Thanksgiving + Crawberry Pie

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While planning some upcoming travel recently, I had the shocking realization that Thanksgiving is, in fact, TOMORROW! And that there are only five weekends separating us from Christmas. Who plans these years, with January located directly next to November?? Anyway, I freaked out about that for a while, resisted the urge to take a stress nap, then decided to start planning what sides I am going to make for Thanksgiving dinner. If we have dinner here, we usually make Ina’s herb-roasted turkey breast (which is still enough to feed a small army and forces me to get creative with the leftovers). We also always have sweet potatoes of some kind, stuffing, and green bean casserole (did you know the creator of the green bean casserole died this year? Her name was Dorcas Reilly, she was 92). We probably won’t go all out this year. Is an all-carb Thanksgiving dinner a thing? Trick question. It is, and we’re having one! Oh, and pie. We will definitely have pie. I’m planning a sweet potato pecan with a gingersnap crust. It might be too adventurous, though. We’ll see.

Before I really get into my Thanksgiving planning, I’m doing a little procrasti-blogging, which leads me to today’s recipe: crawberry pie. Let me explain. Occasionally, we have Friendsgiving, often with our friends David and Quinn. When we do, one of my favorite parts of the dinner is Quinn’s family’s crawberry pie. If you are unfamiliar with crawberries, that’s OK. It’s actually just cranberries, written in Quinn’s grandmother’s hand, and mistaken for “crawberry”. Quinn was nice enough to give me the recipe, which she found out along the way was not her grandmother’s recipe, as she thought, but a recipe from one of her mom’s coworkers, who gave it to her grandmother and it became her specialty at family dinners after that. Funny how family recipes work sometimes. I suppose there are more than a few of our “grandma’s famous” bouncing around out there that are actually clipped from a magazine, or originate from other families. There’s beauty in that. (I was hoping to share a photo of the recipe in her grandma’s handwriting, but Quinn grew up in New Orleans and, unfortunately, the recipe didn’t survive Hurricane Katrina. Luckily, though, the recipe was preserved!)

How to describe this dessert? It’s basically a crustless pie, almost a cake, really. The top is not really a crumble, as it’s sweeter. However, it’s a little more dense than a cake. It’s hard to explain, but it’s in a class all its own, and it’s delicious.

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Crawberry Pie
Makes 1 nine-inch pie.

Ingredients:
2 eggs
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of flour
3/4 cup melted butter
Cranberries, enough to cover bottom of pie pan
1/4-1/2 cup of sugar

Instructions:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, beat eggs well.

Gradually beat in one cup of sugar. Then, beat in the flour and melted butter.

Grease the bottom of a pie pan, and add enough cranberries to cover the bottom.

Sprinkle the additional 1/2 cup of sugar over the top of the cranberries.

Pour the batter over the top of the sugared cranberries.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the top of the pie is just golden.

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If you’re a cranberry fan like me, I think you’ll like this. The cranberries rise up through the batter as it bakes, distributing just the right amount of tartness throughout the sweet pastry. It’s a very simple-to-make (and probably welcome) addition to your Thanksgiving table. I hope you’ll give it a try and let me know what you think. Then I can pass all your kind words on to Quinn and her family!

Thanks so much for sharing, Quinn!

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Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Beet Frosting 

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Happy November! I hope you all had a great first week and have had time to adjust to the fact that we are less than two months away from a NEW YEAR! Whoa. We are spending our time delaying pinning down travel plans for the holidays and watching Hallmark Christmas movies. (We like to yell life advice at the characters, like, “HE SHOULDN’T WANT YOU TO GIVE UP THE JOB YOU LIKE IN THE CITY IF HE REALLY LOVES YOU!”) Anyway.

As soon as it turned chilly, I started cooking up a storm, and now our fridge is now full of deliciously cozy leftovers. I’ve reached an age (and the time of year) where I cook at home almost every day because I just don’t want to go outside. Our dinner sides often consist of whatever vegetables I can roast together with some salt, pepper, and oil without giving them much thought. In fall, that vegetable increasingly becomes beets. We have them around the house constantly this time of year, which made me start hunting for new recipes. Then I realized, why not dessert??

This recipe for chocolate beet cake with beet cream cheese glaze comes to you because 1) I LOVE beets (tbh, it’s hard to believe there aren’t several more beet recipes on this blog) and 2) because it’s been really dreary here lately and I needed a pop of color (provided by the bright, naturally beet-colored cream cheese glaze).

