Archive for the ‘Shirley’ Category

Shirley Pie


Before we tell you about the next phase of our Shirley Project, we need to congratulate Shirley on winning the annual James Beard Baking and Dessert award for the very book we’ve been using, her fabulous BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking (Scribner, 2008).  If you have even the slightest interest in baking, you should run right out and buy this book.  It’s warm, brainy, and full to the brim with insights and explanations that will transform your relationship with your oven.

Our project, the Shirley Project, is to cook every recipe in the book.

Responding to some grumbling about eating so many similar cakes in a row, we’ve decided that we’re going to cook every recipe in BakeWise, but not in book order.  We’ve done five different pound cakes, I did an angelfood cake, summer fruit season is at hand, both Margaret and I consider ourselves expert pie-makers, so onward and upward with pies it is.  (Margaret’s taking off the summer from 2 Takes, but she’ll certainly be making some pies, and I can interview her on her experiences.)

As I said, I do consider myself a pretty darned good pie-maker, but I know only one crust, and I just make that crust over and over.  I’m excited about learning more, and also about understanding what I already know in practice.

So the first pie I made is the first pie in the pie chapter, a fresh blueberry pie with a cookie-crumb crust and honey mascarpone whipped cream topping.

With cakes, I made the full-sized version first and then scaled it down;  I had so little experience of baking cakes that I was afraid my small versions would be travesties (although that proved not to be the case).  With pies, I feel confident about scaling back right from the beginning.

So I whipped out my favorite pie pan for making a pie just for Mark and me.  It’s a shallow 8″ Pyrex, and sure enough Pyrex doesn’t seem to be making it any more, so as soon as I finish this post I’m off to eBay to stock up.  I made 2/3 of the crust, 1/2 of the filling, and the whole recipe for the topping.  Not bad for a first try, but I’d make a little less of the crust next time.  We didn’t like the crumb crust as well as our regular flaky piedough, but it made a nice change, and my heavens how fast and easy crumb crust is.  I plan always to have some good cookies on hand so I can crush them and whip up a crumb crust on the spur of the moment.

Besides making my first crumb crust ever, I learned a wonderful new technique for making a glaze for uncooked fruit.  Like everybody else, I’ve always used a seedless jam as a glaze, but this time Shirley had me add a tiny bit of gelatin and cool the fruit off before I spooned it into the crust.  The gelatin made all the difference — the fruit was so much easier to handle, especially all those little blueberries that want to run away and be rambunctious.

And the topping!  Honey and mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) and whipped cream — ambrosial.  I made extra (in proportion to the rest of the pie) and so found out that it keeps perfectly.  Won’t go flat.

I was also quite surprised at how well the crumb crust held up.  The 8″ Pyrex pan makes six servings of a sweet pie for us (four of a savory pie), which gave us three days of desserts.  Day 2 the crust was a little soggy but not unpleasant, and day 3 was the same as day 2.

Before I close, I want you to follow this link and watch the Shirley video.  Smart, articulate, with bounteous good spirits, she’s a wonderful good lady.


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The Original


Before we leave the cakes at the beginning of our Shirley Project, I did want to try for once the original poundcake: a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, and a dozen eggs.  A dozen eggs or a pound of eggs?  Turns out they’re about the same if you mean old-fashioned medium-sized eggs.  For modern large eggs, a pound of eggs is more like 9 eggs.

So I made a Third of a Pound Cake:

   10 Tablespoons of butter
   5.25 oz of sugar
   5.25 oz of flour
   3 eggs

plus a pinch of salt.

I preheated my oven to 350°, put my pizza stone on a rack in the lower third of the oven, and greased a loaf pan.

I beat the butter and sugar in my stand mixer for a solid 10 minutes, trying to work as much air into the mixture as I could.  (Mighty arms those old bakers had.)

Then I added some of the flour and one egg and beat them till they were just mixed in; some more of the flour and the second egg, ditto; the end of the flour and the third egg, the same.  I scraped the bowl and the beater down well, stirred the scrapings in lightly, and then spooned the batter into my loaf pan.  Following Margaret’s good counsel, I banged the loaf pan repeatedly to help the batter level out.  Into the oven for 35 minutes.

