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.

Maya Angelou Caramel Cake

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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!

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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!

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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.)

Zwetschgendatschi or German Plum Cake

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I first heard of Zwetschgendatschi when NPR did a Found Recipes piece on pastry chef and author Gesine Bullock-Prado (also the sister of Sandra Bullock). Bullock’s father was American, but her mother Helga was a German opera singer. She talks about how difficult it was for her to make this cake after her mother died. It was powerful to read this, and I have seen something similar while collaborating with ladies on this blog about their own family recipes: Sometimes sharing is easy for them, they’re excited to share, and excited to talk about their family dish, but sometimes it’s very difficult. Memories are baked into food and can bring up surprising emotions if you’re not ready for them.

This particular dish, Zwetschgendatschi, is sometimes called “Summer Cake.” The cake is traditionally made with Damson plums, which are tiny, dark purple, oblong plums that only ripen for a few weeks a year around August. This plum is slightly more tart than most plums you will find in the grocery store.

When made in sheet cake form, it is more pie or tart than cake. An alternate version calls for a yeast dough with no streusel on top. Whichever recipe is used can give you a good idea where someone is from in Germany. In parts of Central Germany it is known as Quetschekuche, while in the western region it’s known as Prummetaat, and in Bavaria or Austria it is more often known as Zwetschgendatschi. The people in Augsburg, in Bavaria, claim to be the creators of the recipe. The city’s nickname is “Datschiburg” in reference to the cake, and the arrangement of the plums on top of the cake are said to resemble the pine cone on the city’s coat of arms. Their version uses a shortbread crust, which is what I used here.

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Zwetschgendatschi
Makes one 8″ tart. Slight variation on this recipe from NPR.

Ingredients:
For crust:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cubed and very cold (1 1/2 sticks)

For filling:
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
About 10-14 small-to-medium plums (Damson, or Italian Prune Plums)

For topping:
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp sugar

Instructions:

Whisk together the egg yolk, whole milk, and vanilla. Set aside.

In a food processor, or large bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt. If using a food processor, add the butter to the bowl and process until the butter pieces are a bit smaller than pea-sized. If using a bowl, cut the butter into the flour mixture. Add the egg yolk mixture slowly. Process or mix with your hands until the mixture just begins to stick together. It will still appear crumbly.

Pour out the mixture onto a lightly floured surface. Pull the mixture together, kneading until all the dry parts are combined. Form into a disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30-45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the pits from the plums, and quarter. Set aside.

Using your fingertips, press the dough into a 8-inch tart pan. Reserve a golf ball sized portion of the dough to sprinkle over the top.

Arrange the plum quarters over the top of the tart. Crumble the remaining dough and sprinkle over the top.

Mix together the nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar. Sprinkle mixture evenly over the top of the plums.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the plums are very tender.

Allow to cool completely and then enjoy!

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This cake can be made with other varieties of plums, but make sure they are not overly ripe, which would make them very sweet and too juicy. Italian prune plums are a good alternative to Damson plums, if you can find them. (Prune plums are what I used for this recipe.) I relied on the recipe given by NPR, but I did find a recipe in a newspaper from the 1980’s that suggested adding a little nutmeg and cinnamon to your sugar mixture to sprinkle over the top, and that seemed like a heck of an idea. While it looks a little oozy in the photos above, that does not do it justice. The smooth, buttery shortbread crust holds up wonderfully against the juicy fruit.

I hate to tell you this, but summer is almost over. Now is the time for summer cake! Do it for the season.

One final thought: It always seems strange to be writing about food with everything happening in the world. I’m baking and researching history as a way to work through and try to understand what’s going on in our country, and how I can help. I’m mad, and appalled, and disappointed. We owe so much to the diversity that built this nation. Every recipe that I feature on this site is influenced by countries and peoples from around the world. I have said before that I wish to generally keep politics off this food history blog–it’s supposed to be fun and delicious, you know. However, humanity is not political, and this argument is not about liberals or conservatives, it’s about our fellow humans. We are all equal. It seems elementary to say but, it turns out, some people still don’t understand the concept. If you don’t agree, I don’t expect any of my posts about border-crossing recipes to make any sense to you. For everyone else: Let’s bake together.

