The Redemption of a Sad Paste

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“We’re baking an Indian pound cake today. Anybody want to guess where the name comes from?”

I love that all four of the kids raise their hands.

“Because the Indians baked it?”

“Because Americans baked it for the Indians?”

“Is it in honor of the Indians?”

There were several more guesses — all good.

“Remember our last session, when I told you that the cookbooks of that time were British? Well, fast forward a bit and we’ve got recipes that are still traditionally British, but now we’ll start to see those same recipes incorporate ingredients native to North America, like maize.”

I explained that while there are now several varieties of corn, they all descend from one kind of grass, called teosinte, that is indigenous to Central and South America.

The kids were interested to learn that corn is grown exclusively by man, that is, no present form is capable of self-propagation.

“Scientists have determined that humans domesticated teosinte approximately 6,000 – 10,000 years ago in southern Mexico.”

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We compared the physical characteristics of both and discussed how artificial selection gave us the corn we eat now.

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Still, it seemed unbelievable to us that anyone would find that hard-shelled plant worthy of replanting for food.

I shared a story detailing how scientists wondering the same, were able to test a theory that made the early farmers’ choices much more understandable.

“After that, maize made its way up to North America where Native Americans continued to cultivate it.”

They all remembered learning about the Spanish colonization of the Americas, so it was easy for them to understand how corn could travel to Spain via Columbus, and from there to the rest of Europe, Africa, Middle East, India, and China.

“So while corn wasn’t completely new to the European settlers, they had never seen it used the way the American Indians were using it. The new Americans referred to it as Indian Corn.”

The colonists and subsequent immigrants from Europe were used to wheat flour.

“You guys know what bread made with wheat flour is like — lofty and chewy due to the development of gluten and its ability to stretch and capture gases released by whatever leavening agent you’re using.”

Cornmeal, which does not form gluten, stubbornly refused to rise for the unknowing bakers.

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I read a quote from a woman named Rebecca Burlend, who emigrated to Pike County, Illinois, in 1848:

As our money was growing scarce, [my husband] bought a bushel of ground Indian corn, which was only one-third the price of wheaten flour…Its taste is not pleasant to persons unaccustomed to it; but as it is wholesome food, it is much used for making bread. We had now some meal, but no yeast, nor an oven; we were therefore obliged to make sad paste, and bake it in our frying pan on some hot ashes. 

— from The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell

But! It was cheap and plentiful and wholesome, and the ever persevering pioneers “made do.” They “made do” so well in fact, that they came to like the Indian corn.

Pray, let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all in all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world; that its green leaves roasted are a delicacy beyond expression; that samp, hominy, succotash, and nokehock, made of it, are so many pleasing varieties; and that johny or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than a Yorkshire muffin.

— Benjamin Franklin, 1766, in response to The London Gazette writer who had argued that Americans could never give up tea because their Indian corn was so indigestible.

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As we began preparing our ingredients for the cake, I gave the kids some background on Eliza Leslie, the author of the cookbook containing the original Indian pound cake recipe that our working recipe was adapted from.

Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats was first printed in 1828, and is the earliest American baking book. Eliza Leslie had wanted to be a fiction writer, but her mother sent her to Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow’s Philadelphia cooking school so that she could help with the family boarding house.”

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The kids continued with the recipe — they had made pound cake before.

Reading Miss Leslie’s book reminds one of just how much effort it took to bake a cake. While cast iron ovens had been introduced, they were expensive, so most people were still cooking their food in brick fireplaces.

Very few ingredients were purchased ready-made: butter needed to be churned, sugar was grated from loaves or cones, flour required drying to remove the excess moisture that would make baked goods heavy, leavenings were homemade, even cornstarch was do-it-yourself.

“If the butter and sugar are to be stirred together, always do that before the eggs are beaten…For stirring them, nothing is so convenient as a round hickory stick about a foot and a half long, and somewhat flattened at one end.”

— from Preliminary Remarks in Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry,  Cakes, and Sweetmeats

We skipped the hickory stick and went straight for the electric mixer.