And how was it?  Definitely less sweet than any of the other cakes, and definitely drier.  Mark and I liked the un-sweetness.  The dryness was useful when I wanted to dunk a piece of cake in coffee or hot chocolate, or to crumble it with mixed cut fruit, but a little severe on its own.  Third of a Poundcake tasted like something a Jane Austen family would have at teatime, nourishing and unremarkably pleasant.

(To read through the whole Shirley Project so far, go up to the Search Box at the top of the page and ask for Shirley.)

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Shirley Recipe #4


M-C:  Here we go with Shirley cake #4.

MB:  Pound cake, pound cake everywhere …

How did this one go for you?

M-C:  Well, I did something quite different this time.  I made cake #4 full size, to loud acclaim at the Last Tuesday supper.  But then since Shirley adapted it from Maida Heatter’s Best Damned Lemon Cake, I went back and made that instead of the smaller version I’ve usually been making.

MB:  You should probably talk about Shirley first, then Maida, since this is a Shirley report.

M-C:  Good plan.

MB:  What did you think of the cake?

M-C:  I was glad to get away from the vanilla flavors, even my doctored ones. (I use vanilla sugar, so I replace the vanilla extract with other liquids, like Scotch or Jack Daniel’s.)  The lemon was light, and I loved the mysterious hint of almonds.

MB:  Ah yes, the almonds.

M-C:  I remember we talked on the phone about them, the almonds.  Did you get almonds and grind them up?

MB:  Actually no.  I happened to have a container of unsalted almond butter at home, which I ended up using.  I feel like if I put some almonds in my Cuisinart that’s what I would have ended up with, so I decided it would be fine.  And it was!

M-C:  I keep a bag of Bob’s Red Mill almond meal in the freezer.

MB: Well, I’m sure that’s much more what she was looking for, but I have to tell you that I really liked the result of adding the almond butter … just a little mysterious bit of crunch.  Yum!

I also though it was interesting comparing the almond flavor in cake #4 (almond flour) and almond flavor in cake #3 (almond extract).  I thought it came through much more in cake #4 (which for me was made with almond butter).

M-C:  I like the idea of the almond butter — I’m definitely planning to make the lemon cake again, and that might be a nice variation.

MB:  OK, now tell us about Maida.

M-C:  My first big thrill was in comparing Shirley’s recipe to Maida’s original.  I understood every single one of the changes Shirley made.  Every one!  Before we started on this project I would have been entirely at sea.  Shirley’s a great teacher.

MB:  Wow!  I’m really impressed!  Can you give us an example?

M-C:  Well, of course Shirley’s cake is bigger, so you have to look at the changes in proportion.  Maida’s cake uses less sugar than flour; Shirley’s uses more:

Maida   1C sugar / 1.5C flour
Shirley 3C sugar / 2.67C flour

Shirley can get away with making the cake so sweet because she bakes it in a bundt pan; when the cake sinks, as it certainly does, all she has to do is flip it over.  Maida makes hers in a loaf pan, where any sinking makes the cake look miserable.

Maida uses only butter for the fat.  Shirley uses butter, shortening, and oil.  Both the shortening and the oil affect the texture of the cake, making it lighter (the shortening) and moister (the oil).

MB:  That’s awesome, Mom!  I definitely am learning too, but not in the same leaps and bounds that you are!

M-C:  So have you been using the glaze on any of the cakes we’ve made so far?

MB:  Nope.  For me the glazes don’t make the cake any better, and they just add extra sugar, which I don’t think there’s any need for.  So I’ve been leaving them off.

M-C:  I hadn’t till I made Maida’s cake.  Her glaze is just lots of lemon juice and some sugar.  We had a friend coming to supper who loves sourness as much as I do — I’d call us acid-heads, but that expression already has another meaning.  So I was sure I wanted full-on lemon flavor.  Mark liked it a lot too, and he’s often not so much a fan of biting vinegar tang.

