This cake is nothing that special.
Cakes come in fanciful forms, covered in fondant or whipped into submission with frosting and sprinkles. In tiers and towers, trembling at the weight of themselves, celebration cakes are meant to make you say oooooh.
Yesterday, in the car, Lu told me about a cake she ate at school, in her imagination. “We had chocolate cake with pink frosting, vanilla sprinkles, and pistachios. Cherries on top!” Now that sounds like a special cake.
(Maybe I should make that one soon.)
I cannot frost a cake beautifully to save my life. Every time I try, I have a field of crumbs festooned across the top of the frosting. Try as I might, I just cannot make a cake that would make you say oooooh. My cakes might make you say, “Slumpy.” Or, “Hm. That looks a little unfortunate.”
The taste, however? I can make a cake that will make your tastebuds hum along with the song that is tapping out its rhythm on your tongue.
In this way, this cake, adapted from Edna Lewis’ Busy Day cake, is something special indeed.
Do you know Edna Lewis? Oh please say you do. Her cookbooks inspire me every time I browse through the pages. Quietly, she wrote about the food of her youth, in Virginia, where everything was eaten seasonally, fresh, and organic long before those were labels in stores. The daughter of a freed slave, Edna Lewis became a chef in New York, a respected author, and one of the leading authorities on Southern cooking. Many times, when I am reading her books, I wish that I could sit on the front porch with her, talking, then move to the kitchen to make something together.
(This children’s book about Edna Lewis, Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie , is one of Lu’s favorites.)
Her food is deceptively simple. Full of flavor and complexity of tastes, Edna Lewis’s recipe seem easy enough to entice you into the kitchen. Danny and I have been talking about this a lot lately, especially as we are making our new cookbook. It’s easy to make food that impresses, with recipes involving exotic ingredients and seven separate steps. But the best meal is the one on the table.
We just spent the weekend with Pam Anderson and her daughters, Maggy and Sharon, along with her husband, David. This is an extraordinary family: loving, funny, connected, and capable of letting go of each other too. I’ll be sharing some of the stories of Big Summer Potluck soon. Right now, my head is too full with memories and revelations to put it into words. But I will say that one of the most joyful mornings I have ever spent was in the wide-open kitchen at Pam’s house Friday morning. There were five of us in there, chopping and mixing, cooking and stirring. Lu ran up and down the stairs, chased by Maggy or Sharon, laughing. We blasted Stevie Wonder while we worked. Feet moved in rhythm to “Sir Duke.” We sizzled red onions, sifted flours, chopped scallions, and seared chicken in a big roasting pan. We were together, talking, connected through the food, the music, the shared experience. I looked up at one moment to see the trees outside the enormous windows, looked around at these women and my husband working together, and tears welled up. How did I find myself in this incredible place?
It’s food. Making food led me here.
When you have a busy day, you don’t need a fancy cake. You just want a bite of something slightly sweet and wholesome, with a little fruit or whipped cream. You just want to sit at the table with people you love and talk about the day over cake.
This is that cake.
We’ve been thinking about cake a lot around here. After all, it’s birthday month in the Ahern house. Lu turned three two weeks ago (three!) and I worked on a moist chocolate cake for weeks before it felt right for her party at the playground. (It’s also a recipe for our upcoming cookbook, so I’m afraid I can’t share here.)
Danny’s birthday party took place in Central Park, at Strawberry Fields, the night we arrived in New York. It was a surprise party for him (I love seeing that happy shocked look on his face), so I couldn’t arrive with cake. Luckily, Maggy brought an incredible birthday cake from Tu Lu’s Gluten-Free Bakery. People, I have been to gluten-free bakeries across the country. Tu Lu’s is, by far, the best gluten-free bakery I have ever encountered. Run, don’t walk. Run there to work off the cupcakes you are bound to eat.
And Saturday is my birthday (45!), so there is bound to be more cake on that day.
We’ve also been thinking about cake because it’s time for another installment of the Gluten-Free Ratio Rally. In the past few months, we have made pancakes, quick breads, scones, and pasta. This is an incredible group of cooks and bakers, making food for their families and the rest of us. Together, we’ve been talking about ratios, sugar, flours, and how to make the best cakes. Go on over to Kate Chan’s blog, Gluten-Free Gobsmacked, for the entire lineup of cakes meant to delight and entice you into the kitchen to bake. They look amazing.
Here’s the good news about making gluten-free cake by ratio: it’s pretty much the same as a gluten cake by ratio. In fact, in many ways, we’re lucky we don’t have gluten when we make cake. Recipes for traditional cakes caution us to “mix until just combined. Don’t over-stir.” Do you know why? Because you have to worry about activating the gluten too much. In fact, many cake recipes call for cake flour, which is lower in gluten than traditional AP flour. However, without any gluten? You don’t have to worry. Mix and combine and beat that batter until it’s light and fluffy. There’s no gluten in it.