The thought of pairing beets and chocolate might seem strange, but it shouldn’t. During the World Wars, when sugar and butter were rationed, home cooks would often add beets or beet juice to their chocolate cakes for both their color and to help keep the cake moist.

And, you may not think of beets as a sweet vegetable, but they actually contain a high amount of sugar. It wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that German chemist Andrea Margraff discovered that sucrose could be derived from beetroot. Initially, this discovery was nothing more than an interesting realization, but a few years after Margraff’s death, and almost fifty years after Margraff first made his discovery of sucrose in beets, one of his students, Franz Carl Achard, revived his studies. Achard began experimenting with sugar-producing plants on the grounds of his home, finding that sugar beets were the most efficient producers of sugar. More than 10 years after beginning his studies, Achard opened the first sugar beet processing plant in present-day Konary, Poland, under the patronage of Frederick William III of Prussia. Within 10 years of opening, the Napoleonic Wars had started, and the plant was destroyed during the fighting, though by this point other factories had begun springing up. The sugar beet sugar industry surged during the war, particularly in Germany, because Napoleon established a blockade that prevented Caribbean cane sugar from reaching Europe and, in 1813, banned the import of sugar all together. This ban ensured that factories producing sugar from sugar beets continued to pop up. The success of Achard in deriving sugar from beets so worried British sugar merchants that they offered him money to say that his experiments had failed, but he refused. Today, most of the sugar we consume comes from sugar cane, but a surprising 30% of the world’s sugar still comes from sugar beets.

Which brings us to this chocolate beet cake–in this case, not made with the sweetest beet, the sugar beet, but just regular old purple beets you find in the grocery store.

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Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Beet Frosting
This recipe is inspired by Joy the Baker’s Beet Cake, and my recipe for malted chocolate cake. I used a 10-inch bundt pan, but this is about 6 cups of batter, so two 8 or 9-inch round cake pans could be used instead, though you will need to adjust your cooking time.

Ingredients:
For cake:
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for dusting the bundt pan
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the pan
1/2 cup boiling water
1 1/2 cups shredded beets (about 2-3 large beets)

For glaze:
4 oz cream cheese, very soft
1/3 cup milk
6 tbsp powdered sugar

Instructions: 

For cake:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Thoroughly wash beets (without peeling them), coat them in olive or vegetable oil, and wrap them in foil. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for about an hour or until you can easily pierce them through with a fork. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool completely. Once cooled, cut off the ends, peel with a knife or vegetable peeler. Shred them on a box grater. Set aside.

Turn oven down to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, sugars, baking soda and powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, and vegetable oil.

Pour the dry mixture into the wet mixture and use a spoon to stir together until no flour streaks remain.

Add the boiling water and stir until completely combined. Add the shredded beets, reserving about 1/4 cup for glaze, and stir until combined.

Coat a 10-inch bundt pan with vegetable oil or butter, and dust with cocoa powder.

Add the batter evenly to the bundt pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes. Begin checking at 35 minutes by inserting a toothpick or thin knife. If it comes out clean, it’s done.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Then, trace the edges of the pan with a butter knife and invert onto the wire rack to cool completely.

For glaze:
In a small saucepan, add 1/4 cup shredded beets to milk. Heat, stirring occasionally, removing from heat when the milk begins to steam. Strain the shredded beet from the mixture. Allow to cool slightly.

In a small bowl, combine the softened cream cheese with powdered sugar. Beat with a mixer until smooth. Beat in 1 tbsp of the beet-milk until you reach the desired consistency.

Pour evenly over the top of the cooled cake.

Serve and enjoy!

Chocolate Beet Cake

I like a tender cake. Tender and moist. Probably because I grew up on cakes made from boxes (I love them still), with everything perfectly measured and timed for the home baker. This cake gives me both of those things. And it makes me wonder why everyone isn’t putting beets into their baked goods. Please let me know if you have other beet-in-dessert recipes. I’m dying to try them!

Julia Child’s Birthday + Queen of Sheba Cake

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Hi from Beantown! We planned a super-last-minute trip to Boston after Alex got scheduled for a work trip. So I’ve been stumbling over cobblestone, taking pictures of pretty doors and windows with flower boxes, and soaking up every ounce of history I can before we have to go back home.

