"Perhaps the most impressive of all the cookbook blogs are the three devoted to the 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine's "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- all 5¼ pounds and 1,300-odd recipes of it. Befitting this culinary Everest, all three writers are overachievers in their professional lives."

--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008
"I should have told you before how much I've been enjoying reading your thoughts. You seem like such a great cook."

--Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine, June 8 2008, comment on "Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream".

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Lady Baltimore Cake, or Melissa Overcomes Her Apprehensions About Life Imitating Art

Lady Baltimore Cake, the helpful note on this recipe states, was created by a fictional character in the 1906 Owen Wister novel entitled "Lady Baltimore". Somehow it made the leap from fiction to kitchen and was all the rage with American housewives of the day.

I have been avoiding this cake ever since I got The Gourmet Cookbook as a Christmas gift two years ago. You might wonder why, since I am not only a chef who loves baking (especially cakes) but a writer as well. What a perfect combination of sensibilities, you might think.

This is true. This is all true, and here is why I had my reservations. I give you, below, an excerpt from my novel-in-progress:

"...all of a sudden I had this idea for a dessert. A napoleon made with poached mulberries and sugared baby rosebuds, drizzled with honeysuckle nectar.”
“Yeah. And also, have you ever had yak cream?”
“Yak cream? Are you crazy?”
“I know, me neither, but somehow I can taste it on my tongue! It’s so weird! Dusted with...oak pollen. And cinnamon.”
“Oak pollen?”
“Yeah. I think it would go great with chicken.”

Now. Do I want some crazed fan to go out and make a yak cream sauce dusted with oak pollen and cinnamon? No, I do not. In fact, I'm pretty sure such a dish would be a major histamine punch, if not completely inedible. And I'm saying that writers come up with nutty stuff, stuff that we should not imitate in real life but should leave safely on the pages.

So this Lady Baltimore Cake, how do I know, I mean REALLY know that it's safe to eat? The Gourmet Cookbook has a few stupid recipes in it (not many, but a few), and perhaps all those housewives were under the effect of some sort of mass hysterical delusion akin to the swooning, screaming Twilight fans of today. Not that these teens are baking cakes, but I bet if Bella made Edward a cake and the recipe was in one of those books we'd have a big home-ec boom on our hands. Even if that cake had bear blood in it.

But here it was, my father's birthday coming up, and when I asked him what sort of dessert he wanted he told me he loved pecans. Pecan pie could have been the easy answer (and there is a pecan-pumpkin pie recipe I have my eye on) but I didn't think that would serve our large family.

Lady Baltimore Cake had all the right ingredients, including no chocolate which my dad thinks is OK but not swoon-a-licious like some people I know (me). So I plucked up my courage, got the ingredients, and went to work.

Upon further investigation, this is a pretty straightforward three-layer white cake with what the old-timers (my parents) call a boiled frosting--1/3 of which is mixed with chopped toasted pecans, figs, and raisins to make the filling. The Kitchen Aide gets its exercise with three different uses--the first to make the cake base, the second to beat 7 egg whites which are then folded into the cake base, and the third to whip yet more egg whites (what shall I do with 13 yolks??) into which boiled sugar syrup is poured, and then beaten and beaten and beaten until it's a cooled meringue. Do I hate cleaning out that mixer bowl and the beaters? Yes I do. In my fantasy world, I have three Kitchen Aides so I can avoid that step.

And was it a straightforward cake-baking process? No, it was not.

When I took the three cake pans out of the oven, I set them on top of the stove for their five-minute cooling period. One of them seem slightly less baked than the others. I poked a wooden skewer into it and it came out clean, but O'Malley and I watched in amazement as the hole emitted a steady stream of steam--sort of like a cakey volcano. I figured it was still cooking somehow, in its slightly underbaked state.

This happened at the same time that I was beating egg whites for the frosting, and by the time I got back to them to pour in the syrup, they were overbeaten--a first for me since I usually err on the side of underbeating.

How could I tell they were over-beaten? They were chunky, and sticking to the whisk. Undaunted, I poured the hot syrup into the bowl in a not-quite-so-thin stream, and hoped for the best, all of this while I was trying to answer O'Malley's question about passive voice and why the Microsoft Word grammar editor would flag it in his English paper on "The Gift of the Magi".

While I was leaning over the computer screen, I distinctly smelled something burning. I knew nothing was in the oven. While I was investigating, I noticed that the skewer hole in the underbaked cake layer looked sort of brown...

Yes, I had put a cake pan on top of a glass burner that had recently heated syrup up to 248 degrees. And that burner was now ever so gradually burning the crap out of the bottom of my dad's birthday cake.

And to make matters worse, the meringue frosting just wasn't looking the way I thought it should, all smooth and shiny-like:

See the little bumps? I hate little bumps.

But I am UNDAUNTED in the face of these challenges! Once I commit, baby, I commit.

So I trimmed the burned stuff off the cake layer once it had cooled,

and mixed the toasted pecans, raisins and figs into some of the frosting.

Then I assembled, frosted and (most fun of all) decorated:

How was it? Well, keep in mind that this is my family, and they love me no matter what, but even considering that wonderful unconditional love thing they LOVED this cake. Thought it was spectacular. Kept saying the frosting tasted like marshmallows. I finally said, yes, it's marshmallows even though I have no idea how to make marshmallows.

I personally can tell you that the toasted pecans are what made it so incredible...something about that flavor with the marshmallow-y flavor of the frosting just put it in realms far beyond Betty Crocker and her ilk. It was light (thank you, egg whites folded into the cake base), lured some of my non-sweet eating relatives into the dessert conga line, and was the perfect way to celebrate the 70th year of my dad's life.

Yay Dad! Happy Birthday to you from Owen Wister, Lady Baltimore, and me.


Adrienne said...

Maybe you could make pasta with your crazy amounts of egg yolks... or brioche? Anyway, great cake story :)

Georgia said...

I {heart} layer cakes!!!

Karen said...

Sounds like you had quite an adventure with this one...glad it turned out well!

I suggest Zabaglione for your extra egg yolks...yummm...