Thursday, February 11, 2016

Another Layer of Love at the Very End

My Granna died on Tuesday.  Valentine's Day would have been her 89th birthday.

She began to suffer from congestive heart failure on January 31.  I was thankful to have received a call from my Uncle Randy after the nursing home contacted him that day.  I was blessed to have a husband who encouraged me to stay by her side for the last nine days of her life.  Keith even booked a hotel room for me in Thomaston (over my protestations about the budget and being absent from our home) so that I wouldn't have to drive long hours.  I was able to stay there, close-by, in case the nurses called with a change in Granna's condition during the night.

It is said that when you are born, you have your mother there to help you along; but that everyone dies alone.   That is certainly true.

Granna breathed her last while I was on the five-minute drive from the hotel to her nursing home.  But all of those days that she fought, I was beside her if she was scared or sad or hurting.
I come from strong and determined stock.  When she was born in 1927, she only weighed 2.5 pounds.  Her parents were afraid she wouldn't live the night, but they swaddled her up, placed her in a shoe box on top of their dresser, and prayed.

Growing up in the Depression, she walked to her country schoolhouse with nothing but a handful of parched corn or a piece of corn pone in her lunch pail.  But, she developed a love of learning that led her to a college degree, a career as a medical records technician,  and her passions for oil painting, photography and horticulture.

She expanded the universe of experiences for all of us in her family.  She touched all who knew her with her grace.

I baked two cakes today; a Five-Flavor Pound Cake (September 7) and a Chocolate Sour Cream Bundt (January 31).  I am taking them to the staff of the nursing home on my way down to Warm Springs tomorrow for the funeral.   I appreciate the care and affection they showed my grandmother, and their forgiveness each time I took some Saturday Cake to her without enough to go around.

I will be taking some time off from the blog to let all of the flavors of the last fifteen months sink-in.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

2015 Re-Bake and the Recipe for my New Year

Yesterday, I thought for quite a while about resolutions.  The Cake on Saturday resolution of the past year has changed my life.

Many of the recipes that had been bookmarked-but-languishing on my shelves of classic cookbooks became part of this weekly experiment.  The most successful attempts:  Victoria Sponge Sandwich, Cherry Cake, Mace Cake, Feud Cake, Mexican Chocolate Cake (which I will add to my repertoire as a cupcake recipe), Queen of Sheba, Pecan Molasses Bundt Cake with Bourbon Glaze, Basil Pound Cake, Chocolate Ganache Frosting (July 4), Five-Flavor Cake, Hummingbird Cake, Sweet Autumn Cake (without all the crumbs, caramel and nuts on top), Myer's Rum Cake, frosting from Peanut Butter Cake Supreme, and The Chocoholic.

Early on, I was worried about finding the time to bake each week.  But, I was surprised to find that with each Saturday's adventure, it became easier and easier to make time.  I found comfort in making family recipes just because it was a Saturday and not relegating them only to "special occasions."  I came to grips with repeat fiascoes in the form of my burnt-sugar-nemesis, Caramel Cake.  As a result, I also discovered that my husband's encouragement and an Allgood pitch out of the back door can allow me to move-on from, possibly, any failure.  

Best of all, I have had the opportunity to share my false steps and triumphs with Granna each week when I took her a slice of Saturday cake on my visits to the nursing home.  
She's the one who got this whole thing stirred-up in the first place!

Now, what will I do with my Saturdays in the New Year?

Friday, January 1, 2016

Bitter Ending to a Year of Sweet Cakes

Over Christmas weekend, Granna had another stroke.

Unfortunately, I am not the family member who gets the emergency calls from her nursing home.  My father didn't notify me of her stroke for several days, and then it was via text message.  My father and I are not close and perhaps that is why he neglected to tell me immediately.  But honestly, this just reminds me of why I don't have a close relationship with him.

