" All the world is a birthday cake. So take a piece, but not too much" ---George Harrison
I consider myself a skilled and accomplished cook. Oftentimes, when discussing cooking with others who share that passion I am asked, “what kind of cooking do you like best?” I always find that a difficult question to answer because, like my eating, I like to cook everything! However, if I press myself I have to say that I love baking—pies, bread, cookies, and cake, glorious cake.
So, Kossacks, we’ve had dinner and now it’s time for dessert. Let’s talk about cake. I will highlight two-and-a half recipes that are good anytime, but are also in my opinion great to bake for that July 4 picnic, a family gathering, or potluck dinner.
Historically, the line between bread and cake is indistinct. Is a traditional Christmas stollen (great history in that link) a cake or a bread? Or a babka? Most of us would call these breads, as they are yeast-risen and less sweet than what people of western European culture think of as cake. The two examples above, for example, are southern and eastern European and quite old, historically speaking. Sometime in the late Middle Ages, some smart bakers figured out how to use whipped egg whites to leaven a lighter, sweeter mixture to create the first sponge cakes. From there the lovely creations that most of us know as cakes took off.
Still, cakes were in the realm of the wealthy and even then for special occasions. Think of the difficulty in baking a sponge cake having to beat egg whites to a stiff peak and then bake it on a hearth or crude (by our modern standards) wood-fired oven. It took considerable time, skill, and a bit of luck (think wasted food resources). Once the Industrial Revolution took hold and gave us railroads, refined sugars, baking molds, better regulated ovens, and chemical leaveners (baking soda and baking powder were invented in the mid 19th Century) cooks’ creativity were loosed and the delicious gems of goodness we enjoy today were born.
Commercial cake mixes were another outgrowth of the cultural changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. As the concept of convenience foods developed companies wanted a slice of the income to be had from feeding [primarily] Americans’ appetite for easily prepared, sweet foods—thus the cake mix. I have no qualms with cake mixes; I have baked many of them in my time. In fact, there are some highly creative, tasty modifications to a straight-on cake mix out there and perhaps some of you will post those recipes tonight (hint). As my skills and experience have increased, I find myself more and more comfortable with baking a cake from scratch—“scratch”, of course, being a relative term. And while I enjoy the challenge of baking a very reputable pineapple upside-down cake in a Dutch Oven next to a campfire, today we will be using modern conveniences like an oven to bake our cakes.
Production note: I wanted to post some personal photos of at least one of the cake recipes below; however, it is above 100 degrees for what seems like the second week in a row here in central Oklahoma. Given that, firing up the oven to bake a cake borders on self-destructive behavior. Everyone is going to have to click the link with each recipe to see a picture of a finished cake if you must. If that’s a problem, well:
As an Okie, I empathize with my neighbors to the south who are often painted with a cruel brush here on DKos because of the political horseshit the wingnuts in their state perpetrate. In an effort to give them some positive strokes here are one-and-a half recipes for two flavors of what is called a Texas Sheet Cake . Why is it called a Texas Sheet Cake? Some Internet searching yields no definitive answer, only speculation. Things like “the chocolate flavor is as big as Texas” or “it’s so rich it feeds a Texas-sized crowd”, one source even suggested the recipe source was Lady Bird Johnson, although that is completely unverifiable.
In any event, this recipe often calls for baking in a 15”x10” pan. That, along with its modest leavening yields a cake dangerously close to a brownie, but we will not trifle (the puns just keep on rolling) with the technical differences at this time. I usually bake it in a 13”x9” because my 15”x10” is used for bacon and it shows. The chocolate and the white version are both delicious.
Chocolate Texas Sheet Cake
Recipe and photo
Grease and flour a 15”x10” or a 13”x9” cake pan, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Some bakers put the cake in the oven and then turn it on to yield an evenly risen cake without the “crust” around the edge. I have had mixed success with that.
1 cup butter
1 cup water
5 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Place above in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat.
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
Combine and stir into butter mixture until well blended.
½ cup sour cream
Combine and stir into previous mixture. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 18-25 min for 15”x10” pan or 30-35 min for 13”x9” pan. Test for doneness is the same as any cake.
½ cup butter
4 cups confectioner’s sugar
5 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
About 5 Tablespoons milk
Cream butter and sugar together until smooth. Stir in vanilla extract and enough milk to create a moderately thin consistency. Pour over cake while still warm. Walnuts are optional, pecans are more Texan. Some say this cake is best while still warm from the oven while others say it’s the next day. I say eat some at both times!
White Texas Sheet Cake
(delicious in a non-chocolate sort of way)
Link for photo and recipe
Prep pan and oven as above (the linked recipe uses a 375 degree oven—meh).
For the cake, leave out the cocoa and add 1 teaspoon almond extract to the egg and sour cream mixture. Bake as above, test for doneness. For the icing, leave out the cocoa and vanilla extract then add ½ teaspoon almond extract. Add optional walnuts, pecans, or, I suppose, slivered or sliced almonds.
Red Velvet Cake (because I love it, it is perhaps my favorite cake)
This is a Bobby Flay recipe. While he did not win the red velvet cake throwdown it is delicious. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, prep 2 9” round pans or a 13”x9” pan with shortening or butter. A parchment paper round or square in the bottom is recommended.
All ingredients at room temperature (good advice for all cake baking)
3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
3 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
Whisk together and set aside.
12 Tablespoons butter (1 ½ sticks), softened
¾ cup vegetable oil
2 ¼ cup granulated sugar
Cream together with an electric hand or stand mixer until light and fluffy. This can take several minutes and is part of the leavening, do not take a shortcut here.
Add three eggs, one at a time and beat until well incorporated.
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons white or red wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon red food coloring (some people, like me, use two)
Add to mixture and beat well.
1 ½ cups buttermilk
In three batches each, alternately add the dry mixture and buttermilk mixing well. Divide batter evenly between the two round pans or pour into the 13”x9” pan. Bake 30 to 40 minutes testing for doneness as in any other cake. Cool on rack for 15 minutes before removing from pan. Cool completely before frosting. Split layers if you are so inclined; if you are you do not need my instructions. Frost with cream cheese frosting.
2-8 ounce packages cream cheese, softened
½ cup butter, softened
2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cream together butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add vanilla. Add sugar, beating until fluffy and desired spreading consistency.
That takes the cake, as they say. Take one of these cakes to your picnic, gathering, or potluck dinner and make someone happy. Or, sit and eat the whole thing and inject yourself with 200 units of insulin for an unbelieveable rush (professional eater on a closed course--do not attempt).
So what are you having for dinner tonight? And what are your favorite cakes?