Before that, though, I’m doing a small virtual celebration post for my girl, Julia Child, whose birthday is today!

A self-confessed late bloomer, I cherish stories of women who did not find their calling until later in life. Factor in a supportive husband and a life that revolves around food… well, Julia Child’s life is my own personal fairy tale.

Julia Child would have been 106 today. Born Julia McWilliams in California to a wealthy family, Child did not cook for herself until she married and, even then, she confessed that she was not a natural. During the second World War, Child worked as a typist for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). While stationed in Asia, Julia met her future beloved husband Paul Cushing Child. Paul Child was a lover of food, with a refined palate. When he joined the Foreign Service and the couple was sent to live in Paris, Julia experienced the first taste, literally and figuratively, of her future. Later in her life, she described her first meal in France as a life-changing experience.

She attended Le Cordon Bleu, and joined a women’s cooking group where she met a woman named Simone Beck, who was writing a French cookbook for Americans. Along with Beck’s friend Louisette Bertholle, Child began working on the cookbook, which (more than a decade later) would be her first published cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

By this time, Julia and her husband had settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she wrote a column for the Boston Globe, and worked on other cookbooks. Child became a television chef when she appeared on WGBH-TV, after a series of other guests canceled. On live TV, instead of simply discussing how she would follow a recipe, Child flipped an omelette, much to the excitement of the viewers. This led to a television show starring Child called The French Chef that would run for more than 10 years. Other shows and cookbooks would follow; she published almost twenty during her life (and one posthumously, with the help of her nephew). She also continued making cooking shows, sometimes teaming up with her friend and fellow chef, Jacques Pepin.

I’ll admit, my first interest in Julia Child did not come from her cooking, but from her height–she was over six feet tall. I don’t know why that stuck with me. I’m fascinated by tall people, probably because I’m so short. I also appreciated her epic love affair with her husband. He even designed a special kitchen to accommodate her height and make cooking easier for her. Paul died in 1994, but Julia lived in their home in Cambridge until 2001, when she moved into a retirement home in California. Before moving, Child donated her kitchen to the Smithsonian museum, where it is housed today. She died in 2004, three days before her 92nd birthday.

To celebrate Julia’s birthday, I decided to make her Queen of Sheba cake. This recipe appeared in her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as well as in some of her subsequent cookbooks. It’s a very fancy name for a very simple and elegant dessert, which is essentially a rich chocolate cake.

This was the first cake that Julia had in France and may have ultimately helped Julia fall in love with French cuisine. It might have the same effect on you, because it’s delicious and approachable and everything good.

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Julia Child’s Queen of Sheba Cake

Ingredients:
For cake: 
1/3 cup ground almonds, plus 2 tbsp sugar 
3 oz semi-sweet chocolate
1 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 tbsp strong coffee (or 2 tbsp dark rum)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs, separated into whites and yolks
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/8 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup cake flour

For frosting:
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla

Optional:
Sliced almonds

Instructions:

Grease and line one 8-inch round cake pan with parchment paper.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Move the rack to the bottom third of the oven.

Process together 1/3 cup of almonds with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Pour into a small bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the coffee or rum and the semi-sweet and unsweetened chocolate and heat until just melted. Set aside.

Cream the butter until completely smooth. Add the 1/2 cup of sugar and beat for another minute. Add the egg yolks and beat together until smooth and light yellow in color.

In another bowl, beat together the egg whites with the cream of tartar and salt. Add the 2 tablespoons of sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating sugar thoroughly into the egg whites before adding second tablespoon of sugar. Continue to beat the egg mixture until you have stiff, glossy peaks.

Stir the chocolate/coffee mixture, ground almond mixture, and almond extract, into the egg yolk mixture.

Add in a third of the egg white mixture, carefully folding until thoroughly mixed. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and continue to fold into the mixture. Continue alternating the egg white and flour into the mixture two more times, until completely combined.

Pour mixture into the greased cake pan and bake for 30-35 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 30 minutes by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cake. When the toothpick comes out clean, the cake is done.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn over onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

If adding frosting, put semi-sweet chocolate into a bowl. Heat the heavy cream until it is hot but not boiling. Pour the cream over the chocolate and stir until smooth. Pour over the cake and smooth over the sides. Decorate edges with sliced almonds, if you wish.

