The Cake Lady: Welcome at the Office

Graham Cracker Cake i

Who doesn't love a piece of cake (aside from the author's husband)? Scroll down for recipes for graham cracker cake (above), Martha Washington's great cake and more. Melissa Gray, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Melissa Gray, NPR
Graham Cracker Cake

Who doesn't love a piece of cake (aside from the author's husband)? Scroll down for recipes for graham cracker cake (above), Martha Washington's great cake and more.

Melissa Gray, NPR

About the Author

Melissa Gray works as a producer for All Things Considered. She lives in Alexandria, Va., with her non-cake-eating husband and two cats, who are terrified of her Kitchen Aid mixer.

Gray used to work for Morning Edition. While she was young and hot back then, she hardly ever baked — except that one time by the light bulb of an Easy-Bake Oven. In this piece from December 2003, you can hear her voice, explaining how the Easy-Bake works.

Unless you're an expert, measure precisely and follow recipes when baking i

Unless you're an expert, measure precisely and follow recipes, advises the author. Baking is a science. iStockphoto hide caption

toggle caption iStockphoto
Unless you're an expert, measure precisely and follow recipes when baking

Unless you're an expert, measure precisely and follow recipes, advises the author. Baking is a science.

iStockphoto

During the past year, I've become very popular at work. Not for my brains. Not for my beauty. For my Bundt pans.

Every week, I bake a new cake for my colleagues. Why cake? Because cookies are too juvenile. Why Monday? Because no matter how much you love your job, Monday is the day you look forward to least. A slice of cake makes it better.

Before I worked at NPR, I had a fistful of family recipes that impressed most non-bakers. But I knew what I could do was nothing compared to what my mother, aunts, great-aunts and grandmothers could do. Or did.

We're down to just my mom and a few aunts now, and everybody's on low-carb, sugar-free diets, so the desserts at family gatherings have been a little dull. No rum cakes. No sour cream pound cakes. Aunt Di's bitter-chocolate layer cake is sadly a thing of the past. And (sorry, Momma) Splenda does not taste as sweet as sugar.

My brother was irritated into action. He gave me an expensive tube pan for Christmas one year, the identical twin of the one he'd bought for himself. Someone had to do the cakes right, and it was going to be us.

He began a pursuit of all things pound cake, adding floured blueberries to the batter, mixing in flavored yogurt, trying different kinds of nuts. His wife and daughter were impressed. So were his hunting buddies.

I kicked off my own oven odyssey at the same time I started work at NPR's All Things Considered. My first cake was from the original first lady and the original Martha, Martha Washington. Her hospitality as hostess of Mt. Vernon was legendary. Strangers, or rather, people-who-knew-people-who-knew-the-Washingtons, had no compunction about visiting the estate and imposing themselves for days. Martha, her staff and her slaves made sure they were all well fed.

I learned this on a candlelight tour of her home last December. Her 18th-century dining room table was lavishly laid out with examples of what might be served at that time of year, including one drop-dead gorgeous white cake. Martha served this "great cake" every year on January 6, the 12th night of Christmas and the Washingtons' wedding anniversary. So on the 12th day of Christmas, George's true love gave him a slice of this fruit-and-brandy-filled cake.

I was completely charmed. My husband was not. He doesn't like cake. Freaky, yes, but I love him. So I took the cake in to work to share with my co-workers instead.

The recipe, which was revamped for modern bakers, was meant to be made with seasonal fruit. I put in apples, pears, cranberries and pecans. Judging from the "yummy" noises everyone was making, it wasn't bad. But as I tasted the cake, I suspected that the marshmallow-like icing wasn't right. I wondered if almonds might have worked better with the brandy and pears.

And then I had a thought: I can do better.

My next thought: These people will eat anything.

Thus officially began The Cake Project.

The rules are simple: a different recipe every Monday. No repeats. No mixes. No canned frosting. No margarine, no low-fat sour cream, no faux sugar. If a cake bombs, I rework the recipe and do a "re-cake" later in the week. Recipes can come from any source: family, neighbors, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, the food network and those spiral-bound collections that church ladies put out in every community.

I have baked nearly 50 cakes now, and I have learned important lessons:

Eggs and butter should always be at room temperature. You can hurry this along by putting butter in a bowl and setting the bowl on top of the preheating oven. Also, you can put eggs in warm water. But usually, I just leave it all out 20 minutes before I start mixing.

Add sugar, eggs and shortening slowly. Both this and the room-temperature ingredients make a big difference in the ultimate texture of the cake.

Do not molest the cake while it's in the oven. Do not even look at it. This angers the cake gods. I used to constantly "check" the cake. Every time the door opens, it disturbs the rise of the batter and lowers the oven temperature. If I'm worried about cake overflow, I make sure to line the bottom rack of the oven with aluminum foil before the cake pan goes in the oven. Better yet, I don't fill my pans too high. But I do not even consider opening the door now unless the timer has gone off or I smell smoke. The gods have been kind, and I've only had one fallen cake since adopting this method.

