cake.

Modern cookbooks will point out that the original recipe is "imprecise," but over the years (and with the advent of the standardization of ingredient measurements), it has evolved into one of Alabama's famous culinary feats. The cake has been reinvented time and time again, with different types of fruit and nuts in the filling, some with grape juice for teetotaler or child-friendly affairs. This version is fairly classic, with a light cake, dense filling, and a fluffy boiled frosting.

And you, too, can take pride in making this cake. While not necessarily difficult, it is a somewhat laborious cake. However, the end result is a lovely cake that is well-suited for celebrating: delicious, sophisticated and ladylike, but with a little kick from the alcohol that lets you know it means business.

For the full entry and recipe, visit Serious Eats!

Wednesday
May182011

Sealed with a Kiss: Potato Kisses Recipe

You may not know this, but during the Great Depression, when many ingredients were scarce, an unexpected ingredient had a bit of a heyday in the world of confectionery: the Potato! 

And I don't mean lumpy but delicious baked goods or candy bars named after their resemblance to the potato. I mean treats made with actual potatoes--usually mashed, and added (I imagine) as a sort of flour substitute / body-builder, and as an absorber of other flavors around it.

While the potato's period of vogue as a component of confectionery seems to have faded, it was fun to make this recipe for Potato Kisses; this is the traditional recipe, but for next week's Serious Eats post, I am going to do a modern-day (and in my opinion, more delicious!) version.

I found this recipe in Who Wants Candy? by Jane Sharrock, where she says "once quite popular as an after-dinner treat with our grandparents and great-grandparents, potato candies are now ssomewhat of a novelty, with only a handful of lucky people knowing how delicious they can be." The book also includes recipes for Wacky Potato Fudge and Potato fondant.

Potato Kisses

  • 1/2 cup unseasoned hot mashed potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 1 pound confectioners' sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3 1/2 ounces sweetened flaked coconut

Procedure

  1. Cover a countertop area or large baking sheet with waxed or parchment paper.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the mashed potatoes and butter, mixing well. Gradually add the sugar, blending until smooth. Stir in the almond extract and coconut; drop by spoonfuls on to the paper. Store in an airtight container.
Tuesday
Mar082011

A Paczki Upon Thee: A Primer on Paczki and How to Enjoy It

The good news: today it is your job to eat Pączki.

The bad news: you don't know what Pączki is, and it sounds like something contagious.

Never fear! I am here to introduce you to this traditional Polish sweet. Really, it's far more delicious than it sounds  (pronounced--oh those crazy Europeans--"poonch-kee").

First off, what is it? Per Polish Heritage Cookery, "Pączek is a deep-fried piece of dough shaped into a flattened sphere and filled with confitureor other sweet filling. Pączki are usually covered with powdered sugaricing or bits of driedorange zest. A small amount of grain alcohol (traditionally, Spiritus) is added to the dough before cooking; as it evaporates, it prevents the absorption of oil deep into the dough".

Or, to simplify it a bit, sort of but not quite a jelly doughnut--but possibly its European ancestor, with a richer, eggier dough. And not limited to just jelly for filling.

Why is it your job to eat them today? Well, as I learned from the internet,

In Poland, pączki are eaten especially on Fat Thursday (the last Thursday before Lent). Many Polish Americans celebrate Pączki Day on Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). Traditionally, the reason for making pączki was to use up all the lard, sugar, eggs and fruit in the house, because they were forbidden to be consumed due to Catholic fasting practices during Lent.

So, today through thursday is kind of like "Stop! Packzi Time" (insert "Hammer time" breakdown here).

How can you enjoy them? In a few ways. If you're in Seattle like me, lucky you: they have them at Metropolitan Market locations, and at Bakery Nouveau for sure. If you're in the midwest, they're probably at so many places that you can't even count (at least this is my fantasy). But if no bakeries in your area have these treats on offer, there is a solution: make them yourself. Here's a recipe--but, you know, there's also one in this great book called Doughnuts: Simple and Delicious Recipes to Make at Home by my bloggy BFF Lara Ferroni.

Wednesday
Feb162011

Red-Hot: A Treat-ise on Marilyn Monroe and Red Velvet Cake

If Red Velvet Cake were a celebrity, living or alive, who would it be?

If you ask me, the answer is clear: Marilyn Monroe. 

After all, Red Velvet is one hot number of a cake (the New York Times has even referred to it as "vampy"); Marilyn, one hot number of a lady. But not content to leave it at that, I've created a "Treat-ise" if you will of similarities between these deliciously sensual icons.