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There you have it. It takes a few bowls to accomplish, but not too much fuss beyond that (unless you find egg whites fussy, which some do). Alex usually makes the same simple request when I try out a new recipe: “Can you add chocolate?” But he was finally satisfied with this recipe. It’s rich, almost like a brownie, but not too sweet, and you get a hint of the almond, which is what does it for me. And you don’t even need a specially designed kitchen for it. Happy birthday, Julia!

Peanut Butter Cookies

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Hey! It’s June now! You can barely tell, but here it is! On a recent June day, walking to the store, I found myself angrily cursing at how cold and windy it was. Since then, I’ve been looking at Craigslist apartments in… Austin? Savannah? Should we just move back to New Orleans? I mean, summer used to be Chicago’s saving grace, but these last few springs and summers have just been… chilly.

June is a funny time anyway because work is quieter for us both, and our summer trips don’t usually pick up until July 4th, so we’re just here, dealing with the moody Chicago weather, mostly inside, watching scary movies. We just finished Tabula Rasa, a Belgium mystery, on Netflix and we both loved it! Now we’re on to Requiem, which is so far good, a little slow, but I would happily watch paint dry so long as it were set in the Welsh landscape, so we’re sticking with it.

Also, of course, I’ve been hunting around for new recipes to write about. I saw that today was national peanut butter cookie day. I know. I don’t get it. But it did set me on a quest to learn some peanut butter history, and it was actually pretty great! Some things I learned: Peanut butter, as we know it, is a fairly modern marvel, only first appearing in the late 1800’s. George Washington Carver did NOT invent peanut butter! (I feel like I learned this in elementary school at some point. And now I feel like I’ve been living a lie.) GWC did have an important role in its promotion, though. Finally, peanut butter is just not a big deal in other countries. It’s a very American snack. Depending on your peanut butter views, this may come as no surprise.

In 1884, Marcellus Gilmore Edson, a Canadian chemist, obtained the first patent for peanut flavoring paste to be used in sweets or candies. Ten year later, in 1894, George Bayle began producing peanut butter as a snack food, mostly selling it near St. Louis.

By 1898, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (you might know him by his cereals), began using boiled peanut paste in his sanitarium, the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan. The paste provided patients, particularly those who were unable to chew, with a protein-rich, vegetarian food option, which Dr. Kellogg promoted. At this time, peanut butter was not available to the masses, as it did not transport well, and was generally only considered a health food for the rich.

By 1903, however, Ambrose Straub, also of St. Louis, had patented a peanut butter-making machine, and a year later, peanut butter made an appearance at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Shortly after that, it gained popularity on a nation-wide scale and, less than a decade later, recipes for peanut butter cookies began appearing in newspapers.

If you’re curious about George Washington Carver’s role in the history of peanut butter in the United States, it did not begin until about 1915. During this time, the boll weevil, a type of beetle, had devastated southern cotton crops. In response, Carver began focusing his research on crops for farmers to alternate with their cotton crops, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes, which were both healthy for human consumption and would help restore nitrogen in the depleted soil. As part of his work, Carver began promoting the use of sweet potatoes and peanuts in recipes.

By the early 1920s, a chemist named Joseph Rosefield added partially hydrogenated oil to the peanut butter, which prevented it from separating. And by the 1920s, the first peanut butter company, Peter Pan, was founded using a license provided by Dr. Rosefield.

Nutritious and affordable, good for the soil and good for the body. And delicious in a cookie! For the recipe, I adapted one of my favorite cookie recipes: the America’s Test Kitchen Crinkle Cookie. I wanted a lot of peanut butter flavor, but I didn’t want them to be too thick, chewy, or crispy. The results were… very fluffy, and very dangerous.

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Peanut Butter Cookies
Makes between 24 and 36 cookies.

Ingredients:
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract 
1 cup white granulated sugar, for rolling 

Instructions:

In a small bowl, melt together the peanut butter and butter, stir to mix together, and set aside to cool slightly.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together the brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract until well-combined.

Add the peanut butter mixture to the sugar and eggs mixture and stir together until combined. Add the flour mixture all at once and stir together until there are no more white flour streaks. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and allow to sit for 10-15 minutes.