Measure precisely and follow the recipes as written. When you really know what you're doing, you can start to eyeball and improvise. Sometimes, however, what seems wrong really is. (See Holiday Honey Cake below.) Once you've got a sense of how a cake should be mixed and constructed, though, you'll be able to diagnose where things went astray, and you'll be able to improvise on other people's recipes.

If you're making cakes every Monday, swimming one mile three times a week will help you maintain your weight. Otherwise, prepare to buy bigger pants.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Yogurt Sour Cream Coffee Cake

This recipe taught me to never even think about throwing away what I saw as a failed cake. I was trying to re-create a coffee cake I'd made for my father-in-law, one that I'd improvised with vanilla yogurt because he didn't have any vanilla extract. When I made the recipe a few weeks later before work, I pulled the new cake out of the oven about 10 minutes too soon. It cooled for 15 minutes. When I saw how soft it was, it went back into the oven for another 15 minutes. I brought it in warm, and issued a warning: "This is an experiment that didn't quite bake. It almost hit the trash can, but then I thought: No, pecans are expensive."

Everybody loved it. The gooey center was the selling point. Two people demanded the recipe. As I said, these people will eat anything.

Try it for yourself. If you want the goo, just take it out 10 minutes early, let it cool a few minutes, then pop it back in. Serve it warm.

1 cup butter

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1/2 cup vanilla yogurt

1/2 cup sour cream

2 cups cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup chopped pecans

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9- or 10-inch cake pan.

Cream butter and sugar with an electric mixer. Add eggs one at a time and blend. Add yogurt, then sour cream. Blend some more until smooth.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add gradually to batter.

Mix sugar, pecans and cinnamon and set aside. This is the topping.

Pour half the batter into cake pan and sprinkle with half the topping mix. Pour in rest of batter. Sprinkle rest of topping mix over batter.

Bake for 1 hour. That should get it gooey-to-slightly baked.

Holiday Honey Cake

Just because the cookbook cover says "James Beard Award" doesn't mean every recipe's a winner.

Some recipes aren't reprinted correctly. Sometimes you'll be mixing ingredients and realize the authors missed a step. Yup, there it is in the ingredient list, "butter," but nowhere do they tell you when or how to add it. (Is it creamed? Is it melted then cooled? Do I mash it into the flour with my cold, bare fingers? What? What? What?)

This cake was suggested for Rosh Hashana, but why stop there? With the spices, it looked like it a great cake for Thanksgiving, too. But it was utterly bland. It tasted like dried honey bread, though it was advertised as a "moist, aromatic cake richly flavored with spices, orange and hint of Cognac." A case of mistaken identity, I suspected. In my James Beard Award winning cookbook, I wrote: "Bad, bad, BAD cake — use revised directions."

The re-cake was a big hit.

1 tablespoon freeze-dried or instant coffee

2/3 cup boiling water

3/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

1 tablespoon dark molasses

2 3/4 cups sifted cake flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves

1/4 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter

1/2 cup sugar

2 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon freshly grated navel orange rind

2 large egg whites

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

3/4 cup lightly toasted sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch tube pan or use a vegetable oil spray. (I like pan baking spray with flour.)

Place coffee in small bowl. Add the boiling water and stir until dissolved. In another small bowl, combine the honey, Grand Marnier and molasses. Add the hot coffee, stir well and set aside.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar and spices into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.

Break out that electric mixer. Cream butter, sugar and eggs together. Add oil and orange rind. Blend until smooth.

Add flour to cream mixture, alternating with honey mixture.

In small bowl, beat egg whites until frothy. Add cream of tartar and continue beating until white peaks form. Fold half the whites into batter, taking about 10 turns. Crush toasted almonds into small pieces and sprinkle over batter while folding in remaining egg whites, taking about 40 turns to incorporate.

Pour batter into pan and bake for 50 to 55 minutes, until knife or toothpick comes out clean. Set aside and cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Invert cake onto rack and allow to cool at room temperature. Let cake "mature" for 24 hours before serving.

Martha Washington's Great Cake

This is the recipe adapted for the 21st century. It's what those nice docents give you when you visit the kitchen at the Mt. Vernon estate.

Because I like the idea of going full circle, I'll be re-caking Martha's recipe at the end of this year. I may try a couple of different combinations of fruits and nuts. Craisins are good. And of course, how can you not include dried cherries for a Washington family recipe?

10 eggs

1 pound butter

1 pound sugar

1 ¼ pounds (20 ounces) all-purpose flour

1 1/4 pounds (20 ounces) assorted fruits and nuts*

2 1/2 teaspoons ground mace

2 1/2 teaspoons ground nutmeg

2 ounces wine

2 ounces French brandy

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour a 10-inch spring form pan.

Separate egg whites from yolks and set yolks aside. Beat egg whites to a "soft peak." Cream the butter. Slowly add the beaten egg whites, one spoonful at a time, to the butter. Slowly add the sugar, one spoonful at a time, to the egg whites and butter. Add egg yolks. Add flour, slowly. Add fruits and nuts.

Add mace, nutmeg, wine and brandy.

Pour batter into pan and bake about 75 minutes. Allow cake to cool after baking.

When cake is almost cool, make the icing.

*The following are suggested based on what would have been available to Mrs. Washington, either fresh or dried.

