Sugar Spun Success: It’s the 1920’s, It’s Wilton and It’s the Winter Snowflake Cake!

Although it was invented technically in 1927, television didn’t make a widespread appearance in homes until the 1950’s. And cooking shows didn’t reach their heyday until the 1990’s. That means there was no Food Channel, no Great British Baking Show, no Martha Stewart. If you wanted expert instruction in the 1920’s on how to bake a festive looking cake for the holidays you basically had four options as far as guidance… your mom, your grandmother, your favorite cookbook or your favorite radio show…

Agnes White Tizard, the voice of Betty Crocker on Betty Crocker’s Cooking School of the Air taught listeners how to cook for 20 years. Read more about her here.

Very reliable sources for sure, those options would have definitely produced a delicious, time-tested cake that everyone enjoyed, and had been enjoying for years and years. But none of those options would have been able to show you how to make something new and innovative. For that you would have had to go to Chicago – to the Wilton School of Cake Decorating, where you’d get expert hands-on-training on how to make the most pretty and modern cake of the holiday season.

Dewey McKinley Wilton

Started in 1929 by confectionery artist Dewey McKinley Wilton,  the Wilton School first taught classes to area pastry chefs in the hotel industry. Dewey had a special relationship with these guys in particular. As a traveling pulled sugar expert, Dewey would show up in hotel kitchens around the Midwest when the pastry chefs needed an extra bit of magnificence to wow their hotel guests.

An example of pulled sugar ribbons atop a modern day cake. This is the type of work Dewey did for area hotels in the 1920’s. Photo via pinterest.

Most of these pastry chefs were wonders themselves in the cake baking department, having been trained in Europe, and were very proficient with a frosting knife and lofty buttery layers. But they weren’t quite as familiar with Dewey’s flair for pulling sugar into hardened shapes and intricate designs.

A 1920’s pastry chef with confectionery creation. Photo courtesy of snackncake.com

Quite curious, they wanted to know about techniques, about processes, about possibilities. And most importantly, all these pastry chefs wanted to know how exactly a pot of boiling melted sugar could eventually turn into a big, brilliant ribbon or a bird or a crunchy piece of abstract art. Dewey was more than happy to share what he knew, but after so many pastry chefs in so many hotels kept asking so many of the same questions over and over again, his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.

Instead of telling each chef, one by one, how pulled sugar was done, he realized he needed to be teaching one class geared towards many minds.  So that’s what he did. He started the Wilton School of Cake Decorating in the dining room of his house in 1929 and charged $25 a class for an expert lesson on how to pull sugar and make hard candies. The class filled up in a jiffy. Nothing excites a pastry chef more than a newfangled way to decorate a sweet treat, and in all that sugary merry making of the new School there was plenty of learning going on.  While Dewey was teaching his students, he was also learning about their classical European ways to bake, frost and assemble cakes in eye-catching ways.

An image from the early years of the Wilton School of Cake Decorating.

Soon word spread beyond the pastry chef community. The school was fun and informative and produced the most spectacular and delicious cakes the Midwest had ever experienced. People started arriving for instruction from other towns beyond Chicago, and then other states beyond Illinois. Home cooks, caterers, food economists and restaurant owners were clamoring to learn Dewey’s special way with cakes – a method he wound up calling the Wilton Way – which combined the best parts of European baking with simple easy-to-replicate American designs.

Now getting ready to celebrate its 100th birthday in a few short years, The Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art still remains a bustling educational center for all baking aficionados.  Determined to create interesting and engaging art through butter and suagr, Dewey and his following generations grew the business into not only a school, but also a food product and accessories line that can be found in most grocery stores around the country today as well as on their website. They even offer online classes for those who can’t make the trip to Illinois to join the fun in person.

That’s a pretty remarkable career for any business, let alone one in the baking industry where it can be difficult to remain innovative and approachable at the same time. Thanks to Dewey’s Wilton Way  and his easily accessible method, he helped dispel the myth that cake decorating was an intimidating, complicated art meant for only a certain type of person.  Thousands of accomplished students have graduated from the Wilton program since its inception, many continuing on with successful careers in the baking industry.

