I’ve been baking a lot of cake lately. Now, I love cake, but it’s not normally on my list of things to have around the house. My cakes have been getting more complex as I go, not because my cake baking skills are improving, but because that’s what happens when you bake your feelings and your feelings keep getting more complex as the world seems to be disintegrating around you and you hope it can be made anew and better but you aren’t sure how to help make that happen so while you work on that you make cake.
My most recent effort was a ten layer Russian honey cake, which I had never even heard of but the recipe sounded too good not to try. The recipe also contains this note: “The batter will begin to foam and emit a curious odor,” so maybe it also sounded too weird not to try. Making it occupied the better part of an afternoon, though it began the previous day with making dulce de leche. You do this by boiling a can of sweetened condensed milk for several hours, which I’m sure is a terrible idea but I’ve never had the can explode and it really does taste so much better than the pre-made cans they sell in the grocery store. The next preparatory step was making something called burnt honey, which is more like making caramel only with honey instead of sugar. No actual burning involved.
The honey cake itself involves some of the burnt honey, some unburnt honey, lots of eggs, mixing over a hot water bath, and baking very thin layers on many, many sheets of parchment. The icing layers are a mix of the bulk of the burnt honey, the dulce de leche, and a vast quantity of whipped cream. The whole thing is covered with the toasted crumbs of an eleventh layer of the cake, and then it has to sit overnight, and I promise you it is well worth the effort and the wait. It also freezes well and is delicious straight out of the freezer, which is a good thing because a cake with 10 layers of cake and 10 layers of icing and a coating of more cake is really quite a lot for two adults who are sheltering in place in their house during a pandemic.
Prior to the honey cake, I was on a bundt cake kick, after having never made a bundt cake in my life. I did not grow up in a house with advanced (or even intermediate) kitchen tools or pans. The cake my mother most commonly made in my childhood was made in a plain rectangular baking pan. We called it the Bouncy Icing Cake and it came from the Joy of Cooking which most definitely called it something else, though I’ve yet to figure out what. The cake was a yellow cake, and the icing was chocolate, and it had a definite bounce when you tapped it with your finger. I’ve only looked for the recipe out of curiosity, because it wasn’t all that good a cake or icing, but it was fast to make and therefore quite handy when children forgot to say until that morning that they needed to take a cake to school. I think the recipes had names like “lightning cake” and “quick icing,” but so far they remain a mystery lost to time and that particular edition of the Joy of Cooking.
For the bundt cakes I turned to Maida Heatter, author of the best dessert cookbooks I know. In our teen years my sister and I spent many hours making pies and cakes from her Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, struggling to parse instructions like “pull the wax paper toward a narrow end” but always ending up with wonderful results. Our favorite was a pie that Maida introduced by saying “I never know what to say when people tell me, as they often do, that this pie is better than sex.” We first saw this recipe when I was a freshman in high school, and when my sister said “We have to make this pie!” I said “We can’t make it yet – I won’t have anything to compare it to.” My sister said “I can tell you. The pie will probably be better,” but we didn’t make it then. In fact, for several years my sister would start conversations or letters by asking “Can we make the pie yet?” and I would say “No, no we still can’t make the pie.” We did eventually make it, and it was quite delicious. We have made it many times and fed it to many friends and relations, always telling the story of our name for the pie (Better Than Sex Pie, or just Sex Pie, though it has a real name). The voting has trended towards a result of “It depends.” This is never a reflection on the pie.
The first of the Maida Heatter bundt cakes I tried is called East 62nd Street Lemon Cake. It is a type of lemon drizzle cake, where you first bake the very lemony cake and then brush it with a lemon or lime (or in my case, lemon-lime) glaze. It has a texture much like a pound cake, and the tang of the lemon zest in the cake and the lemon and/or lime in the glaze turns it into something sublime and extremely difficult to stop eating.
Because I knew I wanted to make this lemon cake, I had to first buy a bundt pan. I got to ruminate about recipes while I waited for the pan to arrive (remember – pandemic, no retail stores open). For someone who loves kitchen implements – and just about the only type of store I can spend hours in is a kitchen supply store – I don’t really like having one-use tools in my house. The first time Rose was in my kitchen she asked me if I had an ice cream scoop, and I held up a spoon. She also asked me if I had a cheese slicer and I held up a knife, and then she asked if I had a pizza cutter and I held up the same knife. For our first Christmas together after she moved in, I got her an ice scream scoop, a cheese slicer, and a pizza cutter. I have vastly increased my kitchen gadgetry over the years and I especially love tiny things – I have a collection of tiny loaf pans, tiny pie pans, tiny tart tins. I haven’t yet bought tiny bundt pans, but I think I’ve identified the ones I want.
The second Maida Heatter bundt cake, which I selected while waiting for the bundt pan, is called 86-Proof Chocolate Cake. I suppose I should have been forewarned by the name that it would be VERY boozy, but I wasn’t, and it was. Still, it’s cake, it’s chocolate, it’s coffee, and it’s hard to screw up that combination. Having never had it before I can’t say if it’s suppose to be quite as dense as mine turned out, or to have a crunchy outer layer around a more pudding-like (in the British sense, not the American) middle, but I suspect both things are correct. Some of the booze flavor dissipated after a couple of days, it too freezes well, and it goes perfectly with vanilla ice cream.
My next cake will probably be one of my standby easy cakes: blueberry coffee cake, Nantucket cranberry cake, Truly Awful Cake (it’s not, and it’s triple chocolate), or maybe the lemon bundt cake again. It should take us a day or two to get through one of those, and while we snack on that I can plan my next cake adventure. Multi layer cakes appeal to me right now – the layers reflect how my insides feel, and layer cakes manage to be complex and simple at the same time. They also give me a way to occupy my hands for several hours, largely leaving my mind free to work on knottier problems.
Rose and I have been the only people in our house for several months now (all alone with all the cake), but when I bake the kitchen becomes a gathering place, as kitchens will do. There is my mother, of course, who has been dead for fifteen years. My sister who lives 3,000 miles away, and my sister who died last year. My aunt, dead for 8 years. Our kids, who live in different states. My best friend from 7th grade who lives on the other side of the country and who made me a memorable and delicious cake for my 13th birthday. My friend who lives on the other side of an ocean and who I have yet to meet in person but who got me started thinking and writing about cake this weekend. I recently made a playlist (yes, I almost called it a mix tape just then) called Kitchen Dance Party, because I need more dancing in my life right now and because there’s something I like about dancing in the kitchen, as long as it’s not while the cake is rising. I’m far better at virtual parties than actual ones, and I welcome everyone to gather in the kitchen, share the cake, and dance to the music.