A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

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“1-2-3-4…”

“Like the Feist song!”

My son, who had just asked me about the recipe for that day, reeallly likes the singer Feist.

“It’s a 1-2-3-4 Cake.”

Blink, blink, blink.

“I’ll tell you more when everyone gets here.”

Once we were all assembled around the table, I explained that the numbers referred to the amounts, measured in cups, of the ingredients in a basic yellow cake: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs.

“This was a simple cake recipe that you learned to make while at your mother’s knee. You didn’t even need to be able to read. The baker would just use whatever cup they had–big or small–just as long as they used that same cup to measure all of their ingredients.”

The origin of the recipe is uncertain–it seems to be just one of those things that turned up, handwritten, in the margins of cookbooks or jotted down on scraps of paper, though published versions of the recipe date to the late 1800’s. At the end of that century however, American cooking entered the age of science.

“Have you guys ever heard of home economics?”

They hadn’t.

The home economics movement gained steam when American families began to consume more goods and services than they produced. People were eager to buy items that they had previously grown, made, or processed at home. Proponents of the field saw a need to train women to be more efficient household managers and to guide them in their new roles as purchasers.

“So things like cooking schools became popular.”

The first of these was the Boston Cooking School, founded in 1879 by the Women’s Educational Association of Boston. Mary Johnson Lincoln became the principal of the school and eventually authored six cookbooks. She was self-taught, having started cooking in earnest at age 7 when, after her father’s death, she helped supplement the household income. Later, when her own husband fell ill, she was again forced to join the workforce.

This information prompted a whole slew of “whys?”: Why were only the women expected to cook? Why couldn’t they do some other kind of work? You get the idea.

Mrs. Lincoln lamented women’s lack of scientific knowledge in the kitchen, and in her Boston Cook Book: What To Do and What Not To Do in Cooking, sought to provide not only recipes, but “all the chemical and physiological knowledge that is necessary for a clear understanding of the laws of health, so far as they are involved in the science of cookery.”

Before Lincoln’s cookbook, American recipes called for amounts like butter “the size of an egg,” a “teacup” of milk, or a “soup spoon” of cream. She was the first to use standardized measurements and to list the ingredients in their order of use.

Mary Lincoln wrote her recipes so that they “explained, illustrated, and reiterated for the inexperienced and the careless,” and afforded a “word of caution for those who seem always to have the knack of doing the wrong thing.” In other words, she endeavored to eliminate the chance of failure in cooking by also furnishing a practical and scientific “reason for every step taken.”

We were reminded of Malinda Russell’s instruction-free Sour Cream Cake recipe: “We could have used a few more details on that one.”

Following in Mrs. Lincoln’s footsteps was Fannie Farmer. At age 16, Miss Farmer had had a paralytic stroke that left her bedridden and therefore unable to attend college. She enrolled in the Boston Cooking School at age 31, became a top student and eventually the school’s director.

The Boston Cooking School Book (aka The Fannie Farmer cookbook), published in 1896, is possibly the most well-known and most influential of all American cookbooks. Like her predecessor, Farmer focused on nutrition and the science of cooking. While Fannie Farmer is generally considered the mother of level, standardized measurement, Mary Johnson Lincoln definitely paved the way.

“So what does all of this have to do with the 1-2-3-4 cake? Well, before standardization, you and your neighbor could bake the same cake recipe, but get different results–you might use this regular-sized coffee cup, while your neighbor used this much larger one.”

The kids all said they would go to their neighbor’s.

It was time to use these much talked about cups.

We quickly reviewed the basics for making a butter cake, then got to work.

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I pointed out that the 1-2-3-4 recipe was almost identical to the Choose Your Own Adventure cake we had designed, just doubled. Ratios. Pretty neat.

They were far more interested in testing the batter.

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While the cakes cooled, I whipped up some strawberry Swiss meringue buttercream. The kids had made this once before, so they allowed me to forge ahead on my own.

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We lopped the tops off the cakes and sandwiched them together with the pink speckled frosting.

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After a quick finish with the remaining buttercream, we sat down with our sunny looking slices. And unsurprisingly, those plates were clean before you could say 1-2-3-4.

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1-2-3-4 Cake, makes 2, 9″ round layers

The basic 1, 2, 3, 4 produces something more like a cookie; cooks knew from experience that they would need to add liquid to achieve a more cake-like texture. The earliest recipes called for sour milk and baking soda for leavening; baking powder was included once it was available.

