A few weeks ago we threw a party for a colleague who was retiring after nearly 43 years of service to The Christian Science Monitor. In addition to being one of the nicest persons in the newsroom, Ross Atkin, a longtime sports writer, was also the presenter of baked goods. Without fail, so much so that we could set our Monday morning breakfast plans to this routine, Ross cheered the early hours of new week with a home baked treat.
He didn’t make enough to feed the entire newsroom, so you had to make sure you got work at least on time to run to the kitchen and pick up one of that day’s offerings ranging from cookies, muffins, bars to the occasional Bundt cake.
So at the 11th hour before the party (as in the afternoon before) I thought it would be a neat idea to bake Ross something from the pages of the Monitor as close as possible to the time he had first arrived in Boston as a fresh college graduate from Indiana on June 21, 1971.
With the help of the Monitor’s librarian, Leigh Montgomery, I settled on, “Here’s a cake-baking secret: Spice,” from The Christian Science Monitor’s Thursday, July 1, 1971, issue. The article’s intro reads:
“Many of today’s expert cake bakers – especially those who bake ‘from scratch’ – are descendants of German hausfraus who settled in the states bordering the Mississippi and who found great satisfaction in turning out velvet-crumbed, delicious, beautiful cakes, whether for ‘company’ or just to make everyone happy. Cake-baking secrets were handed down from mother to daughter, and among others is the art of spicing.”
The intro goes to talk about the various spices used in cakes, from cinnamon to pepper as “unexpectedly good” and “modern blends” such as apple pie and pumpkin pie spice. Also, “Midwesterners of Scandinavian background favor cardamon seeds in many of their baked goods.”
I’ve been told that is a very “American thing” to constantly trace our roots and culture back to the Mother Land, wherever that may be. Personally, being of German and Scandinavian descent with ties to the Midwest I kind of like these cultural references found in cake.
I have to say, after reading about all these traditions from the Old Country and mothers whispering cake secrets in the ears of their daughters, I grinned when I came to the recipe for “Spiced marble pound cake.” The first ingredient is two packages of store-bought pound cake mix! Now that’s another true American tradition – wax on about your historical roots but then hurry up already and save time by using modern spice blends and prepared cake mixes.
I don’t have too much problem with cake mixes, actually, although mixing from scratch can give you bragging rights when you announce that you made a cake from the beginning, as if scooping flour from a bag and measuring out baking soda is a challenge. I tend to think of cake mixes as a kind of sous chef who mixes everything just right so you can focus on flair, or at least not burning the cake. Mise en place has never been my strong suit.
And yet not even box mixes can save you from mishap, or “modern” problems. This recipe calls for a box mix weighing 1 pound 1 ounce each. In my late-night rush to make the cake for the next day, the one store I visited had only one pound cake mix on its shelves, with a weight of 1 pound 16 ounces. I decided to just hope for the best. Not trusting my math skills I made up both batters and forged ahead with the recipe. Fortunately, everything fit in the pan – it just rose a little higher than usual. The end result was my pound cake looked like it was sitting on a spare tire.
Never mind. The cake was a success at the party. It looked cool when it was cut into with the chocolate and vanilla swirls and it was delightfully not too sweet (another modern problem). There was plenty of the sheet cake leftover, but every crumb of the bon voyage cake was gone by the time the party ended.
Spiced marble pound cake
2 packages (1 pound 1 ounce each) pound cake mix
1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
3/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, divided
1/4 teaspoons ground cloves
Creamy confectioners’ sugar frosting
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Prepare cake mix according package directions. Stir in vanilla.
3. Remove 2 cups batter to a small bowl; stir in cocoa, cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon of the nutmeg, and cloves; mix well. Set aside.
4. Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg to white batter. Pour white batter in thirds into a heavily greased and lightly floured* 10 by 4-inch tube pan. Between each addition of batter, dribble the chocolate mixture. [I puzzled over these instructions until I took it to mean pour 1/3 of the white batter, half of the cocoa batter, and repeat.]
5. Cut through batter with a knife to marble the cake. [I did this by "cutting" the circle like you were serving up a piece of pie every inch or so. Worked like a charm! The swirls were cool.]
6. Bake for 1-1/2 hours or until cake is done when cake tester comes out clean.
7. Cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes. Turn out of pan onto wire rack and cool thoroughly. Ice with creamy confectioners’ sugar frosting.
[*A time-saving tip: When greasing and flouring a Bundt pan, use Pam Baking Spray, it has both the fat and flour combined and works really, really well.]
Creamy confectioners’ sugar frosting
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons light cream
Beat ingredients together with a hand mixer until creamy.