Let Them Eat Cake!

In my home, it’s a season of birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations and special events – and that spells C.A.K.E. I have many signature cake recipes and have not had a chance to share them all. So far, you can check out Carrot Cake, Red Velvet Cake, Hurry Up Chocolate. (The promised "never before published" Grandma Cake – is now here.) 

The documentary “Sugar Coated” aptly noted that sugar, especially in the form of cake, appears at every one of our celebrations. Recently, there have been a LOT of sugar documentaries (just Google it) all beating the same drum. Oh dear…

Me, Jani bácsi and grandparents

Me, Jani bácsi and grandparents

As I tackle the challenge of trying to eat less and less sugar, I visit memory lane. My first clear "cake memory" was linked to Ontario tobacco country – the Delhi, Leamington area - where members of the Hungarian community travelled to visit friends - and where many found seasonal jobs before the trend to use temporary foreign workers.

Were the people we visited family or friends? That distinction is blurred. Everyone was “Auntie / Uncle”, or in Hungarian - “néni, bácsi” (naynee, bawtchi). Some of the aunts/uncles were also referred to as "falubeli (s)" – meaning, "people from my village back home". Far from the “homeland”, bonds among the “New Canadians” were important.

We once dropped in to see one of these families in tobacco country – and yes – people really did just "drop in" unannounced – and usually were greeted with a warm welcome (and for the men, a shot glass of palinka – a "knock your socks off" fruit brandy.)  To me, these people seemed rich and modern – a large, new house, lots of land, and they were the only people I knew who had a chest freezer. Out of it, the hostess grabbed some frozen home-made cake and within an hour it was served, covered with whipped cream. It was a confetti angel cake – and I was in heaven – with a lasting memory. I don’t recall ever trying to replicate that cake, though I notice that one can buy cake mixes for confetti angel cake. 

Somewhere along the line, I stopped using cake mixes, as I began to make most things from scratch. From time to time, I come across articles debating whether it’s Ok to use cake mixes, how to make a cake mix taste like a scratch cake – geesh! The big name cake mix sites offer lots of fun ideas for decorating – though that's not my "thing". (It's my brother who, over the years, has turned out amazingly decorated cakes.)

My cakes are simply iced, and I know nothing about fancy decorating. I feel tickled that I am two degrees of separation from the talent at Cake and Loaf Bakery on Dundurn St, Hamilton. I follow them on Instagram and there is never a day when my jaw does’t drop at the sight of their creations.

Wikipedia claims the word "cake" has Viking / Old Norse origins - from the word "kaka.". (I always though that meant something else - wink.) Could that also be linked to the word "fika"? This is a just published book - "Fika: An introduction to the Swedish coffee break". Don't forget that a lovely coffee break awaits at Kensington Market's Fika Coffee Shop.

I come by my love of cakes honestly, since it is a big part of Hungarian culture. Google - Hungarian coffee houses – and the Image results of these (still existing) coffee houses (called cukrászda) are a thing to behold. The cukrászda culture was famous, and survived 40 years of Communism. The pastries and spaces are "eye candy". The history of cakes points out that they are most popular in Europe and North America. Not surprisingly, there are cake variations across Europe. The charming Great British Bake Off is airing again just now on PBS.  I was surprised to see the number of cakes the contestants had to make that I never heard of!

Though I don’t get fancy with cakes or decorating, my idea of a fun outing is to check out all the baking supplies at Bulk Food stores, or even better – Golda’s Kitchen - and when the drive seems too far, one can order online.

So, "Let them eat cake!" I know... turns out Marie Antoinette never said that. Reading about cakes has fewer calories than eating them, but let's all eat cake anyhow!

It would be fun to hear your cake memories and loves.  Use Comments below to share (you can post anonymously or just leave a first name) - and if you enjoyed this read, please take a second to click on "Like"!

Hurry Up (Schmecking) Chocolate Cake

My (not so profound) observation about writing a blog is that I am often wondering what the next entry will be about. I don’t have a stack of ideas waiting to be “published”. Often there is a pleasantly surprising convergence of ideas and events.

