I Vote For Cake

american_cookery_1st_ed_1796_cover

“Do you think more people would vote if they got free cake?”

We’d been talking about Election Cake. It had been an interesting conversation so far — one that meandered from voting requirements to Presidential eligibility to citizenship, and finally, to the Obama birther kerfuffle. So many questions from the kids. Whew. But let me back up…

We were making a cake. Or was it a bread? And what did it have to do with the political process?

I had kicked off our class that day by explaining that all the cookbooks in early America had been wholly British, that is, they contained recipes that employed traditional British cooking techniques using ingredients common to Britain. It wasn’t until 1796 that the first truly American cookbook was printed. Published in Hartford, Connecticut, by Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life, was the original manual for cooking American dishes using foodstuffs indigenous to the young country. It was hugely popular, and public demand kept it in reprints for 35 years. It was in the second edition of the book that there appeared what some food historians consider the first recipe for an Election Cake:

“Thirty quarts of flour, 10 pound butter, 14 pound sugar, 12 pound raisins, 3 doz eggs, one pint wine, one quart brandy, 4 ounces cinnamon, 4 ounces fine coriander seed, 3 ounces ground allspice; wet flour with milk to the consistency of bread over night, adding one quart yeast; the next morning work the butter and sugar together for half an hour, which will render the cake much lighter and whiter; when it has rise light work in every other ingredient except the plumbs, which work in when going into the oven.”

American Cookery, Amelia Simmons, facsimile of the Second Edition, printed in Albany, 1796

I imagine that recipe would have produced enough cake for a whole town! Or perhaps an army?

In fact, the Election Cake is thought to be a variation of a Mustering Cake. Before the Revolutionary War, colonists would gather for military training exercises or “mustering.” The women would bake simple cakes to serve to the crowd of hungry men. After the revolution, mustering was no longer necessary but men still traveled to the town center to vote. Election Day was treated much like a holiday, with an abundance of revelry and celebration, so the Muster Cakes were fancied up a bit and evolved into Election Cakes.

“We need to get going on the sponge.”

“A sponge?!”

I reminded them that we had used the same process for the brioche we had baked in one of our last sessions.

“Oh yeah.”

I also reminded them that in 1796 baking powder would not yet have been introduced, (that happened in 1843). The one chemical leaven that was in use and included in American Cookery was pearl ash, an undependable and bitter-tasting product derived from wood ashes that tended to leave ghoulish green streaks in baked goods. Thus the need for a yeasty sponge leaven.

As commercial yeast would not have been available until the 1860s, the yeast mentioned in the original Election Cake recipe would have meant barm, the foam or scum created when brewing ale.

“Ooh so they used pilsner in their cake?!”

Since we weren’t brewing any ale, we would use commercial yeast for this cake.

img_9766img_9813img_9767img_9815img_9773

When the kids had finished mixing the sponge, we set it aside to ferment. In the meantime, we gathered the rest of the ingredients together, buttered the baking dishes, and chatted some more about cooking in 18th century America.

“So, this cake is a celebration cake, but it seems pretty plain. Any idea why?”

I let them consider that for a moment before pointing out that baking in those times was kind of a pain.

“Just getting the ingredients together was more difficult. You couldn’t just scoop sugar out of a jar. Some books still included instructions on ‘How to boyle and clarify sugar.’ And in the late 1800s, white sugar was expensive, used sparingly, and had to be scraped from loaves or cones with special shears.”

Then, there was the manner of cooking. In colonial American kitchens, baking was done in small brick ovens built alongside the fireplace. By the 1840s to 1850s, brick-oven baking had been supplanted by the cast-iron wood-burning range, but cooking in one was still labor intensive:

Too much care cannot be given to the preparation of the oven, which is oftener too hot than too cool…A good plan is to fill the stove with hard wood…let it burn until there is a good body of heat, and then turn the damper so as to throw the heat to the bottom of the oven…In this way a steady heat to start with is secured…if the hand can be held in from twenty to thirty-five seconds…it is a “quick” oven, from thirty-five to forty-five seconds is “moderate,” and from forty-five to sixty seconds is “slow”… All systematic housekeepers will hail the day when some enterprising Yankee or Buckeye girl shall invent a stove or range with a thermometer attached to the oven, so that the heat may be regulated accurately…

