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.)


Minus One

Dear friends, Margaret is going back to school this summer and so will not be working on 2 Takes.  I’m going to soldier on as bravely as I can.

Coming June 1, 2009

Diana Henry
Pure Simple Cooking:
    Effortless Meals Every Day
Ten Speed Press, April 1, 2009

The word “simple” gets used in cookbook titles with two different meanings.

One is the master chef’s version of simple: a simple ravigotte au huitre en brioche with sea beans en gelée.  (An open-face oyster sandwich on rich bread with tartar sauce and a side of savory green jello, sounds scrumptious.  No, really, it does sound scrumptious.)  “Simple” here means classic, clean, uncluttered.

The other is the family cook’s version of simple: simple roast tomatoes with herbs and lemon crumbs, 2 minutes prep, 40 minutes in the oven, with rice-cooker rice and a green salad.  Sit down, put your feet up, ask the children how their day went, get the youngest to set the table.  “Simple” as in easy, unaffected, basic.

Diana Henry’s Pure Simple Cooking is the second kind of “simple.”

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!

The Stephen Project



Yet another project!  My dear friend Stephen has decided to learn to cook, we’ve settled on a cookbook for him to use, and we’ve had our first evening of cooking together.

First the cookbook. 

Everyday Food:
Great Food Fast

Martha Stewart Living
Clarkson Potter, 2007

It’s a good fit, but not perfect.

On the plus side, the food in Great Food Fast is normal American food, which is what Stephen wants to cook and eat.  The recipes are reasonably well written.  Together they make a good introduction to a wide variety of culinary skills.  Every main course recipe, along with recipes for recommended sides, fits on a single page, with a full-page photo on the opposite page.

On the minus side, the methods are not explained for an absolute beginner, and the book assumes the reader has equipment that Stephen doesn’t have and may not want to acquire.  The book is divided by season, but the seasons don’t correspond to where we live.  The authors exhibit a tiresome low-fat bias.  And every recipe makes at least four servings; at this moment, Stephen lives alone.  (Selfishly, since I am working on chapter 2, how to make a recipe bigger or smaller, I’m happy to have a guinea pig.)

For our first recipe to do together, Stephen chose buttermilk baked chicken.  I made a potato salad from the book and a lemon cake for dessert.

I was nervous half to death.  It’s one thing to write about how I bang haphazardly around the kitchen, another thing to have somebody there beside me.  But we soldiered on bravely; by the time we sat down to eat I felt relaxed and happy, and the supper was delicious.

Here are some general principles I should have enunciated, although I’m pretty sure I didn’t say them all out loud.

Think or buy your way out of missing equipment and ingredients.  Stephen doesn’t have a food processor, so instead of whizzing bread into breadcrumbs we used mashed-up herbal stuffing mix.

Translate measurements into actions.  Instead of a teaspoon of ground pepper, think of it as six grindings of the pepper mill.

Use one book and explore it thoroughly.  One of the worst things a new cook can do is get a mountain of conflicting ideas from various cookbooks or, worse yet, the Web.  Ideally, the book would be by a single author, but a book from a single periodical with a strong editorial personality — like Everyday Food — is second best.

Start with 2-3 recipes you like and work on them till you’re satisfied or bored.  Then move on to another 2-3.

Develop strategies for dealing with too many servings.  (Here’s where chapter 2 comes in.)

Make a plan and write it down.  Mark and Stephen will be confused about the spinach salad pictured on the plate beside the chicken and the potato salad.  I forgot the spinach until the next morning, eating leftovers for breakfast.

Relax, it’s only supper.

Good Questions

Good questions from our readers.

Gladys asks, apropos the piece about Janet Hazen, whether her 2001 book is a cookbook.  The full title is Girlfriends Get Together: Food, Frolic, and Fun Times (Wildcat Canyon Press), and her co-authors are Tamara Traeder and Carmen Renee Berry.  The publisher’s blurb says:

From crisis times, birthdays, and TGIF days, to showers and hallelujah lunches, these 15 girlfriend get-togethers include quick and easy planning ideas, succulent recipes, and innovative ways to create unforgettable memories with the gals.

So it does include recipes but has a broader scope than most cookbooks.

Joan asks, apropos the piece about new cuts of meat, “I don’t think I understand this. Now the muscles are sold as 39 separate different cuts of meat instead of being mashed into hamburger?”

Exactly right.  If  hamburger is, say, $2.99 a pound and people will buy one of the new cuts at $5.99 a pound, the new cut more than justifies the costs of retraining slaughterhouses and butchers; doing the publicity and marketing; developing new recipes; educating and enticing the public.

She also asks, “I need a brief review of what braising is. You don’t mention adding a liquid; I thought braising req’d a small amt of liquid. Is there liquid blurbling?”

Oooh, good one.  No, I didn’t add any liquid, but the mushrooms throw off so much that nothing else is needed.  (Most vegetables and fruits contain enough water so they can braise in a small amount of fat with no additional liquid.)

Last Night at MB’s


Recently I’ve been craving sushi like it’s going out of style, but since I’m living on a tight budget right now, going out to eat it isn’t a possibility.  So last night I made sushi with some friends!

We made a mix of avocado, cucumber, crab stick, and eel.  It was awesome!  Totally fulfilled my sushi craving without spending a billion dollars!  Yum.

And I have to give a million thanks here to Luke, who is the master of sushi rice.  If it wasn’t for him I’d have ended up with rice that wasn’t sticky at all and the entire operation wouldn’t have worked.  Now that I’ve seen his technique, maybe I’ll be able to handle it for myself next time!