As I continue to flip through the yellowed three-by-five cards in Great-aunt Helen’s recipe boxes, I’m amazed at the breadth of her recipes. Savory and sweet, complex and simple, old-school and avant-garde–they all happily co-exist.
Admittedly, more are simple than complex, sweets outnumber savory, and old-school beats out avant-garde. Today’s recipe qualifies on all counts.Who Edith is, I’ve no idea, but we have her to thank for this classic cake recipe. While the ingredients are clearly defined, the directions leave much to the imagination. Though basic cake mixing technique works (sift together dry ingredients, cream fat and sugar, beat in eggs and flavor extract, add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk), there’s no mention of pan size. The icing recipe, on the back, was even harder to follow.The second line had me stumped: “almond and lemon.” didn’t sound right. Adding a spot of vanilla extract, I followed the recipe as best as I could figure. In the end, the cake was amazing–a homey, light and delicate, sweet but not too cake. But the journey to the final cake had a few bumps.
A silky smooth batter had me hopeful.But the 45-minute bake time was too long. When I checked at 35, the cake was already starting to overbrown. (A 9×13-inch pan might have needed the full 45.)The browned crust actually worked here–adding another layer of texture, almost a crunch. But an extra 10 minutes would have made for charred cake.
Now the frosting: Simultaneously beating and cooking the sugar, water, and egg whites over “rapidly boiling water” called for a double-boiler; I improvised with a saucepan and metal bowl.Expecting it to cook up like the traditional 7-minute frosting, I enjoyed seeing the hot sugar mixture thicken.
Once whipped, it was time to add the softened butter. Chemistry said that adding fat to whipped egg whites would deflate the volume. Thinking maybe the sugar would help protect the air bubbles, I gently beat in the butter. And…My beautifully whipped frosting was gone and in its place an almost runny meringuey mess. Soldiering on, I filled and frosted the cake layers.While more rustic than pretty, the “icing” dried and in the end crowned a perfectly acceptable and amazingly delightful and delicious cake.
Lessons learned while working through this recipe brought Great-aunt Helen to mind. She was a smart lady, also very patient. She wouldn’t have minded taking the extra step to set up a makeshift double-boiler. She would have waited the six or seven minutes needed to get the fully whipped icing. As the frosting “melted” after adding the butter, she would have calmly kept stirring, knowing that it would set nicely once spread over and dried on the cake.Helen might have served this cake at one of the birthday parties she hosted for various family members. She might have made it and packed it for a picnic at one of Minneapolis’s lakes. Or it might have been presliced and brought to the tailgate meals she enjoyed with friends before University of Minnesota sporting events.
Whatever the story behind the cake, it’s an honor to have the recipe in my collection and now the cake on my counter (for as long as it lasts, ha). Come back next post to see what we’ll be drinking with Great-aunt Helen’s Buttermilk Cake.