5 ounces of pear (peeled, cored, and diced)

3 1/2 ounces of raisins

9 1/2 ounces of apples (peeled, cored and diced)

2 ounces sliced almonds

Modern Adaptation of an 18th-Century Icing

3 egg whites

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

2 tablespoons orange flavoring

Preheat oven to 200 degrees.

Using a mixer (or your arms, if you've had your vitamins), beat together egg whites and 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar. Repeat adding sugar until you have used 1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar.

Add grated lemon peel and orange flavoring. Beat until the icing is stiff enough to stay parted when knife cuts through it. Smooth onto cake. Let it dry and harden in the oven for 1 hour (Note: Icing will be brittle when cut with a knife).

Graham Cracker Cake

I used to think you could never get enough chocolate, but after making about a dozen different chocolate cakes, I've revised that notion. I'm more interested in making cakes these days that are augmented by chocolate, rather than cakes that are simply a delivery vehicle for chocolate. Here's one from Great Cakes by Carole Walter that fits the augmentation category.

This is not a cake for first-timers, or people without time to kill. It's supposed to be a four-layer cake, but I've not mastered the "slice a layer-horizontally-in-half trick," so mine is double-layered. If you go for four layers, make sure to double the mocha whipped cream recipe.

Here's a hint: Get quality graham crackers. And use at least a medium-sized food processor.

25 double graham crackers, broken

1/2 cup shredded, dried unsweetened coconut

2 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1.2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

4 large egg yolks (save the whites!)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup whole milk

4 large egg whites (and that's why!)

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 350. Butter (or spray) or cut parchment paper to line two 9-inch pans. (If you use parchment, butter that, too.)

In the food processor (fitted with steel blades), put the graham cracker crumbs and coconut. Process until very fine. Add baking powder and pulse 6 to 8 times to blend. Set aside.

Cut butter into 1-inch pieces and cream on medium to high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes.

Add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, taking 6 to 8 minutes to blend in well. Yes, it seems very persnickety, but sometimes a good cake is a persnickety cake. Scrape sides of bowl occasionally.

Add egg yolks, 2 at a time, in 1-minute intervals. Scrape sides of bowl. Beat 1 extra minute. Blend in vanilla.

Reduce mixer speed to low. Add the crumb mixture alternating with the milk, 3 parts dry to 2 parts wet. Scrape sides of bowl and mix 10 more seconds. Set batter aside in larger bowl.

If you don't have two sets of beaters, or a balloon whisk attachment (Kitchen Aid mixers have them and boy, they are great!) wash and thoroughly dry your beaters. Thoroughly. Any hint of foreign material and the next step won't work too well.

Put the egg whites in a separate bowl and beat them on medium speed until they are frothy (like the foam on a nice glass of Bass Ale). Add the cream of tartar and kick the mixer up to medium-high. Beat until your froth becomes firm, moist peaks, and stop. Do not overbeat. Fold 1/4 of the whites into batter, taking about 20 turns. Fold in the remaining whites, about 20 turns.

Spoon batter into the prepared pans, smoothing the surface with the back of a tablespoon. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 or 30 minutes, or until cake begins to come away from the sides of the pan and is springy to the touch.

Let pans cool for 10 minutes, then invert pans onto cake racks sprayed with nonstick spray. Gently remove pans and peel off parchment paper (if you used it). Once cake is completely cool, it's time for the filling and the frosting. But while you're waiting …

Yes, there is more!

You'll need a pastry bag, or improvise with a zip-lock bag with one corner tip sliced off. The pastry bag works better, though.

Mocha Whipped Cream Filling

1 1/4 cups heavy cream, well chilled

1/2 teaspoon coffee zest (coffee zest is made with 3 parts instant coffee crystals to 1 part boiling water; I didn't want to fool with that, so I just set aside a teaspoon of regular coffee from my morning brew)

1/6 cup confectioner's sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa

1 tablespoons Kahlua

1/4 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa, for garnish

Raspberries, for garnish, optional

Chill mixing bowl and whisk or beaters (I toss them into the freezer for 5 minutes).

Pour cream into chilled bowl and whip for a minute or two. Stir in the confectioner's sugar and cocoa, then beat on medium speed until cream begins to thicken. Add the coffee zest and the Kahlua. Continue whipping until cream reaches the soft peak state, then remove from mixer. Whisk by hand until cream is thick, but not grainy. Refrigerate.

Set first layer of cake on plate, top side down. Fit pastry bag with No. 5 plain tube and fill bag 1/3 full with mocha whipped cream. Starting 1/2 inch from edge of cake, pipe a circle of cream around the layer. Fill center with additional cream, smoothing surface with large metal spatula.

Carefully place second layer on top of frosted bottom layer. Empty the remaining cream into the pastry bag. Pipe 1/2-inch dots on the top layer, beginning at the outer edge. Each dot should touch the preceding one, forming a ring. Continue working toward the center of the cake until the entire surface is covered.

Put the 1/2 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa in a fine strainer, and gently tap it to sprinkle the cocoa across the top of the cake. Add raspberries, if desired. Refrigerate, but remove from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before serving.

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