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We divided the batter between two pans and used a knife to make sure that they were equally full.

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Close enough.

We popped them into our non-wood-burning oven.

“Mom got the cornmeal from an island!”

It took me a second to understand what my son was talking about.

“Oh, no honey, I think you mean Rhode Island!”

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I had ordered cornmeal from Gray’s Grist Mill, the oldest continually operating mill in the United States. They mill Narragansett Indian Flint Corn, which is the only true strain of native corn left in New England; only 40 – 60 acres of Rhode Island are planted in white cap corn, while thousands of acres are planted in other types.

While the kids were interested to learn about the workings of the mill and its long history, they were more interested in eating the Indian pound cake.

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I sliced it up while it was still warm, and they devoured it. Then they asked for seconds.

“So, it’s not a sad paste?”

“No!”

It was unanimous. It wasn’t sad, and neither were any of us.

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Eliza Leslie’s Indian Pound Cake, adapted slightly from Richard Sax’s version in Classic Home Desserts

Makes two 9 x 5 inch loaves; each serves 8 to 10

1 1/2 cups sifted cornmeal, fine stoneground is preferable

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

2 tsp ground cinnamon

3/4 tsp fresh-grated nutmeg

3/4 tsp fine sea salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

grated zest of 1 lemon

8 large eggs at room temperature

1/2 cup whole milk at room temperature

3 T brandy

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour, or butter and line with parchment, two loaf pans. Mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, spices and salt together and set aside.

Beat the butter until light. Add the sugars and the lemon zest and continue beating until very light. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well. Add one-third of the dry ingredients and combine on low until just mixed. Add the brandy to the milk and add half of the mixture to the batter. Alternately add the remaining dry ingredients and milk, scraping the bowl and mixing gently after each addition.

When all the ingredients are just combined, divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until the cakes are golden and toothpick inserted near the center emerges clean, about 45-50 minutes.

Cool the cakes in the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Unmold and turn right side up; cool. Serve at room temperature.

 

For more on this historical cake series:

Cake As A Lens

I Vote For Cake

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

Spring Strawberries, Fractions, and Harry Baker

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“Careful, those are sharp.”

I had just passed my six-year old son a handful of steak knives to distribute to the other kids. Don’t worry, they’ve had a class in knife skills.

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They made short work of the strawberries while we talked about what we’d be baking.

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“Chiffon…what is that?”

They were happy to hear that it was a kind of cake, and even happier to hear that we would be topping the cake with the lovely strawberries they were preparing.

I tossed the berries with some vanilla sugar and set them aside to macerate.

Me: “Prior to 1948, cakes were traditionally classified as either butter cakes or sponge cakes. Chiffon cake is neither. In fact, a chiffon cake is its own special thing, somewhat of a hybrid of the two.”

“Hybrid, you mean like a hybrid car?”

Me: “Exactly!”

I reminded them how we creamed butter with sugar to make a butter cake. But we were using oil for this cake. We all agreed that the oil wouldn’t be able to trap air the same way that butter would.

Me: “What other ingredient do we have that could trap air?”

“Eggs?”

Enter the sponge cake component of our hybrid: whipped eggs, specifically whites.

We turned our attention to the recipe.

Me: “This recipe makes way more cake than we need, so we’ll have to cut it in half. It calls for 11 ounces of cake flour…”

“So we need 5 1/2 ounces!”

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They took turns weighing and measuring the dry ingredients, helping each other with the appropriate calculations. Some were harder to figure out, half of 3/4 teaspoon or half of a tablespoon for example.

I pointed out that they needed to reserve some of the sugar, 1/2 cup for a full recipe. They recalculated.

“This is kind of like a math lesson too.”

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The dry ingredients were sifted together into a large bowl.

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The wet ingredients minus the egg whites would go into another.

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As they finished scaling out the ingredients, I laid some cake trivia on them.

Me: “So this kind of cake was developed in the 1920’s by a guy named Harry Baker. He worked on the recipe and kept it secret for 20 years! Then he sold it to General Mills so they could market it and make a bunch of money.”

They found this funny.

