Best Laid Plans

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This is one reason I publish my Cook Book, hoping to receive enough from the sale of it to be able to return home. I know my book will sell well where I have cooked, and am sure that those using my receipts will be well satisfied.

— Malinda Russell, A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, 1866

“Everything we know about Malinda Russell is in this book — the first cookbook ever written by an African American.”

The kids leaned in for a better look at the iPad.

“And this is the only remaining copy.”

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“She published her book in 1866. What do we know about that time?”

“Was it the time of the Civil War?”

“Yep. Remember, the war began in 1861 and lasted for four years. This book came out just after that.”

We talked a bit about what life in America might have been like during those years, and the challenges a woman of color like Malinda Russell would have faced. Then I gave them a very abridged version of the already condensed version of a biography that Ms. Russell had included in her book:

“She writes, ‘My mother being born free after the emancipation of my grandmother, her children are by law free,’ and that her family was one of the first families released from slavery by a Mr. Noddie of Virginia. At 19 she attempted to emigrate to Liberia but was robbed by a traveling companion. Forced to abandon her plans, she ended up staying in Lynchburg where she worked as a cook. She married and had a son who she describes as crippled. Then, just a few years later, she became a widow. So aside from everything going on in America at the time, she had her own personal challenges.”

The kids nodded in empathy.

I went on to describe how Ms. Russell moved to Tennessee and ran a boarding house and pastry shop, and “by hard labor and economy, saved a considerable sum of money” for the support of herself and her son.

But yet again, her plans were derailed:

“In 1864, a ‘guerilla party’ robbed Ms. Russell of her money and she was ‘compelled to leave the South on account of (her) Union principles.’ She moved to Michigan with hopes that she could return to Tennessee when ‘peace was restored’.”

The kids were speechless at first, but since we had just finished a unit on the Civil War, they were well aware of the ugliness that took place.

We turned our attention back to the cookbook and the recipe we would be making.

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“That’s it?”

“Yeah, all of her recipes are like that. She lists the ingredients and the amounts, but no method or instructions on what size pan to use.”

We talked about how to mix this particular cake. We could see that it had the usual ingredients: sugar, flour, eggs, and baking soda for leavening.

They remembered that the baking soda needed an acid to react with.

“That would be the sour cream.”

I pointed out that there was no butter in this recipe. Usually one would either cream the butter and sugar together to create pockets of air in the batter, or whip the eggs with the sugar to aerate it. But it didn’t seem like the recipe called for enough eggs to whip with that amount of sugar.

“While planning this lesson, I remembered a similar cake recipe that uses whipped cream instead of butter. The problem is, commercial sour cream doesn’t have the same butterfat content as cream, so you can’t whip it. But then I realized that the sour cream in Malinda Russell’s day would have been cream that had been left out to sour naturally. That you could whip.”

So we would substitute my homemade crème fraîche for sour cream.

“It’ll be an experiment.”

“We know it won’t taste bad.”

I love these kids.

So they got to work preparing cake pans and measuring and mixing ingredients.

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We would flavor the cake with meyer lemons.

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While the cakes were in the oven, I filled the kids in on the equally fascinating story of how Malinda Russell’s 39-page pamphlet of recipes came to be known.

“It was found in the collection of a famous food writer named Helen Evans Brown. Only after Jan Longone, the curator of American Culinary History for the University of Michigan, purchased it from Ms. Brown’s estate, did she realize how historically significant it was.”

Jan Longone’s discovery and her subsequent quest to uncover more information about Malinda Russell has been written about at length. Ms. Longone and her husband even planned their 48th wedding anniversary to include driving around the southern United States in search of trail back to Ms. Russell, but to no avail.

Stymied by a lack of dependable records, Father Time, and a fire, Ms. Longone’s plans for finding Malinda Russell were consistently and heartbreakingly denied.

Our cakes were done.

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They were very lofty when they came out of the oven, but they sank down as they cooled. Curious. And I thought I had come up with such a good plan.

But! As the kids predicted, the cake did not taste bad. In fact, everyone deemed it quite delicious.

My thoughts went back to Malinda Russell. I’d like to talk to her, not about the lack of instructions in her book, but about her plan of writing it “with the intention of benefitting the public as well as myself.”

Did she benefit? I hope she did. Her book prompted a new review and revision of beliefs regarding African American culinary history. Did she realize just how much the public benefitted from her perseverance and skill? It’s a shame we can’t have that conversation with her. I hope she eventually learned a little about her contribution.

Then maybe I’d ask her about the cake.

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Malinda Russell’s Cream Cake

This is the way we made it. I would probably do it differently next time — maybe I would whip the eggs with the sugar. Or maybe just whip half of the crème fraîche? If anyone experiments with it, let me know!

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour two 9×4″ loaf pans.

1 1/2 c sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 t salt

Zest and juice of 1 Meyer lemon

2 c all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking soda

2 cups crème fraîche

Whisk flour and baking soda together and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, salt, and lemon juice and zest; whisk well. Whip crème fraîche until it mounds softly. Fold dry ingredients into the egg mixture, then fold in the whipped crème fraîche.
Place batter in the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake until the cakes spring back when pressed, and when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool cakes for ten minutes before removing from pans to a wire rack.