Move a rack to the middle rung in oven. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Fill a bowl with granulated sugar. Scoop 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the peanut butter mixture into the sugar. Once all sides are coated, pick up and form into a ball in your hands. Place on cookie sheet. Continue, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between each ball, until you’ve filled the baking sheet. Using a fork, slightly flatten each ball and make a crisscross shape across the top of each ball. Bake for 6 minutes, then turn the pan 180 degrees, and continue baking for another 6 minutes. The cookies will look soft, but they will be done. Don’t over-cook! Continue on the second baking pan, until you’ve used all the dough.

Allow the cookies to cool on the pan before serving or transferring to an airtight container.

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My husband described these as cookies for people who love cake. They are incredibly soft, with the slightest crisp edge. You will have a terrible time not eating the whole batch because they’re so light and pillowy. Because of this, they do not hold their traditional crisscross imprint very well, but you won’t hardly have time to notice.

 

Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream

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Hey! I jumped off here for a bit. My dude and I paid a nice little visit to New Orleans, the only other city we’ve ever lived in together. It was half vacation, half we’ve had too much Chicago winter and, even though it’s getting nice now, our bones are still frozen. Since we left, New Orleans is 300 years old (what?!) and way cooler. Us leaving may have even had something to do with that. We do not usually go to the swankiest places, but a quick rundown of our old and new favorites include: Elizabeth’s and Paloma Cafe, in the Bywater, for great food and drinks; our old haunt Cure on Freret (they just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program!); Alto, the poolside, rooftop bar at the Ace Hotel; Bouligny Tavern, our favorite neighborhood spot (when Uptown was still our neighborhood); and Jacques-Imo’s on Oak, for really solid New Orleans cuisine (be prepared to wait for a table).

So, now the reason for this post: It’s the two-year birthday of my little blog-baby! As a person who studied and loves history, but has no interest or intention of ever teaching, my blog has become my little passion project of researching, writing about historical people, historical recipes, and family recipes. I’ve been lucky enough to have very, very cool women agree to share their family recipes and stories with me. I’ve learned some cool new things myself, and hopefully you have, too! I’m having a mini-celebration with cake.

When I was little, my favorite dessert was strawberry shortcake (and my favorite cartoon was Strawberry Shortcake–which came first??). I see recipes for strawberry shortcake online and they look amazing, but they are not what I had as a child. In fact, the only strawberry shortcake recipe I knew as a child was probably mostly chemicals: Those little store-bought, yellow, spongecake discs, accompanied by a tub of bright red glaze, strawberries (perhaps the only non-lab-created ingredient), and cool whip. As a child of the nineties, my body was raised on preservatives and corn syrup. I think it’s really nice when I hear people my age say that cookies and candies weren’t even allowed in their house, or that if desserts were allowed they were always hand-made from scratch. That just wasn’t my experience. Cake was available at every celebration, and almost always from a box. And I loved every minute of it.

As a grown-up who knows more about nutrition now, I eat a little better. Cakes are made, sure, but I enjoy only a little, or give them away as gifts. Also, I am blessed with a lot more time than my mom had. I am not working overtime in a factory, with two kids to feed. So, while I appreciate the tiny celebrations that we had, my happy medium as an adult is making things I love from scratch, with fresh and whole ingredients (including sugar and butter) when I can. This strawberry sponge cake is my version of my favorite childhood treat.

There is no history to this post, except for my own. It’s just a thankful strawberry spongecake recipe to remind me of summer days as a child, why I love food so damn much in the first place, and how grateful I am that people like you show up to look at my pictures and read my words.

To begin, and to really get the nostalgia flowing, instead of a biscuit-like base (like the ones I see online that are very beautiful and delicious), I made a yellow sponge cake. There are not one, but two, layers of strawberries, one layer floating just above the cake, dripping with a strawberry glaze that melts into the top, the second sitting on a cloud of fluffy whipped cream. It’s my own personal version of heaven.

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Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream
Makes one 9×13-inch cake.

Ingredients:
For cake:
2 cups unbleached cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup whole milk
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
5 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
For topping:
2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (measure after quartering)
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and sliced (to add to sauce)
1 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (to add to whipped topping)
2 1/2 cups heavy cream, very cold
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla

Instructions:

For the cake: Grease a 9×13-inch pan and line with parchment paper (you may want to use a binder clip to hold the parchment to the sides of the pans). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

Melt the butter and combine with the whole milk. Stir in the vanilla. Set aside.

