To Be or Not to Be: It’s Fondue in Belgium

Oh for the love of cheese already! How many weeks does it take to get yourself all discombobulated in the kitchen? As it turns out that number is five. Welcome to Week Five of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. Last week we were in Barbados dancing around the kitchen with rum punch in hand. Tonight we are headed 4300 miles north to beautiful Belgium – the country that gave us diamonds, Audrey Hepburn, fancy chocolates, waffles, Brussels sprouts, and pretty sites like these…

But the way I went about this week’s cooking task I might as well have taken us all to a foggy headed mountain in Switzerland.

The most important rule of cooking, the number one rule, the golden rule of all rules is to read your recipe first. All the way through. This way you have a good understanding of what’s involved ingredient-wise and what’s coming up at the start of each step. It’s a no-brainer activity. Something that just occurs so naturally you don’t even have to think about it. Of course you always read the recipe first, silly. Except that one time you actually didn’t.

I’ve been anticipating this week’s dish since the very beginning of the project because  1) it features a food I’ve never made before but have always wanted to try, 2) it is cozy sweater weather fare ideal for this time of year and 3) it offers a fun dinner idea for upcoming Valentine’s Day. On the menu this week we are making Fondue Bruxelloise, a dairy laden comfort food that conjures up images of shared dining, pots on pedestals, and unabashed consumption of all the bread and cheese you ever wished to eat. How fun and delicious!

The first order of business this week, the fun order of business, before market shopping even ensued, was to purchase a fondue pot. In this case, of course it would need to be vintage, so out I went all around town looking for such a find. Three days later, nothing. There was not a vintage fondue pot to be had anywhere in my fair city. In a frenzied, last-minute search online, I found one in a neighboring state that could be here in time for the cooking project deadline.

Tah-dah… a sleek 1970’s stainless steel set complete with floral design work on the legs, teak accents on the handle and on the lid, and a set of forks to match. Perfect! While that gadget was flying through the air, I was busy collecting vintage advertisements from the 1960’s and 1970’s – the two decades in culinary history when fondue parties were at the peak of popularity. The retro ads circulating around the magazine world at that time captured a real sense of colorful joy and excitement when it came to showcasing the novelty of a fondue party.

With an exciting feast on the horizon and a new (old) fondue pot now in possession, it was time to buckle down and get to cooking. Like all the other dishes we  have made in the International Vintage Recipe Tour so far, the ingredients for Fondue Bruxelloise are not complicated ones. Basically the recipe consists of four main components… butter, milk, eggs, and cheese.

The night before I was going to make it, my husband inquired. Is this the type of fondue where you dip vegetables or just bread? Confidently, I said just bread, but then immediately went back to the kitchen to check the recipe just to make sure. And that, my fellow kitcheners, is where Week Five officially went south.

The preparation of Fondue Bruxelloise involves six steps which include a glass dish, overnight refrigeration, a vat of frying oil and cheese cutouts. It does not, at any stage, involve a fondue pot, fondue forks, or a steaming pool of cheese. Oh dear. My stainless steel beauty.

Somehow, in all this excitement of knowing that we were going to be making fondue and searching for a retro pot in which to prepare it, I forgot to read the recipe first. As it turns out, fondue, in the traditional sense that I was thinking of, is actually Swiss not Belgian in origin. The word fondue comes from the French and simply means melted, so technically lots of dishes could be considered fondue and lots of countries can claim their own variations. That’s why there are chocolate fondues (American), saucey and brothy fondues (Asian), oil fondues (Italian) and cheese fondues (French, Swiss and American). But Switzerland’s version of melted cheese remains at the top of the most popular hot pot recipes and it’s the first image most people think of upon hearing the word fondue.

This is what I had in mind originally!

So where does this leave Belgium, you ask? The answer lies in an Italian American named Nika Standen Hazelton.

Nika Standen Hazelton (1908-1992)

Nika was a trusted authority of regional cooking from cuisines all around the world. She started her writing career as a reporter in the 1930’s, and never lost that level of curiosity or scrutiny for the topic at hand. She approached each cookbook and each country with an investigative eye and a thorough understanding of the food scene, the culture and the eating habits of the places she explored. She was also a tremendous home cook and hostess herself, managing to turn both her own passion for food making and her insatiable interest of other countries into a life-long career. By the time of her death in 1992, she had published 30 cookbooks in total, taking readers on tour with her around the globe highlighting all sorts of interesting food ways with a candor that made her writing legendary.

