Sunday, August 1, 2010
Butter the Size of an Egg: Inferring Blueberry Cake with Hard Sauce
I love to read old cookbooks. I've mentioned here before that I own a 1946 edition of The Joy of Cooking, which belonged to my grandmother, which I've used mainly for canning recipes and brownies. Those of you who have that book, will recognize its familiar format, which lists ingredients as they are called for in the recipe. However, styles, tastes and technologies change over the years, making following an old recipe a challenge to later cooks who have come to expect certain flavors and cooking methods. In times before supermarkets and industrial agriculture, people got their vegetables from home gardens or from local producers; people ate seasonally, so sometimes that meant they had a tremendous amount of something, zucchini, let's say, and had to invent clever ways to use it up, including canning it for eating in winter months. The availability of meat was also quite different. For example, chicken never used to come cut up the way it is now, so most recipes for it accounted for the whole chicken and the methods it takes to prepare it (removing gizzards, cutting through bones to separate into fryer pieces, etc.). And of course, cooking times and temperatures are a new invention -- when our grandmothers first cooked, their oven could not achieve the high temperatures our modern ovens can, and sometimes they couldn't even be sure of a consistent temperature, making cooking times a guestimate.
These issues are compounded when one reads not a published cookbook, but an old, personal recipe book. These books are written to suit the needs of the individuals who keep them -- they are not necessarily for anyone else's eyes. The powers of inference are required to discern what the cook means when she writes, "cook until done." Done? Done how? The writer knows what she means. She elides over details or completely ignores procedures if she considers them so basic to cooking that to describe them would be a waste of her time. Sometimes, there are no instructions, just a list of ingredients -- and those ingredients may or may not have quantities
given, or they are described instead of measured precisely. In the recipe that follows this essay,
the cake batter calls for "butter the size of an egg." You should have seen me in the kitchen with a stick of butter and an egg, thinking, "Now, were eggs the same size in the 30s as they are today?" We have come to rely on our culinary mathematics, as if it was some holy magic that needs to be prepared in just the right way or everything will fail. Well, some recipes are quite delicate, but consistency is in the relationship between the food and the cook. If a cook really knows her ingredients, she develops an instinct for combining elements for successful dishes.
My great-grandmother kept a day book in which she added her special recipes. The book is in pieces; the binding is completely broken, and the pages are stacked delicately atop each other like crepes. There is no organization to the arrangement, even though it's a day book (she apparently had no intention of adding recipes in on the days she used them). It's handwritten
and fading a bit, further compromising its readability. And just as I described above, many recipes do not have instructions -- no cooking temperatures or times, no directions for beating, mixing, frying, etc. If someone hasn't made a cake before -- several times before -- they will
likely panic to see a list of ingredients that ends with, "milk to make a batter,"* meaning, just add enough milk to make a batter. Assuming of course, that you know what is the correct consistency for a cake batter and what to do with it after you've achieved it.
In some ways, food blogs are reminiscent of the old, personal recipe books. Publishing our recipes and stories at will, we make up our own rules about what we write. And I have seen blogs that avoid giving "recipes" with measured ingredients and instructions; instead, they describe what the achieved product should look and taste like and list the ingredients and basic methods as it suits the story of their writing (See Marc Matsumoto's blog No Recipes). However, most
food bloggers do list quantities and instructions. We have come to rely upon them -- and since we are writing for an audience (unlike grandma), we assume the same about our readers.
Still, we live in an exciting time for all things food. Our wealth and industry have made it easy to get almost any ingredient from anywhere in the world. Food is a hobby for many. Restaurants have exploded in popularity as more and more people elect to eat out, developing a finer sense of what they like each time they do. And although our agricultural system is full of issues, many are mobilized to discuss those issues and call for change. Farmers' markets, CSAs, organic food, and the growth of sustainable farms and home gardens are all efforts deriving from high levels of
interest in food. I didn't even mention the Food Network, Create, and, of course, this and all the other food blogs out there that daily serve up tips, recipes and discussions for the food obsessed.