MB:  So basically it’d be perfect for you and me and Aunt Joan and Lauren.  Cool.

M-C:  But did I tell you there’s a typo in Maida’s recipe?

MB:  What?  A typo?

M-C:  I could feel the ground rock.  The book where the recipe first appeared was published by Knopf and edited by the mighty Judith Jones.  But everybody makes mistakes.

MB:  What was it?

M-C:  The recipe calls for 1 ounce of lemon extract and then says, in parens, “(4 tablespoons).”

MB:  Oops, a fluid ounce is two Tablespoons.

M-C:  Right.

MB:  And did you use one ounce or four Tablespoons?

M-C:  Oh, I used four Tablespoons.  Mark and I didn’t lick the bowl and beater as we usually do — the batter was so boozey we weren’t even tempted.  But of course the alcohol cooks off in the baking.  I nicked off a little bit of cake to taste without any glaze, and it was quite nice.

MB:  I’ve started having a problem with too many similar cakes in a row, but the lemon cake was quite tasty.

M-C:  Yes, the drenching lemon was a nice change.

MB:  And now, please, I’m begging you … let’s go to another part of the book.

M-C:  I have one more experiment I want to do before I skip ahead.  I still haven’t made the old, original pound cake, the one with a pound of butter, a pound of flour, a pound of sugar.  The version people talk about in the North of England, where I lived for a while when I was young, spoke of a dozen eggs rather than a pound of eggs, but with medium-sized eggs a dozen would work out to be a pound.  I reckon nine large eggs will be the same as a dozen mediums.

MB:  Fine.  Better you than me.  I am done with pound cake!

M-C:  OK, I’ll make it quick-quick, and you can decide where we should skip to.  I think we should make every recipe in the book, just not in book order.

MB:  That’s a much better idea.  And I’m going to leave it up to you whether you want to declare here what we’ll do next or keep it a secret.  Oooh … mysterious!

M-C:  It’s summer.  Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, apricots, peaches, plums.  I’m sure you can read my mind.  Let’s skip ahead to page 263 — pies!

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It was inevitable that working on a book about sauces — our cookbook of the month, Sonja Lee’s Sauce — would lead to an excess of eggwhites.  Mayonnaise, hollandaise, bearnaise, all the custard sauces, wow.  Eggyolks galore; leftover eggwhites galore.

Aha, angelfood cake.  Two birds with one stone, using up eggwhites plus skipping ahead on the Shirley project.  I’d never made an angelfood cake before and I don’t remember ever buying one, but I must have eaten one at some point because the angelfood cake from Shirley’s Bakewise was familiar.  A relentless, uninflected sweetness and a strange texture, both dry and bready.  Not my favorite cake, but pretty good toasted and served with cut and sugared fresh fruit.

Too bad we didn’t flat-out adore it, because I foresee many another eggwhite in my future.

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Shirley Recipe #3


M-C:  OK, here we go with Shirley pound cake #3, in which she improves on Shirley pound cake #1 by adding whipped cream, which she learned about from Heather Hurlbert, whose cake is Shirley pound cake #2.  I’m thinking back to high-school chemistry.  This is a lot more fun.

We’re both making each recipe full size, and then I’m making a scaled down version of each as research for chapter 2 of Domestic Intelligence, How To Make a Recipe Bigger or Smaller.  I made the big one on my own but saved the small one till we were together so I could get your help.  For those new to 2 Takes, Margaret is the baker, and I’m hoping to learn at her knee.  Well, not at her knee exactly (we’re the same height), but at her side.

MB:  Wait one second … didn’t you learn how to bake from your good grandmother?

M-C:  She was a professional baker, so she brought baked goods home from work rather than baking them at home.

MB:  Oh, of course that makes sense.

M-C:  Well, I’ve been dying to watch you bake, and dying to have you watch me bake and explain things I don’t understand.  Most of my questions for you are kind of mechanical, things I just don’t get how to do.