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

2 cups granulated sugar

3 cups cake flour, (fluff it up with a spoon before measuring)

4 large eggs, at room temperature

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and butter the pans. Place a round of parchment in the bottom and dust the inside of the pans with flour.

Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Cream the two together until light and fluffy, 2 – 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well until each is incorporated. Scrape down the sides and the bottom of the mixing bowl.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium-size bowl. Add a third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix on low until just incorporated. Add half of the milk, blend just until absorbed, then scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Repeat the process with the rest of the ingredients, ending with the flour.

Divide the batter between the pans and smooth the tops with a spatula. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the cakes spring back when lightly pressed in the center. They should be just pulling away from the sides of the pan and will be lightly browned.

Cool the pans on racks for 10 minutes, then run a thin knife or spatula around the edge of the pan to help release the cakes. Turn them out of the pans and place right side up on a rack to cool completely.

To frost and finish:

I used a half-batch of this standard Swiss meringue buttercream recipe.  Your butter should be cool room temperature before adding it to the completely cooled meringue. It might seem like the frosting is not coming together, but have patience, it will.

I’ve found that the easiest way to get a pronounced strawberry flavor is to use frozen berries, thawed overnight so that they are soft enough to mush into a puree. I used a 10 ounce bag for the above amount of buttercream. Reduce the puree over low heat until it resembles ketchup, (see the photo above). Stir occasionally so that it doesn’t scorch. You can add sugar to taste, but I generally don’t. Push the puree through a sieve and let cool completely before adding it to the buttercream. A squeeze of lemon juice will further enhance the berry flavor.

 

For more  in this historical cake series:

Cake As A Lens

I Vote For Cake

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake for a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

 

 

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A Log By Any Other Name


“Boosh uh noelll!”

“Actually, it’s Bûche de Noël, honey.”

“BOOOSH UH NOELLLLL!”

Aww, never mind. My son was having the grandest time with the name.

“A Bûche de Noël is a traditional French cake made to resemble a yule log.”

“A log?”

They looked incredulous; it did seem a bit silly. Even the sound of the word — log, lawwg, l-o-g — is heavy to the ear, and the opposite of what one would presumably want in a cake. But once I showed them some photos, and gave them a little historical context, they were on board.

(Before we go any further, I’ve got to point out that this project was our most ambitious yet. Meringue mushrooms and a cake in the shape of a log? Thus, we took an hour or so to make the meringues, then two days later we spent the afternoon baking and assembling the cake.)

So, we have — Day 1: Mushrooming

They had made meringue before, so we just jumped right in.

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Once the meringue was silky smooth and held a stiff peak, we loaded it into pastry bags fitted with piping tips.

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The kids took turns piping the mushroom stems by making small cone shapes, squeezing the meringue out onto the parchment while gently pulling up on the bag.  They were tickled by this whole process. Some stems drooped or fell over, but the kids kept going. And going. And going.

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“Guys, we still have to pipe out the mushroom caps.”

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The caps were a little easier; they were just like piping cream puffs.

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Little points on the caps were smoothed over with a barely damp finger.

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While the meringues baked, the kids played, and the moms chatted. All was right with the world.

Day 2: Zee bûche

Oh look, we’re making meringue again!

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The other ingredients for the cake were mixed and sat waiting for the egg whites and sugar to whip to a stiff peak.

We folded a third of the billowy meringue into the cake batter to lighten it.

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Then we quickly incorporated the rest.

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The resulting mixture was placed into a half-sheetpan and we popped it into the oven.

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Making filling and frosting with this crew, on top of everything else, sounded impossible, so I opted to have a batch of plain buttercream and a batch of ganache ready to go.

We wanted to flavor the buttercream though. I suggested a little melted chocolate, (just enough to contrast with the cake), and to build on our last lesson, some caramel powder. Gilding the lily? Maybe. But we wanted this to be an epic log. Also, tasty.

“I made caramel, just like we did for our apple crêpes, but instead of adding butter and cream, I just poured the cooked sugar out onto a piece of foil where it hardened.”

“It’s like glass!”

They picked it up and gazed through it.

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Then squealed as I smashed it to pieces.

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We used a food processor to grind the pieces into a fine powder.

“It’s like sand!”

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure.”

This would be the start of sampling sugar in several different forms.

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We mixed the chocolate and caramel powder into the buttercream and turned our attention to assembling the meringue mushrooms.

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They trimmed the pointy tips off the stems and dipped the bottoms of the caps in melted chocolate before attaching the two pieces.

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“They’re so cute!”