What matters more in cakes than the gluten is the technique. Cream the butter and sugar together well, for quite awhile, until they are so well combined that the mixture contains air bubbles. It’s these pockets of air that will help to build the structure of the cake. Use room temperature butter, rather than cold butter or butter that has sat out on the counter so long it has taken on a shiny softness.
You might have seen that cake recipes request that you add your eggs one at a time, beating between each addition. I picked up a trick from Sarabeth Levine, whom I met in person last week (and I am still agog). In her wonderful book, Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours, she wrote: “When adding eggs, take care that they are not added too quickly, or the creamed mixture will look curdles. After all, a cake batter is an emulsified mixture, and if one ingredient is added more quickly than another, the batter will ‘break.’ Many cookbooks say to add the eggs to the creamed butter and sugar one egg at a time, but even that seemingly small amount could cause curdling. For the best results, beat the eggs together. With the mixer running, add the beaten eggs about 1 tablespoon at a time to the creamed mixture.”
I started that practice with this Busy Day cake and I am going to keep doing it from now on. It made for a perfect crumb.
The traditional ratio for a sponge cake is 1:1:1:1 (1 part eggs, 1 part sugar, 1 part flour, 1 part butter). This ratio makes for that super-moist cake we like so much, such as the chocolate cake we made for Lu’s birthday. If you want to make a cake by ratio, all you have to do is cream together 8 ounces of butter and 8 ounces of sugar, then add 8 ounces of eggs, and 8 ounces of flour, along with the rest of the ingredients such as baking powder, salt, and vanilla extract.
This cake is a little different, however. It’s a little more flour, a little less butter, fewer eggs. This makes it a slightly drier cake than the super-moist cakes we associate with birthdays. It also means it’s an everyday cake, with not as much butter.
That’s the thing about baking by ratios. It’s just like learning grammar — study the rules, follow them for a time, and then make them your own. When you are confident in what you are doing, you can play.
That’s what Edna Lewis did, when she stood in the kitchen, creaming eggs and sugar together to make this cake. She played until it felt like the cake she wanted to serve.
You can make gluten-free cakes your own too.
Edna Lewis Busy-Day Cake, adapted from The Taste of Country Cooking
This cake is meant for baking. It wants to be made and sit on your counter for days as you nibble. It’s so easy to throw together that it would be a shame to not make it happy.
Here are a few notes for you. I’m sure that Miss Lewis didn’t have a stand mixer and made this by hand. If you’re without stand mixer, by all means use a rubber spatula and your biceps, or a hand mixer if you have one.
Since this is the kind of cake we’re going to be making often, we made this with our whole-grains mix. This makes it sort of wholesome brown, a little more dense than if you made it with our AP mix (or your favorite mix). Feel free to switch in the flours that work for you. Just be sure to use the same amount of grams — 280 — that you see here.
The plainspoken taste of this cake means you can play with the flavors a bit, if you want. The original cake had vanilla extract and nutmeg. I made ours with almond extract and a big pinch of cardamom. You could easily add lemon zest and poppyseeds or blueberry extract and thyme. Play with it. You’ll be making this cake again and again.
280 grams whole-grain flour mix
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
big pinch cardamom
115 grams (1 US stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups organic cane sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature, beaten together
½ teaspoon almond extract
½ cup whole milk, at room temperature
Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 375°. Grease a 9” springform pan with butter or cooking spray.
Combining the dry ingredients. Combine the whole-grain flour, the baking powder, salt, and cardamom. Set aside.
Starting the batter. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. Spoon the beaten eggs into the mixer, while it is running, 1 tablespoon at a time, pausing between each spoonful to beat the batter well. Add the almond extract and mix.
Finishing the batter. With the stand mixer running, add about 1/3 of the flour mixture to the batter, beating on low until the flour is incorporated fully. Add ½ of the milk and beat the batter. Continue alternating the flour with the milk, beating the batter after each addition. When you have finished, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Then, let the mixer run, beating the batter until it is light and fluffy. (You don’t have to worry about the gluten!)
Baking the cake. Using the rubber spatula, scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Spread it evenly over the top. Slide the cake into the oven and bake it until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. (The top can brown quickly, as this one did, so you might want to carefully open the oven after 20 minutes and slip a large piece of aluminum foil over the top of the cake.)
Allow the cake to cool for at least 15 minutes before you release it from the pan. Serve warm, plain, or topped with fruit syrup or crème fraiche.