MB:  Okalee-dokalee, fire away …

M-C:  First of all, am I supposed to scrape down the beater on my stand mixer before every new addition?  I’ve been scraping down the bowl from time to time but not the beater.  Then at the end, when I’m trying to get every last bit of goodness into the bundt pan, I notice that the beater is like some kind of archeological dig, with layer upon layer of stuff.  The outermost layer is the finished batter, below that the batter minus whipped cream, below that the batter with less flour, and so on, back down to a layer that’s just pure butter.

MB:  Scrape down the beater?  Oh hell no!  You probably noticed that I didn’t really scrape down the beater at all.  I barely even scrape down the bowl!  In my mind it’s most important to scrape down after you’ve creamed the sugar and butter together, and one more time, but other than that I think it’s not a big deal.

M-C:  I’d better admit that I haven’t actually been adding all those layers to the final batter.  I’ve been licking them off the beater after the cake has already gone into the oven.  You’ll remember my great-grandmother van Leunen’s adage “The cook gets the licks.”  (“De kok krijgt de likken.”)

MB:  Of course.  You probably saw me taking liberal advantage of that old adage.  It’s one of my favorite kitchen mottos.

M-C:  Question number two.  How am I supposed to add ingredients?  The beater gets in the way, and I often spill some of what I’m trying to add.  Stuff gets all over the base and the top of the mixer, the counter, and the neighboring refrigerator.  Is there some trick I don’t know, or am I just a klutz?

MB:  Wowsers.  If there is a trick, I surely don’t know it.  I myself make a huge mess all the time.  Eh, whatever … it’s more fun that way.

M-C:  But no — cooking at your side, I noticed that I was much less clumsy with your stand mixer than with mine.  I think the difference is that yours is on a higher counter, so I can see what I’m doing better.  Hurrah!

MB:  Fascinating.

M-C:  Question number three.  How am I supposed to get the batter from the bowl into the bundt pan?  I have a terrible time distributing it evenly.  Am I being overly scrupulous?  Will it just even itself out in the baking?  When Shirley says to smooth it out with a spatula, my spatula is more like a downhill skier than a ship on a calm sea.

MB:  I scoop it into the pan in giant spoonfuls, and then lift and drop the pan a couple of times onto the countertop.  Shirley actually suggests doing that to get rid of all the bubbles, and it works really well.  In fact, it works so well I don’t even bother smoothing it out with a spatula.

M-C:  And now my question for Shirley:  What is the purpose of the shortening in a recipe for pound cake?  Once again I have used butter instead.  I own a tub of trans-fat-free shortening but I find it repellent, and of course the longer I go without using it the more repellent it becomes.  (Shortening goes stale — who knew?  My shortening was best if used, oh, before a long while ago.  More than two years ago.  If I decide I need shortening, I promise to buy a new tub.)

MB:  I used shortening.  I have no idea why it’s needed, but I used it.

M-C:  I’ve read the text for all the “shortening” entries in the index.

Shortening doesn’t spread immediately on entering the hot oven, which is important for cookies but not for cake (I think).  In piecrusts, shortening creates little flaky pockets and provides waterproofing; neither is important for cakes (I think).

But here are my three guesses about why shortening in a cake might be good:

Shirley #3 has us add two eggyolks, which are emulsifiers, for (a) “excellent texture” and (b) “increased moisture.”

Shortening can include mono- and diglycerides, which are emulsifiers.  (My shortening does not — it’s nothing but mechanically pressed organic palm oil.  I’ll get a different kind, I promise, I promise.)

Fat coats flour and keeps it from forming gluten, and shortening is higher in fat than butter.

Shortening has inert gasses beaten into it in the factory and so is an aerator.  (Baking powder and baking soda enlarge bubbles that are already there, but they do not create bubbles.  Honestly, that’s what Shirley says.  Fascinatingly, creaming butter turns it into an aerator — that’s what I’m doing when I cream butter, I’m beating air into it.  I never knew why I was doing it.)