I went to visit her yesterday.  I spoke to the nurses and other care providers who explained why they were legally unable to call anyone but my father when the stroke happened.  They gave me more details about Granna's condition and her prospects for recovery.  I then sought-out Granna in the cafeteria where she was slumped in her wheelchair being spoon-fed her lunch.  She was happy to see me.  The result of this stroke is paralysis of her left side.  Her speech is slow now, and requires more concentration and effort on her part.  Her face is slightly slack in appearance and she has trouble chewing and swallowing.

She is no longer able to eat solid foods like cake.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

December 26: Japanese Fruit Cake

Japanese Fruit Cake is the traditional Christmas cake for my mother's side of the family, though it is not a fruitcake.  Come to think of it, I am not even sure why it is claimed to be Japanese.  But I won't question tradition because it is absolutely one of my favorite cakes; spicy, buttery, fruity and rich.  I don't remember celebrating a Christmas without it.  I even have a Japanese Fruit Pie recipe, containing all of the same fruits and flavors, that is nearly as good.

The cake contains two layers of plain butter (1-2-3-4) cake alternated with two layers of spice cake containing allspice, cinnamon, cloves and raisins "chopped fine."  In between the layers is a lemon and coconut filling which requires natural coconut.

Alternating layers with filling
The recipe calls for "1 good-sized cocoanut, grated."  Natural coconut is perfect because it is not pre-sweetened like commercial, flaked coconut, so the filling is not overly sweet.  However, opening a coconut, peeling, then grating the meat is a chore.  There were a couple of years in the 1990s when Mom and I couldn't find nary a coconut in the grocery stores...

One year, we had to buy three coconuts in three different trips to three different stores.  First, we searched several stores, finding no coconuts.  Then, each time we found one that sounded good, i.e. heavy and sounding sloshy-full of coconut water, we took it home, cracked it, and found the meat moldy, smelly or both.  That year we gave up and bought flaked coconut and were able to finish the cake in time for Christmas.  The next year the same thing happened on our first attempt to find a suitable coconut, so we gave-in to the flaked stuff and cut our losses.  Ever since then, the prospect of buying a coconut at Christmas becomes a catalyst for much well-wishing, many prayers, and crossed fingers.

These days, I think that more people cook with natural coconut.  Plus, I live in an area of town with a large Asian community, so I was pretty confident in my ability to find a decent specimen.  I found one at my neighborhood grocery on my first attempt and it turned out to be a winner.  The way Mama Judy cracked a coconut was to drive an ice pick into two or three of the eyes of the coconut to poke holes to the center, and then turn it eyes-down on a glass and leave it to drain.  Keith had his drill in the house for another job, so with a clean drill bit we created the holes.   No stabbing required.  I then placed the drained coconut in a hot oven (about 400 degrees) and checked on it every few minutes.  The heat caused the cocoa-brown hard shell to crack.  After removing the shell, the thin brown inner shell could be removed with a vegetable peeler revealing the gorgeous white nut meat.

In most cases the nut meat cracks along with the outer casing, but this time, it came out whole like a big, sweet, oily pearl.  I stood back and looked at it for a few minutes; it seemed almost a shame to cut it up and grate it.  Although, maybe I was just dreading the grating.

There is nothing more dangerous to the skin on one's knuckles than having to grate coconut.  The grating was always one of my jobs during the cake baking when I was little.  This kid greased the pans with butter, cut the wax paper circles for the bottoms of the pans, dredged the raisins with flour, and grated the coconut.  I grew up with both a respect and a fear of the box grater.  If the cakes hadn't always been such a delicious reward for the dangerous work, I might have been terrified by the grater into adulthood.