— The Women of First Congregational Church Marysville, Ohio The Centennial Buckeye Cook Book Minneapolis, 1876

By now, we could see that our sponge had fermented and was well-risen.

img_9776img_9803

While we added the sponge into a mixture of creamed butter and sugar, we discussed the various sugar products that were available and how they were produced.

img_9787

The grating of nutmeg prompted a completely unscientific sniff-test comparing it to mace.

img_9793

“It’s important to mix your fruit with flour so it doesn’t all sink to the bottom of your cake.”

img_9801img_9804img_9805

We finished mixing the batter, and set the cakes aside to rise a second time.

img_9811img_9810

“It looks like banana bread!”

img_9816

I was unsure how tasty the cakes would be, but the kids loved them. The recipe says they keep well and are delicious sliced and toasted, but I haven’t tested that because they’ve been gobbled up each time.

If you do make this recipe you might consider making extra — depending on which way you’re leaning this election cycle you could either throw a party on election night or drown your sorrows in cake. Either way, get out and vote.

img_9827

Election Cake, adapted only slightly from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax

Makes two 8×4-inch loaves; each serves about 8

For the sponge:

1 package active dry yeast

1/2 c packed light brown sugar

1 1/2 c lukewarm milk

3 cups all-purpose flour

For the cake:

3/4 c (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 c packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 c all-purpose flour

1 1/2 t ground cinnamon

3/4 t fresh-grated nutmeg

1/2 t ground mace

3/4 t fine sea salt

1 c golden raisins

3 T brandy

Dissolve the yeast and 2 T of the brown sugar in 1/4 c of the lukewarm milk; let stand until bubbly, about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1/4 c plus 2 T brown sugar and the remaining 1 1/4 c milk; gradually add the flour and knead in a standing mixer with a dough hook for five minutes. (You could also do this by hand with a wooden spoon). Scoop into a buttered bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in volume, 45-60 minutes.

In a bowl, combine the flour with all of the spices, the salt, and the raisins, tossing them to coat.

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until light. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Punch down the sponge and add to the butter mixture; beat just until partially combined.

Add the flour mixture to the dough, along with the brandy, and beat until well combined; the dough will be very soft.

Generously butter the loaf pans. Divide the dough evenly between the two pans, cover and let rise in a warm place until fully doubled, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Bake until the loaves are golden brown, about 45 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean.

Cool the cakes in the pans on a rack for about 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle invert the cakes onto the rack, unmold and turn right side up. Cool to room temperature. Wrapped well, the cakes will keep several days.

 

More in this series:

Cake As A Lens

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

Advertisements

Stovetop Alchemy

IMG_5514

“Do you say care-a-mel or car-mel?”

We were divided on the pronunciation of the word, but we were united in our appreciation of it.

“We are making a caramel sauce.”

Somebody sighed.

Now, I am not above eating caramel sauce with a spoon, straight out of the pot, but I felt that in order to maintain some sense of propriety we should also make something to eat the caramel on.

“And apple crêpes.”

Now, a cheer.

Since crêpe batter should sit for 30 minutes or so before using, we decided to make that first.

The easiest way to make the batter is in a blender or, in our case, with an immersion blender.

They measured the milk into a pitcher.

IMG_7778

And added the eggs.

IMG_4191

The butter we had put on the stove to brown was ready and it smelled amazing.

IMG_7781

After mixing the browned butter into the other ingredients, we set the resulting batter aside and the kids gathered near the stove to start caramelizing the sugar for our sauce.

Except nobody could see into the pot. So, some chairs were brought in and children were rearranged.

IMG_7829

“What does sugar smell like?”

“It’s sweet!”

“And caramel? Does it smell the same, or different?”

They considered the question.

“How can caramelized sugar smell so different from regular old white sugar?”

I explained that granulated sugar, or sucrose, is made up of fructose and glucose, and that when heated, it breaks down into these two component sugars. Eventually, these molecules break down into other molecules that react with one another to form new compounds that make up the delicious aromas and flavors of caramelized sugar.

There are two classic methods to making caramel: wet and dry. The wet method involves moistening the sugar with water and cooking the mixture. As the water boils away, the sugar breaks down and caramelizes.

The dry method is simply sugar cooked in a dry pan. Because sugar is partially water, heat easily liquifies it.

