The Perfect Cake, Redux


A version of this essay originally ran on the front page of Open Salon in November of 2011, for my daughter’s 11th birthday.   She is turning 13 this year, and this is the weekend for baking her annual “Perfect Cake”.

1948 Culinary Arts Encyclopedic Cookbook

My 1948 version of the Culinary Arts Institute’s Encyclopedic Cookbook sports a worn yellow leather cover badly in need of book tape.   A gift to me from a dear friend ten years ago this month, the book features charming graphics and plucky mid century prose.    I loved it immediately.

This is the well-made bread about which we’ve all read;  it’s so easy to make, so come on, let’s bake!  See what results if the oven’s too hot;  decreased volume and over-brown top!  If the oven’s too slow the crust will be pale, the texture’ll be porous, it’s sure to fail

I come from a food obsessed family.     Both of my parents cooked through my childhood and I was well into my twenties before I realized that mashed potatoes could be had from a box.  In the 1970s when it was commonplace to eat TV dinners and canned food, most of the meals in our home were prepared from whole ingredients .   Some of my earliest culinary memories are of my Dad by the campfire with his trusty 1930s cast-iron washing machine lid.  He would turn the lid upside down and hold onto it with an oven mitt over a metal clamp.   He cooked with a mish-mash of ingredients – part intuition and part flair.   We practically lived outdoors in the summer months and hundreds of mixed up meals – peppers, venison, potatoes, eggs, elk, fish –  were served up on the lid of that antique washing machine.   In later years, my parents and sibling would own and manage successful restaurants in the Seattle area, acclaimed mostly for the inventive food.

I have only a few baking memories from childhood but I was powerfully drawn to anything involving cakes or pies.   My mom baked most of our bread but I was the one who baked sweets.   By the time I was in 4th or 5th grade I would come home from school, let myself in the door, and prepare a mix cake or cookies.

Mary Lou was the wife of my boilermaker father’s foreman.   She was a legendary accomplished Pie Lady.  Standing on a stool in Mary Lou’s kitchen as a small girl, I watched her deft hand with pastry.  Barely touching the dough and dipping her slender fingers into a small bowl of ice water she released one, two, and finally three tiny drops of water.   Then, she added one more drop and the pastry pulled together perfectly.   How did she know that large bowl of ingredients needed exactly one more fingertip sized drop of ice water?

“You will hear plenty of “yum-yums” with the first bite of cherry pie with cottage cheese lattice.   To avoid stretching and tearing, handle pastry as you would a delicate flower.”

Ten years ago this month I read the recipes in that yellow vintage cookbook and thought:   I’m a clever girl with two degrees and a successful career under my belt.   I should be able to sort out how to mix together a scratch cake for my daughter’s first birthday.    For months I had meticulously hand prepared baby food with carefully chosen ingredients.  It seemed a respectable goal to prepare a cake for her first birthday.

“Cream puff swans on a shimmering mirror lake will carry your summer party to a new high!   The clever hostess will tuck fruit into her cream puff filling”

The cake I chose is “Applesauce Cake” and appears in the Spicecake section of the Encyclopedic Cookbook.   I carefully baked a 9″ layer cake and added a small cake for the birthday girl to eat all by herself.    I turned the cakes out and iced them.   I was ridiculously proud of those simple first cakes.

In the summer of 1980 I spent a week with my  Great Grandma Cora at her little yellow cottage with the huge garden in back.   Perennially clad in a soft cotton apron or smock, she passed away before I was out of my teens and my memories of her are gentle impressions.   On this one occasion I spent several precious days sleeping over .  I woke to hear the sound of the Iran hostage crisis on the television, and Grandma had been awake for hours already.  She had rolled out pastry and baked several pies which sat on a print cloth on the kitchen table.   I was allowed to eat pie for breakfast!  The decadence and the wholesome feeling of that gorgeous pie she baked has stayed with me always.   In that pie I keenly felt her labor, and her love.

I was hooked on baking from the very first day I opened the Encyclopedic Cookbook.   I quickly discovered the reason cake mixes became so popular:   there is much that can go wrong when baking and it is a delicate balance of creative art and perfect science.   But a dense, moist ,homemade baked cake tastes tenfold better than a boxed mix.

Every homemaker hopes to make the perfect cake.  This is entirely possible with our present knowledge and equipment.  “Lady Luck” of our grandmother’s day no longer plays a role in cake-making.  If standard measuring equipment and quality ingredients are used and the directions for mixing and baking are followed carefully, a perfect cake is the result.