It has been years since I have made a Japanese Fruit Cake on my own.  Mom usually makes it at her home and brings it over on Christmas day.  When my mom gave me a copy of Southern Cooking by Mrs. Dull for Christmas 1989, she had written helpful advice on page 231, the Japanese Fruit Cake recipe.  Her notations told me how long to bake the cakes, how much juice a lemon is expected to yield, and how to tell when the filling is the right consistency.  Mom always used the filling as the frosting on the outside of the cake.  I made the filling according to Mrs. Dull, but I ended up with only enough filling to go between the layers.  Mom had forgotten to note in my book that the recipe needed doubling.  I didn't have another coconut prepared to make more filling at the last minute.

Mrs. Dull's recipe instructed to cover the cake with white icing.  Seven minute frosting would be too sweet, and I knew that Autumn liked the spice cake layers with Universal White Frosting.  The Universal White Frosting recipe is from Stressed is Just Desserts Spelled Backwards by Sheryl Meddin and Bennett Frisch (see Myers's Rum Cake, November 7).  It is an amalgam of buttercream and cream cheese frostings and it goes very well with any spice cake.

So, my resulting cake was pretty and delicious, but not exactly the exotic, fruity traditional Christmas cake covered in fruit filling that we always have.  Maybe not a groundbreaking new tradition, but it was a festive Saturday Cake for Boxing Day.  I wrote a note in my cookbook to double the filling recipe and put the grater safely back in the cabinet without incident.

Next Saturday: A Review of a Year of Saturday Cakes

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

December 21: My Gluten-Free Pound Cake

It continues to be a week of baking here!  We visited Columbia friends and relations over the weekend, so I just got around to baking my Saturday Cake on Monday.  I chose my GF pound cake loaves to give one as a gift and to have a treat for myself.  I deserve a treat or two this time of year because Christmas means cookies, hundreds of cookies, boxes of cookies...

Our family gives boxes of homemade cookies to our neighbors, teachers, friends and coworkers every year.  This tradition evolved out of longstanding practices and fond remembrances of our childhood.  For me, Christmas has always meant time in the kitchen.  Mom and I always made a cake for Christmas Dinner.  On Christmas Eve, my parents and I would have a picnic on the floor under the Christmas tree and we were allowed to open one present at the picnic before heading to midnight mass.  The picnic was usually sandwiches or cold dishes like fruit, cheese and pâté.  Starting in middle school, I was the chef for Christmas Eve supper.  At first, I just selected and prepared the picnic fare.  But then I decided to go "gourmet" and pick a dish that I had never tried before.  I would make a list of ingredients and a game plan for the timing of the dinner, Mom would help me shop and then I did the rest.

Cookies for Teachers, 1981
Before Christmas Eve though, Mom and I baked gingerbread cookies.  We made dozens of gingerbread cookies to give as gifts and we kept some to serve at our picnic.  When I was a freshman in high school, I made ginger-caricatures of my teachers.  Each character cookie was about nine inches tall and was presented in a box on the last day before holiday break.

While in the Secret Service, I made gingerbread and other cookies to share on Christmas day for all of us working at the command post or duty desk.  After my shift on Christmas, I hosted an open house for friends, colleagues and neighbors who couldn't travel.  The open house tradition of sparkling wine, egg nog and finger foods on Christmas afternoon continued until I retired from the USSS.

When we were dating in 2005, I made gingerbread cookies for Keith and the kids.  He loved the cookies and said that the flavor reminded him of some cookies called "fruit bars" from the Eclair Bakery in the Five Points neighborhood of Columbia.  Keith used to make a special trip to that bakery for a box of fruit bars to bring home to Georgia every time he visited Columbia.  He shared the fruit bars with friends and coworkers and eventually he started buying a couple of extra boxes in order to keep some for himself.  The Eclair closed during the 1990s and ever since then, he has been wishing for more of his favorite cookies.

He described the fruit bars to me in comparison to our gingerbread; the spice is the same, but the bars tasted fruitier, and the bars weren't crisp like the gingerbread, they were cookie-like on the outside, but chewy in the center.  There was a color difference between the golden-brown outside (top and bottom) of the bar and the soft, dark inside layer.