Hummingbird Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

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It’s summer now. As often as I can, I’m refusing to turn on my oven, which means we’re over here surviving entirely on pasta salad, BLTs, and whatever we can grill. So it’s not all bad. But we had a bit of a chilly spell (you know, low 60s), so I took the opportunity to make a cake that’s been on my mind: Hummingbird Cake.

On a personal note, this should not be a cake that’s been on my mind. I’m not a big fan of fruits and nuts in my cakes. But when I started doing the research for this post, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I became obsessed. I think I even had a dream about it! Plus, I love its name–even though, it turns out, Hummingbird Cake was not always its name.

In the United States, Hummingbird Cake is known as a Southern specialty, but it actually has its origins in Jamaica. The cake, made with both bananas and pineapple, was named after Jamaica’s national bird, the swallow-tail hummingbird. In Jamaica, though, it was known as Doctor Bird Cake, doctor bird being a nickname of the hummingbird.

In the 70’s, in an attempt to boost tourism to the island, media press kits containing Jamaican recipes, including Doctor Bird Cake, were sent to the United States. The earliest recipe for Doctor Bird Cake that I could find in U.S. newspapers was from February 26, 1972, in the Mexico Ledger of Mexico, Missouri, where the recipe is exactly the same as the one I made (but using only white sugar), with the exception of being cooked in a tube pan, apparently served without frosting.

By 1974, the same recipe was published in the The Brazosport Facts, a newspaper printed in Freeport, Texas, under the new name Hummingbird Cake. In 1975, there is another recipe for the cake, this time from Weimar, Texas, which is still cooked in a tube pan, but this time, with the addition of a cream cheese frosting.

In 1978, Southern Living Magazine published the recipe for Hummingbird Cake, attributing the recipe to an L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina. It was an instant hit. In 1990, it was voted Southern Living’s favorite recipe and at that time was their most-requested recipe ever.

This cake seems like a perfect way to kick off summer. Stuffed with banana and pineapple (seriously, there is the same amount of fruit as flour), it seems tropical and sunny. And, though summer in Chicago is nice, we could always still use some tropical and sunny vibes.

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Hummingbird Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Very slight variation of Southern Living’s recipe. Makes an 8 x 2-inch, three-layer cake.

Ingredients:
For the cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups banana, diced (not mashed)
1 cup crushed pineapple, in juice
1 cup pecans, chopped

For the frosting:
16 oz cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup pecan halves, optional

Instructions:

For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon.

Add the eggs, oil, and vanilla to the dry mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula just until the wet and dry ingredients have been incorporated. (The mixture will seem quite thick at this point.)

Add the pineapple, banana, and pecans to the mixture and incorporate thoroughly.

Divide the mixture equally between three 8″ x 2″ round pans (you could also use 9″ x 1/2″).

Bake for 23-28 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at the 22-minute mark. Cake is done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Do not over-bake. The cake should be quite moist.

Allow to cool for at least an hour and a half.

For the frosting:
Combine the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla in a mixing bowl and beat with a hand mixer until combined.

Add the powdered sugar and salt and continue to mix until combined.

Frost as desired and decorate the top of the frosted cake with pecan halves.

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I’ve never thought of myself as a huge banana fan. Don’t get me wrong, I always thought they were fine, but it wasn’t until a month or two ago, when I made my friend Kaye’s grandma’s banana pudding recipe and then ate, you know, ALL OF IT, that I was like, “Wait, am I a banana-eater now?” I still don’t just want to hang out and eat a banana, but do I want them in my desserts? Hell yes I do! The pineapple seems to brighten up the flavor of the banana, which I usually find a bit heavy. And the banana tones down the pineapple, which can really enter a room and take over the conversation. Plus, there are nuts in it! I believed until this point that I was strictly a no-nuts dessert type of gal, but my sensibilities are being tested all over the place with this recipe. It’s so good.

And, it couldn’t be easier! Everything comes together quickly and no stand or hand mixer is required or even recommended. The most handsome cake, it is not. But if you’re looking for a tasty and impressive dessert for a group (seriously, though, this is a hefty cake that could feed a crowd), this is the cake you’ve been looking for.