Over the years I have amassed a huge collection of antique and vintage cookbooks.   I spend hours at Goodwill and estate sales poring over old cookbooks.  I read them for education and inspiration.   They are instructional in technique but also in history and there is always something for the anthropologist in my heart.  Sometimes I recycle them back to Goodwill and other times they make it onto my growing bookshelf.   My favorites are the lovingly hand published pamphlets that women carefully put together in the mid century.   These were the church ladies, the home auxiliary ladies, the hospital and charity ladies who proudly shared their home recipes.

I have gained an intimate sense for our American food past from these books.    In the 1948 Encyclopedic Cookbook I first owned, many of the recipes for baking and confection would be appropriate only for the most accomplished of home cooks today.   A strong level of expertise in the kitchen was naturally assumed in an era when making a home was the primary job for a woman.

The wise candy maker will find it valuable to learn certain fundamental techniques that will develop added skill and improvement in the finished product.  It is just as easy to be a versatile candy maker as a monotonous one.  Simple little tricks such as adding gay food colorings to a mixture; decorating with nuts, shredded coconut, glace sirup, making fascinating designs with pulled sugar or gossamer nests of spun sugar, will lift a candy maker from the mediocre class. 

I see the influence of passing time on the recipes – “Honey  One egg Cake” during the food scarce Depression, and “egg substitute” cake in the war era books.    By the early 1970s, a time when my Mom like others was working nonstop outside the home, recipes routinely call for boxed mixes and canned foods.   In these books the values of nutrition and mastery of technique were supplanted by expediency and ease of use.

A beautifully moist and fragrant cake, the 1948 Applesauce Cake is a mainstay in our home.   The ingredients call for a large amount of spice and the cake is sweetened with sugar and a large amount of applesauce.   This was our first special and continuing birthday tradition.   As my skill in pastry and cake art improved and the birthday ante increased, that applesauce cake was transformed into Hello Kitty, a pirate flag, a snowman, at least 300 cupcakes, and one time even sculpted into an image of our family dog.

Children look forward to the birthday party and the hostess has almost as much fun as they when she sets the table and plans the decorations.   What child would not be thrilled with a circus party?  The centerpiece might be a lion cage made from a bird cage or a wire basket.  Use toy lions, ladders and stools and arrange them as though the lions were going through their tricks.   Dress a small doll in knee breeches and black boots to act as the lion tamer!

Pastry was the frontier of my thirties and for the past decade I have baked almost daily.   In my experience it takes hundreds of repetitions to build a strong pastry skill set.   I have enjoyed the advances and even some of the setbacks.  Who could possibly forget my son’s second birthday with a chocolate dinosaur cake and the epic engineering failure of the neck just before the party?   Whether I worked fulltime outside the home or worked at home with children, there is one constant:   the rhythm of my days and weeks are defined by when the oven timer will next beep.

At some point I looked into the pastry as it pulled together and thought…”This needs about two more drops of ice water.”   I am the Pie Lady I looked up to in childhood – the one who instinctively knows how to correct a problem with a dry cake or runny pie, and assemble ingredients when the instructions are lost in time from grandma’s recipe box.     I love to pass it on and enjoy teaching opportunities, particularly with children.

My beautiful, curious, amazing baker-girl Violet will be turning eleven years old in just a few days [Author’s Note:   Now, as I re-publish this essay, she is just 13...].   She has asked for a triple layer cake draped with her namesake flower to enjoy with a slumber party of her closest friends.    I will be preparing the traditional spice cake I have baked every year of her life.   I am hoping she will help me in the kitchen.

My Baker Girl

“The personality of a cookbook is as apparent as it is important.  It is composed of known and stable ingredients with unknown and elusive ones to make a mixture as familiar, friendly and exhilarating as a pine woods on an early summer morn.   “

-Ruth Berolzheimer, Editor, 1948 Culinary Arts Institute  Encyclopedic Cookbook

Applesauce Cake

1 3/4 C sifted cake flour
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 1/2 t cinnamon
1 t allspice
1 t nutmeg
1/4 t cloves
1/2 cup shortening (Kelli:   I use butter)
1 c sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 C unsweetened applesauce

Sift flour, soda, salt and spices together 3 times.   Cream shortening with sugar until fluffy.   Add egg and beat thoroughly.   Add sifted dry ingredients and applesauce alternately in small amounts beating well after each addition.   Pour into greased pan and bake in a moderate oven (350) 45 to 60 minutes.  Makes 1 8×8″ cake.

Cream Cheese Frosting

6 oz Cream Cheese
3 C Confectioners sugar, sifted
1 t vanilla (or pure maple)
Cream all ingredients together until fluffy.    Add confectioners sugar as necessary to desired consistency.

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