Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Happy cake

Baby, clear the decks for this one. It isn't difficult, but every careful chore that modern cake recipes tend to omit is required here. It's vintage 1933, and was called "Economical gold cake," or Basic Recipe 4, in General Foods' hardcover booklet All About Home Baking. After finishing it I mused that it deserved a better name, and tried to think of something clever and lovely; and then it got christened almost on its own, as you will see.

You will need:

4 cups cake flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened and ready to cream
2 cups sugar
6 egg yolks
1 and 1/2 cups milk
2 tsp vanilla or 1 tsp orange extract

After collecting all your ingredients and supplies, you might order the work like this:

Separate the 6 eggs if you haven't already. Grease two 8 x 8 x 2 square pans.

Sift the flour and add the baking powder to it. Sift again into a bowl, and set aside.

If you don't have a sifter, pushing the flour through a fine large mesh strainer with a spoon will do. Let it fall onto wax paper and then spoon it up into a measuring cup. Level off the piled flour in the cup without jarring the cup on the table or rapping it with the knife, which causes the flour to settle and skew the correct measurement.

I must admit, I never sifted flour for baking recipes, until consulting this little book and finding that it exactly diagnosed a cake problem that I hadn't even been aware of: the Hump in the Middle. Flour tends to pack, the authors say, a peculiarity which sifting combats. One cup of flour taken directly from the bag actually contains more flour than a sifted cup. Therefore, "the woman who is 'too busy to bother to sift' may easily put an extra cup of flour into a cake -- and ruin it! ALWAYS SIFT FLOUR ONCE BEFORE MEASURING." Humped, tough cakes, tough pie crusts, and "humped, tunneled muffins" all bespeak the use of too much flour.

So I began sifting. My cakes no longer hump in the middle. I feel chastened. You must sift, too. Actually, it becomes rather Zen-like. You will like it. Sift.

Next, cream the butter, and add the sugar to it gradually. Beat until fluffy.

Now beat the egg yolks with an electric beater "until they turn thick and pale" or "lemon colored."

If you have never bothered with a step like this before either, I can testify that it really does happen. Egg yolks thicken, gain in volume, and turn a beautiful shade of pale cream-yellow. When you thump the bottom of the bowl, a hollow echo sounds.

Pour the beaten yolks into the creamed butter-sugar, combine, and then beat the whole mixture very well.

Add, alternately, portions of the flour and of the 1 and 1/2 cups milk to the batter. Combine thoroughly each time. When all the flour and milk has been added, add the vanilla and mix in.

Now beat the final batter very well.

Pour and scrape the batter into your two greased pans. It will be "light," "smooth," and "fluffy," and take on a "sunny sheen." (All true. These women were having a lot of serious fun in the General Foods' test kitchens in 1933.) Smooth the batter out to the edges of each pan.

Bake at 350 F for about 40 minutes, or until nicely browned and done.

Now make the chocolate frosting. The original recipe calls for Luscious Lemon frosting, but I prefer chocolate. We'll use Barbara Kafka's childhood recipe, as given in the December 1987 issue of Gourmet magazine.

You'll need:

1 stick butter
8, eight, squares of Baker's Chocolate
3 cups of confectioner's sugar -- also sifted!
2/3 cup milk
1/2 tsp coarse kosher salt (I used regular salt)
1 tsp vanilla

Melt the butter and chocolate together in the top of a double boiler over simmering water or, watching it carefully, in a heavy bottomed saucepan. When it is all melted, set it aside to cool.

Place the sifted sugar into a large bowl. Scald the milk (you can microwave it on high for a minute). Mix the milk with the sugar and beat it well to dissolve any lumps. Mix in the salt and the vanilla.

Pour in the chocolate butter mixture. Blend well.

Refrigerate the frosting for 30 minutes to an hour, until it is of spreadable consistency. Fill and frost the Economical Gold Cake,

... which is henceforth to be called "Happy cake." Why? Because a person who is health conscious might be aghast at the amounts of butter, eggs, and milk in this cake. In that case, you would quote deeply authoritative studies ("I read it somewhere") to say that people who allow themselves regular little treats, even technically harmful ones, are happier and live longer than those who do not. Pipe smokers, I believe, live longer than non-pipe smokers, because as far as their immune systems and so on are concerned, the happiness of enjoying the treat counteracts whatever ill effects tobacco would have. The same is true, I feel sure, for a cake made of all this good butter and eggs. And then after quoting your sources you would wave a piece of it under a nice health conscious person's nose, and encourage a forkful, on the grounds that, see? -- this is "Happy" cake. All About Home Baking is now out of copyright, so I think I am on safe legal ground in renaming it, too.

And isn't the retro square shape fun?

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