Me: “What do you think this guy did as a profession?”

“Was he a baker?”

I thought they’d guess that. I also thought they might say scientist or something of that nature.

Me: “He was an insurance salesman.”

They knew nothing of insurance. This resulted in so.many.questions. I promised we would revisit the topic…but first, back to cake!

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I explained why chiffon cake was such a hit when it came out. People liked them because they were very moist due to the oil in the batter, and since oil is liquid even at cooler temperatures, chiffon cakes do not tend to harden or dry out as traditional butter cakes might. This makes them better choices for fillings that need to be kept refrigerated, like cream or mousse, or even frozen, like ice cream.

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Wet ingredient were added to dry ingredients and whisked together until smooth.

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Then we whipped up the egg whites with the reserved sugar.

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They remembered the different stages of whipped egg whites, and helped keep an eye on them as the mixer did its thing.

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We checked the meringue to make sure we were at a nearly stiff peak.

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We used about a third of it to lighten the batter in the bowl, then gently folded in the rest.

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About 30 minutes later…

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Once the cake had cooled, we added our sweetened strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream. I’m pretty sure Harry Baker would have approved.

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As I said, this recipe makes enough for two tall 9″ layers, or one large tube pan. (We used a 10″ round by 2″ tall pan to make our single layer, which gave us twelve slices) Do not grease your pan, the batter needs to cling to the sides to rise properly. If you are making layers, simply line the bottoms with parchment.

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Orange Chiffon Cake

11 oz    cake flour

2 c        granulated sugar, reserve 1/2 c

1 T        aluminum-free baking powder

3/4 t      fine sea salt

6           large eggs, separated

1           orange, zested and juiced

3/4 c     liquid, (juice from the orange plus enough water to make 3/4 cup)

1/4 c     neutral tasting oil like safflower

1 1/2 t   vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Fit a round of parchment into the bottom of a cake pan. Do not grease the pan.

Sift dry ingredients together into a large bowl. Combine egg yolks with the zest, juice and water, oil, and vanilla. Whisk the egg mixture into the dry ingredients until smooth. Whip the egg whites with the reserved 1/2 c sugar to a nearly stiff peak. Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining meringue. Place batter in pan and gently smooth the top. Bake for about 30 – 35 minutes or until the cake takes on a light gold color and springs back when pressed in the center. Cool completely before using a thin knife or spatula to release the cake from the sides.

Hello, hello. Is this on?

Well hello!  It’s been too long.  A whole summer you say?  Really?

So where were we?  Oh yeah…

We were making a bundt cake, then it got really hot, and we were all burned out from months and months of homeschooling, and we all. just. stopped.

Beach.  Water.  Sand.  Bay.  Two really hot weeks in Arizona.

This break has been lovely, but I for one, am excited about officially starting our homeschool year this week.  And yes, that includes our regular semi-regular baking class.

So. Join us here for more adventures in baking and food. We’ve got some fun things planned.

 

 

Math and science and history, oh my!

I had envisioned adding to the last post, some thoughts on Learning Stuff Other Than “How To Bake” In A Baking Lesson, but then that post would have been annoyingly long.  So, perhaps from now on I’ll just do a follow-up post with any ideas.  I’d love it if people could chime in with their suggestions too.

What can you learn besides baking fundamentals from these sessions?

Language arts skills.  Reading and following a recipe.  Pretty straightforward, right?  For my youngest who is just learning how to read, simply identifying and understanding the difference in what T and t means in a recipe is pretty important. For kids working on grammar, looking for the adjectives, nouns, verbs, etc. in a recipe could be a new activity.  Putting together a grocery list for a baking project, or even using that recipe as a guide in writing out the steps for how to prepare a favorite snack could be another.

What else?

Math.  You cannot bake without using math. Whether you are measuring ingredients by weight or by volume you are working with numbers.  The decimal system, fractions, equivalent fractions, time.  For instance, in the last recipe we needed 2 oz. of butter and we had a 4 oz. stick.  I asked the kids for advice.  Or we had to divide the dough into eight equal portions.  Again, the kids helped figure that out.  At 12:15 we had to let the dough rise for 50 minutes.  When will it be done?  See? Math. The younger kids benefit from simply exploring with measuring cups.  For older kids you could have them halve or double a recipe. Just make sure you have freezer space for all the extras!