Of the two methods, I personally prefer the dry caramel. I am an impatient person and because of the added water, the wet method takes longer. A wet caramel is also more prone to crystallization. Again, as an impatient person, I just don’t have time for that.

I reminded the kids that melting sugar is very, very hot. They agreed to be mindful of each other at the stove.

We sprinkled an even layer of sugar into the pot and began cooking it over moderate heat.

After just a few minutes, we could see some sugar liquifying at the edges and a little browning under the surface, near the center.

“Wow, that happens fast!”

As the browning and melting continued, we used the spoon to pull the sugar from the outside of the pot towards the middle.

IMG_7834

The kids took turns using the tip of the spoon to mash and distribute chunks of sugar, allowing them to melt into the darker liquid.

While we didn’t want any one spot to get too dark, (you can’t salvage burnt sugar), I cautioned against stirring too much to avoid excessive lumping and crystallization.

We did end up with some chunky bits, but we lowered the heat and those soon softened into the rest of the caramel.

IMG_4201

The color of caramel at its tastiest point is something like that of an old copper penny. Smell is actually the best indicator of when the sugar is ready. We kept smelling the pot, and as the familiar scent of rich caramel wafted up, we watched the darkening sugar like hawks. Once we could see the caramel start to smoke, we turned off the burner. The caramel would continue to cook from the residual heat of the pot.

IMG_7006

We had butter at the ready and carefully dropped it into the molten sugar.

IMG_7848

Cream went in next.

IMG_7851

IMG_7856

The cold cream caused the caramel to seize up a bit, but as we did earlier, we just turned the heat to low and stirred everything together.

IMG_7857

“That smells so good!”

IMG_7875

Now that the sauce was finished, we could turn our attention to cooking the crêpes.

We strained the batter and poured it into a jar tall enough to accommodate a 2-ounce ladle.

IMG_4209

I demonstrated how to deposit the mixture onto the hot pan, tilting and swirling it to cover the surface with a thin layer of batter.

IMG_7038

I used a small offset spatula to loosen the edges of the crêpe and quickly flipped the thin pancake over.

IMG_7905

A few seconds on the other side, and the crêpe was cooked enough to turn out onto a cooling rack.

IMG_7907

I handled the ladling for the first round, while the kids focused on tilting the pan.

IMG_7893

IMG_7901

They were more confident the second time around, and did most of the ladling themselves, though they still needed a little help with the flipping of the crêpe.

IMG_7096

We had a bit of fretting over the lack of coverage, but I assured them that we could add a little batter and smooth it with the spatula, and if that failed to produce a perfect crêpe, they wouldn’t notice the difference once the crêpes were filled and folded.

IMG_7098

IMG_7104

I quickly sautéed some apples and reheated the crêpes briefly on the pan.

IMG_7122

With the addition of a scoop of the cooked apples and a little of the still warm caramel sauce, everyone was happy.

IMG_7124

IMG_7909

IMG_7910

IMG_7133

It was definitely a clean plate kind of day.

IMG_4457

Salted Caramel Sauce

1 cup granulated sugar

6 T butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup heavy cream, warmed just slightly

1 t sea salt

Have all ingredients ready and near the stove. Place the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot and shake it to make a fairly even layer. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, using a wooden spoon to help push and pull the solid sugar into the liquid sugar. You don’t want any one spot to get too dark or burnt. If the sugar gets really clumpy, just turn the heat to low and continue cooking it and it will eventually smooth out. Keep a close eye on the color, it should be the color of an old copper penny when it’s ready. It should smell strongly of caramel and the pot will start to smoke. Immediately turn off the heat and carefully add the butter, followed by the cream and salt. Return the sauce to low heat to incorporate all the ingredients. Cooled sauce can be rewarmed over low heat.

Crêpe Batter

Makes about 15 crêpes

7 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 3/4 c whole milk

4 large eggs

1/2 t sea salt

1 t vanilla

1 1/2 c unbleached all purpose flour

Brown butter over low heat until quite dark (see here), immediately pour into a small dish to stop the cooking and cool slightly. Measure milk, eggs, salt, and vanilla into a blender and combine. Add the flour and blend until smooth. Add the butter and blend again. Set aside for 30 minutes or up to 24 hrs in the refrigerator. Strain batter before using.