So I think the shortening might be good in pound cake for its emulsifying components, its gluten-fighting ability, its airy-fairiness, or any two of those reasons — or all three.

MB:  Jeepers.  Awesome guesses.  I’m totally interested to see what Shirley’s answer actually is!

M-C:  OK, so much for Mary-Claire Wants To Know.  How do you like the cake?

MB:  I thought it was delicious.  I liked it much better than either of the other 2, so Shirley’s definitely doing something right!  What about you?

M-C:  I think my big one had the best flavor yet.  Vanilla sugar plus 1 Tablespoon Scotch plus 1 teaspoon Pernod, a licorice-flavored liqueur made from star anise plus several other herbs.  Not enough to taste like licorice, just a hint of something mysterious.

Here at your house, for the small one I couldn’t use vanilla sugar since you, faithless child, don’t keep vanilla sugar on hand.  For people accustomed to vanilla sugar, vanilla extract tastes — whoa! — awfully strong.  So I used a touch of vanilla extract and a touch of almond extract and a touch of your wonderful maple syrup extract.

MB:  I thought that the almond extract would make your cake taste like marzipan (something I hate) but it didn’t.  The cake just had a nice flavor, without any one element being overwhelming or even particularly identifiable.  Very interesting.

Certainly a good effort, with awesome results.

M-C:  And we’re sitting on the edge of our chairs waiting to hear back from Shirley.

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Shirley Recipe #2


M-C:  I’m sorry it took me so long to make the small version of Shirley’s recipe #2 —

MB:  Whoa, slow down.  You have to remind everybody of what we’re doing.

M-C:  Oh, quite right.

Shirley Corriher, a chemist by training, came out with a book called Bakewise last year, and Margaret and I have decided to cook our way through it, learning as we go.  Margaret is an experienced baker, M-C not so much.  Both are going to make a recipe every two weeks.  On the in-between weeks, M-C, who is working on making recipes bigger or smaller (for her own forthcoming book about changing recipes), will make a smaller version (or perhaps sometimes a bigger one).

You can read about recipe #1 here.  This posting is about recipe #2 …

MB:  Recipe #2 is a whipped cream pound cake, which Shirley credits to Heather Hurlbert, a pastry chef from Atlanta.

M-C:  I love it when people tell us where their ideas come from.

MB:  It is totally classy … credit where credit’s due, you know?

M-C:  So anyway, I was starting to say I’m sorry it took me so long to make the smaller version because I was waiting for my small-size bundt pans to arrive.

MB:  Oooh, small size bundt pans?  What do they look like?

M-C:  I got the Nordic Ware Quartet.

MB:  So cute!

M-C:  OK, so first let’s tell about the cake in the full-size version.

MB:  I only did the one version, but it was a definite success.  How about you?

M-C:  I messed up, but — here’s the great thing — I knew what I did wrong.

MB:  That’s always good.  What did you do wrong?

M-C:  Two things, actually.  First, I baked the cake over my pizza stone, rather than on it.  And second, I chickened out on the time.  I should have let it go five minutes more.

MB: It should be noted here that M-C has a convection oven, because she’s fancy.  I do not.

M-C:  I have two ovens, and Mark can’t understand why I don’t just cook in the non-convection one instead of trying to adapt recipes to convection.

MB:  So why don’t you?

M-C:  Oh, stubbornness, I suppose.  It seems crazy to me to have this magnificent oven and not make use of it.

MB:  I’ve never used a convection oven, so I have no idea what that entails for baking.  What kind of conversions do you have to make?

M-C:  You both lower the temperature and shorten the cooking time.  I’ve been keeping good notes on all my experiments, and I feel that I’m starting to get the lay of the land.

MB:  So what happened to the cake?

M-C:  Look at the left-hand picture below.  The edges cooked, but the middle was still raw.

MB:  Huh.  Definitely not the desired result.

M-C:  Funnily enough, there’s a recipe later in the book that goes for this same effect deliberately; it’s the Tunnel of Fudge cake.