In the 1960’s, Nika got to work collecting recipes for her Belgian Cookbook.  Exploring the country quite intimately, she was determined with her latest project to create a book of traditional everyday Belgian foods as prepared by the home cook. She wasn’t interested in featuring fancy dishes that you’d find in Belgian restaurants, nor she was interested in featuring foods that were so traditional and so foreign sounding that they would dismay the American reader who was just trying to gain an introductory sense of food in Belgium.  “All one wants are some feasible and pleasant dishes…” she wrote in the introduction to The Belgium Cookbook, published in 1970.  It is from that cookbook that Craig Claiborne collected this recipe for Fondue Bruxelloise, which literally translates as Melted from Brussels, for his New York Times International Cookbook, which was the springboard for our year-long cooking project here.

Still regarded as one of the most tastiest Belgian recipes out there, Nika’s Fondue Bruxelloise is similar in preparation to a croquette, looks like a mozzarella stick and contains an inner filling that tastes a bit like a lemony Hollandaise sauce, even though there is no lemon in it.

Once I actually read the recipe the whole way through, I was slightly intimidated. I’ve never fried anything in a big pot of oil before, something almost unheard of since I’ve lived in the South for over a decade now. Needless to say, I had to do a little bit of extra research on how to go about that, since the recipe assumes you already know what type of oil to use and what temperature to heat the oil to and so on. I’ve included those notes along with the original recipe below in case you are a frying novice like me too. Overall though it’s not a difficult recipe to manage, but it is a bit unusual in its preparation. Refrigerating the cheese batter overnight yields a rectangular creation that has the consistency of somewhat rubbery, somewhat softened butter. The bread crumbs are made fresh, chopped up in a food processor from a day old loaf. And the cheese squares require frying in small batches giving this cooking project an awkward stop and start rhythm as you wait for things to come together, at first in the fridge, and then in the frying pot. This is what this year is all about though. Learning new techniques and new foods from old recipes. Intimidation aside, there’s nothing to do but jump right in. So here we go…

Fondue Bruxelloise

(Makes 8-12 servings which equates approximately to 18 pieces that are roughly 2 1/2″ inch x 2 1/2″ inch squares)

1/4 butter

All-purpose flour (I used about 2/3 cup)

2 cups milk

1/4 lb. Gruyere cheese, grated

1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

5 egg yolks

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 eggs lightly beaten

2 teaspoons cold water

1 tablespoon peanut oil

3 cups fresh bread crumbs (I made these using a day old baguette)

Oil for deep frying ( I used 24 oz of peanut oil)

Parsley

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and stir in six tablespoons of flour, using a wire whisk. Add the milk, stirring rapidly until the mixture is thickened and smooth. Simmer 5 minutes.

Remove the sauce from the heat and add the cheeses, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, egg yolks, and salt and pepper to taste. (Note: I used about 1/2 teaspoon salt and a 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper). Return the sauce to the heat and stir rapidly with the whisk. Cook, stirring until it thickens further, but do not allow it to boil. (Note: I cooked this until the mixture just started to form a couple of big bubbles).

Generously butter a 13×9 inch or a 9×9 inch square pan and pour the sauce into it. (Note: The longest dish I have is 8×11 so I used that. See more notes about this specific choice of dish further down).

Spread the mixture smooth with a rubber spatula. Cover with buttered waxed paper (parchment paper) and refrigerate overnight or longer. (Note: I kept mine in the fridge for 24 hours).

Now firm, cut the mixture into squares, rectangles, rounds or diamond shapes. (Note: I chose squares because they were most simple and because while the top side of this mixture was firm, the underside was slightly gooey, so any well defined shape, like a diamond would have gotten all gummed up).

The bottom consistency might not have been as solidified as the top because I was using a smaller dish than was recommended, adding a thicker dimension to the overall mixture. Surprisingly though, even with this consistency the squares were fairly easy to remove from the dish and retained their square shape for the most part.

Top side!
Underside!

Beat the eggs until frothy, then beat in the water, oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Coat the cutouts on all sides with flour, then dip them into the egg mixture.

Finally, coat them in the bread crumbs tapping lightly with the flat side of a knife so the crumbs will adhere.