To cook the crêpes:

I use an 8″ crêpe pan, but you could use a similar size skillet. Heat the pan over moderate heat and lightly butter it, (I only do this for the first crêpe). When the pan is hot but not smoking, (a few drops of water should skitter across the surface), pour or ladle 1/4 cup of batter on it near the center while simultaneously tilting and swirling the pan. It takes a little practice, and it usually takes me a crêpe or two to get into a rhythm. You should hear it sizzle. Any excess batter can be poured back into your container and the resulting “tail” can be cut off. Once the top of the crêpe is set, you can use a small spatula to loosen the sides. I use my fingers to flip the crêpe over, but you could also use a larger spatula to do so. Let it cook for a few seconds and then turn the crêpe out onto a cooling rack. The first crêpe is always a throwaway for me, well, we eat it, but it’s generally an ugly one. You can begin stacking the finished crêpes as they cool. Any unused crêpes can be wrapped and frozen.

 

 

Refrigerator Jam For A Hot Day

 

(This is from a session we did back in May.  Better late than never, right?)

 

I had planned on another baking lesson. Then the hot, dry Santa Anas started blowing. There would be no baking happening in this house.

Now my friend, well she has AC.  And while turning on an oven still sounded enormously unappealing, when she suggested we gather at her place to make jam instead, I gladly accepted the invitation.

She also has a lot of cutting boards.

photo 1-15

We set the kids up with butter knives, strawberries, and instructions on how to cut the just ripe fruit.  In chunks, not too big, not too small, and no greenery or white “shoulders”.

photo 2-15

They made short work of three pounds of berries, scooping them up and dumping them into a heavy, wide pot.

Then we added granulated sugar, (just enough to enhance the natural sweetness of the berries), and the juice of one orange and one lemon.

photo-90

We talked about how store bought jam contains a lot more sugar, (as much as 1:1 by weight!), than we would be using for our jam.   Sugar acts as a sweetener, but also as a thickener and a preservative.  Since we weren’t aiming for shelf-stable jam, we didn’t have to worry about losing the preservative effects of more sugar.  This jam would be runnier than a commercial product as well, but truer in flavor.  A reasonable trade-off in my book.

photo-91

We started cooking the mixture over medium heat.  The additional liquid from the orange kept the berries from sticking while they gave up their juice.

photo 5-11

The kids took turns occasionally stirring the contents of the pot.  The smell of warming berries made bellies growl.

We talked a bit about how fruit contains pectin, (in the cell walls of land plants to be exact), and how it helps jam gel when it is activated by the cooking process.

photo 1-16

We continued to cook the jam, adjusting the heat so that it bubbled steadily. The goal is to cook it fast enough to preserve the fresh and bright flavor, but not so high a temperature that there is a risk of burning the jam or the cook!

Aside from the delicious smell, we could tell the jam was getting closer to done by looking in the pot.  The berries had a translucent appearance and were completely submerged in syrupy liquid.  The bubbles, once large and thin, were now smaller, tighter, and more viscous.  Less boiling water, more bubbling lava.

We had placed some small plates in the freezer beforehand, and now was the time to retrieve them to start checking the consistency of our jam.

photo-92

We placed a spoonful of the hot mixture on the cold plate and drew a finger across it.  When we could make a clear path that didn’t fill in we knew we were done.

The hot jam was ladled into jars and left to cool.  Later, the jars would make it to the refrigerator where the jam would continue to thicken further.

But first a little snack…

photo 3-11

Refrigerator Jam

So this is not really a recipe.  I mean you can use nearly any fruit and, depending on the sweetness of it, as much or as little sugar as your tastebuds dictate.  I like to start with 1/4 cup of sugar per pound of fruit and go from there.

The amount below will yield about a 1/2 pint.  It is better to cook small batches in order to protect the fresh and bright, fruit flavor.

This is not a “putting up” jam, so it will be runnier than store bought and should be kept in the refrigerator where it will keep for at least a week. Unless you fail to hide it from those who don’t comprehend what “a reasonable amount” means.

1 lb of fruit, chopped

1/4 c sugar, more or less to taste

2 T liquid (fruit juice, lemon, whatever)

Place all ingredients in a pot over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally until thick, (see description in post above).  Place in jars.  Cool. Refrigerate. Look forward to toast.