Here in the Vintage Kitchen, I was introduced to the Wilton Way through this book…

a 1991 reprint of their 1979 cake decorating book. It is full of attractive cakes, some vibrant with retro charm, others timeless and elegant…

Laid out like coursework, it teaches readers progressively in master class style. Meaning that if you start at the very beginning, and work your way through each chapter, by the end of the book you’ll have amassed so much skill you’ll be able to confidently tackle the baking and decorating of a multi-tiered wedding cake festooned with  a bevy of frothy details.

This past week, I endeavored to make their Winter Snowflake Cake – a pale green pastel beauty that consisted of two layers and frosted snowflakes…

This was my first foray into cake decorating with an intentional design, multiple frostings and more than one piping project, so it was a fun adventure, but it definitely didn’t go quite as planned. The Wilton’s are fast to reassure in their book, saying that the best way to make a perfect cake is to practice, practice, practice. I fast forwarded through the beginning chapters and went straight to this cake. That being said, here’s my finished version…

You’ll notice it is missing some elements from the original cake – most noticeably the side snowflakes. I’ll explain how they went awry further down in the post. I’m also sharing the recipes, as I go along too, in case you want to take yourself to school and experiment with making your own vintage snowflake cake this winter as well.

One funny thing about this cake decorating book in particular is that it’s all about cake decorating and only cake decorating, which means that you have to gather a recipe in order to bake the actual layer cake part from another source. I used Martha Stewart’s Butter Cake recipe which turned out great because it baked flat and even on all sides – characteristics you definitely want when making a multiple layer cake.

Martha Stewart’s Butter Cake 1 

(makes two 9.5″ inch round cakes)

8 ounces unsalted butter

3 cups cake flour, plus more for dusting

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 350. Butter cake pans and dust with flour, tapping out excess flour.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, mix butter and sugar until pale (about 2-3 minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla and mix again.  Add flour mixture in three batches alternating between each batch with two batches of milk. Stir until evenly combined.

Distribute batter evenly between cake pans (this is about 3 1/4 cups of batter per pan).

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.

Let cakes cool in pan on wire rack for 20 minutes. Invert cake layers and remove cake from pan. Let cool on wire rack completely then wrap each cake in wax paper and then plastic wrap and store in the fridge until you are ready to frost.

There are two types of frosting used for this cake. A pale green buttercream and a bright white royal icing. Both icing recipes are from the Wilton School and are easy to use. They both include a curious ingredient called meringue powder (made by Wilton!) which can be found in the baking section of your grocery or online.

I didn’t even know there was such a thing as meringue powder before this project,  but basically it is an egg-white substitute used in place of whipping up fresh eggs. Normally, I’m not a fan of substitute convenience products but since this was the first time I was making this cake I wanted to use the products they recommended. Next time, I’ll try to make my own meringue using fresh eggs. Now it’s onto the frosting…

Snow-white Buttercream

(makes 8 cups)

2/3 cup water

4 tablespoons meringue powder

11 1/2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1 1/4 cups butter

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2-3 drops green food coloring

In a large mixing bowl, combine water and meringue powder and whip at high speed until peaks form. Add 4 cups sugar, one cup at a time, beating at low speed after each addition. Alternately, add butter and remainder of sugar. Add salt and vanilla and beat at low speed until smooth. Add food coloring one drop at a time, (a little goes a long way!) mixing thoroughly between drops until a desired shade is achieved. The color will deepen as the icing ages, so keep that in mind when adding drops.

Special note: This  recipe makes enough frosting for one two layer cake  including top, sides and  filling between layers, plus a little extra. Leftover frosting can be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for several weeks.