Heat the oil in a deep fat fryer to 360 degrees and cook the cutouts until golden. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot garnished with parsley.

(Note: As I mentioned earlier, this step was a little vague, especially for first time fryers. If you are a new experimenter with home frying, there are a couple of things I wanted share about the process. I don’t have a deep fat fryer myself so I used a heavy stainless steel medium-sized saucepan which worked perfectly well. I set the pot of oil over medium heat and let it warm gradually. It takes about 20 minutes for the oil to heat to 350 degrees, but use a thermometer to test the temperature to make sure it is hot enough before you add the cheese squares. The trick to frying is to do it in small batches. I could only fit three squares in at a time based on the size of my pot. This number still allowed ample room for them to bob around in the oil. I cooked each batch for 3 minutes. Also, it is important to let the oil warm back up to 350 degrees between batches. That step generally takes about 5 minutes).

After the squares have drained on a paper towel for about a minute it is best to serve them right away or keep them hot in the oven while you finish frying all the rest. That way when you cut into them, the melted cheese will ooze out into a little pool on your plate.

 

The longer they sit at room temperature, the more solidified the cheese gets inside. In the photo below, you’ll see that the plate on the right has been resting at room temperature for about 15 minutes. The cheese is still soft on the inside but is more like the consistency of fresh mozzarella rather than a melting pool…

Delicious in a very rich and decadent way, these cheese squares are like a little mini meal. Nika recommended serving Fondue Bruxelloise with fried parsley, but because they are so creamy, I’d recommend forgoing the extra frying and replacing it with anything acidic to balance out the flavors. Fresh parsley adds a bit of bright tang, as does freshly squeezed lemon juice. Other possible companions include a dollop of mustard or hot sauce, a side salad tossed in a citrus vinaigrette, a few slices of home grown tomatoes or simply a cold glass of dry white wine.

The cafe crowd in Brussels…

In Belgium, especially in the 20th century, locals used to enjoy a habit of a small snack everyday at 4 pm. A little delight like Fondue Bruxelloise would be perfect for such a time of day. Because of their velvety richness, you’d only want to eat one or two per setting, based on the size suggested in the recipe. Crunchy on the outside and soft and billowy on the inside, this serving size is a petite portion that is filling and satisfying but won’t risk spoiling your appetite for dinner a few hours later. As a national favorite, several Belgian cookbooks include Fondue Bruxelloise in their appetizer or hors d’oeuvres sections with suggestions to serve them at parties large and small. I like the idea of the 4:00pm Belgium tradition though and would next serve this at that time of day along with a glass of wine or a Belgian beer as part of a special happy hour treat. After all, it is fondue. It only seems fitting to involve some friends.

While this recipe was certainly not what I had anticipated at the start of the week, it turned out to be a curious adventure in cooking techniques and frying lessons. I may have not have gotten to use my new fondue pot, but perhaps when we visit Switzerland on the Recipe Tour towards the end of the year, I’ll be able to test out its capabilities with a classic Swiss fondue.  Then we can circle back around to this recipe and compare the two. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to read your recipes first:)

Cheers to cheese for offering up a few surprises and to Nika for taking us on an unexpected cooking adventure.  Also, a big cheers this week goes to blog reader Angela, who baked our featured Australian recipe, Queen Mother’s Cake for her neighborhood and received rave reviews! If anyone else has their own stories to share please send a message or comment below, we’d all love to more about your cooking experiences too!

Next Wednesday, just in time for Valentine’s Day weekend, we are headed to the passionate country of Brazil, where romance and recipes bloom in the kitchen. Stay tuned!

Discovering the Legendary Family Babka

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Julianna. She was born in Poland in the mid-1800’s but immigrated to upstate New York around 1900. There, she married a man named Marcin, and had a baby named Martha. Occasionally Julianna, Marcin and the baby would travel to Chicago to visit with relatives. It was there in the Windy City, in a busy house, that Julianna met a little boy named Allen.

The first time Allen met Julianna he was scared to death of her. To him Julianna seemed very old and very gruff.  But Julianna, who was well-intentioned at heart, just settled in her old Polish ways, possessed a special skill. A skill so special that it could charm anyone, even a scared little boy named Allen.

