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!

Chocolate Walnut Cookies – bet you can’t eat just one…

For several years, we have travelled to NYC annually to visit our favourite scholar. One year we finally decided to visit Grand Central Station/Terminal. The iconic station is itself a sight to behold, but the visit is enhanced by checking out the Grand Central Market on one end, and the shops at the other end. It was the "year of macarons", and I was drawn to the displays of a shop called Financier Pastries. In addition to buying gorgeously coloured macarons, I grabbed a wee bag of chocolate walnut flourless cookies. They were so wonderful, I had to find a recipe replicating them. For years, I was using the one from Epicurious. Recently, I have found a recipe that is the original.

The cookies contain no flour, so are gluten-free and Passover friendly. Because the recipe uses egg whites, there is a sort of meringue chew – combined with texture from the walnuts - and the inside is moist and fudge-y. The crackle top retains the shiny quality. It is gorgeous to look at, and tastes heavenly. 

All sources I found referred to these as Payard’s cookies.  They write about this revered pâtissier as if he’s dead, but apparently not. He has several shops in Manhattan (and Japan and Korea). Am feeling red-faced that I have never tracked down one of the locations – will be on the list for this year.

Quirky trivia – the Financier Pastry product line includes Payard’s cookies, and Payard’s product line includes “Financiers”.  The website for Financier Pastry says their name is inspired by the financial district where their flagship store is located, but the name also evokes their custom - with each coffee they give a small French pastry in the shape of a gold bar called a “financier”. Payard also sells financiers – not in the shape of a gold bar. In fact, they look a bit like cupcakes, and Smitten Kitchen offers us a recipe for this treat which uses almond flour.

The cookies I make tend to be about 1.5 inch diametre - though if the batter is a bit runny, the cookies tend to flatten and spread to about two inches.  Apparently, the original Payard cookies, that he sells to this day, are huge – four inch diametre. That being the case, "one" might be all any person could eat.

I went through a spell of making these often, and recently dusted off the recipe to make a batch for this blog entry. I was alone in the kitchen, tasting the first batch and practically startled myself with my “out loud voice” making all sorts of mmm, nomnom sounds. Love these cookies – resistance is futile!

Click here for the recipe. It’s another simple one that can be mixed by hand or mixer. Add it to the list of recipes that use up leftover egg whites.