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Bert Greene's Kitchen

Lessons From the Master Baker

December 20, 1987|Bert Greene | Greene is a New York-based food columnist .

As a child, the day before Christmas was always the source of my greatest ambivalence. Every year, after breakfast, my parents offered two choices to my sister and I.

First my father would announce: "Who's going to help me pick out the Christmas tree this year? A question immediately countered by my mother's query: "And who's going to help me make the cakes for tomorrow night's dinner?"

As I recall, after audible groans of indecision, my sister, Myra, would usually join my father in the search for the largest spruce that could be negotiated on our neighborhood streets for the least amount of ad valorem. While I, inevitably chose to be Paula Greene's acolyte as she performed miracles of bakery in our old-fashioned kitchen with its Hoosier cabinet, blue enamel gas oven and coil-topped refrigerator.

In the past I know, I have made light of my mother's prowess at the stove, but (despite the possibility of mixing memory with desire) I truly believe her ability as a baker was God-given.

A Dubious Apprentice

Without ever cracking open a cookbook, my mother and her dubious apprentice, would work together all morning long. My job was to sift flour, measure sugar and on rare occasions crack and separate eggs.

However, that was always an emergency measure as I was not a child of steady hand. While I licked the bowls clean and washed up the kitchen detritus, my mother would manage to coax towering cakes of silken texture to rise in the oven from what I always considered pedestrian ingredients. Using only her earthenware bowl and a favorite wooden spoon--worn to a fine mahogany by overuse--she could beat sugar, butter and eggs into aerated drifts of golden snow in minutes. And mince nuts in a wooden bowl with a scimitar-handled chopper faster than her helper could crack them open with a hammer across the drop-leaf table.

In all the years I assisted her, my mother never had a cake fail. But she was a Scorpio by birth and her astrological impatience with detail would suddenly surface when some particularly delicate finishing touch or elegant application of frosting seemed to go on interminably.

"Mother," I would cry with real anguish when some sign of expediency seemed imminent.

"I'm sorry. I'm getting bored with this now." Was my mother's only explanation; always offered with a "take-it-or-leave-it" shrug of the shoulders. "You're the artist of the family. I'll do the baking. You learn to do all the fancy fluting and piping."

I did, of course, but never was able to duplicate my mother's ability to assemble ingredients at random and turn them into works of genius on the tongue. That happens only once a lifetime, I guess.

Somehow this Christmas, I wish my mother were here so I could let the encomiums fall where they rightly belong. The walnut cake that follows was not my mother's invention. She found the recipe in some Southern cookbook--that she either lost or promptly threw away--my mother was like that. But the odd little touches that make the cake great (like coffee-flavored whipped cream spread between the multiple layers) were her genius.

And, needless to say she baked it like a dream.

MY MOTHER'S COFFEE WALNUT CRUMB CAKE

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

2 cups granulated sugar

6 eggs, separated

2 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee powder

6 tablespoons hot water

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

2 cups plus 4 tablespoons soft bread crumbs

4 teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups whipping cream

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Chocolate curls

Cream softened butter and granulated sugar together in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks, one at time, beating well after each addition. Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon instant coffee in water and add to creamed mixture along with walnuts, 2 cups bread crumbs, baking powder, melted butter and vanilla. Mix well. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into egg yolk mixture.

Grease 4 (9-inch) round cake pans. Sprinkle each with 1 tablespoon remaining bread crumbs. Divide batter among pans. Bake at 400 degrees 15 to 20 minutes or until wood pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely in pans on wire racks.

Pour cream into medium bowl. Sift 2 teaspoons instant coffee over top. Beat in powdered sugar, then continue beating until stiff.

Turn out 1 cake layer onto serving dish or cake stand and spread with whipped cream. Turn out each remaining layer onto sheet of lightly buttered wax paper. Hold second layer under wax paper and invert over first layer. Remove wax paper. Spread layer with whipped cream.

Repeat with remaining layers and cream. Garnish with chocolate curls made by scraping bar of chocolate with vegetable peeler. Refrigerate until serving. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Note: Layers may be baked 2 at a time, if desired. Each is quite thin.

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