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The Great American Cake

Christa Glennie Seychew

(page 1 of 4)


In the past century or so, cake recipes, measures, and techniques have been codified to a point that nearly anyone can become a good baker. Cake mixes, found in every supermarket and often priced under a dollar, make it even easier to manage a task once left to experts. But mixes leave something to be desired. In their uniformity and economy, they offer little flavor, predictably underwhelming texture, and, while reliable, they are unchallenging—to our palates and our abilities.

Summertime used to be a prime time for cake baking. Despite the heat, few people had air-conditioned homes, so windows were open and the notion of a cake or pie cooling on the windowsill was a common everyday occurrence. A cake was what you brought to the church picnic, a dinner invitation, a local political event, a luncheon—you name it. Over time, regional specialties emerged, disseminated throughout the community via word of mouth, local papers, handwritten recipe cards, and church bulletins. This is a tradition worth revisiting. If mason jars, twirly mustaches, and vintage clothing are cool again, why can’t scratchmade cakes make a comeback?
In honor of this summer and the many celebrations and community activities we assume WNYers are taking full advantage of, Spree’s EAT writers narrowed down a few uniquely American standards and tested hand selected recipes to lend confidence to novice bakers. Take a look; try a few. This summer, you can bake your cake and eat it, too. —CGS



Some like it hot

The versatile sponge-like Hot Milk Cake allegedly made its debut in the Mid-Atlantic States. Northern sources say it is a two-layer cake, often frosted with mocha icing. It is also used as the base for Boston Cream Pie, America’s first official cake, created in the kitchens of the Parker House Hotel in the 1850s. But in the South, Hot Milk Cake is understood to be a quick one-layer cake topped with fruit, powdered sugar, or boiled coconut topping. Somewhere in the middle, near Baltimore, the same cake is served with fresh berries every year at Anne Arundel County Historical Society’s annual Strawberry Festival.
Hot Milk Cake (HMC, henceforth) achieves its distinctive flavor from the scalded milk that serves as the liquid component in its batter; scalded milk was a popular baking ingredient/technique producing uniquely flavored cookies, custards, and cakes in the kitchens of grandmothers for years. But today, milk is pasteurized and no longer requires scalding, so you can make this recipe by scalding the milk before adding the butter (look online for how-tos) or by simply heating the milk, as we do here. HMC differs from traditional sponge cake in that the eggs are beaten together whole instead of whipping the yolks and whites separately, which makes this cake even easier than it looks.
In my search for an authentic recipe, I found an aged newspaper clipping, describing “an old Vineyard recipe, often served with yellow tomato conserve.” I played around with it a bit, using more flour and less butter, but it came out rubbery with a big bubble in the middle, so use this one without fiddling too much. After you add the hot milk and butter, the batter should be fairly thin and pourable rather than scrape-able.
Fresh from the oven, HMC smells delicious, like warm vanilla pudding. It’s golden, dense, moist, and tastes a bit like the best Twinkie you can imagine. This cake doesn’t really need any embellishment, especially if you use the recommended amount of sugar. (I tend to add less sugar because I don’t like super sweet desserts, but this cake really can take the sweetness.) As I was fresh out of yellow tomato conserve, I just shook a dusting of confectioner’s sugar over the slices and called it a day. It would also be a perfect foil for tart fruit, like strawberries—maybe those Baltimoreans have really figured this thing out.

    1    cup flour
    ¾    cup sugar
    2/3    cup milk
    2    eggs
    ¼    cup butter
    1    teaspoon baking powder
    1    teaspoon vanilla
    1    pinch salt

Preheat oven to 325° degrees.

Butter an 8-inch cake pan. Heat milk and butter in a saucepan over medium heat until it’s hot and butter is melted. Whisk eggs well in a medium bowl. Gradually add sugar and beat until thoroughly combined. Stir in half the flour, the baking powder, salt, and vanilla. Add remaining flour, then the hot milk and butter mixture, and beat until smooth. Pour batter into cake pan and bake 40 minutes.

— Wendy Guild Swearingen



Pineapple a day

Many early twentieth century cooking fads look like this: scarcity, followed by widespread availability launches a trend that sweeps the nation through recipes and themed-party ideas proffered in every newspaper, recipe booklet, ladies magazine, and church bulletin. Such is the story of canned pineapple (and chocolate, and mayonnaise, etc.), which became all the rage the moment it hit supermarket shelves at a fair price. In the 1920s, anything and everything that could be made with the newly available exotic fruit was—from Jell-O molds and chicken salad to canapés and baked hams. But Pineapple Upside Down Cake might have been the best of the bunch, with its dense base, caramelized sugar, and sweet pineapple ring topping. Older recipes call for the addition of maraschino cherries, and, of course, plenty of canned pineapple, but consider using fresh fruit if you’re handy with a knife, and please, skip those neon-colored maraschinos or buy some Luxardo brand cherries. I also like to add two tablespoons of bourbon or whiskey during the first step, where we combine the brown sugar and butter. It imparts a rich and deep flavor to the caramel that is impossible to obtain otherwise. But I’ll add a little brown liquor to most anything, so take that suggestion for what’s its worth. Recipe courtesy of JoyofBaking.com