Next, I set to work frosting the top of the first layer and then the top and sides of the next layer…

When it was all sufficiently frosted, I cleaned the frosting knife and then gently scraped it as evenly as possibly around the sides of the cake to create a smooth texture.That same treatment was repeated on top of the cake too so that it maintained a flat and level surface. At this stage, I learned a fun little trick. A little drop of water helps to smooth icing out – so round I went once more on the sides with a wet frosting knife. Then the cake was set aside so that the icing could harden (or “crust” as Wilton described it). Next on the schedule was making the icing for the snowflakes…

Meringue Royal Icing

(makes 3 1/2 cups)

3 level tablespoons meringue powder

1 lb. confectioner’s sugar

3 1/2 oz. warm water

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Combine all ingredients in a medium sized mixing bowl. At first, mix slowly with an electric mixer then increase the speed to medium and mix for 7-10 minutes.

Things is where things got a little bit tricky. While the snowflake icing is super easy to make,  the method used to make the snowflakes is really difficult. It involved piping icing onto wax paper…

letting each snowflake dry for an hour…

re-piping each one again (aka over-piping), letting it dry for another hour…

and then carefully removing each snowflake from the wax paper and adhering them to the cake one by one. In theory, this sounds simple enough, but each snowflake was very tricky to remove without them doing this…

After many attempts and many hours, I abandoned this method of snowflake making altogether. Evidently I need more practice in this department! Instead, I just carried on and piped the large snowflake directly on top of the cake, freehand style, and left the sides bare.

Finally, this winter snowflake cake was trimmed on top and bottom with little snowballs. Wilton recommended using two-different sized pastry tubes #3 and #6 for this task, but I just used just one ziploc bag and it worked great.

And that was how this vintage snowflake cake came to be. It definitely isn’t a perfect cake compared to Wilton standards, but it was a whole lot of fun to make and has me thinking about future designs once I practice, practice, practice as Wilton often recommends.

Have you guys ever decorated cakes like this before? If you have any tips or techniques or adventure stories of your own confectionery creations, please share them in the comments section below. It will be fun to help propel the educational portion of this post, so that we can all learn together. And most definitely, if you embark on this winter snowflake baking project, please let us know how it all tuned out in your kitchen.

In the meantime, learn more about the wonderful world of Wilton and their inspiring vintage cake decorating book  here.  Several other shop items also made an appearance in this post’s photos as well… find the 1960’s era glass cake stand here, the 1920’s silver plate water pitcher here, and the vintage embroidered tea towel here.

Hope your weekend is as sweet as buttercream and as lofty as a layer cake! Cheers!

 

Luther Burbank, The Reliable Russet and Everyone’s Favorite Way to Eat A French Fry {1970’s Style}

They come with names that sound like 1970’s rock bands… Bodega Red, Arran Victory, British Queen, Golden Wonder, Bellarosa.  Or like types of prize-winning chickens… German Butterball, Champion, Adirondack Red, Tyson.  Some even sound like certain breeds of dairy cows… Shetland Black, Royal Jersey, Blue Bell, Annabelle, Cream of the Crop.

But today we are not talking about chickens or cows or headliner music. Instead,  today we are talking about potatoes. All those names previously discussed are specific types of one of the most consumed foods on the planet- the noble and nourishing potato.  With more than 5,000 varieties in the world, you might think that it would be hard for one lone potato type to stand out in his vast tuber family of brown, round, knobby eyed dirt dwellers.  But there is actually one big-time celebrity in the batch – a spotlight stealer known around the world –  a superstar of the food and restaurant scene that represents the most frequently consumed potato on the planet.

It is my pleasure to present the story of the wondersously addictive potato variety known as the Burbank Russet. Haven’t heard of it, you say? Ah, but just you wait…you’ll know it. Maybe not by backstory but definitely by bite.