Science.  So many opportunities for further investigation! Can I predict what might happen if I mix the yeast with cold water instead of warm, or without the sugar?  What difference would it make if I split my pretzel dough into two bowls and leave one in a warm spot and the other in a cooler spot? If I don’t boil some of the pretzels before baking will they taste the same?

History.  Food history is pretty fascinating if you ask me.  We are studying the Middle Ages in Story of the World right now, so the kids were interested to learn that pretzels may have been invented by monks sometime in the 5th century. Ok, they weren’t quite as excited as I was about the connection, but still. Wikipedia is always helpful, but foodtimeline.org is a great resource for answering those “who thought this up?” kind of questions.

I almost forgot home economics! Do they even teach this in school anymore? In my home ec class I think I learned how to make chocolate chip cookies and sew on a button.  I also have a vague memory of parker house rolls.  In this age of grab and go food, I think it’s more important than ever for kids to be comfortable in the kitchen, to know that armed with some basic cooking skills and research they can take any packaged food they find in a grocery store and make it at home cheaper, healthier and tastier.  It’s not magic.  It’s food.

What are your thoughts on extending the learning?

Good (kitchen) habits die hard

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I’m not big on micromanagement.  As long as the kids aren’t in danger of hurting themselves or others, I generally let them be.  However, with the prospect of several children working in tight quarters around hot sheet pans, an old Wedgewood stove and an open flame, I thought a discussion of kitchen guidelines might be prudent.

At our first gathering we talked about three rules that we would need to remember each time we worked together, and most importantly, each time they cooked or baked at home.

As always, number one is work safe.  I invoked the infamous “walking feet” rule.  This was promptly followed by the “mindful hands” rule. More specifically, grabbing, reaching over others and mindless flailing of arms may get someone burned.

The second is work clean.  The obvious answer to my “what does that mean?”, was an encouraging “wash hands!”  We then discussed keeping hands away from mouths and noses which prompted several of the kids to run off to the bathroom to rewash.  The second part of this rule is “clean as you go.” Wiping up spills and moving dirty items out of the way keeps one from trailing goo about the kitchen and keeps slipping hazards to a minimum.

The last is work smart.  Quizzical looks followed. I explained about setting up a work space with everything needed for that project.  Then I got all fancy with the French.  Mis en place.  Putting in place.  “But how do I know which ingredients and what equipment I’m going to need?”, I asked.  “The recipe!”, one cried.  And with that, we were on our way.

Planning…

The age range of our group is 5 – 9.  While not a huge difference in years, there’s a fair amount of space when talking about attention span and impulse control.  Aside from the logical chronology of easy to more complex, the main requirements for lessons seem to be: yummy, keep it moving and/or have a place to break for silliness and sustenance.

Keeping all that in mind, what recipes should we tackle?

I wanted to follow a basic intro to baking curriculum, albeit an extremely abridged one!  It made sense to introduce the kids to the elements of baking starting with yeasted bread.  I mean you’ve got three ingredients to deal with in the simplest recipe…water, flour, and yeast.  Add salt, sugar and a fat and that’s still pretty workable for young hands. Plus, yeast. It’s alive. It’s neat.

So,

Lesson 1: Soft pretzels. Not bread exactly, but the mixing method is the same.  And kids like pretzels.

Lesson 2: Pate a choux. Fun. To. Say.

Lesson 3: Pumpkin chocolate chip bread pre-Halloween. Intro to chemical leaveners.

Lesson 4: Apple pies for Thanksgiving.

Lesson 5: Cookies, holidayish.

Lesson 6: Frangipane tart, perhaps with fruit.

Lesson 7: Lemon pound cake in preparation for the more difficult cakes…

Lesson 8: Chocolate cake and buttercream

Lesson 9: Chiffon cake with berries and whipped cream

Totally doable right?