MB:  Tunnel of Fudge cake sound DELICIOUS.  I can’t wait til we get there!

But back to your cake … did it taste good?

M-C:  It’s a perfect example of my basic rule of cooking:  Use good ingredients, don’t burn them, and don’t be wedded to your original idea of what you thought you were making.  At the beginning of the week Mark and I considered it a ruined cake.  By the end of the week, we had eaten almost all of the “ruin” and enjoyed it considerably.

MB:  Oh yes, that was when you called, freaking out, and asked my opinion about throwing it out.

M-C:  I did take heed of your advice and pitched it — a pound of butter for two people! — but I think your subsequent advice was even better.

MB:  My policy is that when I bake something, J and I have that night to eat as much of it as we can, then the next day I take it into the office.  Makes me quite popular, and hopefully saves us from getting too hugely fat. Sometimes J gets mad, but I think he’s starting to understand.

M-C:  Then for the smaller version, I remembered you said you make the 12-cup recipe but baked it in your 10-cup bundt pan with no ill effects, so I wanted to see if I could make a 3-cup version in one of my 2.25-cup pans.  I phoned the folks at Nordic to be sure nothing bad would happen if I used only one of the four little pans at a time, and they assured me it was fine.

MB:  I do that all the time with muffin tins.  And how did it work?

M-C:  12 cups of batter in the 10-cup pan (i.e. the ratio 6/5) worked fine.  3 cups in a 2.25 pan (i.e. the ratio 6/4.5) made a funny little cake whose bottom bump I would have had to shave off if I wanted it to sit flat.  You can see how high it rides in the right-hand picture below.

MB:  There’s no harm in that, right?

M-C:  It was delicious anyway, and there’s something to be said for having something look a little off, so you can tell instantly it’s not a commercial product.  “Loving hands at home,” it’s called.

MB:  That’s sweet.

M-C:  So what about the whipped cream?  Did you feel it was a huge improvement over cake #1?

MB:  Umm, I really don’t know what effect the whipped cream had.  I thought the cake was so incredibly heavy and dense with butter that I couldn’t really see the effect of the whipped cream at all.  Except maybe for adding another bit of richness and making the process way more complicated.

M-C:  I’m not big on folding.  I do it the way Julia Child explained, fold a quarter or a third of the whipped cream into the batter, then fold the lightened batter into the rest of the whipped cream.  Or sometimes fold in a quarter and another quarter and another quarter, then fold back into the last quarter.

MB:  I hate folding.  You taught me how to fold when I was little, and whenever you turned your back I’d just stir.  I’m pretty much still that way, except now the only person I’m trying to hide it from is myself.  Silly.

M-C:  It’s not my favorite thing.

MB:  So let’s sum up what we’ve done so far; see what great lessons we’ve learned.

M-C:  Baking a cake in a bundt pan, where it’s upside-down, means it can be sunken without looking bad.

MB:  And with a pound cake sometimes you want it to sink.

M-C:  Right, if you want to use maximum sugar and maximum fat, they make a cake sink, but they also make it delicious.

MB:  And we always need to bake on, not over, the pizza stone.

M-C:  Something I just noticed in looking over recipes #1 and #2 is that neither uses any salt.  I wonder whether they would have been even more addictive with tiny pinches of salt.

MB:  Who knows?  I always use salted butter, no matter what a recipe calls for.

M-C:  Pay attention to the smells coming out of the oven, but don’t lose courage.  Right at the end, the cake will smell almost burnt.

MB:  Yup.  Stay strong.  Don’t chicken out.  Just let it keep on going.

M-C:  On to cake #3.

MB:  Onward and upward.


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The Shirley Project


M-C:  So let’s tell everybody about our new project.

MB:  Shirley Corriher has just published her long-awaited Bakewise (Scribner, 2008).  She’s a chemist, and the book’s subtitle says it all, The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes.  We’re going to bake our way straight through the book, making a recipe every other Sunday.

M-C:  And then on the in-between Sundays I’m going to make a scaled-down version of the same recipe, as fodder for Chapter 2 of Domestic Intelligence, How To Make a Recipe Bigger or Smaller.