    1    medium pineapple (peeled, quartered, cored, and sliced ¼ inch thick, or one 20 ounce can of well-drained pineapple rings)
    1½    cups all purpose flour
    1    cup granulated white sugar
    ¾    cup (160 grams) light brown sugar
    ½    cup milk
    ½    cup unsalted butter, room temperature
    2     large eggs, separated
    4     tablespoons cold salted butter, cut into small pieces
    2     teaspoons baking powder
    1     teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    ¼     teaspoon salt
    ¼     teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 350° degrees.
Position a cookie sheet in the oven on the rack beneath where you will bake the cake, to catch any drips. Prepare a 9-inch pan by spraying it thoroughly with cooking spray.

First caramelize the sugar for the topping. Heat the cold salted butter and brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir to combine until the sugar has dissolved. Continue cooking, without stirring, until bubbles begin to form on the outside edge of the mixture. Remove from heat, and pour into the cake pan. Neatly arrange the pineapple on top of the sugar mixture. (If you wish to add cherries, now is the time.)
To make the cake batter, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large mixing bowl.
In the bowl of your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer in a separate bowl, beat the room-temperature butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix in vanilla extract. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture in three or four additions, alternately with the milk. Mix until thoroughly combined.
In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites with the cream of tartar until the whites hold a firm peak. With a large spatula very gently fold the beaten egg whites into the cake batter in two additions.
Pour the batter into the cake pan, smoothing the top.
Bake 45–55 minutes, or until the top of the cake has browned and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Use a cake tester to be certain the cake is baked all the way through.
Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan and then invert the cake onto your serving plate. Be forewarned this could be a slightly messy proposition. Serve with softly whipped cream.

— Christa Glennie Seychew



Big cake, small island

Maryland’s official state dessert, the lovely and layered Smith Island cake, shares a basic structure with the much more difficult to pronounce, but perhaps more commonly found, German confection, Prinzregententorte. Like most famous recipes, its origins are contested and a matter of debate. What is known, and agreed upon, is Smith Island is a tiny fishing community in the Chesapeake Bay still heavily populated by watermen and the descendants of its original British settlers from some 400 years ago.
The cake itself, built with thin layers of white or yellow cake mortared together with frosting until it reaches a towering eight or fifteen layers (this is also contested), and finished with chocolate icing or fudge, remains the Island’s biggest claim to fame after its anachronistic colonial dialect. Owing to the cake’s unique, layered appearance and Smith Island’s relative obscurity—with a permanent population of only 250 residents, it’s accessible only by ferry and has no manmade or natural land bridges connecting the island to any neighboring state—Smith Island Cake has been a coveted delicacy since it made its first appearance on Maryland’s mainland centuries ago, which makes this small part of an even smaller maritime community a very significant portion of Smith Island’s heritage.
Here you’ll find a recipe for the most traditional version of the cake I could find; it calls for ten nine-inch cake pans, but if you don’t have access, simply stagger baking the layers in however many pans you have handy, working in shifts. Or, if your cake doesn’t require shelf stability while at sea, simply bake three standard nine-inch cakes and cut them into multiple layers using a long serrated knife. This changes the texture of the resulting cake a little, but is much simpler.

    3    cups flour
    2    cups sugar
    5    large eggs
    1    cup unsalted butter, room temperature and cubed; plus more for greasing the pans
    1    cup evaporated milk
    ½    cup water
    ¼    teaspoon salt
    1    large teaspoon baking powder
    2    teaspoons vanilla extract

Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350°. Use butter to lightly grease 2 round 9” cake pans.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or blend using a hand-held electric mixer. Beat on medium speed until light and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until smooth. Reduce the speed to low and add the sifted dry ingredients, one cup at a time. Beat until incorporated. Still on low speed, add the evaporated milk, then the vanilla and water, beating until well combined.
Place 2/3 cup of batter in each of the cake pans, use the back of the spoon to spread it evenly. Bake two or three layers at a time on the middle oven rack for 8–9 minutes, rotating pans once halfway through for even baking. Remove from oven and turn out onto a rack to cool. Regrease the pans and bake additional layers until the batter is gone.

Fudge Icing
    2    cups sugar
    1    cup evaporated milk
    5    ounces baking chocolate, chopped
    4    ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
    1    teaspoon vanilla extract

While the cakes are baking, heat the sugar, butter, cocoa, and evaporated milk over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thoroughly combined. Let the icing cool until it is firm, but not yet set, prior to frosting.

Place the bottom layer on a cake plate; spread 2–3 tablespoons of icing on each layer. Finish by icing the top and sides of the cake.

— Dan Borelli


Find recipes for nine more cakes on the following pages, including Lady Baltimore, Kentucky Jam Cake, Broken Glass, Detroit's Bumpy Cake, and more.

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