Juliana’s special talent was baking and her most charming confection was a twisted bread called babka. Everyone in the busy house in the Windy City loved Julianna’s babka. The best in all the land, boasted her proud husband Marcin, who had a belly as round as Santa’s. Everyone agreed.  Even the little boy named Allen, for as soon as he took his first bite of the cinnamon flavored treat he watched all his fears of this old woman fly right out of his head.  It tastes like Christmas, he proclaimed! From that point forward, Julianna  no longer seemed quite so scary. She returned again and again to visit and quickly became little Allen’s most anticipated house guest. As long as she brought the babka, that is:)

That’s a true story from the family archives. Julianna was the second wife of my great, great grandfather, Marcin who hailed from the pretty pastel city of Poznan, Poland in the 1800’s. The little boy named Allen was my dad who was born in Chicago in the 1940’s.

Dad playing with a batch of kittens circa 1946

This information all came courtesy of a notebook of memories my dad filled out about a decade ago. Somehow this information of the famous babka got overlooked in the curiosity department and I never got the chance to ask my dad more about Julianna, Marcin and the famous yet mysterious family bread. A few days after my dad died, I came across the notebook of memories again and was reintroduced to the story of the babka.

Even though Marcin and Julianna shared 10 kids between them, there is no known recipe that’s been passed down through the family. Marcin’s daughter Jozefa, (my great grandmother) died from burns sustained in a kitchen fire when she was just 37, leaving eight children behind. That terrible family tragedy left little opportunity for conversation about lineage, ancestors and recollections when it came to Marcin and Julianna.  No one wanted to dredge up the sad circumstances surrounding Jozefa’s death in order to understand the family that came before her. So a silence fell on that side of history. For a long, long time distant relatives became just a blur of hazy facts and faces. I’m on a mission now though to learn more about my great great grandparents and about that beautiful pastel city where they came from…

Poznan, Poland

It will be a tricky endeavor since I’m dealing with foreign languages and far-off places, but they deserve the effort and it will be fun to see what gets discovered. In the meantime, this one little snippet of a food remembrance from my dad is a cherished link to knowing more about the lives of family members who lived over a century ago.

I don’t have any pictures of Julianna or Marcin yet but I do have a few photos of Jozefa, like this one taken on her wedding day in 1902. Sixteen years later she would die from the fire.

Because I’d never seen, or even heard about babka before it was referenced in the notebook, a new baking adventure was definitely in order. I scoured my vintage cookbooks but found absolutely no mention of it. Luckily, a great recipe was discovered online and the babka came into being in October. Two weeks ago, I posted it on Instagram and shared the story about Julianna.

It turned out to be a really fun and interesting baking project. If you are as unfamiliar with babka as I was, it is one of those cinnamon based desserts that is like a little slice of heaven for the season. Buttery, warm and full of aromatic spice, it tastes like a cross between a cinnamon role and a coffee cake.  Fittingly, (for this story anyway!) the word babka means grandmother in Polish and is a traditional heritage food of both Poland and the Ukraine. Historians suspect that it may date all the way back to the 16th century.

Babka comes in two classic variations – chocolate and cinnamon – and can be augmented with a variety of toppings including streusel, nuts, raisins, spices and dried fruit. Usually it comes in two shapes as well – either round or loaf style.  I chose to make the cinnamon version and baked it both ways – in loaves and rounds. The round version turned out to be a little fancier looking but the loaves are a bit easier to slice, so it comes down to your preference. Either way, it’s a winner of a recipe that tastes great at all times of the day, and is equally enjoyable at breakfast, during a mid-day snack or a late night nibble.

The key to an ultra flavorful babka lies in the freshness of the cinnamon. So if you can, try to find a spice shop in your neck of the woods that offers it freshly ground which would be most ideal. Luckily, as if Julianna was supporting my endeavor, a lovely new spice shop just opened up in my city, so I used Supreme Saigon cinnamon in my recipe. If you don’t have a good spice shop in your area, no worries, you can always order some online or buy a brand new container from your grocery so that you can experience the full bouquet of flavor.

New spice shop in the city!

Making babka from scratch is a three step process, but don’t let that intimidate you, as this is a very easy dessert to make. The only downside to homemade babka is the amount of time (about six hours) it takes to make from start to finish.  That’s because it is a yeast bread and requires time to rise twice. It is well worth the wait though. It also freezes well, so if you were feeling extra ambitious you could double or triple the recipe and stack the babka up in the freezer for homemade goodness all winter long!

