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Baker, Baker

July 24, 2020

Potato Flour Cake ingredientsWayne writes: This summer, library staff at Williams College are trying their hand at making recipes from the Chapin Library’s historic cookbook collection: among others, marrow spinage (spinach) pasties from 1671, pound cake from 1830, donuts from 1952 (from an Eskimo cookbook, substituting vegetable shortening for seal blubber). I chose to make a potato flour cake from the first edition (1901) of the Settlement Cook Book. Elizabeth Black Kander wrote this slim volume for people served by the Settlement House in Milwaukee, many of them poor, mainly Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. The book became widely popular, and new editions appeared well into the twentieth century. I bought a copy of the 1944 edition long ago at a public library sale.

The recipe for potato flour cake has only a few ingredients:

9 eggs
1-3/4 cups sugar
scant cup of potato flour (a flour made from dried potatoes, gluten-free)
half a lemon (rind and juice)

Separate the whites and yolks of seven of the eggs. Beat these whites very stiff. Beat well the seven yolks together with two whole eggs, then add the sugar, lemon rind, and juice; beat this mixture thoroughly, add the potato flour, and beat again. Now fold in the beaten egg whites and bake at 350° F in a preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. Let cool in the pan before removing the cake to a large plate.

Potato Flour Cake finishedGiven the age of the recipe, I had a number of questions. How big were the eggs? In 1901, they were probably smaller than our Large eggs, which are now the standard size. (I remember when supermarkets carried Medium eggs, but haven’t seen them in a long while.) The U.S. government didn’t start to grade eggs by size until 1943. Then, what kind of pan to use? The recipe doesn’t say. Not knowing how high the cake would rise, I decided to use a 9-inch springform pan and to grease it with butter. How hot should the oven be? The recipe calls for baking ‘slowly in a moderate oven’; well, a ‘moderately slow oven’ is said to be 300–350° F, and a ‘moderate oven’ 350–375, so I split the difference at 350 (around 180° C, Gas Mark 4), which was right. Forty minutes was quite enough for baking; any longer and the bottom might have burned.

Local supermarkets had no potato flour, so I had to order a pound from the King Arthur website. The finished product is dense and sweet, though not as sweet as I expected with one and three-quarters cups of sugar. The lemon rind (removed using a Microplane grater) and lemon juice offset the sugar and added a distinct but not overpowering flavor. If I were to make this again, however, I would reduce the sugar by a quarter cup. The cake is good for dessert or breakfast, and best in small slices.

The batter is very stiff. If you use a whisk to mix it, after beating the egg yolks and whole eggs don’t leave the whisk sitting in the batter, or you’ll find it hard to remove! Presumably, the addition of beaten egg whites (which I whisked, not all that successfully, in a KitchenAid stand mixer) is meant to lighten the cake, but the batter is so heavy that one could not possibly fold the egg whites in ‘very carefully’ as the cookbook states (to keep as much air in them as possible). I had to mix them in as best I could.

This morning, I saw a recipe in the New York Times for ‘Roman Breakfast Cake’, which is similar to the Settlement recipe except that it uses fewer eggs and all-purpose rather than potato flour, adds berries, and includes a little baking powder. This was shown baked in a ring pan.

A week ago, we had a banana gone too soft for slicing on cereal, and Christina wondered if I could make banana bread with just one banana. I searched for a recipe, and adapted a good one by Christina Lane at dessertfortwo.com, a site I’ll be looking at more closely. The result is actually more like a cake than a bread. I added the vanilla and spice.

1 over-ripe banana
3 tbsp. unsalted butter at room temperature
3 tbsp. granulated sugar
2 tbsp. honey
1 large egg yolk
dash of vanilla extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. wheat germ (optional, but I used it)
1/4 + 1/8 tsp. baking soda
dash of apple pie spice (or equivalent: cinnamon, cloves, etc.)
pinch of salt
2 tbsp. chopped nuts (optional; I used walnuts and pecans)

Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C, Gas Mark 4). Grease a mini-loaf pan well with butter. (A mini-loaf pan is roughly 6 × 3 × 2 in.; mine is an Ekco 3-1/4.) Mash the banana with a fork; add the butter, sugar, and honey, stir well. Stir in the egg yolk and vanilla. Sprinkle over the flour, wheat germ, baking soda, spice, and salt. Stir in the chopped nuts. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the bread comes out clean. Let cool in the pan before removing the bread to a wire rack.

The only food I bake on a regular basis is granola. I much prefer my own simple (some would say dull) recipe to anything commercial in a box. This consists of:

6 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (I use Quaker)
1 cup wheat germ
small handful of sliced almonds
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I use canola)
1/2 cup honey

Mix the oats, wheat germ, and almonds in a large bowl. Combine the water, oil, and honey in a large measuring cup, add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients. Spread the granola on a large rimmed baking sheet, such as a jelly roll pan, either greased or (much easier for cleaning) with a sheet of parchment paper more or less to fit. Bake for around 40 minutes at 325° F (around 160° C, Gas Mark 3), until golden brown.

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