Coconut layer cake

For the past month I’ve been working on a chapter about the rise of the white cake, the layer cake, the fluffy and utterly unflavored cake, the “sweet nothings,” as I’ve tentatively titled it. I’ve nearly finished a draft that explains this phenomenon, really nothing less than the evisceration of the American sense of taste, by way of Victorian table manners, the invention of the eggbeater, a gastric fistula, yogurt enemas, jello salads, and fears of sexual excess. And that is just one chapter. People, seriously, you will want to reserve a copy on Amazon as soon as humanly possible.

In the meantime, I’ve needed to bake a number of Gilded Age recipes, including something called “cornstarch cake” that tastes distressingly reminiscent of an expired snack cake found in the trash after the vending machine has been refilled. But not everything that came out of that era of American baking was inexcusable. The angel food cake is lovely when made well. And the layer cake isn’t inherently bad; it’s just too often made that way. It can be redeemed. Consider, for example, the coconut cake.

The invention of southern cooking. Also cupcakes

Most of you probably have at least one charity cookbook on your shelves — those cookbooks compiled by women’s organizations and sold to raise money for a good cause. Thousands of charity cookbooks have been published in the United States since the 1860s, and most never passed beyond the borders of the towns that wrote them. A few, though, went on to far bigger things, and this story concerns the first small-town cookbook made good.

Gingerbread men

Of course I had to make gingerbread men for Christmas. You can’t be halfway through a book on gingerbread and then pass up the obvious opportunity to bake it; it simply wouldn’t be allowed. And, of course, I’m no longer happy with the recipes I had at hand. So I came up with a recipe with a genuinely historical flavor but the tenderness and richness we expect from a Christmas cookie.

Apples and time

I spent half the weekend making apple butter. Twenty-two half-pint jars of apple butter, from a half-bushel of apples, a completely unnecessary quantity that will be foisted off on unsuspecting friends come Christmas. In the meantime it occurs to me that this is the twentieth consecutive year (!) I’ve made apple butter, and so I ought to know something about it by now. Yet what I know isn’t anything I can reduce to a recipe. Apple butter is a pure expression of the apple’s essence, an exercise in simplicity; easy to make, impossible to perfect. It has, after all, only two ingredients: apples and time, both of which can seem to have minds of their own. Here’s what I know about each.

Pretty good banana bread

Cook’s Illustrated finally went off the deep end this month. I’ve seen this moment coming for years, as they gradually ran through the classic American repertoire and resorted to publishing home versions of questionable restaurant fare and revisiting recipes that were already perfect. I’m a charter subscriber; I’ve been getting this magazine in the mail every other month since 1993, and every time I think about dropping it they run something that is so good that it pays for the year’s subscription. I refer to my back issues more than to any cookbook on my shelf. So I don’t say this lightly. But my old reliable has gone off the deep end. What’s finally done it? What’s inspired one of my rare full-on Internet rants and a corrective recipe?

Extreme banana bread.

Brandy-orange ginger cookies: A semi-historical mashup

This recipe started as a historical reenactment and turned into an attempt to see how close I could get to my own Platonic ideal of a cookie while staying within the spirit of antebellum cuisine. After a few tries I got something I was pretty happy with, and this one you can make for your friends without having to explain that it was part of some guy’s research project.

Crisp gingerbread biscuits

There are countless recipes for gingerbread in 19th-century cookbooks, most simply called “gingerbread” (or, to distinguish them, Gingerbread No. 1, Gingerbread No. 2, and so on), but most of the recipes fall into a few types. There’s soft gingerbread, which is what we’d call a cake. There’s “common gingerbread,” which is typically a soft cookie and always contains molasses — which is what made it “common,” molasses being cheaper than even brown sugar. “Sugar gingerbread,” by contrast, used sugar. And then there’s hard gingerbread, which was designed to keep well.

I assumed that hard gingerbread would give me something like a gingersnap (or, I hoped, like Sweetzels Spiced Wafers). But this recipe, at least, turned out completely different from what I expected — somewhere between a cookie and a cracker, rather like an English biscuit. Which is, as they say, why you play the game.