Cinnamon Babka

{This recipe was sourced from family-friends-food.com and the Modern Jewish Baker Cookbook by Shannon Sarna}

For the dough:

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

1/3 cup + 1/2/ teaspoon cane sugar

1/2 cup lukewarm water

4 1/2 cups organic all purpose flour

2 teaspoons vanilla

1/2 cup whole milk

3/4 cup butter (melted)

2 eggs

 

For the Sugar Syrup:

2/3 cup water

1 cup cane sugar

1 tsp vanilla

 

For the Filling:

3/4 cup butter, melted

1/1/2 cups cane sugar

2 tablespoons cinnamon

pinch of salt

In a small bowl, combine the yeast, 1/2 tsp sugar and the lukewarm water. Stir to combine and then set aside for about 10 minutes so that the yeast can foam.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, 1/3 cup sugar and vanilla, mixing until everything is blended together. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, scald the milk and then remove the pan from the heat and let it rest for 1 minute.
Using a hand mixer, combine the water/yeast mixture, the milk, and the melted butter to the flour mixture and blend to incorporate. Then mix in the eggs, one at a time.
Continue mixing on a low to medium speed for 7 full minutes until the dough is shiny, elastic and smooth.
Place dough in a greased bowl and cover with a warm damp towel. Allow to rise 1 to 2 hours.
While the dough is rising make the simple syrup by combining the water, sugar, and vanilla in a small saucepan. Bring to a low boil until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Next make the filling by combining all ingredients in a medium bowl and mixing thoroughly. Set aside.
When the dough has risen, cut it into two equal halves. Roll out one half on a lightly floured surface until it’s about 1/4″ inch thick. Try to roll the dough in as rectangular shape as possible.
With a sharp knife trim the rounder edges of the dough so that they form straight lines, which makes the babka braids look more tidy down the road.
Next spread half of the filling evenly all over the dough, leaving a 1/2 inch rim around the edge.  Ideal tools for this are a frosting knife, a spatula, the back of a spoon or even your fingers.
Then starting at the bottom edge, tightly roll up the dough (jelly roll style) to the very top edge.
Once your dough is all rolled up and resembles a log shape, trim each end with a sharp knife and then cut the log length-wise down the middle to expose the filling inside.
Now that you have to halves of one log, braid the two halves together, alternating one section on top of the other so that it looks like this…
Place the braid in a greased springform cake pan.
Repeat the above steps with the other half of the dough. And then curl the second braid inside the first braid and smoosh the two braids together lightly (like you are squeezing a basketball between your hands) so that it creates some space between the sides of the pan and the dough.
Finally, drape a moist kitchen towel over the pan and set aside to rise for 30 more minutes.
While the dough is rising again , preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Bake the babka in the oven for 40 minutes, then take it out and brush the top of the bread with two light layers of the sugar syrup. Return it to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes.
When it is ready, the babka will be a golden brown on top and the internal temperature will be 185 degrees. Place the pan on a cooling rack and brush the top with three more light layers of the sugar syrup. Let it cool for 10-15 minutes before removing the babka from the pan. The sides will be be rippled with ribbons of dough…
Slice and serve either warm or at room temperature. The babka pairs really well with a cup of strong coffee, tea or espresso.

Thanks to its bountiful size and rich texture, it makes an ideal holiday food since it can serve a lot of people, transports well and can be frozen for months ahead of time.
When I first posted the babka story on Instagram, several people sent messages requesting the recipe, so I’m pleased to be sharing it here on the blog today. I loved this bread so much that it is now going to be a new annual holiday baking tradition in my house. And I hope it becomes one of yours too. When my dad first met Julianna, she was in her 90’s. I love that she was still baking for her family at that age and still possessed the ability and desire to convince a small little boy that sweetness can be found even behind a sometimes gruff exterior.
Cheers to Julianna, Jozefa and my dad for providing glimpses into past family lives, to Helen and Shannon for providing the recipe and to Savory Spice for opening up shop just in time for this cinnamon-filled baking adventure. Hope you guys will be just as smitten with babka as I am.

 

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!

 

The Cake That Fed An Entire Town: {Part One} On Election Day in 1700’s America

Once upon a time in history long, long ago there was a cake that fed the whole entire town on Election Day. Called simply, Election Cake, it was an active participant in the voting scene of early America. But while the recipe’s origins are as old as the United States itself, the exact history is a little bit varied depending on which source in which state is telling the tale.