Pennsylvania Dutch Chocolate Funny Cake

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Rarely do I post on weekends, but today I am making an exception. My schedule was all thrown off after I caught a head cold earlier this week that really knocked me out. I tend to go years without getting very sick, but I feel like I’ve had about 2 colds a month since November. My immune system is officially on my list. Anyway, when I can’t taste food, I have absolutely no desire to cook or bake. I mean, really, what’s my motivation?

Toward the end of the week, though, my head was less congested and my taste buds were finally working properly again, which gave me a little time to try the newest recipe on my list: Funny Cake Pie. And it couldn’t be a more fitting recipe April Fool’s Day! This recipe is no joke, though.

Funny cake pie, or just funny cake, is a traditional recipe in the Pennsylvania Dutch community. The recipe consists of vanilla cake batter poured into an unbaked pie shell. Chocolate sauce is poured over the top of the cake batter before baking. As the cake bakes, the chocolate pools underneath the cake, creating a pretty, dark layer between the cake and the pie crust. It’s said that the pie was called “funny” as in “unusual” because of the flip-flop of the chocolate syrup and cake.

Unlike most, this is a recipe that you will often see directly associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch community. I mistakenly thought that the term “Pennsylvania Dutch” specifically applied only to the Amish. Turns out, Pennsylvania Dutch applies to the extremely large groups of people of all religions, who immigrated from what we today know as Germany, who then settled in Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries. In this case, “Dutch” does not indicate a connection to the Netherlands, but is instead a misnomer for “Deutsch,” the German word for “German.” Pennsylvania Dutch is actually a mix of several different German dialects, as well as American English. After the second World War, the dialect was almost completely discontinued, except by traditionalist religions. For example, if you ever hear Amish or Mennonite groups conversing (which I often do because the train I take to visit my mom goes right through Indiana’s Amish country), you will still hear this dialect spoken.

While I couldn’t find any in-depth history on the origins, the recipe has been made in Pennsylvania Dutch communities for several generations and seems to have had a revival in the 1950s and 60s, with home bakers often substituting the chocolate out for things like caramel, or… orange sauce… That was such a weird period for food. I guess caramel doesn’t sound half bad.

Onto the cake! Er, pie! Cake pie!

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Funny Cake Pie

Pennsylvania Dutch Chocolate Funny Cake
Slightly altered from the recipe on the Maple Springs Farm website.

Funny Cake Pie Ingredients:
For Cake:
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla

For Chocolate Sauce:
1/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp, sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup water, warm
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp espresso powder, optional

Funny Cake Pie Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For the pie crust, you either use a 9-inch store-bought pie shell, or, if you would like to make your pie shell from scratch, I like this recipe from Epicurious. (Note: their recipe is enough for two pie shells, and you will only need one.)

In a small bowl, or large measuring cup, combine sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla, and espresso powder (optional). Slowly stir in the warm water until everything is dissolved. If still warm, allow to cool.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, beat together the sugar and oil with a hand mixer. The mixture will still be quite dry at this point. Add in one egg at a time, beating to completely mix before adding the second egg. Add in the milk and vanilla, and beat until everything is consistently combined.

Slowly add the flour mixture, about 1/2 cup at a time, beating with a hand mixer in between additions, only mixing until the threads of flour disappear. Continue until flour mixture is gone.

Pour the cake batter mixture into the pie crust. Then pour the chocolate sauce over the top of the cake batter.

Bake for approximately an hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Allow to cool slightly. Cake can be served warm or at room temperature.

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I really didn’t know what to expect. My first concern was that the cake would cook faster than the pie crust, leaving me with raw dough under the cake. That didn’t happen though. Somehow, both cake and shell cooked perfectly together. The cake was slightly dense in texture, much like a pound cake, and not overly sweet. The chocolate layer was just sweet and moist enough to balance out the carb layers sandwiching it. The best description I can give is something along the lines of chocolate-croissant-muffin? Perfection, really. It’s hard to believe that I’m only just discovering it, and that figuring out how to combine cake and pie was not, in fact, my life’s work up to this point. I’ve seen it mentioned that this cake is sometimes eaten for breakfast. So, I’m not saying you should go make it right now, but… what else are you doing?

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Save

Grapefruit Pudding Cake for Fannie Farmer’s Birthday

Fannie Farmer
(Source)

Fannie Merritt Farmer was born in Massachusetts on March 23, 1857, the oldest of four daughters. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Farmer’s family placed a premium on education and it was expected that she would go to college, rather than marry right after school. Unfortunately, at age 16, Farmer suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to walk. She would eventually regain the use of her legs, but would never have full function again. Instead of going to college, Farmer was looked after by her parents, and spent the time learning to cook.