In a double boiler, combine the eggs and sugar. Whisking constantly, heat the mixture over medium heat for 5-8 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture should be very light yellow and thin. Remove from heat.

With a hand mixer or stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar together until about double in size. When ready, the mixture will be very light yellow in color, and will hold its shape for a moment, when you move the beaters through it.

Pour in all the flour mixture and gently fold from bottom to top until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Add in the butter and milk mixture and stir until combined. The batter will be quite thin.

Pour the batter into the pan, bake for about 25-30 minutes, turning the pan 180 degrees at the 15-minute mark.

When it is lightly golden brown on the top, springy to the touch, and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, it is done. Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

For the topping: Hull and quarter strawberries and add them to a food processor with sugar. Blend until liquefied, then strain the mixture into a bowl.

Slice two cups of berries and stir them into the sweetened berry purée.

Beat the heavy cream with the sugar and vanilla.

Quarter the two remaining cups of strawberries.

Using a large serrated knife, slice the very top layer off the cake to make it a flat and porous surface. Pour the strawberry purée mixture evenly over the top of the cake. Add whipped cream. Then top with quartered berries and mint (optional).

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This cake is not for everyone. Not even my mom who used to make it for me, who says she doesn’t like “goop” on her cake. But for me, it’s perfect. It’s simple, it’s delicious, and it’s a little messy. Probably good for a picnic. It checks a lot of boxes.

If you share my passion for food and history, you’re always welcome here! This is not a business for me, but it does feel like more than just a hobby. Thanks so much for reading and I hope you’ll be back soon!

Chocolate Wacky Cake with Strawberry Glaze

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We are maybe starting to thaw out here. Up until last weekend, the weather in Chicago was legit killing me. These are the things I’ve noticed about my life over the course of this 700-month winter: The upside is, we’re getting really good at staying home, watching scary movies, and eating in; the downside is that I’m getting even worse at socializing. It doesn’t help that I mostly work from home anyway, and even when I have to leave my apartment to do research, I’m busy with documents, not people. But now when a friend asks to meet up, my first reaction is, “Meet up?? Outside?!” Also, there is a Melisa-shaped indent in my couch.

However, another upside is that I’ve had a lot of time to work on my blog-baby, which is the mostest fun. Which leads me to today’s recipe: Chocolate wacky cake! (Not to be confused with the Chocolate Funny Cake I made last year.)

This cake checks a lot of boxes. It’s chocolate! It’s cheap! It’s low-fuss, using only one pan! It’s vegan! Am I a vegan? No! However, I thought it was important to mention this fact, as so few of the historical recipes that I post here are also vegan. Like, none of them. This blog runs on butter and eggs.

Anyway, let’s get into wacky cake. My first experience with this cake was about a year ago, when I thought to myself, “Dang, I want some chocolate cake, but don’t want to go to the store to buy a box of cake, or, like, make a cake from scratch. I just want it here. Now.” Then I made this cake, and realized making it was exactly the amount of work I was willing to put in, and it was exactly the taste my mouth was looking for.

Like funny cake, wacky cake’s name is derived from the wacky way that its unexpected ingredients come together to form something quite familiar. Those interested in the science of baking might have fun with this recipe: Since this cake is made without any eggs, butter, or milk, vinegar does a lot of the heavy lifting. Without eggs in the batter, the vinegar and salt work together to strengthen the gluten, which is what supports the cake.

Mentions of  “wacky cake” began appearing in newspapers as early as 1944, during the last year of World War II. The first recipe for it that I found was in 1946. Also called three-hole cake, crazy cake, or WWII cake, the recipe was created in response to the wartime shortages facing home cooks, and a variation of the cake probably had it’s beginning during the Depression, when home cooks were facing similar shortages. There was a Depression-era “crazy cake” recipe being printed in newspapers before the war, usually including one egg, but omitting butter, and sometimes milk, and using no vinegar. In newspapers after the war, it seems that “crazy” and “wacky” cake become interchangeable. However, if you search for “crazy cake” online today, most of these recipes include vinegar. Even when ingredients became readily available after the war, the wacky cake earned its popularity over the years because of the low cost of the ingredients and the ease of preparation. It later became a quick go-to recipe to throw a dessert together in an bind.