On Friday, it was National French Fry Day and we celebrated with a homemade batch of Russet potato french fries in honor of the guy who created them. Meet Luther Burbank, 19th-century American botanist extraordinaire…

Luther grew up in Massachusetts in the 1850’s playing with seed balls in his mother’s garden instead of playing with sports balls in his farm neighborhood. His interest in botany from the time he was a youngster fueled his curiosity for plant cultivation, a field of study that would eventually turn into a lifelong career. Throughout his childhood and into early adulthood, Luther tinkered around with seed starting and plant breeding.  Although it was a laboriously slow process, most often times ending up in disappointment, Luther came by this area of study naturally. His mother also shared his interest in gardening and the two of them would happily spend hours working in the garden, talking about the life stages of various plants.

The plant world was a playground to Luther, something that represented creativity and freedom from set rules and rigid disciplines. He had aspirations to one day have his own farm in California where he would grow vegetables and flowers for the retail market and try his hand at growing new breeds of plant life. In his early 20’s, he started experimenting with potatoes.  But developing a new variety wasn’t as easy as you might think.  Potatoes are peculiar things. They can be regenerated in two ways – through seeds or eyes. Either method produces similar results or slightly different results in the form of mutations or sports each time off-spring are generated.  It is difficult to determine at the onslaught of a growing project how the potatoes will turn out at the end of the project. More often than not the experimentation stage for Luther in trying to cultivate a new variety was long and finicky.

If you have never seen how a potato grows, this is a good illustration. Plant above the ground and lots of potatoes nestled together below ground. Image from the 1893 L.L.May & Company Seed Catalog featuring Northern Potatoes.

But in 1873 gratification came, finally, to Luther’s ruddy, soil-covered hands. One day in his 24th year, Luther went out into the field to dig his latest sample crop, half expecting to uncover the same old story of growing the exact same plant he started out trying not to grow. But this time, something was different.  Instead of digging up an ordinary round potato, Luther pulled a tuber out of the ground that was twice as big and twice as long. It was reddish-brown in color and hefty in weight. A totally different specimen than the parent potatoes he had started this most recent batch with.  Success at last! His first genuinely original new potato had emerged.

He christened this new masterpiece the Burbank Russet and immediately sold it for $125. Was that enough money for Luther to retire early to his California dream farmhouse and garden? Not quite yet, but that’s not important to this story.  Money never mattered to Luther, only the science that stood behind it. He made a new potato and that was pretty motivating stuff to keep his heart in the game and his hands in the soil.

Luther’s Burbank Russet was an exciting and innovative new addition to the agricultural market for its time because of its size. Almost twice as large as typical potatoes of that era, it also boasted an adaptable consistency (good for baking, mashing and frying) and was more disease resistant to common blights that affected many potato crops around the world. But after it was introduced in the late 1800’s, it took some time for the Burbank Russet to catch on. The US government initially started farming it in Oregon and from there it slowly spread to neighboring states and then the region and then the rest of the country.   Eventually, it became the best-loved potato cultivator in the US.

Russet potato farmers in 1940’s Idaho.

Farmers loved it because it was easy to grow and held up well in both shipping and storage. Once it became a successful and abundant crop, the food industry got on board. Its size, consistency and cooking adaptability made it an ideal food product for both general household consumers as well as commercial food companies and restaurants.

Although the actual cooking process of making French fries – cutting strips of potatoes and frying them in fat – had been around in France and Belgium since the 1700’s, it wasn’t until a valuable American discovery was made in the 1930’s that fries started to take hold as an American food staple. This important discovery was that french fries froze well and could be reheated easily while still maintaining the same shape, taste and texture.  In the early days of refrigeration, this was exciting!  This mere fact opened up opportunities for the retail, transportation and restaurant industries as french fries could now be shipped around the country in both frozen and fresh forms.

A midcentury newspaper ad for McDonald’s french fries.

By the time hamburger stands started popping up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, french fries became a main attraction at the drive-in burger stand as well as the family dinner table.

A vintage frozen french fry ad from the 1960’s. Photo courtesy of itsjustoldpaper on Etsy.

The novelty of enjoying french fries both at home and at restaurants offered plenty of potential in the form of culinary creativity.   In mid-century America, the common condiments for them were simple… ketchup (or catsup, however you prefer!) and salt.