The first American cookbook was written by Amelia Simmons and published in 1796. Her second edition of this cookbook, published two years later in 1798, features the first published recipe for Election Cake.

Essentially though, everyone pretty much agrees that it boils down to the early days of New England (some say Connecticut, some say Massachusetts) when Election Day was celebrated in the Spring and considered one of the biggest party days of the year. Enjoyed with the same amount of zeal as our modern St. Patrick’s Day festivities, Election Day in 1700’s America was a boozy holiday full of ale and camaraderie and community support. Only people weren’t celebrating one particular heritage like we do the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. They were celebrating everyone’s heritage, as Americans, on Election Day. The fervor was for freedom. And the cake was needed to sop up everyone’s spirits (the ale especially).  It also provided a little motivation to actively vote for the political candidates of the day, because even in 1700’s America, people (and politicians!) were aware of the powerfully compelling nature of cake and its ability’s to attract favor.

Being such a big festivity in the lives of Colonial America, with people traveling from miles around to attend special gatherings,  it made sense to local residents, at the time, to bake one enormous cake to serve all who showed up. So out of thirty quarts of flour and fourteen pounds of sugar and ten pounds of butter, Election Cake was born from the loving hands and hearts of local women who couldn’t vote themselves but could at the very least feed the men who were voting for them. Some historians say that this proves that women were important members of the political spectrum even back then when they had no vocal authority.  I don’t know about that, they may have just looked at the voting day in a practical feed-the-masses way,  but it is fun to think that while they were baking, they were also discussing political topics among themselves. Even if they were just hushed whispers while they were mixing batter and melting butter, I like to think they were formulating their own ideas about what should and could happen in the future shaping of America.

An election cake recipe from 1889 by Ellen Wadsworth Johnson. Photo courtesy of connecticuthistory.org

The interesting thing about Election Cake though is that it is not really cake. Since its inception it has really been more of a fruit and spice studded bread than a traditional cake. And in true American spirit it has been revised and enhanced and reworked over the centuries into numerous different versions like breakfast buns, frosted bundt cakes and drunken fruit cakes. The core of the recipe remains the same though – flour, butter and sugar – but over the years different variations have been included and excluded that involve milk, eggs, raisins, currents, citrus fruits, whiskey, rum, brandy, wine, confectioner’s sugar, etc. Baking equipment differs too. Originally, back in the day when one giant cake was made, it was too big to fit into any bakeware so it just baked free-form on the oven floor. Next came bread loaf pans, a smart decision that produced numerous easy-to-handle loaves that could be made by numerous hands. Then there was the bundt cake method, the cast iron skillet method, the baking dish method, etc.

The 1965 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook originally published in 1898.

For this post, I’m making the Fannie Farmer version from her 1965 Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which was first published in 1898. True to form, this recipe has changed a bit over the Fannie Farmer years too. The 1960’s version involves raisins, whiskey and loaf pans. Her original recipe from 1898 called for figs, sour milk and bread dough starter.

The bulk of this project lies in waiting for the dough rise (six hours!).

A nine hour baking project from start to finish, this is a kitchen adventure that will unfold over two days and two blog posts. Tonight, we discussed the history behind the recipe, and tomorrow we’ll discuss the actual recipe and how it all turned out. Will it indeed be more like a raisin bread rather than a fruit cake, as it is listed in Fannie’s cookbook? Will our modern palettes fall in love with this old fashioned recipe enough to resurrect it and recommend it in the Vintage Kitchen?  Will it become a repeat labor of love on future days of election or will it be a one hit-not-so-wonderful? Only time will tell in this case. Tune in tomorrow for the 2018 Election Day results, vintage kitchen style…

 

Plum Perfect for Fall: A Joy-Filled Dessert Recipe from 1964

Over on Instagram the other day, I posted this photo above of the first Fall-themed dessert to come out of the Vintage Kitchen oven. It’s called Plum Cake Cockaigne and is from the 1964 edition of one of the most popular cookbooks in American history – Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer.

Also over on Instagram, I learned something new recently about cooking blogs and recipe finders. It seems not everyone wants to scroll through a whole entire story in order to get a recipe, so I’m trying something new with this post – recipe at the top,  story at the bottom. You guys let me know how you prefer this new layout.  Time always seems to be so short during these last few months of the year, so if this makes your life (and your cooking experience!) easier please let me know by comment or message and I’ll adjust as you prefer.

