Julia Child’s Birthday + Queen of Sheba Cake

Julia Child

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!

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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!

Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake

Emily Dickinson

It’s SPRING! Finally! I mean, it won’t feel like spring here until about two months from now, but technically, it arrived yesterday. Spring also means that I’m finally going to be able to say goodbye to my TV-friend for a while, leaving behind my winter life as a couch potato to actually go outside.

Aside from TV watching, being home-bound in the cold often leads to a lot of researching and baking. Usually in that order. On one particularly cold day, I discovered that in 1999, UNESCO declared March 21st to be National Poetry Day. I started looking into poets I could honor here, and that led me to the beloved and mysterious poet, Emily Dickinson.

Born in 1830, Dickinson spent almost her entire life in Amherst, Massachusetts, near her family. Well educated for a woman of her time, she spent seven years attending school at Amherst Academy, which she only left after falling ill on more than one occasion.

After her time in school, little is known about Dickinson, beyond what is expressed in her letters and poetry. We remember her now as a reclusive, fragile woman dressed in white, perhaps as much as we remember her writing.

It is said that, as a young woman, she was social and had many friends, but that as she aged, she became less and less likely to accept visitors into her home, preferring instead to speak to them through closed doors. There have been many guesses as to why Dickinson began living as a recluse. Some historians think she may have suffered from epilepsy, a disease that, at the time, would have rendered her a social pariah. Others think she had what we would today call agoraphobia.

Dickinson never married and, instead, spent her time with her brother Austin’s family, and a sister, Lavinia, who also never married. And, while Dickinson became withdrawn from society, she never stopped writing. Through the years, she became extremely close to her brother’s wife, Susan, and though they lived on estates next door to one another, they wrote to each other often.

After Dickinson’s death, her sister, Lavinia, found some of her poems (she wrote almost 1800 during her life) and decided they should be published. It was Mabel Todd, wife of an astronomer, and mistress to Emily’s brother, Austin, who became the editor of Dickinson’s works. Todd had never actually met the poet face to face, though Dickinson was aware of her existence, and even sent her poetry from time to time.

My favorite story of the poet is one Todd told of when she and Dickinson almost met. Dickinson’s brother had invited Todd to the house where his sisters and mother lived to play the piano and sing for them. Austin’s mother was upstairs and invalid, and therefore couldn’t greet Ms. Todd. Emily was there too, and while she listened from the hallway, she chose not to leave the shadows. Instead, she sent a poem out to Todd on a scrap of paper. Todd’s later response to their “meeting” was: “It was odd to think as my voice rang out through the big silent house that Miss Emily in her weird white dress was outside in the shadow hearing every word.”

While Todd considered Dickinson’s work “genius”, she heavily edited her writings before they were published. Todd’s versions of the works did become very successful. By contrast, Emily’s sister-in-law Susan attempted to publish a few of her letters and was met with much less interest. It was also Todd who created the idea of Dickinson as a strange woman in white. It’s difficult now to distinguish the woman from the myth, though in her letters Dickinson is lively and witty. And, in addition to being an excellent poet, Dickinson was a fan of both gardening and baking, perhaps being known more for these during her life, than for her writing. In the years she spent closed off visually from society, she would still make baked goods and lower them down to children in the street in a basket.

In fact, more than one recipe, written in Dickinson’s own hand, still exists today. I tried her recipe for a coconut cake, which comes down to us with a few simple ingredients, and no instructions on preparation. I just did it the way I would if I were making any other cake. It could be prepared in a loaf pan, but I opted to use the vintage bundt pan that my mother gave me recently. It worked well!

Coconut Cake

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Coconut Cake
Makes one small bundt cake, or a one 8″ x 4″ loaf. Recipe slightly altered from original recipe from Emily Dickinson.

Ingredients:
1 cup coconut, shredded and unsweetened
8 ounces hot water
2 cups flour
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs, large

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Oil and flour a bundt pan, or a small loaf pan.

Add shredded coconut to a bowl and pour 8 ounces of hot water over the top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Drain the water off and spread the coconut out on paper towels to dry slightly.

In a separate small bowl, combine the flour, cream of tartar, and baking soda. Stir to combine.

In a large bowl, mix the sugar and softened butter with a hand mixer until creamed, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs and stir together until just combined.

Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture and stir until just combined.

Finally, add the coconut and stir until just combined.

Pour the mixture into the oiled and floured pan.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, beginning to test the cake with a toothpick at 30 minutes. Once a toothpick inserted into multiple places around the cake comes out clean, it’s done.

Allow cake to cool for about 5 minutes in the pan, then remove from the pan and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Eat as is, or add glaze and toasted coconut.

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Baker’s note: This cake is a tad on the drier side. Cakes during that time period were made to be pretty sturdy, and therefore were not light and fluffy the way we expect cakes to be today. (This might more accurately be described as a sweet coconut bread.)

I had a great time researching Emily Dickinson’s story. And I feel like I could write a book now, but this is only a blog, so I hope you do some follow-up research yourself; she is a fascinating woman! Happy World Poetry Day!

Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake

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Happy New Year!

