The Cake Lady: Welcome at the Office
During the past year, I've become very popular at work. Not for my brains. Not for my beauty. For my Bundt pans.
Before I worked at NPR, I had a fistful of family recipes that impressed most non-bakers. But I knew what I could do was nothing compared to what my mother, aunts, great-aunts and grandmothers could do. Or did.
We're down to just my mom and a few aunts now, and everybody's on low-carb, sugar-free diets, so the desserts at family gatherings have been a little dull. No rum cakes. No sour cream pound cakes. Aunt Di's bitter-chocolate layer cake is sadly a thing of the past. And (sorry, Momma) Splenda does not taste as sweet as sugar.
My brother was irritated into action. He gave me an expensive tube pan for Christmas one year, the identical twin of the one he'd bought for himself. Someone had to do the cakes right, and it was going to be us.
He began a pursuit of all things pound cake, adding floured blueberries to the batter, mixing in flavored yogurt, trying different kinds of nuts. His wife and daughter were impressed. So were his hunting buddies.
I kicked off my own oven odyssey at the same time I started work at NPR's All Things Considered. My first cake was from the original first lady and the original Martha, Martha Washington. Her hospitality as hostess of Mt. Vernon was legendary. Strangers, or rather, people-who-knew-people-who-knew-the-Washingtons, had no compunction about visiting the estate and imposing themselves for days. Martha, her staff and her slaves made sure they were all well fed.
I learned this on a candlelight tour of her home last December. Her 18th-century dining room table was lavishly laid out with examples of what might be served at that time of year, including one drop-dead gorgeous white cake. Martha served this "great cake" every year on January 6, the 12th night of Christmas and the Washingtons' wedding anniversary. So on the 12th day of Christmas, George's true love gave him a slice of this fruit-and-brandy-filled cake.
I was completely charmed. My husband was not. He doesn't like cake. Freaky, yes, but I love him. So I took the cake in to work to share with my co-workers instead.
The recipe, which was revamped for modern bakers, was meant to be made with seasonal fruit. I put in apples, pears, cranberries and pecans. Judging from the "yummy" noises everyone was making, it wasn't bad. But as I tasted the cake, I suspected that the marshmallow-like icing wasn't right. I wondered if almonds might have worked better with the brandy and pears.
And then I had a thought: I can do better.
My next thought: These people will eat anything.
Thus officially began The Cake Project.
The rules are simple: a different recipe every Monday. No repeats. No mixes. No canned frosting. No margarine, no low-fat sour cream, no faux sugar. If a cake bombs, I rework the recipe and do a "re-cake" later in the week. Recipes can come from any source: family, neighbors, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, the food network and those spiral-bound collections that church ladies put out in every community.
I have baked nearly 50 cakes now, and I have learned important lessons:
Eggs and butter should always be at room temperature. You can hurry this along by putting butter in a bowl and setting the bowl on top of the preheating oven. Also, you can put eggs in warm water. But usually, I just leave it all out 20 minutes before I start mixing.
Add sugar, eggs and shortening slowly. Both this and the room-temperature ingredients make a big difference in the ultimate texture of the cake.
Do not molest the cake while it's in the oven. Do not even look at it. This angers the cake gods. I used to constantly "check" the cake. Every time the door opens, it disturbs the rise of the batter and lowers the oven temperature. If I'm worried about cake overflow, I make sure to line the bottom rack of the oven with aluminum foil before the cake pan goes in the oven. Better yet, I don't fill my pans too high. But I do not even consider opening the door now unless the timer has gone off or I smell smoke. The gods have been kind, and I've only had one fallen cake since adopting this method.
Measure precisely and follow the recipes as written. When you really know what you're doing, you can start to eyeball and improvise. Sometimes, however, what seems wrong really is. (See Holiday Honey Cake below.) Once you've got a sense of how a cake should be mixed and constructed, though, you'll be able to diagnose where things went astray, and you'll be able to improvise on other people's recipes.
If you're making cakes every Monday, swimming one mile three times a week will help you maintain your weight. Otherwise, prepare to buy bigger pants.
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