MB:  We’ve already had our first pair of Sundays, and we’re ready to report on our results.

M-C:  OK, the first thing I want to say is that Shirley is nothing if not a free spirit.  She’s not a top-down person; her writing is more stream-of-consciousness than conventional exposition.  And we encountered that characteristic with her very first recipe, The Great American Pound Cake.

MB:  Which you’re not supposed to make.

M-C:  Right, which you’re not supposed to make.

MB:  Chapter 1 is called Cakes! Luscious Cakes!:  Muffins, Quick Breads, and More …

M-C:  You’ve got to love somebody who puts two exclamation points in a chapter title.

MB:  Right.  So anybody who’s done a little baking will know that the underlying theme for the chapter has to be baking powder and baking soda.  And sure enough, the first few paragraphs differentiate chemically leavened doughs from ones that rise because of yeast or eggs.

M-C:  Then immediately we start in on pound cake, which pleased both of us, because pound cake is one of my favorites and one of J’s as well.

MB:  Shirley describes the traditional pound cake, a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter (she says fat, not butter), and a pound of eggs.

M-C:  She then says that the problem with a classic pound cake is that it’s dry and not very sweet.  Hmm, I thought, isn’t that what I like about pound cake?

MB:  Well, most people disagree with you, and Shirley certainly does.  She doesn’t even give a full recipe for a classic pound cake but starts in immediately with the modern pound cake.

M-C:  Modern meaning sweeter and moister.  Like The Great American Pound Cake, the first recipe.

MB:  Then she starts talking about “the math,” with forward pointers to more math discussion, which I didn’t bother reading.

M-C:  Who could blame you?  The explanation starts on page 14, then goes from page 29 to 36, and then gets mentioned here and there.  I note that there is no entry for “the math” in the index.

MB:  Blech.

M-C:  I think of myself as being pretty comfortable with quantitative thinking and I found my first pass through 29-36 pleasant but not decisive — no quick snap of comprehension.  I’ll need to start writing it out for myself, but first I plunged right in with The Great American Pound Cake.

MB:  Me too.  Neither of us noticed that Shirley said she was giving the recipe only so we could compare it — the recipe, not the cake — with her improved version, which is the third recipe.

M-C:  Well, I was happy I made the cake.

MB:  Yeah, me too!  I don’t really understand why we weren’t supposed to make it.  Doesn’t it seem like if her cake is actually way better than this one, it’s better for us to have the comparison? I sure think that being able to compare the actual cakes is desirable.

M-C:  I was excited to learn about sad cakes, sad being another name for sunken.  I have produced more than my share of sad cakes over the years.  Shirley says to make them in a bundt pan or a tube pan, or even a loaf pan, and flip them over when they’re done.  So I went out and bought myself a 12-cup bundt pan.  I know one of the many reasons for my reluctance as a baker is that I don’t have the right pans, and I’m determined to acquire them, one recipe at a time.

MB:  I don’t have a bundt pan at all, so I made mine in 2 loaf pans.  They turned out ok, but I’m sure as hell buying a bundt pan before we try this again.  I had some weird timing issues while baking, so having the right pan is obviously very important.

M-C:  What kind of timing issues?

MB: Well, she calls for the cake, in its bundt pan, to bake for 1 hour.  My 2 loaves, which I thought would bake more quickly, took 1 hour and 40 minutes.  That’s a drastic difference.  I think it must be because of the difference in shape between a bundt pan and a loaf pan.  Good to know!

M-C:  Here are some of the other things I learned in making this recipe:

1. Sifting together the flour, salt, and baking powder or baking soda or both is supposed to  distribute the salt and leaveners evenly through the flour, but it doesn’t work very well.  Stirring thoroughly is better.

MB:  That’s convenient, because that’s always what I do (don’t even own a sifter), but where does it say that?

M-C:  Page 58.

MB:  Oh, I see you’re reading ahead.

M-C:  As always.

