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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Grandmother's Pound Cake

There is a recipe in mother's recipe book, called Grandmother's Pound Cake, that she's had ever since I can remember.  My mother's recipe book is a three-ring binder filled to bursting with hand-written recipes, pages from magazines, and recipes cut out from food packages; and this recipe is one of the most used.  Having recently lost my grandma, I was moved to look to the simple things that give me comfort.  This pound cake recipe is one of them, and the idea that it is a family recipe makes it all the more special.  The ingredient list is simple, and the taste is heavenly.  But I can't help but wonder who developed this magical, wonderful pound cake.  Which of my mother's grandmothers could be the one for which this recipe is named?

It could be Martha's.  Martha was my mother's mother's mother, and she was reportedly a vivacious and generous woman.  I only remember one picture of her that was always hanging in my grandma's house--the warmth of Martha's face was striking and will always stay with me.  She and my great-grandfather were quite lively and would act in local theatrical shows.  Unfortunately, she died young, leaving behind her husband and three little girls. 

The recipe could be Irene's.  Irene was Martha's cousin.  As Martha lay dying, her death wish (back then, my Polish ancestors believed very strongly that a wish made on the deathbed had to be fulfilled) was that her cousin Irene move to America, marry my great-grandfather, and raise their three girls as her own.  Moving to a new country is a daunting task.  Marrying a stranger and becoming an instant mother would have to be unthinkably difficult.  To do them both would have to be difficult beyond my wildest imagination.  But Irene did it without complaint.  She came to America, married my great-grandfather, became a mother to his three girls, and eventually had two more boys of her own.  She was a strong and determined woman. 

The recipe could be Amelia's, my mother's father's mother.  My grandfather's family was apparently an interesting group (my great uncle Ted even joined the circus for a while), and Amelia was loved by all who knew her.  When my mother took a summer job at the same thermometer factory where Amelia had worked, she was treated like a superstar simply because she was Amelia's granddaughter.

I like to imagine one of these woman wearing a home-sewn apron pulling a loaf of her special pound cake out of the oven to a chorus of family "ooh"s and "ah"s.  I imagine it like something out of a Hallmark movie.  In a quaint kitchen with old-fashioned lace curtains, a loving family eagerly awaits warm slices of delicious pound cake.  They're all smiling and laughing, taking their pound cake with coffee, tea or milk, not even realizing that this recipe would be beloved for generations.

Grandmother's Pound Cake is one of those recipes where simplicity is key.  There is no lemon flavor, no chocolate chips, and no sugar glaze.  It is perfectly wonderful just the way it is.  Even though we sometimes serve it with fruit and whipped cream, making it a delightful dessert, there is nothing like this pound cake without any adornment.  I love how the crust becomes golden brown and slightly crispy while the inside is so moist it melts in your mouth.  Whenever I have it I think of all those times in my childhood when my mother would have a pound cake wrapped in wax paper on the counter.  I would spot it as soon as I got home from school and help myself to a large uneven slice.  I remember sitting at the table at night before bed, having pound cake for dessert.  After having inhaled my slice, I would sit with my mom while she daintily ate hers with a cup of tea. It was pure happiness.  It still is.

Upon asking my mother a day ago exactly which of my great-grandmothers is to thank for this recipe, she told me she got it from her friend, Nancy.  So, as it turns out, none of my great-grandmothers had anything to do with this recipe.  Grandmother's Pound Cake was a creation of someone else's grandmother.

Nevertheless, this wonderful pound cake certainly is a family recipe now.  My mother passed it down to me and, hopefully, when I pass it along to my kids, someday, it will be Grammy Suz's Pound Cake.  Even though it wasn't Martha's, Irene's or Amelia's, it is definitely worthy of them, and I'm sure they would have loved it.  Some recipes are too good to be kept a family secret, and so I give to you one of my most cherished recipes, and I hope you pass it along as well. 

Grandmother's Pound Cake

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 2/3 cups sugar
5 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups cake flour (In the past, I've used all-purpose flour in a pinch and it works out fine.)
1/2 teaspoon salt

Grease and flour one 9 x 5 or two smaller loaf pans.  Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy.  Beat in the eggs one at a time.  Beat in vanilla.  Fold in cake flour and salt.

Bake at 300 degrees for 1 1/2 hours for large pan and 1 1/4 hours for small pans.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Coconut Cake for Mom

My mother's taste in sweets is quite different from mine.  While I love to try as many new-fangled recipes that I can, my mother sticks with the well-worn, butter-stained recipes from her cookbook.  While my idea of heaven would be some sort of cookie-dough, Oreo, ultra-chocolately brownie delight with a dangerous dark chocolate frosting, my mother's idea of heaven is a simple slice of Grandmother's Pound Cake--no lemon flavoring, no frosting, no chocolate chips.  (Actually, her idea of heaven is a perfect pear or a sweet orange, but where's the fun in that?) Even our ideas of the perfect portion size are different.  I go for a huge slice of cake and can usually polish it off in five seconds or less.  (And later on, when no one's paying attention, I'll sneak a second slice!)  But Mom always asks for a sliver of cake.  (And it kills me when she occassionally doesn't even finish that!)  And so, baking for Mom is both gratifying (I have to admit that Grandmother's Pound Cake is pretty wonderful) and frustrating (how could anybody not like Oreo cookie dough brownies?).  But after months of baking, I have finally found an item sure to please Mom's tastes, this adorable 6-inch coconut cake.

