27 September 2010

The crazy cake trials and trail

Nerd alert. Not as in quantum physics and mathletes, but the kind of nerd who kind of became a little obsessed with a certain cake recipe. It started by taking a few simple notes. That led a very pleasant conversation with a culinary historian named Sandy Oliver in Maine. And more research flipping through cookbooks on my own shelves, online and even researching product histories.

See, bona fide nerd.

If you want to just see this stinking cake recipe, click here. Otherwise, indulge me, and keep reading.

This whole thing started with Jasper's birthday. When you turn 2, it only seems right to have your mom make you some cupcakes. And, yes, I probably could have gotten away -- guilt-free, even, perhaps -- with a box mix. After all, I'm eight months pregnant, and despite the fact that I cooked for 80 people a month ago, baking for a half-dozen neighbor kids sounded like a lot of work. But, I decided it would be fun to test a couple of recipes, and I had a few events I needed to bake for anyways, so off I went in search of a simple chocolate cake recipe.

It's not that a chocolate cake recipe is a hard thing to track down. Every comprehensive cookbook I own has at least four or five of them. The real trouble is winnowing down the list and picking one to try. I started by reading a bit of "Cookwise" by Shirley O. Corriher where I caught up on the importance of fats helping to aerate a cake.

That's what led me to a Southern Living cake recipe that started with shortening, an excellent fat to start a cake off right given the gas bubbles already nestled inside a stick of vegetable shortening. Well, much to my disappointment, that cake wasn't really that great. The texture wasn't a fine, moist crumb, but a chunky tough one with a crust that made no attempts at hiding its flaws.

Two days after baking that version, I received a magazine in the mail called Cuisine at Home, a publication I'd never heard of but assumed came via my subscriptions to other food magazines. The last two pages were devoted to an Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake recipe. I read through the recipe and the accompanying text that boasted this as the cake your grandmother made. And not only that, it said the cake was simpler than a box mix. This, I had to try.

It wasn't until I started mixing this cake batter at about 9 o'clock one night last week that I realized I already knew this recipe. I hadn't baked the cake before, but I'd read this recipe. I knew the exact cookbook I'd seen it in, some community cookbook from New Mexico that I'm pretty sure came from a stack of cookbooks from my grandmother's house. It was the very first recipe in that book and was called Crazy Teenage Cake. Seriously, how could I not remember that?

What was odd about it the recipe is that it had no eggs, used vegetable oil for its fat and contained vinegar. Again, how could I not remember that?

As I waited for that cake to bake last week, I thumbed through my bookshelves and found that community cookbook and turned to that recipe. I sat, dragging my index finger through the batter clinging to the side of my mixing bowl and then licking it, again and again (remember, no eggs, even this pregnant woman can indulge in this cake batter) and compared the recipe from the magazine to the one in that book. The only difference is that the recipe from the magazine, which is surely armed with a test-kitchen staff, offered more precise instructions. It also struck me as odd that the cake was vegan, well before that trend caught the bandwagon, at least in this country.

I started poking around and discovered a few things. And to be fair, although I'm a nerd, I'm no historian, but here goes: During World War I, there was a shortage of meats, butter, eggs and lard, so ingenious cooks started coming up with ways to use what they had, including creating cake recipes without these ingredients. This also follows shortly behind the turn-of-the-century trend of baking with cocoa thanks to manufacturers such as Hershey's giving home cooks suggestions on how to use their products. Basic groceries, especially proteins and dairy remained hard to come by through The Depression and the second World War. Recipes like this one likely remained popular for a few decades before it was lost to all but the grandmothers thanks to box cake mixes taking off around the 1940s.

All of this made sense to me, but several searches revealed that versions of this cake are often called wacky or crazy, as in the Crazy Teenage Cake or simply Wacky Cake. It struck me as odd that such a silly name for a cake would stick -- and I'm not just referring to the community cookbooks. My best guess for this is that it has to do with the science behind the cake. It's a basic grade-school memory for most of us. When you combine baking soda and vinegar you get a fun, fizzy reaction that works well if you've built a replica volcano or are looking to power a rocket or vehicle with basic physics. The combination makes millions of gas bubbles that ooze and puff. Yes, fine volcano lava it does make, but it seems that it also does an amazing job of mimicking that aerated texture you might get from butter or shortening that has been whipped in a stand mixer until fluffy. You can even hear the experiment begin when you combine the wet and dry ingredients of this cake. It sounds like the fizz of a soda poured straight from a bottle.

Call it wacky, crazy or old fashioned, this cake is truly simple. It has a moist, fine crumb and true chocolate flavor, and, it really isn't that much harder than a box mix. You could keep it vegan with a simple dusting of powdered sugar, or do as I did and load it with some cream cheese icing. Either way, this is a recipe you won't mind keeping around, either.

The recipe follows in the previous post.

Crazy, wacky, old-fashioned choclate cake

This is the recipe I modified from several different sources. The major change I made was using half cake flour and half all-purpose. If you only have all-purpose flour on hand, simply use that. The cake flour adds a little more lightness but isn't enough to compromise the texture of the cake.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cake flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup unsweeted cocoa powder, sifted
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups hot water
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two 8-inch-round cake pans with a spray oil or two dozen muffin tins with paper liners.

Combine the dry ingredients in one bowl. In another bowl, combine the wet ingredients. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry mixture and, whisking by hand, stir to combine. A few lumps are expected. Pour the batter into your pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes for round cake pans or 14 to 18 minutes for cupcakes. When the cakes are done, a toothpick inserted should come out clean.

Let cakes cool completely on a wire rack before icing or cutting.

