Saturday, November 21, 2009

An Old-Fashioned Cake

This Thanksgiving, the nonagenarians will outnumber the children at the feast. My mother-in-law celebrated her 90th birthday two years ago, and she has two older brothers. Jerry is 97 and Leroy just celebrated his 96th birthday. The Howards come from hardy South Georgia stock and to see them is to understand what the experts say about body type determining life span. They are long and lean, six feet in their prime, slightly stooped these days, the better to lean closer to ask what it is you’ve just said. But just as hale and hearty as you’d expect. Moderation comes up frequently with them. None of them drank much, if ever, tobacco certainly not. They like green beans cooked in bacon fat, homemade pimento cheese, and coffee with the meal.

So, what do I do when my beloved uncle-by-marriage Jerry asks for a caramel cake for Thanksgiving. How can I say no to to a nonagenarian? I’ve never in my life made a caramel cake. And to be honest, I think it’s something you have to be raised on. Tooth-achingly sweet frosting, best taken with a cup of strong, black coffee.

In the realm of scratch cake baking, it couldn’t be simpler. Just a 1-2-3-4 cake, layers split and a quick brown sugar caramel spread between the layers and over the sides and top. Southerners of a certain generation are fond of this cake, probably because the women who raised them were blue ribbon bakers who took pride in putting out layer cakes for all the special occasions, birthdays and holidays.

1-2-3-4 cake is so named because of the ingredient ratio. I think of it as a yellow cake, even though that properly has extra egg yolks added. One cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour and 4 eggs. It’s a tender cake and once you’ve mastered the technique, it’s as steady a friend as a pound cake. Ready to pull out for nonagenarians and dear ones in your life.

1-2-3-4 Cake

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup milk
3 cups flour (cake flour if you have it, or all-purpose if you don't)
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt

(a note about salt: salt is essential in sweet baked goods. The salt helps the leavening and it sharpens the flavors. Do not leave it out. As rule, I put a little salt in sweets and a little sugar in savories.)

1. In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy and smooth (not gritty, this will take about three minutes). Gradually add eggs and vanilla.

2. Preheat oven to 350. Prepare two 8 or 9 inch cake pans. I prefer to use baking spray, but a little butter and flour combo works really well, too.

3. In a mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients, stir gently. If a 4 year old is helping, be sure to watch carefully at this point or the white stuff will be all over the floor (voice of experience).

4. Carefully work the dry ingredients into the wet, beginning and ending with flour. This means 1/3 flour, ½ wet, 1/3 flour, ½ wet, concluding with 1/3 flour. Don't go too fast here, you're building texture.

5. Bake in a 350 oven for about 30 minutes, until golden. I use the touch test and the toothpick test that Mom taught me: when you think the cake is ready, touch it lightly in the center. If it springs back, it’s done. If the indentation remains, by all means, leave the cake to bake a bit longer. The toothpick test is the back up: if you think the cake is nearly done, poke a toothpick in the center. If it comes out clean, the cake is ready. If batter or even a few crumbs cling to the toothpick, leave the cake in the oven for another 5 minutes or so. Don’t stray too far, you need be nearby the check the cake again.

Caramel Icing

I’m not sure what a patissier would describe as the difference between frosting and icing, but a personal definition is pourability. I think of icings as liquid candy, a combination of sugar and butter and flavorings that drip off the sides of the cake. Frosting, on the other hand, isto my mind a fluffy mixture of butter and lots of confectioner’s sugar and spread on the cake. Icing is more rustic, frosting more polished.

This caramel icing uses the two varieties of brown sugar for just the right caramel color and flavor. If you don’t have both varieties on hand, just use what you have.

1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup whole milk
4 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted (don't skip this step, unless you like the look of a pimple-faced cake)

1. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, then stir in the brown sugars, until melted and smooth.

2. Add vanilla and milk and continue to stir. When mixture is thoroughly combined, slowly add confectioner's sugar, whisking to completely eliminate any lumps.

3. Ice the cake right away, because this candy covering won't wait. If it gets stiff and chalky, place the pot back over the heat & add just a touch more milk, gradually whisking it in until you get the texture that you need.

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