Tuesday, October 25, 2016

American Cake - Author Interview

Every now and then I fall in love with a book for its perfect balance of history and visual interest. American Cake is one of those books. While I'm not much of a baker or sweets eater, I do love a good slice of cake from time to time. My childhood memories involve helping my mother mix up a cake at the kitchen table. She made all her cakes from scratch (still does), and her date cake with sugar and chocolate chips on top is one of my favorite foods on earth.

What I enjoyed so much about Anne Byrn's American Cake is that it takes you on a tour of the history of cakes down through the American centuries. Cake has evolved over time, with each era having its own distinguishing features. Whether it's colonial, Civil War-era, post-World War II, or the present day cupcake craze, Americans have always loved their cake.

Anne Byrn is the former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and author of 12 books including the New York Times bestselling cookbook The Cake Mix Doctor (Workman, 1999). I recently had a chance to ask Anne Byrn some questions about her new book, her research process, and cake in America.

There’s a feeling out there that cooking is a creative endeavor but baking is a scientific one. What do you think of that characterization and do you find baking creative or scientific?

Anne Byrn
(photo credit: Ashley Hylbert)
This characterization isn’t correct. If I wanted to get technical, I could argue that both baking and cooking are scientific. There are rules and ways to cook—sear meat, whisk together an emulsified vinaigrette, squeeze lemon juice over apple slices so they don’t darken, and remove the lid from a soup while it simmers and reduces. Perhaps because we cook more than we bake, these cooking steps we use to prepare dinner become less scientific and more natural to us? Baking clearly depends on science to be successful—knowing ratios of flour to sugar to butter to eggs, for example, in cake baking troubleshoots an unknown recipe. But with practice and repetition, the science of baking becomes ingrained in the way we cook, too. Both baking and cooking benefit from creativity. If you are creative, you are flexible with new ingredient substitutions—you don’t panic and run to the store! You see cooking and baking as creative ways to preserve your sanity. And what you create—both savory and sweet—is pleasing to the eye and the palate. So others adore you!


Your book combines two of my favorite topics, food and history. What made you decide to write a book about the history of cake in America?

I credit a friend and author in Nashville—Alice Randall—with not just suggesting this idea but pointing her finger at me during a book launch party and telling me to write this book. I greatly admire Alice, and so I wasn’t about to let her down. And she said I was the logical person to do the research as I had been a newspaper journalist. Once I began the project, I was hooked. Either way you approached this book—through history or through recipes themselves—it was a fascinating process.

What are the major differences between an 18th-century cake, a 19th-century cake, a 20th-century cake, and a 21st-century cake?

What an interesting way to ask how our American cake has evolved! The ingredients, technologies, people baking the cakes, and the reasons for baking cake in America have changed through the centuries. In the 18th-century cake, people used what they could afford and what they grew. They bought local. An example was the first American cheesecake made by Quaker dairy farmers. If you baked with white sugar, you were wealthy because sugar was imported and expensive. Frostings as we know them were nonexistent. Sugar might be sprinkled over a cake and run back into the wood-fired oven to produce an icy glazed look—icing. In the 19th century, sugar is grown in America and becomes more affordable. Leavening in cake baking improves, and baking powder is invented. This gives rise to the American layer cakes as we know them. And immigrant populations—German, Eastern European, Scandinavian—share their recipes and they become part of our heritage. A 20th-century cake, in comparison, changes the most. In the first part of the century it is much like the 19th-century cake, but it is affected by two world wars, Depression, and economic uncertainty in our country. The early 20th-century cook was resourceful, frugal, turning nothing into something. This was birth of the applesauce cake, victory cakes, war cakes, cakes that took immense creativity to pull off as you were baking by a ration list. After World War II, gas ovens, electric ovens, the suburbs, rise in commercial bakeries, cake mixes, Betty Crocker, etc.—you could say that cake baking made a dramatic shift in the second half of the 20th century. And it was refined more as the century closed out—influenced by the French cooking movement and also the peace movement of California in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, our 21st-century cake is smaller and has less frosting like its predecessors, and it is made of natural, local ingredients. This will continue as people today crave desserts with pure flavor. Hispanic cooks have shared their Tres Leches Cake and Chocoflan cakes, and these are mainstays in many parts of the country. Cakes have always been baked to celebrate and honor, and this has remained true as cakes are present at birthdays, anniversaries, and other festive events.


