American Cake: A History Lesson


At this point, you think I'd be tired of cake, but the truth is, I could cake talk for hours. There's always so much more to learn. After hearing Anne Byrn interviewed on NPR I spent nearly an hour trying to find her recipe for a Cowboy Cake—a cake baked on the stove top in a cast iron pan—but to no avail. Byrn recently published a new cookbook titled, The American Cake: A History, and I was salivating just looking at the picture above. Byrn's remake of the sticky, raisin-based concoction (which is void of eggs and best made with strong coffee), seems to be locked up inside the book. Even Pinterest couldn't do much better than a dark brown, gummy looking version. So I've been Cowboy Cake frustrated ever since.

This isn't the first time a cake has frustrated me. Several years ago I entered a cake baking contest honoring Julia Child and the 50th anniversary of her seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, (which will change the way you think about pastry crust forever). The prize was $1000, so I entered my Champagne Cake and got to work writing up the directions. It was the very first time I had written out a recipe using that level of detail, not just copying it or jotting it down for a friend, but step by step, and I found it quite challenging. But that wasn't the frustrating part: two weeks later I lost to a blue cake. Blue! Although I admit the winner had ingeniously designed her cake to look like a replica of Child's book cover, I found the FD & C blue #5 color unappetizing (not to mention carcinogenic). Really, people? You want to eat a blue cake?

There are some random cake disasters in my baking history too: a Tres Leches nightmare comes to mind, as does a chocolate cake that fell apart because I used golden organic sugar. Not cute at all. It seems cocoa and moreno sugar make a fragile cake, but killer brownies. Who knew? But this is how one learns as a baker: through little disappointments and big fat disasters. Baking is alchemy, after all, a science.

For some reason, I'm hearing Marie Antoinette in my head now.

"Madame," they said, "the villagers have no bread."

"Well then," she answered, "let them eat cake."

You may think of her as innocent, heartless, or horribly naive; historians disagree. "Cake" it seems, was also a term at the time for crumbs left in the bread drawer, so she may have been saying, "Who cares? Let them eat crumbs." The jury is out on what she actually meant, but after visiting Versailles many years ago, I can empathize with the French Revolutionaries. She lost her head soon after she uttered those words, but the poor dear might have been sincere. After all, what would you rather have for breakfast? Whole wheat toast or chocolate cake? For me, the answer is obvious.


Check out this less than satisfying recipe for Texas Cowboy Cake