Yet, despite all of this, I wonder how much more exciting it would be to have lived and cooked in my great-grandmother's time. To live and eat seasonally -- and dependent on not only the weather and flukes of season (from blights to bumper crops) but also upon one's own skill. It's amazing to me how many people today survive without cooking themselves, constantly relying on others (and those others might be factory workers) to prepare their meals. This dubious luxury was not afforded in 1924, the year printed on the broken binding of Mrs. Osgood's day book. How easily we take it all for granted, the power to transform ingredients into food. And to be able to make it taste good, is that not an art? Despite all our current food obsessions, I wonder if we rightly respect this life skill for what it is -- an alchemical art, a form of magic upon which our most basic physical needs and desires depend.
I remember my grandmother made Blueberry Cake with Hard Sauce when I was a child. The
recipe comes from my great-grandmother's day book, which she handed off to her daughter-in-law (my grandmother) when she married my grandfather. I remember the cake was thick and dense with yummy blueberries and a sweet sugary glaze-like sauce on top. My mother especially makes a big deal about it.
It's blueberry season now. My parents have a camper up in Maine year round, and all around the back, blueberry bushes fill in the spaces between the manicured lawn areas and the wild woods that float behind and beyond. My mother came home with a bowl of berries a couple weeks ago and asked that I make the cake. I've made it twice now -- the second time making some improvements that I think are necessary for our "sophisticated" modern palates.
Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour a square cake pan.
Beat together into a batter:
* 3/4 c. sugar
* "butter the size of an egg" -- Think about it: back in the old days, butter was made in crocks -- it didn't come in sticks with measurements written on the paper. They probably scooped the butter out of the crock like ice cream; hence, the "size of an egg." I've measured this out to be about 3 1/2 tbs. Butter should be softened.
a whole egg and the yolk of another
* "2 cups reliable flour" -- My mother tells me that flour used to come with baking powder in it to make sure it would rise; hence, "reliable flour." All-purpose flour lacks this addition, so use 2 c. regular flour and add (as my grandmother suggests in between my great-grandmother's lines):
* 2 tsp. baking powder
* "spk. allpice" -- a speck of allspice
* a dash of salt (not in original, my addition)
* 1/2 tsp. lemon zest (optional)
* "milk to make a batter" (see above)
Once you have a batter, fold in:
* 1 cup blueberries, washed and floured (to prevent sinking to the bottom of the pan).
Then, pour into baking pan and bake for 40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool slightly and serve warm with hard sauce.
This recipe makes just enough hard sauce for the cake size above.
Beat together on high speed. In a stand-up mixer, it will take 3-6 minutes, but could take longer with a hand mixer:
1 stick butter (1/4 lb.), softened but still cool
1 1/2 c. sifted powdered sugar
1 tsp. good vanilla or 1/8 tsp. fiori di sicilia (really makes a difference, but vanilla is fine)
1/2 tsp. nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
You're looking for a consistency that is light and fluffy, but still thick enough to hold a shape. Then, very slowly add:
1/8 c. spiced rum, brandy or citrus juice
If not using the fiori or alcohol, you can add a bit of citrus zest.
This is the consistency you're looking for:
It's important to serve this sauce at room temperature, but remember that it is mostly butter and will spoil if left out too long. Refrigerate if you're not going to use it right away, but let it return to room temperature before you try to spread it, or it will "deflate."
This is really good on a hot dessert (traditionally, it is used on plum pudding); it melts partially, forming a buttery glaze while other parts still retain a whipped, frosting consistency.
Please note: in the picture below, I had used a different recipe for the hard sauce and hadn't quite mastered the consistency. I don't have a good picture of the "new" sauce on the cake -- that's why I provided the one above so you can see what it's really supposed to look like. Still, the picture below does show you a little of the melting effect. This sauce was made with cognac and orange zest.