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GOOD COOKING : Our American Heritage: Great Cakes

June 06, 1991|ABBY MANDEL

Cakes are one of this country's most treasured culinary traditions. But because most of us have very little time and a very big concern about health and fitness--not to mention the fact that there are lots of good bakeries and many easy-to-use cake mixes--baked-from-scratch cakes have become a casualty of the current culinary scene.

This is a shame; it's very difficult to find a commercially baked cake or a cake mix with a soft, moist texture and buttery flavor.

Here are three unusual cakes from our culinary past. The molasses cake, a homespun, old-fashioned treasure much like gingerbread, is adapted from a handwritten cooking journal from the turn of the century. Sunshine cake is an appealing yellow cake, very light in texture, that is perfect for all occasions. The company cake is just that, a North Dakota gem that was carefully tucked away in a family's recipe files.

Even with these recipes, it's important to use the best-quality ingredients and to measure accurately. Use unsalted butter (unsalted margarine works well when a buttery flavor is not critical to the cake's success). Measure flour by first stirring to make it less compact and then scooping it into specific-quantity dry (not liquid) measuring cups and leveling the flour off with a knife. Be sure to cream the sugar and butter until fluffy; adding the eggs and beating them thoroughly is another important step.

But all of this will be for naught if you don't use a baking pan that is exactly the specified size and prepare it with a generous coating of butter, margarine or non-stick cooking spray (and a sheer dusting of flour if so indicated). To be sure of the oven, use a mercury oven thermometer; preheat the oven and check to see if the heat is correct. If not, adjust the heat until the thermometer registers the required temperature.

For those who are committed to low-fat diets, angel cakes are the best bet; they contain no fat or egg yolks. If you missed my columns with the recipes for lemon angel cake and cappuccino angel cake, I'll be happy to send them to you. Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope and write to P.O. Box 127, Winnetka, Ill. 60093.

And if you have a treasured, old family cake recipe, I would be pleased to have you share it with me. In turn, I will share it in this column with fellow cooks who still consider a homemade cake an essential part of a special celebration.

Appearing in the Midwest's earliest cookbooks, this cake is named for its pale yellow color. It's also delicious and light-textured, very much like an angel cake but not quite as puffy. Many frostings would complement this cake; the lemony frosting is very tart, a wonderful contrast to the cake.


1 cup cake flour

1 1/4 cups sugar

4 large egg yolks

8 large egg whites

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

Grated zest 1 lemon

Lemony Frosting

Sift cake flour 3 times onto wax paper. Sift sugar 5 times onto another sheet wax paper.

Beat egg yolks until thick and light-colored, about 4 minutes. Using clean beaters, beat egg whites in large mixer bowl until foamy. Add cream of tartar and salt, beating until whites are thick and hold shape but still soft and moist. Gently fold in sugar, in 3 batches. Fold in lemon extract, lemon zest and reserved egg yolks until blended. Gently fold in flour. Transfer batter to ungreased 10-inch tube pan. Spread evenly with spatula.

Bake in center of oven at 350 degrees until lightly browned and wood pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Invert pan and cool completely. Use flexible knife to release cake from sides, then bottom, of pan.

To serve, spread top and sides with Lemony Frosting. Makes 1 (10-inch) tube cake.

Note: Plain cake can be kept, well covered, at room temperature 1 day or frozen up to 3 months. Once frosted, cake can be stored overnight, kept at room temperature, well covered.

Lemony Frosting

3 3/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted

1/4 cup unsalted butter or margarine, melted

Dash salt

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/2 to 1 teaspoon milk or water

Combine powdered sugar, melted butter, salt, lemon zest and lemon juice in mixing bowl. Mix until smooth. Add milk or water, as necessary, for desired consistency. Spread on cake.

An old family recipe, this cake starred on a buffet table in Fargo, N.D. last fall. Self-frosted with a walnut meringue as it bakes and filled with a vanilla custard, it makes a festive presentation without being too sweet. It's great served plain, or you can make it even more festive by serving it with fresh strawberries or raspberries and raspberry sauce.


1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup shortening


4 large egg yolks

2 teaspoons vanilla

1/3 cup milk

5 large egg whites

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Vanilla Custard Filling

Sift flour, baking powder and salt together onto wax paper.

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