 

For more in this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

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A Cake of Their Own

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“Mommy, daddy’s birthday is coming up! What are we going to make him?”

She said “we”, but that usually means me.

“Do you guys want to make it this year? Just a little cake for the three of us to share with dad?”

“Yes! Can we get sprinkles?!”

“Of course.” I would come to regret these words later.

We decided on a sour cream butter cake with dark chocolate frosting. And sprinkles.

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They proudly cracked open eight eggs in order to get a total of four whole yolks. I fished out the shells from the rejected mix of broken yolks and whites and put the blended eggs into a jar to save for breakfast the next day.

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A bit of sour cream and some vanilla were added to the egg yolks, then the kids took turns weighing the cake flour and sugar.

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They measured the remaining dry ingredients and everything was sifted together into the bowl of my KitchenAid.

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Sifting became a two-person job, slightly messier than one, but pretty efficient.

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Finally, they each buttered and floured a six-inch cake pan.

This is another two-stage cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum. I really like using this mixing method because a) it results in a very tender cake, b) it’s fast and nearly foolproof, (the most time consuming part is measuring the ingredients), and c) kids, (see b).

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Softened butter and more sour cream went into the bowl with the dry ingredients and mixed together until just moistened.

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We cranked the speed up to medium for a bit, then began adding the egg mixture in three additions.

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The kids really enjoyed seeing the transformation from yolky soup to fluffy cake batter in a process that took barely minutes.

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I helped them portion the silky batter into the pans, then we popped the cakes into the oven.

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While the cakes baked, we turned our attention to the chocolate filling and frosting.

Ganache, while fancy-sounding, is actually pretty simple; it is just a combination of chocolate and heavy cream. The trick with ganache is to use the proper ratio of chocolate to cream — more cream will result in a more fluid product, (for glazing or to use as a sauce), slightly less cream will produce something firm enough to use as a frosting, while an even greater ratio of chocolate to cream will become firm enough to scoop and roll into truffles. The method is the same for any variation.

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I chopped the chocolate while my daughter heated the cream to simmering. She poured the hot cream over the finely chopped chocolate and we let it stand for a few minutes before she whisked it until it was shiny and smooth.

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The keys to baking and pastry? Timing and temperature. We now had a still warm cake from the oven, and a ganache that needed to firm up a bit. Lunch break.

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After everything was close to optimal temperature, we started assembling the cake. I like to cut the tops off my cakes to make them as level as possible. Also, you get to eat the scraps.

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We placed one cake, cut-side up, on the turntable, then topped that with a dollop of ganache. We smoothed the chocolate out to the edges of the cake with an offset spatula and added the second cake, cut-side down.

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Then the real mess-making began.

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I showed the kids how to hold a flat icing spatula in their dominant hand and dip it into the bowl of ganache resting on the opposite side.

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Using their other hand to rotate the turntable, they scooped up small amounts of ganache with the tip of the spatula and pressed it against the sides of the cake, sliding the spatula back and forth to spread the ganache evenly, (sort of). I resisted every instinct I had to jump in and smooth it out, or at least mitigate the flinging of chocolate, but they stayed on task and did a very fine job. When they had had enough, I tidied up the sides and evened out the top.

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Another key to pastry work? Decorate to hide mistakes! We had some crumbs mixed in with the frosting, so the kids opted to cover the entire cake with sprinkles.

They also covered the table, the floor, the dog…

But they were so happy with the results! And they were beyond excited to present it to their father, who was just as happy to eat it.

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Sour Cream Butter Cake, adapted just slightly from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Makes one tall 6-inch cake, (two layers), serving 8, or a 9-inch springform pan (one layer)

4 large egg yolks

2/3 cup (5.5 oz) sour cream at room temperature

1 1/2 t vanilla

2 cups (7 oz) sifted cake flour

1 cup (7 oz) sugar

1/2 t baking powder

1/2 t baking soda

3/4 t salt

12 T (6 oz) unsalted butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour the cake pans. In a medium bowl combine the yolks, 1/4 of the sour cream, and the vanilla. In the bowl of a standing mixer combine the dry ingredients. Add the butter and the remaining sour cream and mix on low until everything is just moistened. Increase to medium speed and beat for 90 seconds to develop the cake’s structure. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides and place the batter into the prepared pans. Smooth the tops of the cakes with a spatula. Bake for about 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cakes spring back when pressed lightly in the center. Let the cakes cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes before removing. Let cool completely before frosting.

Ganache Frosting

I used 70% bittersweet chocolate for this recipe. If you choose to use chocolate with a lower percentage of chocolate liquor (cocoa bean solids), you can use slightly more chocolate and less cream. For example, if there is no percentage marked on a standard bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, or anything marked 50 – 60% use 1 cup of cream for 8 oz of chocolate. For 61 – 66%, use 1 1/4 cups for 8 oz of chocolate.

7 oz bittersweet chocolate, (70%), chopped into small pieces

1 cup heavy cream

Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring the cream to a simmer and pour it over the chopped chocolate. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir until the chocolate is smooth. Let the ganache cool at room temperature, without stirring, until it looks thick enough to spread. If it firms up too much before you can use it, set the bowl in a pan of barely simmering water until the ganache is partially melted, then stir gently to the desired consistency.