Life and Death in 1962: As it turns out, the first recipe for the iconic dessert referring to it as "Red Velvet Cake" was published in 1962. The cake had existed before that, it's true, its red color a reaction of its ingredients, but this recipe calls for red food coloring, which amps up the color and has become a signature of the cake. So while the cake had existed, this was the year that it began its ascent into legendary territory. Similarly, for Marilyn, 1962 was a remarkable year: the year of her death, and also the year she went from starlet to legend with legacy.

Humble beginnings and a Swanlike Transformation: Both Red Velvet Cake and Marilyn Monroe began their lives in much simpler, humbler ways than the icons that we now call to mind when thinking about either party, pastry or person. In the case of Red Velvet Cake, it began as the slightly ruddy-hued outcome of buttermilk and vinegar reacting while baking; it wasn't until years later that bakers began to play up this reaction by adding red food coloring (and lots of it) for the dramatic look. Marilyn Monroe came into this world as Norma Jeane Mortensen--at a very young age, her mother remarried and Norma Jeane took on the last name Baker(!). But it wasn't until the 1940s, when she bleached her hair blonde and took on the name Marilyn Monroe that her career really took off.

A Dramatic Signature Look: There's no denying that both Red Velvet Cake and Marilyn Monroe are both iconic in appearance. In the case of Red Velvet Cake, cutting into the fluffy white frosting which gives way to a highly contrasting, visceral red expanse of cake is a downright heady experience. Marilyn, with her platinum locks, contrasting dark arched brows, signature beauty mark and pretty pout, had the power to draw all eyes to her. Love 'em or loathe 'em, in both cases there is no denying that they're striking visually.

Do these icons sometimes cross into caricature territory, more alluring in looks than in reality? Perhaps, but as Marilyn once said, "It’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring." 

Haute Hotel Connections: Both of these icons have ties to another legend--the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel. In the case of Red Velvet Cake, it comes by form of an urban legend: 

One early story links it to New York. In their new “Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook” (Bulfinch Press, 2006), John Doherty and John Harrisson say that the cake, which they call a Southern dessert, became a signature at the hotel in the 1920s. (It is also the subject of an urban legend: a woman at the Waldorf was supposedly so taken with it that she asked for the recipe — for which she was charged $100 or more. In revenge, she passed it along to everyone she knew. The tale, like a similar one about a cookie recipe from Neiman Marcus, has been debunked.)

As for Marilyn? According to Wikipedia,

In 1955, Marilyn Monroe stayed at the hotel for several months, but due to costs of trying to finance her production company "Marilyn Monroe Productions", only being paid $1,500 a week for her role in The Seven Year Itch and being suspended from 20th Century Fox for walking out on Fox after creative differences, living at the hotel became too costly and Monroe had to move into a different hotel in New York City.

Of course, there's no mention of whether or not she ate the cake while she stayed there.

They both have Famous admirers. It's true: both are famously (or perhaps infamously) favorites of high-ranking notables. I wanted to say that both had Presidential admirers, but after much googling I couldn't find any pictures or references of past or present presidents eating Red Velvet Cake (what's up, Google, not responding to my "Bill Clinton eating Red Velvet" query!?). Although...the President...of the Borough of Brooklyn, that is, Marty Markowitz, was recently a judge at a Red Velvet contest. So Red Velvet does have a presidential admirer! Of course, Marilyn's presidential admirer--a fellow named Kennedy--notably involved an incident with singing (and cake?).

But even without Presidential admirers, Red Velvet is still a known favorite of many famous people, having received public love from Oprah Winfrey (arguably more influential than the President), Katie Holmes, and Russell Brand.

Silver Screen Sirens: Obviously Marilyn Monroe stole the show in just about every movie she was in, but Red Velvet has had its moment too: it was famously featured in the classic film Steel Magnolias and is often cited as one of the most memorable bits about the movie (at least by people I know).

Say "Cheese": Yup--cheese figures into the lives of Red Velvet and Marilyn Monroe--literally and figuratively, respectively. Red Velvet is arguably most deliciously (if not technically most authentically) topped with cream cheese frosting. Marilyn famously did "cheesecake" calendar poses.

Of course, if after reading this you're still not with me on the Red Velvet-Marilyn Monroe connection, I'll leave you with these bits to prove that I'm not alone in comparing this sultry red cake to blonde starlets. “It’s the Dolly Parton of cakes: a little bit tacky, but you love her,” said Angie Mosier (via the NY Times), a food writer in Atlanta and a board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance at theUniversity of Mississippi in Oxford. Also, Lux, a cupcake shop, has a flavor that they call "The Marilyn Monroe". What flavor? You guessed it, Red Velvet.