If you’re not sold on the idea of a tasty vegan cake made with low-cost ingredients, perhaps you’ll be attracted by the fact that you only use one pan to make the cake. The one-pan method likely comes from the popularity of the so-called dump cake during WWII, which was created before WWI, and involves exactly what you’d expect: all ingredients are “dumped” into one pan, stirred, and baked. When making wacky cake, it’s probably harder not to use a single pan, due to the chemical reaction that you need to direct by separating the vinegar from the other ingredients before adding hot water.

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Chocolate Wacky Cake with Strawberry Glaze
Makes one 9×5-inch loaf, or 1 8×8-inch square cake. The recipe below is a version of the recipe taken from The Pittsburgh Press, March 6, 1946.

Ingredients:
For cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup natural cocoa powder (non Dutch-pressed)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp white vinegar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup hot water or coffee
For strawberry glaze:
8 tsp strawberry puree
1 cup powdered sugar

Instructions:

For cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In an ungreased 8×8-inch, or 9×5-inch loaf pan, sift together the flour, sugar, soda, cocoa, and salt.

Make three wells in the dry ingredients with your finger or a spoon, about an inch apart.

In one hole, add the vinegar, in another in the vanilla, and in the third, add the vegetable oil.

Finally, pour the hot water or brewed coffee (I suggest using coffee for added richness) over the top of everything and stir slightly to mix.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Allow to cool in the pan completely before attempting to remove it. Once completely cooled, move to plate, frost, and enjoy!

For strawberry glaze: Add about 1/2 cup of hulled and quartered strawberries to a saucepan and heat with 3 tbsp of water. Cook over low heat until the strawberries become very soft.

Blend in a food processor, or with an immersion blender, until very smooth, then strain into a bowl.

Using the strained liquid, add one tablespoon at a time to 1 cup of powdered sugar, until you reach the desired consistency.

Once the cake has fully cooled (wait at least a few hours) and been removed from the pan, pour glaze over the cake and enjoy!

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This cake is shockingly moist (like, truly shocking) and fluffy. It’s not quite as rich as regular chocolate cake made with butter and eggs, but damn if it’s not good!

You should definitely make sure that you use natural cocoa, not Dutch-pressed (which is also sometimes called European-style or alkalized). Dutch-pressed cocoa is washed with a solution of potassium carbonate which lessens its acidity. However, for this cake, that acidity is needed to strengthen the gluten to help the cake rise.

And this berry glaze is the perfect way to use not-quite-ripe (or frozen!) berries. But, if you throw together this cake, and are just so excited by how quick and easy it was to make that you eat the whole thing right away without frosting… I’m not going to judge you.

Maya Angelou’s Caramel Cake with Brown Butter Frosting

Maya Angelou

To be honest, a few weeks ago I wrote about Emily Dickinson for World Poetry Day. However, before I decided on Dickinson, I went back and forth about whether I should write about another famed female poet who loved cooking: Maya Angelou. When I realized that Angelou’s birthday was approaching, on April 4, and that April is National Poetry Month, I decided I would honor her today, instead.

She is probably remembered best by most as a poet, but Angelou lived a full and almost unbelievable life before she ever wrote a poem.

She was born in 1928, in St. Louis, as Marguerite Annie Johnson. At the age of four, she was sent along with her brother to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with her paternal grandmother, after her parents’ marriage fell apart. Her grandmother was a powerful influence on her life. Her grandmother owned her own general store, and provided Angelou with the stability she lacked when living with her mother.

After being sent back to live with her mother, she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. The man was later killed by family members, and Angelou became a mute for seven years, thinking she had caused his death by speaking his name. She lived with her grandmother again for the next several years. A friend of her grandmother’s, Bertha Flowers, was credited with exposing Angelou to great writers during this time, and eventually helping her overcome her muteness.

By the time she was fourteen, she and her brother were living with their mother again, this time in California. Before leaving high school, she had given birth to her first and only child, a son named Clyde. As a young woman, she supported herself with a series of jobs: She became a chef in a Creole restaurant, she was a prostitute and brothel madam for a time, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, and as a singer in a night club. She and dancer Alvin Ailey even formed a dance duo for a time. At this point, Angelou was still going by her birth name of Marguerite, or sometimes Rita, but it was during this period that her managers at the Purple Onion, a famous club in San Francisco, where she had been performing a calypso show, suggested changing it to Maya Angelou, a combination of her nickname, and a version of her former husband’s surname.

