All Cakes Considered: A Year's Worth of Weekly Recipes Tested, Tasted, and Approved by the Staff of NPR's All Things Considered by Melissa Gray, includes recipes like Dark-Chocolate Red Velvet Cake; Fried Pies; and Spanish Meringue Cake.
Serves about 12 people
All the cakes in this book are great cakes (why would I write a book about cakes and give you bad recipes?), but THIS cake is one of my top ten. It's from Carole Walter's award-winning book Great Cakes, but it's not her cake. It's her version of a cake by one Robert McNamara of Atlantic City, New Jersey, baked for a contest in 1975. But it wasn't his recipe, either. It was his mother's.
According to Carole, the original cake had "a lightly spiced brown sugar base that was topped with chopped walnuts, then covered with a brown sugar meringue. When baked, the meringue turned into a delicate, chewy caramel-flavored topping." Her recipe has a light, moist crumb, and with all the spices and the meringue, it goes really well with coffee.
A note about the directions: comedian Phil Hartman used to do a skit on Saturday Night Live called "The Anal-Retentive Fisherman." The character seemed like he'd never get around to actually fishing because he was futzing around so much with his individual zipper-top baggies and color-coded organizational system. Sometimes, when I'm using recipes from Carole Walter's Great Cakes, I think her subtitle should be The Anal-Retentive Baker. However, she didn't win a James Beard award for nothing. I've learned a lot from her directions, such as how to cream butter and sugar properly. The directions have been streamlined, but you'll find they're still pretty meticulous.
For the Cake
For the Meringue
Tips: You're making meringue, which means you're whipping the living bejesus out of egg whites. It is crucial to your operations that your eggs be ROOM TEMPERATURE and that your whisk and mixing bowl be clean and perfectly dry.
Notice you need 3 egg yolks for the cake and 3 egg whites for the meringue. So you'll need to separate 3 eggs. Use 3 bowls and your clean, dry hands (see instructions on page 81 of the book) OR a fancy-pants egg separator to do this.
1. Because of the meringue topping, your usual "center a rack" does not apply. You'll want to position the rack in the lower third of your oven and preheat to 325 degrees F.
To Make the Cake
2. Prepare your springform pan. You'll want to use a springform because it's easier to "unmold" the cake without messing up the meringue topping.
3. In a small bowl, stir the baking soda into the buttermilk and set aside.
4. In your mixer, using your regular paddle or beaters, cream the butter on medium speed, then gradually add the brown sugar, about 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing well. This should take 6 to 8 minutes. Don't forget to stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl.
5. In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, and spices. Set aside.
6. Return to your fully creamed mixture and add the whole egg. Beat for 1 minute at medium speed. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, at 30-second intervals. Scrape the sides of the bowl occasionally. Beat for 1 minute before beating in the vanilla extract.
7. Reduce the mixer speed to low, and add a third of the flour mixture and half of the buttermilk and baking soda combo alternately, mixing until just incorporated. Repeat until all the flour mixture and buttermilk combo are just blended into the batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for 10 seconds more.
8. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the surface with the back of a tablespoon. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts over the top and set aside.
To Make The Meringue
9. Replace the paddle with the whisk attachment. Clean and dry your mixing bowl, OR use an extra bowl that works with your mixer.
10. Beat the egg whites on medium speed until frothy. (continues)
Frothy means like the head on a nice, tall glass of Guinness beer. This is denser than the "frothy" you get when you blow air through a straw in a glass of milk. The mixture will have bubbles and will be cloudy instead of clear. This is when salt or cream of tartar is added.
The next stage of beaten egg whites, soft peak, is so named because a peak forms when you lift the whisk out of the whites, then gracefully sinks back into the rest of whites. Soft peak stage is denser than "frothy" and it's the stage when sugar is usually added.
At the firm peak stage, that same "lift the whisk" maneuver leaves behind firm peaks that are well defined and don't sink back down. All of the egg whites are shiny and moist looking.
Stiff peak stage is a step beyond firm peak: the egg whites are very stiff and the meringue has gone beyond shiny to glossy. This stage happens when sugar has been added to the firm peak stage.
Overbeating past this stage will take you to the "flaccid peak" stage, which means it's time to dry your eyes, mend your heart, get new eggs, and start over.
That's your little primer on egg whites.
11. Add the cream of tartar and increase the mixer speed to medium-high. Beat to firm peaks.
12. Reduce the mixer to medium speed and add the brown sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until just blended. Add the spices and mix briefly. You should now have stiff peaks; be careful not to beat the meringue too much.
13. Using a spatula, gently mound the meringue on top of the batter in the cake pan. Use the back of a tablespoon to spread out the meringue evenly.
14. Center the pan on the rack (which, you remember, is in the lower third of the oven) and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and tests done. You may get a little meringue "cling" on your cake tester—ignore it. You're looking for the telltale wet batter cling, which by now, veteran of oh-so-many cakes, you know so well.
15. Allow the cake to cool in the pan, then remove the springform sides.
Now, Carole Walter adds this information: meringue-topped cakes will become soggy if air does not circulate around them. I made this cake the day before I took it into work. Instead of locking it tightly in my cake carry overnight, I propped the carry's lid up about 1/2 inch from the bottom, and ATC did not suffer a soggy cake.
This page created January 2011
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