Wednesday
Sep222010

Pound It: Pound Cake Recipe, Circa 1824

So, here's the deal. Anyone who has ever had the slightest bit of curiousity about why Pound Cake is referred to as such is probably aware that it is derived from the French "Quatre Quarts"--meaning, literally, four quarts--which refers to the equal weight of the four ingredients (eggs, butter, sugar, flour) which went into early versions of the cake. Apparently, this easy ratio was necessary because"  In the days when many people couldn't read, this simple convention made it simple to remember recipes." (What's cooking America".

But what this brief historical lesson does not tell you, however, is how these early versions tasted.

And so, dear friends, I bravely stocked up my reusable grocery tote (I am in Seattle, after all) with a whole lot of eggs, butter, sugar, and flour, and tried it out for you.

Of course, my first inclination was to try this recipe, found on The Food Timeline:

[1817] A Pound cake, plain.
Beat a pound of butter in an earthen pan till it is like a thick cream, then beat in nine whole eggs till it is quite light. Put in a glass of brandy, a little lemon-peel shred fine; then pork in a pound and a quarter of flour. Put it into your hoop or pan, and bake it for one hour."
---The Female Instructor or Young Woman's Guide to Domestic Happiness, [Thomas Kelly:London] 1817 (p. 462)

But as tempting as it was to figure out how to "pork in" a pound and a quarter of flour, something seemed missing from this recipe: namely, sugar. So instead I opted for a variation on the recipe (also from the Food Timeline):

[1824] Pound cake.
Wash the salt from a pound of butter and rub it till it is soft as cream, have ready a pound of flour sifted, one pound of powdered sugar, and twelve eggs well beaten; put alternately into the butter, sugar, flour, and the froth from the eggs; continuing to beat them together till all the ingredients are in, and the cake quite light; add some grated lemon peel, a nutmeg, and a gill of brandy; butter the pans and bake them. This cake makes an excellent pudding if baked in a large mould, and eaten with sugar and wine. It is also excellent when boiled, and served up with melted butter, sugar, and wine."
---The Virginia Housewife, Mary Randolph, with historical notes and commentaries by Karen Hess [University of South Carolina Press:Columbia] 1984 (p. 161)

In this version, the proportions were pretty much a pound each, but in the effort to produce the most pure final product, I did not add the peel, nutmeg, or brandy.

So, here's how it all went down.

 

  • First, creaming the butter til it was "like cream"--basically, I beat it (in my very not 1824-esque Kitchen Aid) until it was softer than butter itself, and became an aromatic, beautiful sort of thing that begged to be slathered on bread.
  • In my second stand mixer (because yes, I have two...jealous?), I separately mixed the eggs. What did "well-beaten" mean? I took it to mean "beat into complete submission", so I let them thoroughly froth up by mixing them on medium for about 5 minutes (but to be 100% honest, I didn't really look at the clock).
  • Then, I started to add the rest of the ingredients, bit by bit, to the extremely creamy, dreamy butter.
  • This makes a pretty significant bit of batter, so I divided among a few pans. I baked each cake in a moderate (350-degree) oven until lightly golden on top--about 30-45 minutes depending on the pan size.  

 

But what of the cake that came out of the oven? Amazingly, this cake was far lighter than I would have expected. The crumb was surprisingly delicate, and the texture almost feathery--and yet, and yet, the indescribeably buttery and rich taste allows you to make no mistake, this is a serious cake through and through.

Would I suggest moving back to our pound cake roots? Probably not, because ultimately (for better or worse) I think I do prefer the hefty, dense, sliced loaves of pound cake that are more common these days. But it did make for a sweet experiment, and an even sweeter taste of history.

Want more? You can find a plethora of historic poundcake recipes (and info) on Food Timeline.

 

Tuesday
Aug242010

Sweet Birthday Wishes: Discussing the Tradition and Definition of Birthday Cake

It's August 26th, and you know what that means: it's like, the biggest cake eating day of the year. That is to say...it's CakeSpy founder and Head Spy Jessie's (hi, that's me) birthday. But of course, while you're celebrating by eating slice after slice of sweet, buttercreamy, blissful birthday cake, one question might just come to your mind:

What is birthday cake, exactly?

In my head, it's easy enough to conjure: it is a three tier white cake with pink buttercream frosting and roses and frosting piped in a scalloped pattern on the side. This is the birthday cake (pictured left) I got for many of my formative years growing up in New Jersey--yep, I was a lucky kid, all right.

While people will likely have their own vision of the ideal birthday cake, the vision of what a birthday cake actually is seems universal: cake with lots of frosting, hopefully sprinkles or some sort of topping decoration, and candles.