Plum Cake Cockaigne

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar (I used brown sugar)

1 1/2 to 3 tablespoons butter (I used 3)

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Milk

3-4 cups thinly sliced plums, skin-on (about 5 plums)

1 cup sugar (I used brown sugar)

2 teaspoons cinnamon

3 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour. Add the baking powder, salt, and sugar to the flour and re-sift.

Add the butter (Note: The juicer your plums, the less butter you need to add. My plums weren’t excessively juicy so I used the full 3 tablespoons of butter), mashing it up in the flour mixture with a fork, until the entire mixture looks crumb-like.

In a measuring cup, add the egg, vanilla, and enough milk to equal a 1/2 cup of liquid (this was about 1/4 cup milk in my case). Whisk together until these three ingredients are combined.

Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir until a stiff dough forms. Spread the dough mixture evenly on the bottom of your pan or baking dish and then set aside. (Note: Irma recommended a 9×9 x 2 1/2 inch pan but I used a round 10″ inch x 2″ inch baking dish and that worked great as well).

Next, thinly slice your plums so that you will have enough to overlap each one in your pan – tart style and then arrange them on top of the dough. This is the fun, creative part! You can make many different types of designs with your plums if you like.

In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon and melted butter and then sprinkle the mixture on top of the plums.

Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes until the top is bubbly and brown.

Our plum cake was so bubbly I couldn’t help but take a little video of it as it was coming out of the oven!

I recommend letting the whole thing cool before slicing and serving it if you prefer to plate it in wedge-shaped slices.  Since the top layer carmelizes it is easier to slice when it is in a  cooler, more solidified state.  If you’d rather eat it warm, right out of the oven,  simply scoop it into a bowl and enjoy. Serve it on its own, with a dollop of whip cream or a bit of vanilla ice cream and taste the season unfold in all its cinnamon sugar splendor.

What is really fun about this dessert is that it is like two sweet treats combined into one – half tart and half cake. Because there is only one cup of flour and one egg, the cake part is very thin and the fruit arrangement on top is very much like a tart, so this turns out to be a light and less filling alternative to two traditional desserts yet retains all the lovely flavor of both. Plums don’t get as much attention in the Fall as apples and pumpkins in the baking department, but they are still in season until the end of October, so they make a lovely unexpected seasonal dessert.

That’s Irma on the left and her daughter, Marion on the right. 

Plum Cake Cockaigne (pronounced caw-cane) was a favorite recipe in the Rombauer household. The word cockaigne was a term of endearment in the cookbook and was tacked onto various recipes throughout the Joy of Cooking as a way to signify the absolute personal favorite recipes of the Rombauer clan. Derived from old French, cockaigne literally refers to a mythical land of plentiful luxury, comfort, and peace. Such a dreamy notion of an ideal paradise was so charming to the Rombauers it was also the name they chose for their country estate.  How fun!

The 1964 edition of the Joy of Cooking came out two years after Irma died, the first edition to be edited, revised and enhanced by Irma’s daughter, Marion and Marion’s husband, John. Not without its own dramas, this edition needed all the cockaigne it could get. The first printing of the 1964 edition was published without Marion’s final approval, which meant that various inconsistencies and typos were present. This drove Marion crazy, as she wanted to really honor her mother’s work and keep up with the trusted reputation that the Joy brand had accumulated over 30 years since its debut in 1931. So the 1964 edition went through several reprints in order to right all the wrongs that Marion doggedly corrected herself. You get a sense of the enormous responsibility and weight of the legacy that Marion felt surrounding the whole Joy endeavor from her dedication at the beginning of the book…

The edition that is available in the shop is the 1967 printing of the 1964 edition, the one that Marion was finally satisfied with. All of this devising and revising is a real testament to the dedication of the Rombauer family. One that started with Irma way back in the 1930’s and still continues through present family generations today.

Irma’s launch into cooking stardom is a fabulous story, one that we’ll discuss later on in the month as we celebrate her birthday on October 30th. For a woman who wasn’t known for cooking skills when she first started writing a cookbook, she certainly has proven her abilities time and again over the past 80 years. Stay tuned on that front.