I fell in love with Keith and his nostalgia for fruit bars.  So, I was determined to figure out how to make the fruit bars he remembered.  I started with Mom's gingerbread recipe and then added, subtracted, took notes, asked for critiques and practiced through seven iterations until I got it right.

Now, South Carolina Fruit Bars are the foundation of our holiday cookie assortment.  We usually make three or four different types of cookies or small cakes for the boxes.  Fruit bars start the list and get the most compliments from recipients.  We even have a few people every year who beg for the recipe, but Keith says he will never allow me to share it!

We made 55 boxes of cookies this year plus a few dozen extra of each type for ourselves.  Each box is loaded with cookies, tied with a bow and delivered by the family dressed in hats like Santa's elves during Christmas week.  For a friend with a gluten-intolerant spouse, I made the gluten-free pound cake and packed it in a box marked "gluten-free."  Then I put the usual assortment of cookies in a box for her and tagged it, "full-of-gluten."
Yes, there are 40 pounds of flour and 28 pounds of butter in that cart!

This year the boxes contained Shortbread Hearts from The Silver Palate Cookbook (1982),  Christmas Cookies (rich butter cookies with cherries on top from Southern Living), and Bourbon Pecan Balls from The White House Chef Cookbook (1968) by René Verdon.

Verdon was the French chef chosen for the White House by Jacqueline Kennedy, a decision which garnered her much criticism at the time.  Cousin Pat gave me the cookbook as a gift when I was hired by the USSS and the Bourbon Pecan Balls were always a favorite at my open houses.  Some years we make gingerbread boys and girls and Apple Spice Bread.  When Keith worked for Georgia Shakespeare, we made Gingerbards (a silhouette likeness of William, himself, crafted out of gingerbread and royal icing).

But, the most important occupants in every box are the fruit bars that won Keith's heart.

The last cake of the year:  Japanese Fruit Cake

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

December 13: Sunday Night Cake

My Sunday Night Cake on my newly-acquired, antique Dutch Kitchen (Hoosier)
During the summer, I found Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Cookbook (1961) at an antique mall near Concord, North Carolina.  Keith and I had driven Colin to Davidson college for a three-week Duke TIP program.  Duke TIP is a summer program for high-achieving youth in seventh grade and up.  It is essentially a "nerd camp," as any alumnus (including our Ian or Autumn) will proudly tell you.  This was Colin's first year at Duke TIP and he selected a course in architecture.  He had a fantastic time and made friends  with whom he shares common interests.

One of those friends is having her Bat Mitzvah on this Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina and has invited Colin to the big bash.  Keith's parents live in Columbia, so it will be a great chance to visit them for the holidays while giving Colin a chance to party with his TIP-ster chums.  Since we have been watching all of the James Bond films lately Colin is pretty fascinated with how debonair Bond can be.  Colin has elected to strike a James Bond image and will be wearing a white dinner jacket ensemble to the party.

Amy Vanderbilt is best known for her Complete Book of Etiquette (1952).  This cookbook was a great find for a myriad of reasons, not the least being the illustrations by Andy Warhol.  Warhol started out as a commercial illustrator and lived by selling his pen-and-ink illustrations before his first gallery show.  He was well-known for his illustrations, some in ink, some colored, of shoes in advertisements.  He was also known for similar illustrations of cats and there is an urban-art-history legend that he and his mother owned more than forty cats and that every one was named Sam.

In the 1980's, Mom and I visited my grandfather, Blaine, in Cherokee North Carolina. We stayed at one of the classic, kitschy motels on the reservation, The Pink Motel.  In the coffee shop of the lobby hung an original Andy Warhol painting of Mick Jagger.  What was THAT doing THERE?  It is an absolute mystery.  I will never forget the day that Mom and I first saw it just hanging there in a roadside tourist motel.  Blaine made some inquiries to try to satisfy our curiosity and the only explanation he could divine was a story about the owner of the motel being given the painting in payment of a debt.

