Cakes and Kids
Teaching cooking basics is such a kick! A recent class for carrot cake involved my fabulous editor Melissa Gilbert (Clicking Keys) and her 9-year-old. When you add children to the kitchen, something as simple as cracking the eggs becomes a marvelous success!
I don’t think it is ever too early to involve children in the food process. Sure, they create a mess, but they learn to love good food while standing by you at the counter or sink. Cleaning up can be an awful drudge or lots of fun. It is all in how you set the stage.
In my grandmother’s kitchen, work was work was work. I don’t remember the process ever being fun, but the discussions around food and the actual eating were glorious. We spent long summer vacations at the farm just as the garden was coming in, so freezing, canning, and “putting up” was in high swing. I churned butter from fresh cream every few days, and my grandmother still sold milk in gallon jars and butter by the pound to neighbors for her “pin” money.
I do appreciate that canning has come back into vogue with the younger generation, but wonder if it will last. It is really hard work and far too easy these days to go buy canned tomatoes when you need them in mid-winter. I personally find canning a drudgery of long hot hours in the garden picking and sorting followed by longer hours in a hotter kitchen blanching and peeling and packing those sterile jars. As if that was not difficult enough, the next step involved a scary pressure cooker whistling away and the final manual dexterity test with those jar tongs to lift the hot glass jars out onto on a clean towel on the countertop. The only highpoint was lying in bed waiting to hear that plink of the jars sealing in the spotless kitchen. I swear my grandmother laid awake four rooms away from the kitchen waiting until the final jar had plinked, and then she slept the sleep of the just and weary.
The next morning was my least favorite part because before we started the process all over again, we had to carry all those jars of green beans, tomatoes, and peaches into the cellar. Behind a plain door in the hallway at the middle of the house lay a very dark and damp set of stairs to a dirt basement. I always thought the cellar was dug before the foundations of the house were set, but I never had the chance to ask my grandfather about those details. It made sense to me that he stuck a shovel in the ground and said, “Here lies the center of my house, and this will be the cellar, so dig it ten feet deep and ten feet square. Then level the ground all around.”
The smell of red dirt and musty old wood was an assault to the senses as you descended the ten steps into that square dirt hole in the ground. By the fifth step, you had a full view of the two-foot space between the entire underneath side of the house and the solid dirt foundation. Standing at the bottom of the steps put the actual foundation of the house just above adult eye level. The whole room was lined with wooden shelves filled with those canning jars prepared for the battle against the coming winter.
I remember when I was finally tall enough to easily reach the pull string for the light bulb at the top of those stairs. There is not much to compare to the relief of catching that slender string after waving your arm around over your head desperate to banish the dark along with possible creepy crawling things. Obviously, it was a safe and tidy space, but one encounter with the local black snake at eye level as I passed down those stairs was enough to taint the experience for life. I really don’t mind snakes; I just dislike the surprise of a snake anywhere. This was a working farm, so he was a welcome guest and did his part to handle the rodent population, but I never went down those stairs with a light heart.
I did not learn to love the process of cooking in my grandmother’s kitchen. Despite the drudgery, I managed to create my own joy for the task as I grew into adulthood. She and my mother taught me common sense and the ability to create endless dishes without recipes or measurements. She was burdened by the hard physical labor and an underlying fear of never having enough. Conversely, she always cooked more than was needed, greeted an extra guest at the table without batting an eye, and produced the kind of meals that make people go all misty-eyed with memories.
I don’t believe she ever loved making a meal like I do. She was given one choice in her life involving marriage and running a farm household. She lived in a time that limited her possibilities. There are many moments I am thankful to live in a time and place that allows me to have the freedom for so many choices.
In contrast, I have a dear friend that I have known since we started college together. She went on to be a famous research scientist traveling the world and being awesome in every possible way. Our birthdays are exactly two months apart, and we have never failed to honor and acknowledge that fact. Much like me, she had a farm background and grew up knowing very hard work. I think we became friends so quickly because we had such similar work ethic. She was and still is intelligent, beautiful and hilarious. She stops traffic everywhere she goes, but at her core, she loves putting together a great meal and sitting down to a table of interesting people.
I went to visit her when her son was about two years old. She lived in a lovely older home with the guest room cheerfully tucked into the attic. She is the kind of person that made a simple visit one of those memories that will sustain you in the dark hours. I descended to the kitchen that first morning to the smell of coffee, loud music, and the giggles of her toddler. He was sitting beside her on the counter all covered in chocolate, belting out a tune with her, and grinning ear to ear. She was making a flourless chocolate torte for the evening dessert and having a blast with him.
Throughout the years, when we found time to talk on the phone, she was usually in her kitchen dancing and singing with her son. Joy was the main ingredient on her menu and no matter how difficult life got, no matter how cutthroat her career, the kitchen was where she let it all go and just embraced the process with love. I know her son is all grown up now, but I want to believe he looks at cooking and cleaning with a very different viewpoint than most.
Life is about attitude.
You can dread being in the kitchen or you can get the people you love in there with you and celebrate. I still make a version of that recipe she shared with me all those years ago, including the obligatory side of loud music and dancing.
- Oven 400 degrees
- 8” Spring -form pan, well greased or use spray release
- Semi-Sweet Chocolate- 16 ounces
- Unsalted Butter- ½ cup
- AP Flour 1 ½ tsp
- Sugar 1 ½ tsp
- Hot Water 1 tsp
- Eggs- 4 large - separated
- Optional Ingredient: Loud music and dancing
- Separate eggs and whisk the four egg whites until they are stiff and hold firm peaks.
- Melt Chocolate and Butter together using either a double boiler or the microwave. If using the microwave melt the butter first then add chocolate. Melt together in the microwave in 30 second intervals stirring thoroughly to incorporate and avoid scorching the chocolate. Allow to cool for 5 minutes to keep the yolks from cooking as you stir them into the chocolate in the step below.
- Add the flour, sugar, and water and whisk thoroughly. Add egg yolks one at a time and stir until well blended.
- Using a rubber spatula fold ⅓ of the egg whites gently into the chocolate mixture. Add the remaining egg whites in two batches and fold very gently each time. Expect to see bits of egg white streaking the chocolate batter. The key is to be gentle and keep the volume of air from the egg whites as full as possible.
- Pour gently into the spring form pan and smooth the top and bake on the middle oven rack for 12- 18 minutes. This will burn quickly so be prepared to pull from the oven at 12 minutes.The edges should just be pulling away from the sides of the pan and a knife stuck in the center will come out not quite dry.
- Cool in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. The cake will fall in the center as it cools.
- Remove the spring- form ring , place on a serving plate, cover with plastic wrap and chill. Serve cold or room temp.