We are still trying to dig out of the holidays over here. A couple days before Christmas, we made our annual trek up to Marie’s for pizza. On Christmas Eve morning, I made Chex Mix (I used the recipe that one of my guests, Mandy Ross, shared on here a while back, because it’s very easy and very good), while playing Christmas music. We had our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of steak, potatoes, and mulled wine. Then we woke up to a white Christmas, exchanged gifts, and had a Christmas dinner of delicious Indian food with Alex’s dad. Solid times. But now it’s just cold, cold, cold. It’s the time of the year when I try not to leave my house and I eat my body weight in Clementines.

For New Year’s Eve, we did nothing. Alex kept giving me updates on the temperature that went something like, “It feels like -9… and now it feels like -17”. I fell asleep by 10:30, woke up at 11:59:45 to countdown to the New Year, then promptly fell back asleep, like a rock star.

And, speaking of New Year’s Eve, you may want to stop reading right now if you made a New Year’s resolution to avoid any of the following: cake… chocolate… carbs… desserts… soda… butter… Because this post is basically your New Year’s resolutions’ biggest nightmare.

Last year, when Alex was on a business trip in Atlanta, I got lost down a rabbit hole reading about Coca-Cola’s history and requested that Alex bring me something called a Coca-Cola cake. Unfortunately, he was traveling with colleagues and didn’t feel comfortable demanding a stop to buy cake. So, the idea of a chocolate cake made with soda pop sat at the back of my mind. Until now.

Today marks the 230th anniversary of Georgia becoming a state. And, of course, Coca-Cola was born and raised in Georgia. Coca-Cola was created by John Pemberton, a pharmacist by trade who suffered a saber wound to the chest (!!) during the Civil War and became addicted to opiates as a way to combat his pain. He developed the early version of Coca-Cola, made from coca leaves (and, yes, at least trace amounts its famous alkaloid), and kola nuts, which contain both caffeine and other stimulants that Pemberton hoped would help conquer his addiction. Before his death, needing money, Pemberton began selling some of the rights to the Coca-Cola formula. After his death, his son Charley, also suffering from alcoholism and a morphine addiction, possibly coerced, sold the remaining rights to Asa Griggs Candler, a business tycoon who would later become the mayor of Atlanta, and who was responsible for the aggressive marketing that led to Coca-Cola’s status as an American staple.

As for the cake, there is not a lot of information on how it got started. It doesn’t seem that it was created by the Coca-Cola Company as a marketing ploy. There have been suggestions that, because of its importance to American morale during the second World War (both Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley were said to be addicted to it!), the Coca-Cola company was not subject to the sugar rationing that restricted the American public, so it was a way to sweeten a chocolate cake. That seemed like a fair assumption, but the recipe also calls for an egg, and a fair amount of butter and buttermilk–items that were either rationed themselves, or just scarce at the time. More likely, it seems that the recipe was created by happy accident, as a way for home bakers in the south to infuse the beloved soda into their chocolate cake. The earliest recipes for the cake that I found were from newspapers in the 1960’s, and interestingly enough, not from Georgia. A frequently-used version is often attributed to Lee Avery Catts, a member of the Junior League of Atlanta, whose recipe was published in the Junior League’s Atlanta Cooknotes starting in the early 80’s. Her recipe closely follows the recipes I found in earlier newspapers.

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Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake
Serves 12-15. I followed this recipe from Serious Eats, which seems to be very close to several recipes I found from newspapers in the 60’s.

Ingredients:
For cake:
Cooking spray
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tsp baking soda
2 sticks of butter, unsalted
1/4 cup cocoa powder, unsweetened
1 cup Coca-Cola
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups miniature marshmallows

For icing:
2 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1/4 tsp salt
1 stick of butter, unsalted
1/4 cup cocoa powder, unsweetened
6 tbsp Coca-Cola
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans, optional

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the inside of a 9×13-inch pan with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, white and brown sugar, and salt. Whisk to combine.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and baking soda. Stir to combine thoroughly. (Be sure to use a bowl that is at least 1 cup in size because the mixture will foam up to almost double.)

In a small saucepan, combine the butter, cocoa, and Coca-Cola. Heat to boiling, stirring occasionally. Pour the Coca-Cola mixture into the flour mixture and stir until fully combined. Add the buttermilk mixture, stirring until combined. Add the eggs and vanilla, and finally stir in the marshmallows.

Pour the mixture into the 9×13-inch pan, spreading the mixture to the edges with a spoon and moving the marshmallows around so they’re evenly distributed.

Bake between 35 and 45 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Allow the cake to cool for about 10 minutes before beginning the icing.

Sift the confectioner’s sugar and salt into a small bowl. In a small saucepan, combine the butter, cocoa powder, and Coca-Cola. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Pour the Coca-Cola mixture into the confectioner’s sugar. Whisk together until completely combined and smooth. Stir in the vanilla.

Pour the icing over the still-warm cake. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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This cake was actually quite different than I imagined it would be. I figured it would be extremely sweet and very dense like a brownie. Definitely not! It’s actually just a really tasty chocolate cake. You can also include pecans in your icing. I did not, because I’m almost exclusively a no-nuts-in-dessert type of girl. Use your discretion.

Happy birthday to the great state of Georgia! And, Alex says, congrats to your Dawgs! (I literally have no idea what that means.)