I love making cakes and have piles of recipes desperate to be tried, but waiting for an opportunity to make an entire cake is not easy.  And making a whole cake just to test a recipe seems like a waste. And then it appeared.  The 6-inch cake pan.  And I fell in love.  Yes!  Now I can a make a half recipe of cake for a 6-inch double layer cake.  It's sweet.  It's petite.  It's the 6-inch cake!  I knew my mom would love this.  She did, and the 6-inch cake has become something of a rock star.

But what do you make for a woman who already has her favorite recipes?  The answer came when we were having lunch at a bakery and Mom spotted a slice of coconut cake that looked yummy.  I immediately announced I would make a coconut cake for her.  My first attempt was a vanilla cake and vanilla frosting topped with shredded coconut.  We all liked it, but it was not coconutty enough.  My second attempt was a yellow cake recipe from Shirley Corriher with one of our family favorite frosting recipes, Brides Frosting, which I altered by adding imitation coconut extract and mixing in some shredded coconut, in addition to the shredded coconut sprinkled on top.  Mom loved it, but I wanted an even lighter frosting.  And so, Shirley's yellow cake recipe with Seven Minute Coconut Frosting fit the bill perfectly.

I am going to post the recipe for a full-size cake, with the half recipe measurements that I used for Mom's 6-inch cake at the bottom.  My half recipes contain seemingly impossible measurements, such as one and a half eggs. You may be thinking, "She nuts.  How do you split an egg?"  The answer is easy.  I lightly beat one egg into a small bowl and eyeball half.  It's not scientific, but it works for me.  Or you could use a smallish-looking egg.  But even if you just round up to the nearest egg and use normal size eggs, it'll probably come out fine.  

And so, for you coconut fans out there.  Here it is: Coconut Cake ala Mary.

Shirley Corriher's Magnificent Moist Golden Cake

Adapted from Bakewise by Shirley Corriher

(Mary's note:  In Bakewise, Shirley gives three different methods of making this cake.  The one I am using is the Two-Stage Method.)

Makes 2 9-inch cake layers or two dozen cupcakes

2 large eggs, at room temperature
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/3 cup buttermilk, divided
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups cake flour, spooned and leveled
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup canola oil
1/2 cup heavy cream

1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Place a mixing bowl in the freezer.

2.  Spray 2 9-inch round cake pans with non-stick cooking spray and line bottoms with parchment circles.

3.  Stir the eggs, yolks, and about half of the buttermilk and the vanilla together in a medium bowl.

4.  Mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Add the butter, oil and the remaining buttermilk.  Mix on low to moisten the dry ingredients, then increase to medium speed and beat 1 1/2 minutes.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl.  Add one-third of the egg mixture and beat for 20 seconds.  Repeat, adding thirds until all the egg mixture is incorporated.  Scrape down the sides with each addition.

5.  In the cold bowl from the freezer, whip the cream until soft peaks form when the beater is lifted.  Beat just a little beyond this soft peak stage.  Stir about one-quarter of the whipped cream into the batter to lighten it.  Then fold the rest of of the whipped cream into the batter.

6.  Pour the batter into the prepared pans.  Drop the pans onto the counter from a height of 4 inches to knock out the bubbles.  Place the cake in the oven and bake until the center springs back when touched or a toothpick inserts in the center comes out clean but moist, about 40 minutes.  Ideally the cake should not pull away from the sides until it has just come out of the oven.  The center should be about 209F if you check by inserting an instant-read thermometer.  (I don't have one of these.  The touch-test works for me.)

7.  Place cake on the pan on a rack to cool, about 10 minutes, then loosen the cake before inverting onto the rack to finish cooling.  Peel off the parchment.  Cool completely before icing.

7-Minute Coconut Frosting
(Mary's note: I know this frosting actually takes about 11 minutes, but Seven-Minute Frosting is a widely used type of frosting, and I guess some cooks can get it done in 7 minutes. But take your time; it's not a race.) 

3 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp coconut extract
2 - 4 cups shredded coconut

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using a handheld whisk, beat together the egg whites, sugar, water and cream of tartar just until combined, about 30 seconds. Place the bowl over but not touching simmering water in a saucepan and whisk until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot, 3 to 4 minutes.  (Mary's note:  To check if sugar is fully dissolved rub a little of the mixture between your thumb and forefinger.  If it feels grainy, then the sugar is not dissolved.  It it feels smooth, the sugar is dissolved--this also means that the eggs have reached the temperature required to kill any bacteria, so they are safe to eat.)

Set the bowl on the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat on medium speed for 3 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat until the outside of the bowl is cool and stiff peaks form 5 to 7 minutes more. Using a rubber spatula, fold in anywhere from 1 to 2 cups of shredded coconut (based on your preference) until just incorporated.

After frosting cake, sprinkle top and sides of cake with remaining shredded coconut.

Mary's half-recipe measurements for 2 6-inch layers:

Magnificent Moist Golden Cake Half Recipe:

1 large egg
1 1/2 large egg yolks (I know, half a egg yolk is weird.  See my non-scientific method of splitting an egg above.)   
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons of cake flour 3/4 cup sugar
3/4 + 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons canola oil
1/4 cup heavy cream

Follow directions as written above.  Start checking for doneness when you can smell the cake in the oven, about 20 minutes.

7 Minute Coconut Frosting Half Recipe

1 1/2 large egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon coconut extract
1 - 2 cups shredded coconut

Follow directions above, folding in 1/2 to 1 cup of shredded coconut into the frosting.