A Harte Appetite: Cakes

Sep 3, 2018

Rose Levy Beranbaum, in her book, “The Pie and Pastry Bible,” a volume which I’ve read religiously, says, “There are two kinds of people: cake people and pie people.”

All my life I’ve believed I’m in the second category. I even served once as a judge at the National Pie Championships sponsored by the American Pie Council, of which I was a charter member.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve always regarded cake as little more than a delivery system for frosting. Recently, however, I came across Anne Byrn’s latest book, about cake, and while I’m still firmly in the pie person category, I’ve begun to question my life-long prejudice against cake.

The book is “American Cake” and it’s a beautiful compendium not just of recipes, but of cake lore. Browse through it and you’ll start to appreciate why cakes are an icon of American culture and, more than any other dessert, synonymous with celebrations.

Byrn begins her cake walk by examining how much has changed since the first American cakes were baked. Cakes were a lot harder to bake in early America given that flour was less refined, eggs were more varied in size, and granulated sugar and baking powder had not yet been invented. Ovens were crude and without thermostats. You checked the temperature of a wood-fired oven by putting your hand in it and counting to twenty. And no one had a KitchenAid to do the labor, which was significant. Cakes really aren’t easy as pie.

Cake making and cakes themselves have come a long way since then and Byrn chronicles the development from the first American cakes, which weren’t particularly sweet, frosted, or showy to the cakes of the new millennium, which often are all three. Along the way she introduces us to cakes we might not be familiar with, like Missouri Moonshine Cake. However, whether it’s Classic Pound Cake or decadent Tunnel of Fudge Cake, the most important ingredient, according to Byrn, is American spirit.

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Chocolate Stout Cake

This cake is so named not because excessive consumption of it will make you stout—though, with a pound of butter, a pound of chocolate, and almost two pounds of sugar, it will—but because it calls for stout, a dark brew like Ireland’s Guinness. Originated by Chef Odille Carpenter of the Barrington Brewery in Massachusetts, this recipe is adapted (I call for extra frosting) from Anne Byrn’s version in “American Cake.”

2 cups Guinness beer

1 pound butter

1 and ½ cups cocoa powder

4 cups flour

4 cups sugar

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 and ½ teaspoons salt

4 eggs

1 and 1/3 cups sour cream

1 and ½ cups plus 6 tablespoons heavy cream

1 and ¼ pounds bittersweet chocolate

Stir Guinness and butter over medium heat until butter melts. Whisk in cocoa powder until smooth. Let cool. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Using an electric mixer on medium speed blend eggs and sour cream until just combined, about one minute. Add butter/chocolate mixture and blend just until combined. Fold in flour mixture. Pour batter into three 8-inch round cake pans which have been greased and floured and bake at 350 degrees until tops spring back when lightly pressed, about 30-35 minutes. Cool 10 minutes and remove from pans. Let cool completely. Heat cream and chocolate until smooth. Cool until spreadable. Frost and fill cake.