A 1955 advertisement for French Fries featuring Hunt’s catsup.

But by the 1970’s, these little potato favorites were garnering more international gourmet attention. Common toppings and condiment companions of the disco-era included the following…

…paprika, cracked black pepper, parmesan cheese, malt vinegar, crushed herbs, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard,  salt and a special mayonnaise/mustard mixed combo variation. In addition to frying, it also became much more commonplace, especially in the latter decades of the 20th century, to oven bake freshly cut fries. This method of cooking was believed to be a “healthier” version since it involved less oil and a  tamer cooking experience (no vats of hot fat to contend with!) as opposed to traditional deep-fry methods.

Because a lot of people tend to think it is easier to go to a fast food restaurant and buy a serving or two of fries or grab a box of frozen ones from the grocery store, we made the oven-baked variation for this post to prove how simple, quick and easy it is to take a fresh potato and turn it into a delicious hot french fry  in less than 30 minutes. This recipe comes from the Joy of Cooking (1975 edition) cookbook and was a breeze to make. Literally, it took 5 minutes to prepare and 20 minutes to bake,  which makes it a fast side dish for your summer burgers.

Oven “French-Fried” Potatoes (serves 1-2)

1 large russet potato (scrubbed)

1/8 cup olive oil

A generous sprinkling of sea salt

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Slice potatoes lengthwise into long  1/4″ sticks (you can do this by hand or by using the julienne setting on your vegetable slicer. Either way try to keep each stick as uniform as possible to ensure even baking. Lay the freshly cut sticks between a couple layers of paper towels and pat dry to remove extra moisture, then spread sticks out on an ungreased baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil.

Using your hands, toss the potatoes and oil together so that all sticks are coated and spread them back out in the pan as flat as possible.

Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Then remove from the oven and flip the fries over and  return back to the oven for an additional 8-10 minutes.  They should look something like this when they are ready…

Remove fries from the baking pan onto a paper towel-lined plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (or any of your favorite spices) and serve immediately.

Inspired by the 1970’s list of approved condiments, I kept thinking while writing this post how fun it would be to have a french fry bar party where guests could pick and choose their own toppings from a wide assortment. So many flavors pair well with potatoes, so the possibilities would be endless as far as dips and dredges, sprinkles and submersibles. The one element of homemade french fries that should always remain constant though is the potato – always use russet potatoes. They are the variety of choice in almost every fast food french fry you’ll ever eat – including McDonald’s whose fries are legendary. And besides, you’ll make Luther happy,  using his version over any other!

Luther never lived to see the ultimate french fry-loving success of his humble potato breed, although he did live a fulfilling gardening life up until the time of his death in the mid-1920’s. He did acquire that dream farm in California that he always wanted…

Luther Burbank’s house as it looked in the 1920’s
Now in 2018, his house is a city park and garden that is open to the public.
Luther Burbank House and Garden, 200 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, CA

And he built a garden where invented new varieties of fruits and flowers and vegetables. We have Luther to thank for cultivating these beauties…

Clockwise from top left: The Plumcot – a mix between plums and apricots, the Fire Poppy, the July Elberta Peach, the Spineless Cactus and the Shasta Daisy

So while he never did see his potatoes bubbling up in oil at the golden arches,  he did see his lifelong passion laid out in the golden hour light of each day into night. Satisfaction was never going to be found in fame or fortune when it came to Luther Burbank. He didn’t care about either of those two things. His happiness lived deep within the dirt – a vast canvas of potential fueled by creativity and curiosity that never ceased to inspire him.

Cheers to Luther for inventing one of the most delicious potatoes in the world. And cheers to all the farmers who keep growing the russets. May they continue to add a bit of indulgence to our diets and serve as a basis for inspiration in our culinary endeavors.

Find out more about Luther and his Santa Rosa, CA garden park here.  Find the vintage Joy of Cooking cookbook in the shop here. 

If you guys have any favorite toppings or condiments that you prefer on your french fries please post them in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!