Cream Cheese Frosting

2 8-ounce containers of cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 stick of butter, softened to room temperature
3 cups of powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon vanilla

Combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer, whipping until the two ingredients come together and are light and fluffy. Slowly add powdered sugar, about a cup at a time, making sure to start the mixer off on a slow speed and gradually increase so you don't kick the sugar out of the bowl. Finally, add vanilla and mix to combine. Spread or pipe frosting over cooled cakes or cupcakes.

14 September 2010

Cheap trick

It seems like at every holiday or special occasion in my family, there's a cheese ball. It usually starts with cream cheese and is served with Wheat Thins. My mom's version includes pineapples, pecans and bell peppers. My mother-in-law's mixes in powdered Ranch dressing and then the whole ball is rolled in cracked pepper. I love both of these and happily shove Wheat Thin after Wheat Thin smeared with cream cheesy goodness in my mouth at Christmastime.

I took this same dish and just dressed it up a touch, substituting goat cheese for the cream cheese and simply mixing it with a handful of finely chopped herbs. Then, I rolled the whole thing in those same, finely chopped herbs. I got the idea from a friend who said it was a Martha Stewart trick -- either making one large cheese ball or delicate, bite-size balls, perfect for smearing on a cracker or crostini.

It was super easy, fairly inexpensive and can be made ahead and makes the perfect appetizer for a crowd. And if you have any herbs in your garden, the only thing you'd need to pick up is the cheese. Any combination would do. I used fresh arugula, parsley, rosemary and sage -- heavy on the parsley. If you're shopping for herbs at the grocery store, parsley is a wise choice because it's so much cheaper than most other herbs there.

08 September 2010

When life gives you zucchinis

I've got a couple of housekeeping chores for this little blog to take care of, then I'll get to business with yet another muffin recipe. I swear, you'd think I made nothing else, but I promise this won't disappoint.

As most of you likely know, I'm pregnant. And, as these things go, I'm getting pregnant-er by the day. I am pleased as punch to take doctor's orders and slow things down a bit. Of course, Jasper's memo got lost in translation, so I'm still running after him. But as far as stresses I can control, I'm giving myself a bit of a break for the moment after one crazy August filled with parties, neighborhood picnics and hundreds of deviled eggs.

So I ask for your patience in the coming weeks and months as I try to keep up with my regular posts. The thing is that I truly love this blog, and just when I think no one reads it, I meet a random person who mentions it. So, thank you to those of you who've stuck with me. The problem is that when I give myself a deadline of posting every Monday, I start to get really stressed if I haven't cooked something delicious or stumbled across some new recipe by Sunday. It sounds silly, but anyone else who's got an on-going deadline (albeit self-imposed) knows what I'm talking about.

If you want to be sure to not miss a post, you can friend me on Facebook, where you'll see I provide a link there with each new post, or of course you can do the whole RSS-thingy, too. I will try, though, as much as possible to provide one new recipe a week.

So about the muffins. I had been trying for weeks to come up with a good recipe for zucchini muffins. It sounded simple given that the summer squash is often turned into a sweet quick bread. But it turned out to be a bit more challenging than I thought. Sure, you could just take your quick bread recipe and pop it into muffin tins. I tried it, and just wasn't blown over by the flavor. Then I tried my basic muffin recipe and loaded it with shredded zucchini. It, too, wasn't bad, but it seemed a bit cakey, like the vegetable was crying out for something slightly more substantial, like the way a great carrot cake is delicate and hefty at the same time.

After spending way too much time thinking about these muffins, a very, very simple solution came to mind: I have a fantastic recipe for apple muffins. It's from Marion Cunningham's "The Breakfast Book." Excellent cooks will tell you that any Marion Cunningham recipe is a stand-up, solid recipe that can be trusted for all time. And let me just say in the world where it seems it doesn't take much more than a chipper smile or a dash of celebrity to get a cookbook contract these days, stand-up recipes seem to be harder and harder to find.

Apples and zucchini actually have a lot in common. Both will hold up to a nice, fine dice and then the moment they're cooked, release a ton of moisture. So swapping zucchini for the apples not only made sense, the recipe was so darn good, it would hold up to any number of substitutions. And the brilliant green-sided mini cubes in your muffin make for a pretty fantastic presentation.

So while our gardens continue to pump out zucchini, and our bellies are thinking there's no other use for it we haven't already tried, make these muffins. They freeze well after baking, so even if you're not baking for a crowd, it's well worth the effort.

I follow Cunningham's advice using three mixing bowls despite the fact that it creates more dishes to wash. I also use my hands to mix the batter as she advises. It's very stiff, and this seems to be the best way to get the ingredients well-mixed without overworking the batter.

Zucchini Muffins
Adapted from Marion Cunningham's Raw Apple Muffin recipe in "The Breakfast Book"

4 cups diced zucchini (peeled or unpeeled)
1 cup of sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 cup oil (corn oil is very good)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup raisins
1 cup broken walnuts

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease 16 muffin tins.
Put 3 mixing bowls on the counter. Mix the zucchini and sugar in one bowl and set aside. Put the eggs, oil and vanilla in a second bowl and stir to blend well. In the third bowl, put the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt, and stir the mixture with a fork until blended.
Stir the egg mixture in to the apples and sugar, and mix thoroughly. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the zucchini mixture and mix well. (I use my hands because this is a stiff batter.) Sprinkle the raisins and walnuts over the batter and mix until they are evenly distributed. Spoon into the muffin tins.
Bake for about 25 minutes or until a straw comes out clean when inserted into the center of a muffin. Serve warm.

Variations: Substitute chocolate chips, currants or golden raisins for the raisins.