If any cake baked from scratch ever looked like the product of food industry marketing, it’s the cornstarch cake, a plain white cake in which a third or more of the flour is replaced by cornstarch. It seems so obviously a gimmick to get you to use up that ancient box of cornstarch in your pantry—it’s not just for pudding anymore! You might expect to find such a recipe sponsored by the Cornstarch Council, or perhaps in an ad for Argo brand. What’s more, I have never baked anything from scratch that so strongly resembled, in flavor, appearance, and texture, a packaged snack cake. But cornstarch cake was neither factory made nor even factory invented. It appeared in the 1850s, decades before cornstarch was branded and sold in boxes and before manufacturers marketed their products with recipes and cookbooks. Cornstarch cake was the product of ordinary women experimenting at home, looking for shortcuts—hacking their cakes, you might say — and that fact ought to make us rethink some of our assumptions about why Americans started eating “processed” food.
A few years ago I left off my research into historical gastronomy when it became clear that I was onto an idea bigger than the project could contain — a set of interlocking ideas, really, about craft and the body. I’ve decided to simply shake the old project, a sort of biography of gingerbread that is also an encapsulated history of American baking, and let the bigger ideas fall out to be dealt with later. I’d like to have the gingerbread off my plate, pun intended. But I also want to get back to those big ideas, because I think they’re important, and I’m going to use this space to write my way back into them.
Let me start with a practice that is basic to modern baking, but which home cooks almost never bother with: beating eggs.
As a guy who bakes a lot, I get sort of tired of seeing baking portrayed as some cutesy thing that mommy bloggers do while their toddlers crawl around the kitchen, licking flour off the flour. Nothing against mommy bloggers, understand. Or toddlers. But sometimes I wish there were a more, you know, manly depiction of baking. Enter the sixteenth-century Swiss artist Jost Ammam, who produced this woodcut for The Book of Trades, a collection of illustrated poems…
Yesterday I baked a really wonderful citrus-almond cake, and while I have no complaints at all about the cake, I found the recipe hard to use. I had trouble figuring it out initially, and it was picky without explaining anything. The more I thought about it, though, the problems with this recipe are the problems with practically every published recipe these days. They’re too wordy and dense to be skimmed or consulted quickly by an experienced cook, but they don’t give a real beginner enough help to be successful. Can’t we do better than this?
The winter solstice party was cancelled on account of winter weather, and the world failed to end after all, so we spent Friday evening at home decorating sugar cookies. My nine year-old art director had just received a new box of extremely fancy cookie decorations from her grandmother, and so each batch, two cookie sheets’ worth, took nearly an hour.
“You know, in my day, we only had the red sugar and the green sugar.”
(Pause for dramatic effect.)
“If we wanted white, we had to use salt!”
Sugar cookies can’t be too rich and buttery if you want to roll them, and the really good historical cakes and cookies aren’t cookie-like enough to pass for Santa fare. But we can mine those recipes for flavor ideas. Herewith, some historically plausible (1750-1850) flavorings for your Christmas sugar cookies that will kick them up a little without competing with the gingerbread. […]
Traditions have a way of growing sadly stale over the years, don’t they? The spirit that once animated them slowly dies, leaving only the dry outer husk of empty actions. Ah, but sometimes we can revive them by looking to the past, by finding the old spirit and sloughing off the dead forms. Sometimes we find that the original form of a tradition not only meant more at the time, but can mean more to us today. Sometimes the past is like a little hope chest, a little… er… hopeful thing. Or other.
This is not one of those times.
No, friends, today we’re going to talk about sugar cookies.
A friend asked for my recipe for cornbread, and a blog craves content, and so I thought I would post it here. But the recipe requires a bit of explanation. You see, over the years my standard cornbread, which I bake every week or two, has evolved from a lightly sweetened cakey thing with half white flour to an all-corn, unsweetened cornbread. That means that I’ve had to change the cornmeal I use, from a medium-ground all-purpose yellow meal to a fine ground white meal. I’m not sure whether white is better than yellow, but fine-ground definitely is. I consider it an absolute necessity for all-cornmeal cornbread, in fact; coarse-ground meal never fully cooks, and without some flour to smooth it out, the bread is crumbly and gritty.
But that simple, pragmatic choice of ingredient appears to be fraught with Deeper Meaning. White cornmeal isn’t just cornmeal that happens to be white.
One of the arguments I’m making in my book has to do with the movement in American baking from simple and unadorned to fancy and visually enticing, and how that shift went hand in hand with the decline of craft and home cooking. I find it useful sometimes to try to graph and diagram things, even (especially?) when they’re not obviously quantitative, but when you’re writing cultural history, where “data” is largely fictional, you can easily oversimplify what you’re trying to visualize. What follows is a useful way to think about craft and ornament in baking, but take it with a grain of salt.
In researching historical baking I’ve ignored some old standards — very old standards, I mean, not like oatmeal cookies — and now that I have a lull in the research I’m picking them off. This month it’s jumbles, or jumbals, if you prefer the old spelling, which were formerly like nothing that goes by that name today.