I am the youngest person at Tai Chi and admire the joie de vivre of members in their 80s and even older. When Jennie (82) told me she was taking her husband on a bus tour of Mennonite Country it triggered a whoosh of memories – and naturally, that involved food. Around here “Mennonite Country” means St Jacob’s and Waterloo County - the Mennonite Relief Sale (featuring unforgettable strawberry pies), the Mennonite / St Jacob's Farmers' Market – ten minutes from the Kitchener Market – a community noted for a huge Oktoberfest celebrating German Heritage. In fact, almost one hundred years ago, Kitchener changed its name from Berlin.

Converging with these memories were updates from Food52 about their 2015 Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks (I have no idea why it is called that). Over a period of three weeks, sixteen cookbooks were reviewed, leading to one winner. (A bit like a more complex “Canada Reads”.) In conjunction with that, the Food52 blog asked readers about oldest / most worn cookbooks. For me, the cookbook(s) linked to Mennonite Country are those from Edna StaeblerFood That Really Schmecks and More Food That Really Schmecks – both easily survived my cookbook purge of last year. With red-face, I confess that these days I prefer cookbooks with lots of photos – food porn, as it is now referred to. There is not a single photo in Edna’s books. She clearly announces in both books that she is not a trained cook. She said she loved cooking with “blissful abandon” (wow! Kitchen Bliss 1.0). Today we might say that she “curated” these collections of hearty, rustic and tasty (schmecking) recipes, that use local produce – saying she did not include any recipes that required some exotic import - such as kiwi - or a processed ingredient.

She must have been an impressive woman. Born in 1906, in what was then called Berlin, she achieved a university education and teaching qualifications. She was an accomplished author and wrote for many well-known Canadian publications. The cookbooks, she says, were an unplanned, but satisfying “accident”. As with many (good) cookbooks, the introductory chapters are a delight to read and I was happy to re-visit these pages, where she described friends from the Mennonite community (founded by families that migrated north from Pennsylvania - and originally from Europe). She waxes rhapsodically about her beloved Waterloo County and its entrepreneurial roots. Edna died in 2006 at the age of 100, and so she lived long enough to see her community grow – including as the home base for Blackberry / RIM and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

But I digress from the topic of food... There are many pages with folded corners in her books. Some I will return to in future, but the one that made it onto the Easter menu was Hurry Up Chocolate Cake. This cake is quick - and clean – the only thing dirtied in the making is the baking pan. Edna included it in one of the books, it seems almost reluctantly, saying “you probably have this recipe…”. I’m glad she shared it, since it has been made and devoured countless times in my kitchen.

One final “convergence”… The recipes in the “Schmecking” books are “old”. The second of the two volumes was published in 1979, and Edna’s preface outlines the venerable roots of many of the recipes, passed from generation to generation. About the same time that I was lost in reverie in this old cookbook, I stumbled across The Wacky Cake recipe. It too is a one pan chocolate cake that requires the cook to make little “craters” in the dry mix into which the wet ingredients are added – same as Edna’s! The cake was considered wacky because it uses no eggs, butter or milk – and the guess is that it dates back to wartime rationing. There are some differences between the two – she uses buttermilk (she seems to love using buttermilk or sour milk), whereas the America’s Test Kitchen Wacky Cake Recipe uses water and oil. In another entry, ATK says “We chose water over milk or buttermilk to moisten our cake batter, discovering that cakes made with dairy had a more muted chocolate flavour.” I have had no time to check this out – but will report back!

If all of that was not enough of a “blast from the past” – this weekend we have reservations at Boralia (some reviews call it Borealia) – a TO resto that “celebrates the historic origins of Canadian cuisine. Our menu draws inspiration from traditional Aboriginal dishes, as well as the recipes of early settlers and immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries.” Will report back on that as well!

Now… hurry up and make that schmecking chocolate cake!