“The recipe for American cake looks something like this – one part technique and history from a homeland, one part available ingredients, and one part American spirit.”
– Anne Byrn, American Cake
Can't wait for my newest book to arrive. American Cake is the creation of Nashville-native Anne Byrn, most commonly known as the Cake Mix Doctor. It's part cookbook and part history book
According to Ms. Byrn...
Cakes have been my passion, obsession, and occupation. I have enjoyed a celebratory, eyes-wide-open life marked by cake, candles, and good times spent with family and friends. Which is why I wrote American Cake, to show how cake has always been part of the American story. I share the deep and real stories and authentic recipes behind our country’s classic – as well as lesser-known – cakes, from past to present.
It was a sweet experience… to pardon the pun. And had I known American history would have something to do with my career, I might have paid better attention in high school history class! But thankfully, we get second chances and mine was a fascinating project to uncover the who, what, where, why, and how behind cake in our great land.
Our country is blessed with the contributions from all the people who have lived here and left their marks on its cuisine. And if you didn't know that from history class or personal family experiences, do the research on American cake and you will find we would be nothing without the German Blitz Torte, the Swedish cardamom coffee cake, the French style of King Cake of New Orleans, and many more unknown cakes to this Southern girl born and raised in Nashville.
Sure, I had baked a Lane Cake, Lady Baltimore, and Japanese Fruitcake. These were mainstays when I took my first job as food writer of the Atlanta Journal. I also knew the classic pound, coconut layer, Appalachian Stack Cake, Huguenot Torte, and the Coca-Cola Cake.
But I did not know cakes from other regions – how a chocolate cake from Los Alamos, NM, for example, fed the souls of the men who created the atom bomb. Or the Pink Champagne cake, beloved in California, or the spice and cane syrup cakes of Louisiana, the fig cakes from Ocracoke Island, the Wellesley Fudge Cake and Mother Ann’s peach cake of New England. I didn't know how the Wacky Cake, Fruit Cocktail Cake, and Tunnel of Fudge Cake came into our lexicon. I didn't know how hard it was to bake a cake during the Depression, nor did I know how sweet victory cake tasted after the end of World War II.
What I learned from this book is that no matter the place or time in American history, people baked cakes to share with those they loved. They baked to celebrate and commemorate holidays as well as individuals. And ironically, some of our more modern cakes have a lot in common with our earliest American cakes. They are less sweet, smaller, and they contain organic wheat and often cornmeal.
And while I share the history of cake mix and how it helped create a new definition of post-war American cake, the recipes in this book are from-scratch. Many are one-bowl easy, like the Lazy Daisy Cake and Mary Ball Washington’s Gingerbread. Others are for layer cakes, Bundts, sheet cakes, and of course, the American brownie. I hope you enjoy the stories in the book, bake the recipes, and learn about our country through cake. This might be the sweetest news to be shared this election year. So, sift the flour and set the oven, the story of American cake begins.
And for a little teaser, here are a couple of her recipes...
For the cake:
Vegetable oil spray or shortening for greasing the pans
Flour for dusting the pans
1 package (21.6 ounces) yellow cake mix (see note)
1 package (3 ounces) strawberry gelatin, if desired
1 cup mashed fresh strawberries (2 cups fresh berries)
1 cup vegetable oil
½ cup milk
4 large eggs
For the frosting:
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
¼ cup mashed fresh strawberries, well drained (1/2 cup berries)
4 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
- Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly mist or grease three 9-inch round cake pans and dust them with flour. Set the pans aside.
2. Place the cake mix, gelatin (if desired), mashed strawberries, oil, milk, and eggs in a large mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed until incorporated, 30 seconds. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until the mixture lightens and is smooth, 1½ minutes longer, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Pour the batter into the prepared pans, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula, and place the pans in the oven. If three pans don’t fit on the center rack, place the third layer on the upper rack, watching to not overbake.
3. Bake the cake until the top springs back when lightly pressed with a finger, 18 to 22 minutes. Remove the layers from the oven, let them cool in the pan 10 minutes, run a knife around the edges, gently shake the layers to loosen the cake, and invert them once, then again, onto wire racks to cool right-side up. Let the layers cool 30 minutes before frosting.
4. For the frosting, place the cream cheese and butter in a medium-size bowl and beat with an electric mixer on low until combined, 30 seconds. Add the strawberries and sugar, a little at a time, beating on low speed, until the sugar is incorporated. Increase the mixer to medium and beat until the frosting is fluffy, 1 minute more.
5. To assemble the cake, place one layer, right-side up, on a serving plate. Spread the top with ¾ cup frosting. Place a second layer, right-side up, on top of the first and spread with ¾ cup frosting. Place the third layer on top and frost the top and side of the cake with the remaining frosting, working with smooth, clean strokes. To make slicing easier, place the uncovered cake in the refrigerator until the frosting sets, 20 minutes.
Kentucky Brown Sugar Pie
For the crust and filling:
1 store-bought 9-inch pie crust, thawed if frozen
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole milk
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon salted or unsalted butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the meringue:
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
- Transfer the pie crust to a glass pie pan if you wish or leave it in its aluminum foil pie pan. If it’s not a preformed pie crust, fit it into a glass pie plate.
- Make the brown sugar pie: Bake the pie crust following the directions on the package until it is light brown. Let the crust cool on a wire rack while you make the pie filling. Leave the oven on, adjusting the temperature if necessary, to 400°F.
- Place the brown sugar, flour, and salt in a medium-size saucepan and stir to combine. Slowly whisk in the milk. Place the pan over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the filling begins to thicken and is bubbly, 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook the filling until it has completely thickened, 2 minutes longer. Remove the pan from the heat.
- Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a small bowl and the whites in a medium-size stainless steel or glass bowl. Set the egg whites aside for the meringue. Beat the egg yolks with a fork to combine. Add 3 tablespoons of the hot filling to the egg yolks and stir well to combine. Then whisk the egg mixture into the saucepan of filling. Place the pan over low heat and cook, whisking, until the yolks are well combined and the filling is thick, creamy, and smooth, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla. Pour the filling into the baked crust.
- Make the meringue: Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites on high speed until frothy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cream of tartar and continue beating on high speed. Gradually add the granulated sugar. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff and glossy and the sugar is dissolved, 4 to 5 minutes.
- Pile spoonfuls of the meringue on top of the pie filling. Using a spatula, push the meringue to the edge of the crust to seal in the filling. Smooth the top of the pie.
- Bake the pie until the meringue is just lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the pie to a wire rack to cool to room temperature, about 3 hours before serving.
Note: Let the eggs come to room temperature, taking them out of the refrigerator half an hour before you plan to make the pie.