The consumer services department of General Foods Corporation employed a very good writer, in 1953, to craft the preface to the baking pamphlet Cake Secrets, a collection of recipes for General Foods' own Swans Down cake flour. The writer's name was Frances Barton, and this is just a little of what she had to say:
"Fun and admiration all your life ... from a few mornings in the kitchen.
"You can be nine or ninety, rich or poor, a famous career woman or the queen of a little white house in the country.
"But when you go out into the clean, quiet kitchen and set forth your shining cake pans ... or shoo away a wistful man lured in by the oven's perfume ... or carry high a candle lit masterpiece to the strains of Happy Birthday (or maybe to wolf whistles and double O's) ... that's when you wouldn't change places with any woman in the world.
"And the secret of it all is just this: cakemaking really isn't one bit hard to learn!"
Opposite Miss Barton's text is this great picture:
The pearls, the dress, the coiffure, the candles, the cake, the silver ewer and the flowers, the plates and cups, the woman beaming -- this is an altar, and she is a priestess. And doesn't it make you want to go and learn all about cake?
The subject is more involved than you might think, perhaps more involved than I know. There are, it seems, at least four basic types of cakes. Butter cakes are those made with butter or some kind of fat, usually solid -- shortening, margarine, sometimes vegetable oil. They are leavened with baking powder or baking soda. These are the cakes most of us plan to make for birthdays and celebrations. They're also the ones we bake when we buy a box mix, and just add oil, water, and maybe eggs.
Sponge or foam cakes 1) lack this fat, and 2) get their leavening only from eggs, either separated or not. Angel food cakes are a special category of sponge cakes, made without even the richness of egg yolks. True angel food consists only of flour, egg whites, sugar, and flavorings. The classic European genoise, in its turn, is an extra special category of sponge cake that starts with whole, unseparated eggs, which are barely poached in warm water while still in their shells and then cracked open and beaten whole with sugar. Before the resulting batter can be made too fluffy with beating, flour and then melted clarified butter are folded into it, and then it's baked. It's quite a tour de force, as explained in Madeleine Kamman's New Making of a Cook. Read this post, at One for the Table, to relive one woman's experience of making genoise as a sort of entrance exam for a cooking class taught by Madeleine herself.
Chiffon cakes are a third basic type of cake. They've got a little American history behind them, which seems worth a nod since I am not sure how many people actually make the cakes themselves these days. The pamphlet Gold Medal Jubilee Select Recipes, published by the Gold Medal flour company in 1955, exulted in them. These were "the first new cake of the century -- new in taste, new in texture, and new in eating quality." The Gold Medal people justly exulted since they had introduced Chiffon cake to the world as a Softasilk cake flour recipe just a few years earlier, in 1948. In February, to be exact. They in turn got it from a California insurance salesman who, in 1927, had created a cake recipe that combined a butter cake's richness (and its guaranteed, baking-powder rising), with a sponge cake's egg-white lightness, and threw in ease of preparation to boot. His secret ingredient was salad oil, which to me means olive oil. Regardless, the use of any oil meant, as you began your baking day, no more softening and painstaking creaming of butter. Although, come to think of it, a liquid-fat, eggy sponge cake sounds a bit like that extra special genoise. Plus ca change, perhaps.
In any case, the insurance salesman who invented chiffon kept it a closely guarded secret for twenty years, even as it became something of a local (Los Angeles) sensation and he found himself called upon to prepare it for swanky Hollywood gatherings and famous Hollywood restaurants. The archivist for General Mills who answered my questions in an email last September picks up the story -- and by the way, we should remember that several of the characters in the story are all one. General Mills, General Foods, Gold Medal flour, Softasilk flour, the pamphlet writers for Cake Secrets and Gold Medal Jubilee, and Betty Crocker all, shall we say, took home paychecks signed alike. Oh, and the inventive, flour-bestrewn insurance salesman's name was -- wait for it -- Harry Baker. The archivist says:
"Over the years, Baker struck up a 'friendship' with Betty Crocker while listening to her radio programs. Deciding that she would be the one to share the recipe with American homemakers, Baker traveled to Minneapolis (home of Betty Crocker and General Mills) to share the recipe secret with the Gold Medal Home Economists. The home economists adapted the cake recipe to typical home-baking techniques, created flavor variations and introduced the cake recipe to the world." Ten years later, she concluded, "Betty Crocker introduced a Chiffon Cake [box] mix in two flavors (Orange and Cocoa)."
It seems almost bathetic to come down from these complex and exciting Jazz Age heights to the simplicity of the fourth type of cake, tortes or Torten. They are all Old World elegance and sophistication. Tortes are flourless, made with ground nuts, egg whites, and bread or cake crumbs. Madeleine Kamman in The New Making of a Cook writes that these cakes reflect the economical thinking of bakers who did not want to waste, on cakes, flour that should have gone into bread; so they baked with leftover crumbs instead. Vienna, she says, has been Torten's home since the 18th century.
Now by sheer delightful luck I happened recently to find and buy, at a library cast-off book sale, the December 1987 issue of Gourmet magazine. Among its terrific articles -- on nutmeg, some small museums of London, the rums of Puerto Rico, a Swiss Christmas tree shop -- we find Barbara Kafka's "Great American Cakes." She carries on our story, writing of the special place that cakes have in the American kitchen, along with other comestibles that are not just treats but great food: grilled steaks, corn on the cob, "extravagant tossed salads," pies, cookies, and more. "These are the cakes that are really ours," she writes, "and they don't exist in quite the same way anyplace else." And she agrees with Cake Secrets, and its be-pearled priestess in the picture above, that there was a time when fine homemade cakes "were a cook's special pride -- until the advent of cake mixes and working women."
She shepherds all our varieties together under the name layer cakes, and that makes sense not only because it's the vernacular but because it reminds us that most of these delights are meant to be stacked, frosted and filled, in all sorts of free form ways. There's a reason. "These endless creations were the home cooks' response to America's abundance of fine white flour, the invention of baking powder around 1850, and the development of freestanding stoves with easy to use ovens. What all this meant was that cakes would rise and bake evenly and could be produced relatively rapidly and reliably."
And then they could be stacked, filled and frosted. Gold Medal Jubilee also claims that in the Smoky Mountains, layer cakes were called stack cakes, and were traditional at weddings. Each guest brought a layer to add to the Bride's Stack Cake, the eventual height of which therefore reflected the bride's popularity. Rather a harrowing test to face on one's wedding day, surely. Perhaps people were kind, and brought extra.
Whatever cake you plan to make next, to reward yourself after all this rigorous study, you could hardly do better than to grace it with this chocolate frosting, which Kafka offers up as a childhood favorite. It leaped out at me because it calls for, good golly, a stick of butter and eight, eight squares of baking chocolate. I'm sure Harry Baker, and Miss Barton of the wolf whistles, would be proud.
Barbara Kafka's chocolate frosting, 1987
1 stick butter
8 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped coarse
3 cups confectioner's sugar
2/3 cup milk
1/2 tsp coarse kosher salt
1 tsp vanilla
Melt the butter with the chocolate in the top of a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Let cool.
Sift the sugar into a large bowl. Scald the milk, and beat it in to the sugar along with the salt and vanilla. Beat until smooth.
Add the chocolate mixture and beat until smooth. Then, either place the bowl in a larger bowl of ice water and continue beating until the frosting is cool and of spreading consistency, or chill the frosting, covered, for 30 minutes to an hour until it is spreadable. Makes 2 and 1/2 cups, enough to fill and frost two 8 or 9 inch layers.