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2010, with a bang

4.January 2010

Bear with me, this is going to be a long one.

Another new year, and so many new projects I want to undertake. Being still in school, the January to January calendar doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. However, I like the chance at a second chance, midway through the academic year. As you may have noticed, I like taking stock and making grand plans – regardless of whether I live up to them or not.

This year, I find myself in an interesting position, both professionally and personally. In my work-life, I’m at the beginning of the big crazy research phase, and am in the process of hacking, warrior-like, into that hulking monolith of work. In my free time, I have finally harnessed some excess energy to be creative again. This is a welcome change and has both lifted my mood and given me a steady sense of accomplishment I haven’t had in a long time. To take nothing and make something beautiful of it is a particular kind of excitement. (If only I could muster that kind of excitement for my research!)And, as you all know, cooking holds a similar position in my life these days. I’ve become enamored of the ingredients, the subtle, but flexible chemistry of combining them to create fluffy, puffed, creamy, or dense textures. The play of spice against sweetness against salt and soft textures against crunchy ones. And this blog has gone from a hodge-podge of more or less private thoughts to a much more public exploration of the things that fire my passions. It’s been very exciting, making this little place grow and meeting a few of you readers as a result.Anyway, enough navel gazing.

This year, I’m going to try a few new things: I’m going to bring in more non-food photography. I may write about non-food things as well, if anything moves me to. On the food side, I’m going to look in some new directions. It turns out that I’m very very interested in heritage recipes – lost recipes, old recipes, recipes that aren’t written down. After all, I’m always plumbing my own personal history, looking for recipes, finding anecdotes that associate with whatever I’ve just cooked. Part of that impulse surely comes from a Proustian search for the half-remembered, but unnamed taste of something from childhood, but part of it comes from a more academic interest in things past. Anyway, I’ve started rather aggressively buying old cookbooks and while I was home I spend a few hours copying recipes out of the old church cookbooks (bless you, United Methodist Women everywhere).
The other thing I’m going to do this year is bake more. I’m mystified by the way in which flour, eggs, and butter come together and make so many different textures and flavors and shapes. As well as baking more regularly, I’m going to do a monthly cake feature with recipes new and old.

And the bang that I mentioned at the top was the first of the cakes: A Chocolate Little Layer Cake. I was inspired by the New York Times’s article a few weeks ago about cake culture in Alabama. While the writer’s style (as is so often the case with Yankee papers visiting the South) was a little condescending and leaning heavily on the exotic, the stuff of the article was very familiar and homey to me. I don’t come from The South (or at least not that far South), but I grew up surrounded by those ladies. Granted, in my particular corner of the not-south, they all had German names and maybe made more pies than cakes, but the competition, the battle for bragging rights, the preposterous quantities of baked goods, all hit quite close to home.

And coming, as I feel like I do, from that tradition, I am not to be outdone. So I baked the biggest and most ridiculous of those cakes, the 15 layer behemoth of the Little Layer Cake.It wasn’t easy. Oh, it wasn’t hard to make the batter (which was airy, fluffy, soft and beautiful – easily the nicest cake batter I’ve ever made), bake it (though juggling the hot pans was difficult), and make the icing (oh, it almost boiled over, but that doesn’t count), but assembling it (Those little layers are about 1/4 inch thick and fall apart if you LOOK at them, much less try to flip them out of the pan, move them, and ice them while they’re still warm.) to be anything better than hideous took time, nerve, and a little patchwork (ten layers in I had two major craters developing around the edges of the cake and I had to sacrifice a layer in order to patch them). The end result wasn’t beautiful, but it was delicious and intimidating enough to make its point. Do not mess with this baker, it growled from its cake stand, too precarious to shout. This baker has no fear. This baker will eat you for breakfast.I particularly recommend this recipe for gatherings of more than ten people. Otherwise you’ll have leftovers longer than you should. I should think it would also be good if you’re having a new Southern mother-in-law over to dinner or looking to deeply impress someone equally important. Or, you know, for a Tuesday, because this cake, as well as being over-the-top and showy, is delicious! The layers are spongy and not too sweet, while the icing sets up to be something resembling fudge. Slicing the cake produces a little cracking feeling not unlike cracking a creme brulee (although the icing is not nearly as strong as that caramelized crust) and I’ve found little that will parallel the joy of smooshing crumbs of the cake into the icing that cracks off onto the plate. Oh, yes, it’s a good cake.

Tips from my experience with this recipe, which I did not adapt at all.

  1. Do your best to spread the cake batter evenly on the bottom of your pans. It does not spread out and you will end up with holes in your layers if you miss spots. This becomes very difficult after you’ve baked one set of layers and your pans are hot.
  2. Use a bigger pot than you think you’ll need for the boiled icing. It expands when it’s boiling and has the potential for enormous mess.
  3. When assembling the layers, move quickly, with confidence, and try to line up the layers as precisely as you can.
  4. When icing the cake, be sure to completely coat all the layers. If you use too little icing, the layers won’t adhere properly and you’ll end up with big gaps around the edges.
  5. When icing the sides of the cake, the method I found most successful (as the edges are quite fragile) was to pour the icing over the top and drag the pools from the bottom up the sides. Don’t think that you’ll be able to spread icing around the sides. You won’t.
  6. Don’t worry about the number of layers you end up with. I ended up with 13 (I think), even though the recipe supposedly produced 12. The lady who provided the recipe ends up with 15. I don’t know how.

(Also, welcome to the new! We’re all official now! Update your bookmarks! Thanks for sticking with me!)

Other resolutions this year:

  • Project 365 – you can see what I’m up to every day over here.
  • Also, obviously, lose thirty pounds and make a million dollars.

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