What has America brought to cake-making? How did America change cake-making?

America brought new ingredients, new challenges, and a new mindset to baking cake. Think about the local, wild strawberries and blackberries that grew across our country when it was settled. They were the beginning ingredient of an American classic—jam cake. But jam cake was a German heritage cake, and it is still made in Germany today. So what is American about this cake? The caramel icing poured over it in places like Kentucky and Tennessee where southern sugar was caramelized in an iron skillet made jam cake American. In other areas of America—New England—molasses was the cake sweetener. It was the symbolic revolutionary ingredient in gingerbread and other American cakes. The gingerbread recipe might have been English, and it might have called for treacle, but the early American baker used local molasses. It was this new mindset and creativity, updating old European recipes with fresh, new eyes and with an American spirit—this is what became our cake.

Japanese Fruit Cake
(photo credit: Mitch Mandel)
Your research process for this book really must have been something. Can you tell us about that?

My research was really all over the place. I interviewed and wrote in the daytime hours, and I researched at night. I started with a framework of recipes that needed to be in the book—pound cake, red velvet, German chocolate, etc.—and left myself a lot of wiggle room for the unexpected cakes—Lazy Daisy, Burnt Leather Cake, Harriott Horry’s Water Cake. To figure out the origins of cakes and ingredients, I searched old newspapers. To understand trends and regional differences, I looked to old cookbooks. When specific trends emerged—like the turning white of the wedding cake, Prohibition, lightening of cake due to baking powder, or absence of sugar post-Civil War—then I put on the brakes and would dive into this topic fully to understand it. I relied on the guidance of many people during this process. These were historians and experts, and I name them in the Acknowledgments in the back of the book.


I’m fascinated to know about the cake testing that must have happened. Did you do all of it yourself? Was there a baking team or a test kitchen?

My baking team consists of myself and my trusted, longtime assistant and friend Martha. We hand-tested each and every recipe, often multiple times—especially that darned Delta Caramel Cake—to make sure the recipes were as flawless as the text was intriguing. No fancy test kitchen. But I do have a Wolf electric oven, which I love, and Martha bakes in GE.


What discovery surprised you the most while researching your book?

The project was a series of fascinating discoveries! That dyeing cakes red like our Red Velvet is old. The Victorians loved to create food that appeared different than itself, and their watermelon cake is an example. They dyed the cake red with cochineal, a dried beetle that had been used to dye fabric red. It is still used as a food dye outside the United States, by the way. I learned that chocolate was first thought of as a health food, and it made a slow entry into cake baking. And I learned that tea rooms helped usher in social change and women’s rights in the late 1920s.


What, if anything, has studying cake through the centuries taught you about the American psyche?

That Americans have accomplished much as a nation. That our classic cakes reflect hard work and hard times. Our cakes also reflect a diversity of backgrounds, of time periods. Our cakes speak happiness but also resiliency. Americans are good when we bake off-script. We can make it happen. 


Orange Chiffon Cake
(photo credit: Mitch Mandel)
Knowing what you do about the history of cake in America, what trend do you anticipate in American cake-baking?
Hopefully, we will see some new American classics! For a while we will continue to see smaller cakes and cakes with less frosting. We should be able to bake with local flour some day, and it will be interesting to see if we can taste the difference in this new local cake. Bakery cakes may work for weddings and large events, but for birthdays and smaller occasions, the home kitchen will be the place to bake the cake. And baking a cake at home with ingredients you know and a recipe you have preserved in your family will be the ultimate luxury.


I’ve always loved a good cupcake as much as the next person, but what is with the cupcake frenzy that has seized the nation the last few years? Is it over?

I hope so! Cupcakes were originally baked as a World War II treat, shared by co-workers at American factories. They became rock stars in 1998, thanks to Sex in the City and New York’s Magnolia Bakery. It’s mostly over. It needs to be.


And lastly, the question that you’ll likely be asked a thousand times on your book tour: What is your favorite cake and why?

Give me a good pound cake, any pound cake. I love the density, the clarity of flavors, the timeless quality, and how pound cake is appropriate any season of the year.

If you're looking for a great gift idea for the baker in your life, consider Anne's book.

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