#54: history cake
I wrote an additional 968 words before 9:00 this morning. I don't know that they will remain in the finished book, but here's the excerpt, to go with the picture.
You don't have to read it, but you can.
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Greg Patent, author of Baking in America and other fine explorations of cuisine, has similar experiences in his kitchen, especially when it comes to pound cake—this one, Eliza Leslie’s “receipt” for a version with cornmeal. He says, “Baking the almost two-hundred-year-old recipe made me feel an unexpected kinship with Miss Leslie. It was as if she were with me in my kitchen. Past and present coexisted. What other treasures, I wondered, might I find by delving into old cookbooks? Would I be as successful at resurrecting them as I had been with the Indian Pound Cake?”
Following that 1829 recipe does not conjure the spirits of Miss Leslie or Mr. Patent or Indians or settlers. But it is the first cake my daughter makes, almost by herself, from start to finish. The day before her school closes for spring break, the fourth grade class wraps up a history unit called Westward Ho (this time, the ho in question is someone else) with a party. The kids can dress like settlers and are invited to bring in treats such as beef jerky, corn muffins, and root beer. A signup sheet came home a few days earlier, and I chose the easiest and healthiest of the snacks, beef jerky. (Its diet friendliness had no influence on my choice; I swear.) Serena wasn’t pleased; she is as gung ho for root beer as I am for cake. My husband voted for corn muffins and offered to supervise, so I am prepared with cornmeal, a cheap stone-ground version with an Indian on it, and an easy Internet recipe, one with more than the ¼ cup of sugar called for on the bag.
The Kitchen-Aid mixer on the counter and most of the ingredients out, including brand new muffin tins (this project was a good excuse to replace the ancient tins with the fork gouges from where cupcakes have stuck for the past eighteen years), Serena announces that two other students have also signed up for corn muffins. “What’s the point of a sign-up sheet?” I wonder. It’s supposed to ensure an equal mix of goodies—variety instead of three different versions of the corn muffin for 24.
I have my aha! moment. I’m no history expert—that’s my husband’s area—but Westward Ho is mid-1800s settler stuff. What could be more perfect than Miss Eliza Leslie’s receipt? I wrangle the last seven eggs, round up two whole cups of sugar, corn meal, and cake flour. It’s perfect, and I’m excited that we’re going to contribute some authentic historical food. But Marty and Serena are not convinced that a cake from Miss Eliza Leslie, herself a Westward ho, will be a welcome contribution, so we call Miss Novak. She’s a tough cookie, but even I know the sign-up sheet was for the benefit of the snack illiterate. Otherwise, strawberry frosted toaster tarts and malted eggs would be on the menu.
Miss Novak’s not home, but I get my family excited about a historically accurate cake, and there’s no turning back. We have everything except rosewater—the recipe calls for two tablespoons—so I double up on brandy; we have some apricot Leroux (a whole case of it). I add a quarter cup to the batter and make Serena promise she won’t tell anyone that there’s liquor in the cake.
I should not have been such a fervent supporter of this idea, as I am officially “off cake” for a while. I am off cake off and on, like some people are off coffee or off beer or off their rockers.
I call out the instructions, and Serena follows them, sifting flour, measuring salt and spices, breaking eggs into separate bowls, and adding the eggs to creamed butter, one at a time, using my clever discovery: break all the eggs for a recipe into a bowl, even if they are to be added one at a time. As long as you don’t pierce the yolks, you can simply tilt the bowl until one yolk goes into the batter. The right amount of whites will follow it, as evidenced by the last remaining yolk, which is surrounded by the perfect amount of white.
My kitchen is a mess. Where are you, Miss Leslie? Why aren’t your cleanliness and Godliness here with me, in this room? But among the technological noises—background hum of TV sitcom, strum of guitar wafting from the basement, and whir of mixer on low—Eliza Leslie’s spirit is exorcized.
Halfway through baking time, the kitchen fills with billowing smoke. Some batter has leaked from the tube pan onto the bottom of the oven, and it’s burning. I scrape a thick, hard blop with a spatula and drop the steaming bubble into the sink, and all is well for the remaining thirty minutes. When the cake is done and has cooled for ten minutes, I lose my head and attempt to remove the ring of cake from the tube. It doesn’t slide and instead breaks into three pieces, which is exactly what my daughter had hoped would happen. She waits next to my mixer for any kind of accident, like my dog, Chance, waits for pretzels to fall while I make lunches every morning.
Serena gets her bite. She says she can taste the brandy and worries that it will “poison” her classmates. We later discover it’s the nutmeg imparting such an overpowering flavor. It’s worth keeping for authenticity, but I’m not a fan. (If I liked pumpkin, and if I liked pie, I would still dislike pumpkin pie because of the nutmeg.)
On second taste (and third, and fourth), nutmeg notwithstanding, the cake is pretty delicious. It’s probably a little too sophisticated for the 21 nine- and ten-year-old kids, the crumb not so fine, the spice strong, but my daughter has the verdict. I pick her up early for our third annual let’s-avoid-the-stations-of-the-cross-school-mass luncheon. “Lauren and Deanna were the only ones who didn’t like the cake, and Miss Novak wants the recipe. Everyone said wow, this is good.”
Like anyone who cooks or bakes, I live for that. Now, so does my daughter.