At age 30, she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School, and spent the next 9 years excelling in the study of “domestic science,” as it was known. After graduating, she took a job as an assistant to the director, and in 1891 she became principal of the School.

What do we owe to this turn-of-the-century domestic scientist? Modern baking in the United States. Prior to Farmer’s work, baking instructions were conversational and inconsistent (when you see old recipes, you might notice that no baking temperatures are given, or “as much as you like” accompanies an important ingredient), but she developed the “level measurement” system that we all take for granted today. Critics said she was taking the art and creativity out of baking. However, standard measurements allowed for adjustments in standard, measured ways, and also allowed for recipes to be transmitted to the next generation, without anything being lost in translation. Recipes improve, multiply, flourish, all because bakers are now able speak the same language–thanks to Fannie Farmer, the so-called “Mother of Level Measurements.”

In 1896, Farmer published a cookbook, The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, full of recipes that used her level measuring system. Little was expected to come of the book, and at first only 3,000 copies were printed. Instead it became hugely popular, and extremely influential, so much so that it is still in print today, under a new, more accurate name: the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Years later, the book was updated by another amazing woman food writer, Marion Cunningham, who, in 1979, was hired to revise the Fannie Farmer Cookbook  for contemporary audiences.

Initially, my only goal was to bake a dessert from Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book to celebrate her 160th birthday. But skimming through the recipes I found online from the first edition were leaving me less than inspired. There were plenty of cakes, pies, desserts, and puddings. I love all those things, don’t get me wrong, but nothing was jumping off the page.

That’s when I stumbled onto a recipe for Lemon Pudding Cake, a Marion Cunningham recipe from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I have been so into pudding lately, of all sorts. I was not really a fan of snack packs as a child, but I did love the warm chocolate pudding that my mom made me as a child (I wrote about that here). Last fall, I wrote about a cornmeal-based “Indian pudding.” And just earlier this month, I made my friend Sarah’s grandmother’s bread pudding. Definitely a theme. I had lots of grapefruit on hand, but only a few lemons, so that’s what I used. You could also make this recipe with the traditional lemon. The recipe is exactly the same, just do not add salt and sub in 1/3 cup lemon juice for the the grapefruit and lemon juices in the recipe below.

Grapefruit Pudding Cake

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Grapefruit Pudding Cake
Slightly adapted from Lemon Pudding in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, by Marion Cunningham, 13th Edition

Grapefruit Pudding Cake Ingredients:
2 tbsp butter, softened
3/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 cup whole milk
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/3 cup grapefruit juice
1 tbsp grapefruit zest
1 1/2 tbsp flour
1/8 tsp salt

Grapefruit Pudding Cake Instructions:

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Add butter to a large dish. Beat for 30 seconds with a hand mixture until smooth. Gradually add all but 1 tbsp of sugar, mixing between each addition, until everything is incorporated and very smooth.

Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, beating between each egg yolk addition until fully incorporated.

Add in the milk, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, zest, flour. Beat just until everything looks well incorporated and uniform. The mixture will be foamy.

In a separate bowl, use a hand beater to beat the egg whites until they turn just white and begin to combine. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tbsp sugar. Continue beating for a few seconds until soft peaks form. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to gently fold the mixture into the egg yolk batter. Continue to fold until the the mixture is uniform, then stop immediately. Your batter will look lumpy and foamy.

In at least a 2-inch deep baking pan, place your empty 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Pour hot water into the baking pan, around, but not into, the baking dish. Pour enough water so that it fills about halfway up the side of the baking dish.

Pour your cake batter into the baking dish and slide into the oven.

Bake for 50-60 minutes, being sure to not let it get too brown. It should be light and golden. Keep an eye on it, but try not to open the oven door often.

This dish can be served after it has just cooled, or it can be served chilled.

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What you have when you remove it from the oven is a sponge cake floating over a delicious grapefruit custard. This might very well be my dream dessert. In one dish! It’s magic. I can’t wait to try it with another fruit juice, or chocolate. It’s a fantastic recipe to celebrate an amazing lady. Happy birthday, Fannie!

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