When I first heard the subject of this edition of Is My Blog Burning, I immediately knew what my task would be. I needed to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the cake that my Grandma Liebezeit would buy each of us every year for our birthday. Or maybe it's only my imagination that we all had the same cake: my sister was born in December and my brother in February and the cake calls for fresh strawberries. No matter, in my mind, this remains the One Perfect Cake. Despite the fact that (obviously) chocolate cake is better than white...I always asked for this cake on my birthday.
Thompson's was my grandmother's favourite store in Park Ridge, IL. I don't think it's around any more, but it really was an institution in its day. It was a very large supermarket with very good produce, not part of a chain, made amazing rotisserie chickens and of course...the Cake.
I wrote my brother and sister last week to ask for their memories of the cake, to help me reproduce it. They didn't write back. So we are relying on my childhood dreams here. As I remember, the cake was layered - probably three layers. Between each of the layers was a filling of whipped cream and sliced fresh strawberries. The frosting on top of the cake was rich, thick butter cream. It was so rich it made your teeth ache. But the genius of the cake lay in the whipped cream and strawberry filling: I don't remember it being sweet at all (aside from the natural sweetness of the strawberries) and this is what saved the cake from being cloying.
Having been failed by my siblings (did I mention that?) I turned to a more reliable source for the Cake, my Fanny Farmer Cookbook. My sister recently mentioned that she got a copy of my mother's 1950's edition on ebay. So now there are only two of us in the running for my mother's copy...
Anyway, I have my 1980s edition, which is good (it includes tacos and other "exotic" foods) but not as good as my mother's (no chocolate oatmeal cookies recipe). I chose the recipe for Velvet Cake as the base for my Thompson's cake. The book says "This simple cake with its fine flavor and smooth, velvet texture is an old classic. It would be a good simple cake to fill and frost for a child's birthday." Just what the doctor ordered.
Velvet Cake (departures from original in parentheses)
1/4 lb (115g) butter
1 c (200g) sugar
4 eggs, separated
1.5 c (210 g) cake flour (as usual, I forgot and had to use normal unbleached)
1/2 c (1 dl - whatever this is) cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder (1 sachet levure chimique)
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Butter and lightly flour two 8" round cake pans. (I had to use roughly equivalent square ones.) Cream butter and slowly add the sugar, beating until light. Beat in the egg yolks and 1/2 cup cold water. (AUGHHH! FF did not mention this in the ingredients...panic as I wonder if I'm following two different recipes? No, all is well...) Combine the flour, cornstarch, salt and baking powder and add to the first mixture. (Too many dirty bowls are going to be involved in this project - dump the dry ingredients in with the butter/sugar/egg mix and stir well instead.) Beat egg whites separately until stiff, but not dry. Gently stir a third of the whites into the first mixture, then fold in the remaining whites. Spread the batter in the pans and bake for about 25 minutes, until a wooden toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pans for five minutes before turning out onto racks.
1 cup cream (I used crème fleurette, which did not beat as well as I hoped)
1.5 cups sliced fresh strawberries.
Beat the cream until nice and thick, or until your patience runs out. Spread half over the flat side of one of the cakes. Cover with strawberries. Spread the rest of the cream over the strawberries, and top with the second cake layer, flat side down.
1/4 lb (115g) soft butter
2 cups (one full container) confectioner's sugar
1/2 cup milk
a handful of ripe strawberries for coloring the piping
Mix the first three ingredients with a mixer and use most of the frosting to cover the top and sides of the cake. This is an engineering feat that I did not appreciate when I was a little tot. The cream and strawberries want to ooze out from between the layers, and butter cream frosting doesn't stick to either of them. Never mind, it's made with love and if it were perfect, no one would know you made it at home, right? I used mashed strawberries to color the remaining frosting, mainly because the red food coloring has inexplicably gone missing from my kitchen.
And the verdict? It was very, very good, if I say so myself. It wasn't QUITE as good as Thompson's, but it was in the right vein. I think next time I'll divide the batter in three layers and spread the same amount of filling between the cakes. This would certainly make the frosting less difficult to apply.