Less mystifying to me, yet still curious is the name, Sunday Night Cake.  I Googled the term and found that virtually any cake - chocolate, cinnamon, etc. - could bear the label.

Amy Vanderbilt's Sunday Night Cake is two layers of cake flavored with almond extract and sprinkled with cognac after baking.  Between the layers is an almond custard and the frosting is made from almond paste and egg whites.  I suspect that in the style of The Art of Cooking and Serving (see October 10, Molasses Cake), a cake on Sunday night would be for an "informal" dinner, possibly planned and prepared by the man of the house, for the purposes of entertaining drop-in guests.  In Ms.Vanderbilt's recipe for Chicken a la King she even specifies such a gathering.
These time-tested recipes fit into almost any menu from brunch to midnight supper.  I like them especially for Sunday-night supper or for an unplanned Sunday luncheon when I suddenly decide it would be fun to have guests. (pg. 179)

Is this delicious but complicated and time-consuming recipe what constitutes "informal ease" in the Vanderbilt home?  Perhaps it is just rude of me to ask.  I suppose that should consult and etiquette guide to find out.

I think it is a touch of irony that in Warhol's work of the 1960's and 70's that he is best known for elevating the familiar products (Coca-Cola, Campbell's Soup) found in every American home to the status of art.

Perhaps the Vanderbilts did eat canned soup and drink Cokes, too.  But judging from this cake, their Sunday nights were a lot more complicated and elegant than ours.

Next Weekend:  My Gluten-Free Pound Cake

Thursday, December 10, 2015

December 5 (well, 7th): The Chocoholic

I have a completely legitimate excuse for postponing my Saturday cake to Monday.

Wednesday, the 9th, was my son, Colin's fourteenth birthday and he chose this cake as his official birthday cake.

The Chocoholic as been on my list of cakes since early in the year.  The recipe is from Let Them Eat Cake: Classic, Decadent Desserts with Vegan, Gluten-Free and Healthy Variations by Gesine Bullock-Prado.  The cookbook was a Christmas present from my mom last year, and it is full of appealing recipes and beautiful photos of the desserts featured.  The best attribute of the book is that it provides a gluten-free version for each recipe; not just ingredient substitutions, but advice and tips to make a GF version turn out the same as the traditional.  I made Colin's Chocoholic using the basic recipe to try it out.  So that if it had turned out to be a disappointment, I could pinpoint the recipe as the problem, not the adjustments to make it GF.

 It was not, even remotely, a disappointment...

Although, the name of the cake has caused some chagrin in our family.  Keith and I have our own (some would say extensive) sets of grammatical pet peeves.  Please don't get me started on less-versus-fewer and why I won't shop at a grocery that has a "10 Items or Less" check-out line.  One of the burrs in Keith's language saddle is the attachment of "-aholic" to any word in a desire to note addiction or obsession.  "There is no such thing as shopahol or chocohol!" he rails. He feels the same way about "-gate" to denote a political scandal.  I love him so much!

Keith had a hard time finding fault with anything else on this cake.  And Colin has practically eaten the whole thing and it is only one day after his birthday.

The cake had three layers of delicious, dark chocolate cake, two layers of perfect chocolate mousse filling and it is covered all over with whipped chocolate ganache.  I am thrilled about how luxurious this cake is, how straightforward the directions in the recipe were and the fabulous potential for all of the gluten-free recipes in the book.

Colin has begged me to make The Chocoholic every week as my Saturday Cake in 2016.  I will take this under advisement, only if I can make the GF version.  The mousse and ganache tasted great, so I can't wait to try the whole thing.

This week, I am in serious-consideration-mode about what to write for Cake on Saturday in the new year; while a GF chocolate cake every week seems like a good idea now, I am afraid that I will become both bored and chubby in the process.

 Next Saturday (actually Sunday):  Sunday Night Cake