In the meantime, there are a couple of weeks left to enjoy plum season. Hope you “fall” in love with this recipe as much we did!

Find the cookbook in the shop here and a link to our Instagram account here if you’d like to keep up with daily doses from the Vintage Kitchen.

Cheers and happy baking!

Whimsical Winter Baking: Russian Tea Cake Snowmen

Russian Tea Cakes… those dense little snowy bundles of sweet confectionary sugar, butter, flour, and nuts is a classic Christmas cookie that has been a staple in our holiday baking since I was a little kid. One of the most simple of cookies to make, it has other aliases as well…Mexican Wedding Cakes, Rolling in the Snow, Holy Rollers and the plain Jane, practical name… Pecan Balls.

The history behind these guys is muddy but a popular theory is that they originated in Europe as a tea time snack (hence their name Russian Tea Cakes) and migrated to Mexico with European nuns where they became a popular cookie served at weddings (Mexican Wedding Cakes!).  A friend who grew up in Canada knew them as Rolling in the Snow cookies (how very fun!) and at a church-sponsored flea market in the South, I once saw them advertised as Holy Rollers on the food and beverage table. That could have been someone’s clever name made up just for that day, so I’m not sure if this one has actual traction, but it does pay homage to the nun theory anyway.  And of course, for all the literal lovers out there, the Pecan Ball needs no explanation as to how that name came about since indeed these cookies are ball-shaped and can contain pecans.

Traditionally they look something like this…

and can contain any nuts you like – pecans, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, macademia, etc. My mom always used walnuts and favored the recipe from the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book printed in 1950…

so that became my family tradition as an adult too. Some other recipes include additional ingredients of cinnamon or loose tea, lavender or lemon zest but Betty Crocker’s version is the one we like best.

Russian Tea Cakes

1 cup soft butter

1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar (plus additional following baking)

1 tsp. vanilla

2 1/4 cups sifted flour (Betty recommended Gold Medal flour back in the day)

1/4 tsp. sal

3/4 cup finely chopped nuts

Mix butter sugar and vanilla together in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Sift flour and salt together and mix into butter. Stir in nuts and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove dough from fridge and roll into 1″ inch balls* using your hands. Place 2.5 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet and bake until set but not brown (between 10-12 minutes).**  While still warm roll in confectioner’s sugar. Cool and then roll in sugar once again.

* To make snowmen: You will need to form three balls per snowman ranging in size from big (base) medium (middle) small (head). Roll each ball in your hand to shape it into a typical snowball shape and then flatten the big and medium balls on the top and bottom with your hand so that that they will sit on top of each other without rolling off. The smallest ball (the head) should only be flattened on the bottom (so that your snowman will have a round head on top). The snowmen pictured here are three inches in height, so use your judgment when shaping as far as ball sizing. If you want to make bigger snowmen, baking times will need to be extended.

** If you are making snowmen –  Bake all the big bottom base snowballs together on one sheet and then the medium and small balls on another sheet since the smaller balls usually take 1-2 minutes less baking time then the big balls. Your snowball sizes will look something like this…

After you’ve baked and sugared all your cookies, now you are ready for the fun part of decorating. This is what I had on hand in the “props” department…

Orange rinds for the scarf and nose, black peppercorns for the eyes and rosemary branches for the arms. To make the scarf and nose just take a vegetable peeler and peel about 3 inches of rind in one long continues piece. Trim with a sharp paring knife to your desired scarf thickness and curl the rind around your fingers to shape it like a scarf (once the rind dries out it will hold the shape perfectly). Wedge the scarf into the section where the head meets the body.

Press the peppercorns into the head gently. They will stick on their own (this step might take a couple of attempts!).

Cut a thin long triangle out of your excess orange rind (to mimic the shape of a carrot)  and gently press into the head where the nose should be. The orange rind will stick to the cookie on its own but might take a couple of attempts too.

Cut rosemary branches to size and poke into each side of the middle ball.

And now your snowman has come to life! Just like the ones you make in your yard, each one will have his own little personality depending on how you style it. The sky is the limit when it comes to decorating your guy so feel free to get creative if you want to make a hat, a jacket or a corncob pipe. Additional mounds of powdered sugar help set the stage for a little wintertime scene, day or night…

Hope this project adds a little fun to your day! Cheers to a winter wonderland from the sweetest little snowmen in the Vintage Kitchen!