To prove this point, I asked Twitter followers today (I know, I know) to submit a drawing of a birthday cake--just to see if people did have a classic vision of what a birthday cake looks like. Here were some of the submissions: 

Image by ChubbyCraft 

Image by CupcakeBreath

Image by Edenpest

Image by Baker's Cakes

Don't know about you, but I feel like I noticed two definite themes: festivity and frosting. So regardless of whether you might prefer to eat a rich tiramisu or chocolate torte or even pie (who are you?) for your birthday, there is no denying that the birthday cake is an icon.

But why?

To understand, we're going to have to go way back in time, to ponder the roots of this sweet tradition.

Where do Birthday Cakes come from? 

Per Food Timeline, 

Cakes were eaten to celebrate birthdays long before they were called "birthday cakes." Food historians confirm ancient bakers made cakes (and specially shaped breads) to mark births, weddings, funerals, harvest celebrations, religious observances, and other significant events. Recipes varied according to era, culture, and cuisine. Cakes were usually saved for special occasions because they were made with finest, most expensive ingredients available to the cook. The wealthier one was, the more likely one might consume cake on a more frequent basis.

True to that point, as I discovered on What's Cooking America, there is evidence in several cultures of earlier versions of this celebration cake, ranging from honey cakes made in Ancient Greece to celebrate major occasions (the 50th birthday, for instance, was marked with a cake made from honey, flour, cheese, and olive oil) to cakes that date back to medieval times in England wherein hidden objects were said to give good luck to the finder (a tradition which still exists with the King Cake and Galette des rois) to a tradition dating back to medieval times in Germany wherein a sweetened bread dough was molded into the shape of Jesus in swaddling clothes to commemorate birthdays.

But what holds true in all of these cases is that serving cake for special occasions is something that dates way back--a tradition which has changed and evolved based on ingredient availability and flavor preferences.

So how did we get to the fluffy, buttercream-frosted variety we commonly know in America today? As I discovered in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America: 2-Volume Set (led there by Foodtimeline.org)

Although fruitcakes and rich, yeasted cakes were the traditional English festive cakes, the modern form of birthday cake originated in American kitchens in the mid-nineteenth century. In contrast to their European counterparts, American women were active home bakers, largely because of the abundance of oven fuel in the New World and the sparsity of professional bakers. By the late 1800s, home bakers were spurred further by several innovations. The cast-iron kitchen stove, complete with its own quickly heated oven, became standard equipment in urban middle-class homes. Women in towns had more discretionary time, compared to farm-women, and they had an expanding social life that required formal and informal hospitality. Sugar, butter, spice, and flour costs were dropping. Improved chemical leavening agents, baking powder among them, enabled simpler and faster baking and produced a cake of entirely different flavor and texture. A cake constructed in layers, filled and frosted, became the image of the standard birthday cake. One observer of the early 1900s compared bubbly soap lather to "the fluffiness of a birthday cake" and snowy, frost covered hills to iced birthday cakes

And, as this fascinating passage goes on to share,

Writing on birthday cakes began with professional bakers and caterers, who were proliferating in growing cities. The cakes of the late 1800s were decorated with inscriptions like "Many Happy Returns of the Day" and the celebrant's name, a tradition that continues into the twenty-first century. Sometimes the cake was home-baked but then decorated by a specialist...The phrase "Happy Birthday" did not appear on birthday cake messages until the popularization of the now-ubiquitous song "Happy Birthday to You" (1910). Cookbook authors began to recommend decorating with birth dates and names and offered instruction on how to make colored frostings...By 1958, A.H. Vogel had begun to manufacture preformed cake decorations. Inexpensive letters, numbers, and pictorial images, such as flowers or bow, with matching candleholders were standard supermarket offerings."

Based on all of these small changes that have contributed to the current cake's look, I wonder...what might birthday cakes look like in several hundred years?

Candles

As for the candles on the cake? A couple of schools of thought. As  I discovered on What's Cooking America,

Birthday candles originally were placed on cakes to bring birthday wishes up to God. In ancient times, people prayed over the flames of an open fire. They believed that the smoke carried their thoughts up to the gods. Today, we believe, that if you blow out all your candles in one breath, your wish will come true.

Another source cites that Greeks used to light candles on the cake taken to Artemis to "make it glow like a moon"; and finally, another source speaks of the tradition's ties to German culture:

The tradition of lighting candles for birthdays continued in Europe, where candles were sometimes kept burning all day on a person's birthday, partly as celebration and partly to ward off evil spirits. 
In Germany, one big candle was placed in the middle of the cake. The birthday holiday was known as Kinderfest, a celebration of the holiday but also an occasion to keep careful watch over little ones who were supposedly more vulnerable to evil spirits on that day. The large candle frequently was marked from years one down to 12, and the candle was burned down only enough to mark that year's age.