Five years later, Angelou moved to New York to be a writer, on the suggestion of novelist John Oliver Killens. In 1960, she helped organize Cabaret for Freedom, a fundraiser to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. and hearing him speak. Her passion for the Civil Rights movement grew out of this meeting.

In the early 1960’s, she spent time in Egypt and Ghana, working as an associate editor and writer for local English-language publications. She and her son had moved there after meeting and beginning a relationship with Vusumzi Make, a South African civil rights activist. After her relationship with Make ended, Angelou was still living in Ghana and it was at that time that she met Malcolm X. They became friends and in 1965, she returned to the United States to help him create a new civil rights organization, but he was assassinated shortly after.

By the end of the 60’s, she was writing and singing to support herself and in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. asked if she would organize a march. This march would never happen, as King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th of that year (Angelou’s 40th birthday). Angelou was brokenhearted, but her pain led to the creation of undoubtedly her most famous work: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969.

The early 70’s proved to be a pivotal time for Angelou as a writer. She wrote music, scripts, and poetry. She dabbled in acting, she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in Look Away on Broadway, and made an appearance in the miniseries Roots.

In the 80’s, she became a professor at Wake Forest College, teaching courses until 2011. In 1993, she read her poem On the Pulse of Morning at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She lectured extensively throughout the 90’s, and by the end of her life, she had written 7 autobiographies. According to her son, she was working on another at the time of her death in 2014, at the age of 86.

In honor of Angelou’s 90th birthday, I made her grandmother’s recipe for caramel cake. She wrote about this cake in her book, Hallelujah!, saying that it was a favorite of hers and one of her grandmother’s specialties. It was a favorite at the quilting bees hosted in the back of her grandmother’s store, and Angelou recounts a day when she was punished by a teacher for her voluntary muteness; after visiting the school to punish the teacher in turn, her grandmother made Maya her very own caramel cake to remind her of her love.

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Caramel Cake with Brown Butter Frosting
Serves 8. Recipe from Maya Angelou’s book Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes.

Ingredients:
Caramel sauce:
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
Cake:
1 stick of butter, unsalted and very soft
1 cup of sugar
1/4 cup caramel sauce (recipe below)
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
2 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
Frosting:
9 tbsp butter, unsalted
12 oz confectioner’s sugar
6 tbsp heavy cream
2 1/4 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt

Instructions:

Caramel sauce: Heat the sugar over a heavy-bottomed skillet until it begins to melt and bubble, stirring occasionally. Once it is brown and bubbly on the surface, remove from heat and slowly add the water. Be careful, because it will bubble and spit as mix in the water. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.

Place two 8-inch rounds of parchment paper in the bottom of two 8-inch cake pans. Brush thoroughly with vegetable oil, or spray with cooking spray.

Cake: Beat the softened butter until smooth, add in the sugar in three batches, fully beating it into the butter each time. Then add the caramel sauce and beat until combined.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Add the flour mixture and 1 cup of milk to the butter-sugar mixture in 3 batches, alternating between the two, and stirring until just combined between each addition.

And in another medium bowl, beat together the eggs until they’re frothy, between 2-3 minutes. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and beat until mixture is foamy and the sugar is dissolved.

Fold the egg mixture into the batter until just combined. Divide evenly between the two cake pans and bake for about 25 minutes. Begin checking for doneness around the 22 minute mark. The center of cake should spring back when pressed with a finger and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean. Allow to cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove the parchment and place on wire racks to cool completely before frosting.

Frosting: (I made 1.5x the original recipe for this frosting.) Brown butter in a pan over medium heat. You will know when it’s done when it stops hissing and smells nutty. Be careful not to burn it. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Place confectioner’s sugar, cream, vanilla, salt, and cooled butter into a bowl. Beat until the mixture is smooth and the sugar is fully incorporated.

Frost the cake as desired and eat immediately, or refrigerate until ready to eat.

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My thoughts on the cake are as follows: super simple to make, surprisingly moist, unsurprisingly delicious.

I will say, these posts always seem to pack a lot into a tiny space, but perhaps never more so than with this post–no one has had quite as full a life as Maya Angelou–so I hope I did her some justice. It’s been a real pleasure researching the woman behind the words.

Happy 90th birthday, Maya Angelou!