“Can we taste them?”

“Sure.”

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We were still waiting for the cake to bake, so we decided to make some woodland creatures for the log.

Marzipan is the traditional medium for log decor, but I had some fondant leftover from a birthday cake, so that’s what we used.

“It looks like clay!”

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure?”

I was beginning to worry about answering to one of the dads, a dentist.

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But oh my! They dove right in.

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So much focus and creativity.

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Flora and fauna.

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And proud artists.

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The cake was done. It was time to fill.

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I showed them how to spread an even layer of buttercream over the cooled cake, leaving about an inch, at the topmost long edge, bare.

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Starting from that place, I began rolling the cake onto itself.

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I reassured them that any cracks on the roulade would be covered with frosting and hidden from view.

Using the parchment to help keep the cake from sticking to my hands, I continued rolling the buttercream covered chiffon sheet.

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“Eventually it becomes easy to use the parchment to pull the cake toward you.”

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“It looks like a log already!”

“Yeah, you could leave it as is, but we are going to make some stumpy parts and attach them with frosting.”

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I cut the ends off the roll on a slight diagonal.

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“Where shall we put them?”

They each offered an opinion on placement before we came to a consensus.

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Now for the chocolate “bark.”

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They used an icing spatula to fill in cracks and crevices with the soft ganache.

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The point where the pieces met proved the most challenging, but I assured them that it was supposed to look rough, like a knobby old piece of wood.

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When everyone had had a turn, they used a fork to add texture to the wood.

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“Time to add the decorations!”

They didn’t need to be told twice. The kids pounced on the cake, decorations in hand. They were so excited to bring it to life.

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They encouraged each other and moved things around to accommodate another child’s favorite piece.

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When they had placed the last figure on the cake, we stood back to take a look.

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There were gnomes, and insects, and birds, and foliage.

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We spied colorful flowers and several rocks. There was even a mini-log on the log.

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They were so pleased and proud.

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“Can we eat it?!”

“Sure.”

Just like that, without hesitation or concern for all the work they had put into it, they happily devoured the cake, creatures and all.

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And yes, it was sweet, but not only because of the sugar.

 

Bûche de Noël      (serves about 16 – 18)

You could make this as elaborate a production as you want, or as minimal. Either way, there are several components, but they can all be made in advance so that the actual assembly moves a lot quicker.

Chocolate Chiffon Sheet

Have ready a half-sheetpan (11″ x 17″), ungreased and lined with parchment

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

2 1/3 c  (8 1/4 oz) cake flour

2/3 c (2 3/4 oz) cocoa powder

2 c (14 oz) granulated sugar, reserve 1/2 c (3 1/2 oz)

1 T baking powder

3/4 t fine sea salt

6 large eggs, separated

3/4 c water

1/4 c neutral flavored cooking oil

1 t vanilla

Sift all the dry ingredients, except the reserved sugar, together and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks with the water, oil, and vanilla. Whisk the dry ingredients into the yolk mixture until combined. Whip egg whites with the reserved sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the cocoa mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining meringue, until completely combined. Pour into prepared sheet pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake until the cake springs back to the touch, about 15 minutes. Let cake cool on a rack for 5 minutes before loosening the edges with a knife. Invert on to a cooling rack and remove parchment. Let cool completely before filling.

Buttercream Filling

You will need about 2 1/2 cups, flavored as you like. We used melted chocolate to taste and caramel powder (see above and here).

I like this recipe for Swiss Meringue Buttercream. Make just 1/2 of a batch for this cake.

You can make this several days in advance. Refrigerate and let come to room temperature before re-whipping.

Ganache Frosting

You will need about  1 1/2 times this ganache recipe. You probably won’t use it all, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Use leftovers for hot chocolate!

This can also be made in advance, (see above recipe for softening cold ganache), but it’s so quick and easy to make as needed, I prefer to do that.

Meringue Mushrooms

Here is a good recipe for the mushrooms. You don’t need superfine sugar, regular works fine, just make sure you add it slowly and that you whip it until it is no longer gritty. The mushroom caps and stems can be made in advance, and stored in an airtight container in a dry spot for several days. Attach the caps to the stems with chocolate just before you assemble the cake.

Other items you might want:

Marzipan to mold into figures, leaves, etc. This can be tinted with food coloring.

If you are going for a more natural looking log, (not ours), rosemary branches or other unsprayed foliage.

Sugared cranberries. So pretty!

Google some examples. The sky is the limit. Have fun. And have a happy and peaceful holiday season!