Of course, no matter how much you want to wonder about the origins of this delicious treat, one thing is for sure: no matter how you slice it, it's a happy occasion to eat whatever kind of cake you want for your birthday. In fact, why not have a second slice?

Sunday
Jun132010

Ding Dong, Man: A Sweet Peek at a Classic Treat

Recently I came across an unexpected surprise at Seattle's Bauhaus Coffee: individually foil-wrapped Ding Dongs for just $1 each. Naturally this was a source of excitement--it's always exciting to find a homemade version of junk food!

Well, upon inquiring further, it turns out that the pastries themselves are nothing of serious note: per the employee I spoke to, they are, in fact, just the commercially made Hostess variety, re-packaged in foil.

However, while one might argue that this is simply a crafty way of re-packaging a 50 cent treat and charging more for it, as it turns out, this way of displaying them is actually quite authentic. Per Wikipedia:

Ding Dong is a chocolate cake that is sold by Hostess Brands. It is round with a flat top and bottom, about three inches in diameter and a little more than an inch high, similar in shape to a hockey puck. A white creamy filling is injected into the center, and a thin coating of chocolate glaze covers the entire cake. The cake was originally wrapped in a square of thick aluminum foil, enabling it to be carried in lunches without melting the chocolate glaze.

The page also goes on to discuss a bit more about the treat:

The Ding Dong is similar to other cream-filled cakes, such as Arcade Vachon's Jos. Louis introduced before 1934 and still in production. Hostess began marketing their Ding Dong in 1967. The name was given to coincide with a television ad campaign featuring a ringing bell. The company marketed the snacks on the East Coast as Big Wheels, to avoid confusion with the Ring Ding, a similar (and pre-existing) treat by Drake's Cakes. The names were consolidated in 1987, when a short-lived merger of Drake's with Hostess' parent company (then Continental Baking Company) briefly resolved the Ring Ding/Ding Dong conflict. When the merged company broke up, however, Hostess was forced to cease, once again, using the Ding Dongs name in areas where Ring Dings were available. The compromise sound-alike name King Dons lasted untilInterstate Bakeries Corporation, which had recently merged with Hostess' parent company, bought Drake's in 1998. The Hostess product is now sold under the name Ding Dongs throughout the United States. However, the snack is still sold as the King Don in Canada.

and to confirm the bit about the name, I also consulted the official Hostess page:

The name Ding Dong came from the chiming bells used in Hostess' first television commercials and you'll be singing a happy tune every time you polish off a package.  Nibble them slowly, like a king or queen, and savor the creamy goodness of every morsel, or bite right into that creamy center and get a mouthful of chocolate goodness.

Of course, the official page also introduced me to a game I'd never heard of: Ding Dong Ditch, which "involves knocking on the front door (or ringing the doorbell of) a victim, then running away before the door can be answered." Who knew? They even have a video of it in action, with celebrities. Here you go:

For more, check out the official Ding Dong page on the Hostess website!

Saturday
May222010

Morning Glory: The Lovely and Amazing Morning Bun

It's time to talk about the Morning Bun, that beautiful American adaptation of French breakfast pastries.

First off, what is this thing? As Carey Jones put it so beautifully on Serious Eats,

In my mind, the morning bun is the perfect synthesis of the classic croissant and the irresistible sticky bun. Call it a croissant in cinnamon roll clothing. It’s made of a buttery croissant dough, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar (and often walnuts or pecans), then rolled into spirals. Each one is baked in a muffin tin, and when the morning buns rise, they spill up and out of their little slots. Kept in close quarters, the bottom stays a bit doughy, like a sticky bun interior, while the top lifts into an appealingly flaky, cinnamon-speckled dome.

Legend (that being lore from a CakeSpy Shop customer Katie's friend) has it that this bit of sweet manna originated in the Midwest US, perhaps the result of French settlers trying to recreate a piece of home with the ingredients and supplies they had readily available? It is listed on the Wisconsin Food Hall of Fame, at any rate.

But regardless of where it came from, one thing is certain--these beautiful buns are just as tasty as they look, and if you see one at your local bakery, you should grab one. Of course, making a trek to Tartine for one based on the picture above wouldn't be out of the question, either (and while you're in the Bay Area, hit up La Farine, too!).

For more lore and love on the subject of the Morning Bun (and recipes/bakery suggestions too!), you might like to read Serious Eats, Pink Stripes, and Apartment Therapy.

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