2. Bake cakes on, not over, your pizza stone.  Oddly enough, my friend Jake had told me exactly the same thing only the week before.  I was afraid the bottom would burn, but instead it became wonderfully crispy.

MB:  Yup, I read that too, on page 4.

M-C:  Right, in the introduction.  You have to be prepared to jump around quite a lot to get full value from this book.

MB:  That’s going to annoy me.

M-C:  3. This isn’t from the book, it’s from real life.  I have to teach myself to bake by smell.  All this business of buying an oven thermometer is crap.  If you buy two oven thermometers, they show two different temperatures.  You have to go for a reasonable temperature, check much sooner than the recipe indicates — especially me, with my convection oven — and learn how to smell doneness.

MB:  Sort of like how I have learned to smell doneness with beans on the stove.

M-C:  Exactly.  So what did you think of the cake?

MB:  It was awesome.  I mean awesome.

M-C:  I loved it.  I thought it was divine.  But it’s not my idea of pound cake.  It’s too sweet and too moist.  I’m going to try the traditional recipe (with, say, a quarter pound of each rather than a whole pound).  What did J think?

MB:  Well, you know he’s the world’s biggest fan of pound cake, and he thought it was amazing.  That’s a ringing endorsement.

M-C:  Did you follow the recipe exactly?

MB:  Pretty much.  The biggest change I made was in the extracts. Shirley calls for vanilla, lemon and almond, but I’m not going to go out and buy the last two just for this cake.  That seems crazy to me, so I used vanilla extract and maple extract, the two I had on hand.

M-C:  Me too almost.  I’m not fond of vanilla extract because I make vanilla sugar —

MB:  Oh, you should tell everybody about vanilla sugar.

M-C:  Nothing simpler, you just put a vanilla bean into a jar of sugar and close the lid.  Two weeks later, voila, vanilla sugar.  Then you just keep adding sugar and adding sugar and every once in a while adding a new vanilla bean, and you’ll never need to use vanilla extract again as long as you live.

MB:  So now, you were saying …

M-C:  Yes, anyway, I don’t like those extracts much, although in combination they might be interesting — gotta try that some time.  For this recipe, though, I substituted some Scotch, some Jack Daniel’s, and some tequila.  In such small amounts they just add a mysterious depth.

MB:  I felt weird about using the shortening that the recipe called for, but I did it anyway.  Did you?

M-C:  I did use the shortening.  I opened a package of fully hydrogenated (no trans fat) commercial shortening, but I think it was sickening and I won’t use it again.

MB:  Could you taste it in the final product?

M-C:  I think not, but it doesn’t matter, I still knew it was there.

MB:  Did you use it in your scaled-down version?

M-C:   I did not, I used clarified butter instead.  I think what Shirley wanted was a fat with no liquid, and that’s what clarified butter is.

MB:  That sounds like a great idea.  I would feel so much better about using clarified butter next time.

Now about the scaling it down, how did that go?

M-C:  Great!  I used a quarter of each of the amounts called for, and luckily they were all divisible by four except for the five eggs.  I read up on the different roles egg-whites and egg-yolks perform (page 81) and decided that since I thought the full-size cake was too wet I’d use one egg-white in addition to my one whole egg.  Five divided in four equals one and a half — only in baking.

MB:  And what did you use for a pan?

M-C:  Actually, I used the 12-cup bundt pan.  It made an odd little wide wreath, but Mark and I both loved that crispy cakeskin, so I think I’d always make it in a bundt pan, just a smaller one.  I have my eye on a 6-cup that would be perfect.

MB:  So, summing up, we liked the end result of this recipe VERY much, though the process of getting there was kind of strange.  I’m still stuck on the fact that this is the first recipe in the book, but we’re not supposed to cook it.  That just seems odd.

M-C:  And I’m concerned about how much jumping around we need to do in order to get the whole story.  It works well for people like me, who like to read ahead, but it doesn’t seem practical for the rest of the world.

The cake was delicious though.

MB:  Amen to that.

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