Making gingerbread, and reading about a beautiful bundt cake and lovely applesauce spice cake produced by The Wednesday Chef and the hungry tiger (a/k/a my own fine child), respectively, got me thinking about the kind of sweet baking that seems to be best done at home. Pastry chefs generally make the best croissants, tarts, and fancy pastries ( with the exception of certain strudel making grandmothers) and bakers make the best crusty breads. It is always fun to try these things at home, but it is also nice to make pies and plain cakes. It is a rare bakery or restaurant that offers as good an American style fruit pie or plain snack cake that is as nice as the one your friend makes, and gives you with a cup of coffee.
It may be that it is the person who comes with the cake that makes the difference to the subjective cake experience, and the friend is certainly a factor, but I think it is more than that. Yes, it's true, I have a theory on this topic, and I'm about to go on at length again. I'm so sorry, but I can't actually help it. There's a recipe at the end, though.
This is what I think, if you can bear it. I think that the proliferation of fast food sweet snacks, of the Little Debbie/ Hostess/Mom's Own Hydrogenated Muffins ilk, made with all sorts of xanathan gums and what have you, which look like cupcakes, cookies, plain cakes, and other things once commonly made at home, have caused upscale bakeries and restaurants to shy away from producing anything which might be mistaken for, say, a twinkie. Every once in a while there will be a fad for something-like the present yuppie cupcake business- trading on some sort of mix of nostalgia and camp, but for the most part, there's that unfortunate association with junkiness.*
And too, a lot of the homestyle treats are best made with minimal handling- piecrust especially. This leads to the appearance of imperfection, which pros and their customers may instinctively avoid when there's a cash register in the picture. Finally, many people have forgotten what a plain cake tastes like when it is not made from a box, and think it's bound to be boring, and not worth actually buying. So no one sells them, what with people thinking they will be just like the Duncan Heinz specials with canned frosting that folks make one another for their birthdays and bring to work these days.
So anyhow, I think that's why you can't buy them, and why it is so nice when someone serves you a delicious simple sweet they made themselves, from ingredients you would recognize if you saw them separately. We all have it in our power to make our important people very happy in this way which they cannot, as a general rule, buy. (Not that I would ever wish to discourage anyone from offering me fancy pastries at anytime. It's just another thing entirely..and bring them on, by all means. Got any french-type macaroons?)
So here's another recipe for a plainish sweet treat from Dorie Greenspan's recent book. It needs no special equipment, and reminds me that for most of the years I've spent hanging around one stove or another, I had no stand mixer, or food processor. A person can make some pretty good cakes with a few bowls and a wooden spoon (or as here, a whisk). This is one.
Adapted slightly, with a different method for the frosting, and because I didn't have instant espresso powder in the house:
1 1/4 cups, plus 2 tbsps sugar
1 Tbsp, plus 2 1/2 tsps sugar
1 1/2 tsps powdered cocoa
1 3/4 cups flour
2 tsps baking powder
3/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp real vanilla
10 Tbsps unsalted butter (best with plugra or other very nice butter) melted and cooled
3 oz nice bittersweet chocolate, finelt chopped. or chip
6 oz. more of the chocolate-again, best with very nice chocolate
2 1/2 tbsps butter, cut in 4 pieces
Butter and flour a 9" square pan, line the bottom with waxed paper, and preheat your oven to 350F.
Assemble a small, medium, and large bowl, and a sturdy whisk. In the small bowl, mix 2 Tbsps sugar, 2 1/2 tsps cinnamon, and the cocoa.
In the large bowl, mix the flour, salt and baking powder with the rest of the cinnamon and sugar. Whisk well.
In a medium bowl, mix the eggs milk and vanilla. Whisk up well. Pour the liquid ingredients in the medium bowl over the dry ingredients in the large bowl. Mix until homogenous, and pretty smooth, but don't go on whipping it up too much. Now, fold in the melted butter gently, a bit at a time. the whisk works well for this. Again, as soon as the batter is smooth and uniform, stop.
Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle with the chocolate and sugar, cinamon mix, and gently pour the rest of the batter over the top. Spread it evenly with a table knife, being careful not to disturb the center. Bake about 40 minutes, until the cake is puffed, and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.
Let the cake cool 15 minutes, and remove from pan, peel off waxed paper, and reinvert onto a rack to complete cooling. When completely cool, frost the top only with the frosting described below. When the frosting has set, trim away the browned sides carefully. (These are an excellent cook's snack). Cut into 9 equal squares, like the blocks on a nine-patch quilt. These keep well in a closed container at room temperature for the very few days they may last uneaten.
Frosting: Put the butter and chocolate in a pyrex cup and microwave for 40 seconds. Remove and mix with a spoon until it is all unlumpy and frosting-like. If it seems too liquid, let it sit until spreadable.
*Endless apologies for having a footnote. I attribute this dubious behavior to reading the blog work of one anapestic, whose digressiveness (charming) is pretty much boundless, allowing me to mentally brush off my own as minor league. Just wanted to mention the other side of this issue, which is that to some people, making a cake from scratch at home seems an affected, snobby thing done only by people who think they are Martha Stewart and/or have too much time on their hands, and no real responsibilities. The reason I know this is that I have actually had it said to me by more than one person who has been offered cookies and the like. So if you want to protect yourself from such remarks, it's a good idea not to mention much about where your cake came from, if you don't know the recipient real well. Or only bake for people you are sure you like!