Chances are you have a July 4 tradition – fireworks, barbecue, beach trip, watermelon, parade – something that occurs every year over this holiday weekend. We creatures of habit like to repeat things on holidays to build memories.
But baking a cake to honor our nation’s birthday celebration is a bit of a challenge. The cupcakes with red, white, and blue sprinkles and the strawberry and blueberry decked flag cake you see everywhere at July 4 picnics are a lot different than the earliest flag cakes – fruitcakes.
If you want to dig a bit deeper, bake something with a little history to it this year, then well, you really don’t need to go any further than your family’s recipe box.
Open the Family Recipe Box
For in every family recipe collection there are regional cakes that repeat themselves at birthdays and holidays. Trace the history of this recipe, and you might find it is one-, two-, and perhaps three-generations old. And it might be one of those grand old American cakes perfect for this holiday weekend.
As I researched American Cake, my new cookbook to be released Sept. 6, I found some of our oldest cakes are still baked today. Gingerbread, for example, was a stomach settler in the 17th Century. It was sold to sailors preparing for long sea voyages. So, you never know…gingerbread might be just the right dessert to follow one of those patriotic potlucks where you are unsure what you are eating and how long it has been sitting in the sun!
Molasses, an essential addition to New England gingerbread, had a unique place in American food history. A common sweetener and a by-product of white refined sugar bought by the wealthy, molasses was considered a revolutionary ingredient. It was used in new American baking in lieu of British treacle, and the British taxes imposed on it created the beginnings of the American Revolution. Bet they never told you that in history class…
The Cake of Angels and the Pennsylvania Dutch
Angel food cake, too, has always been a favorite American cake.
One of the many great American cakes that came from the Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen – along with applesauce cake, crumb coffee cake, Shoofly Pie, and chocolate cake – angel food was baked in farm kitchens where eggs were plentiful. The yolks of the eggs went into homemade noodles, and the whites were saved for angel food cake. And did you know that early Prohibitionists approved of angel food cake because it was leavened with beaten egg whites and not yeast, which makes alcohol when heated? Save that bit of knowledge for the next time you play Trivia!
More often than not, the cakes that we remember most, the cakes that seem the most American, are the basic cakes made from at-hand ingredients. One of these is the Lazy Daisy Cake.
In the hard-scrabble 1930s, in lieu of frosting, toppings and meringues were spread onto cakes and returned briefly to the oven. The Lazy Daisy cake is a fabulous make-do cake that came out of the ’30s. To receive the recipe for Lazy Daisy, you can take advantage of the pre-order incentive for American Cake here.
Also from the ’30s, icebox cakes were made by layering sponge cake or thin wafers with whipped cream, custard, or pudding, and were a symbol of preparedness. They embodied the idea that America was ready for anything – hard times, war, even drop-in dinner guests. And they are still popular today, especially in the summertime.
Evaporated Milk to the Rescue
This wickedly hot weather affecting our country is tolerable with today’s air conditioning and refrigeration. But what about cakes that pre-dated these conveniences? Canned evaporated milk, needing no refrigeration, was the basis for the icing bedecking America’s classic German Chocolate Cake. The cake and icing originated in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1950s. Canned milk was an essential ingredient in the cupboard of frontier kitchens as well as those found on barrier islands and remote locations. Other famous American cakes that call for canned milk in their preparation are the Smith Island Cake and the Tres Leches Cake.
You can even use canned milk to make caramel frosting, the frosting impervious to humidity, the much-loved frosting of cake bakers in hot climates.
Caramel cake has always had a special place in the Mississippi Delta region because the area was too hot for fruit trees to grow. Cooks turned to the sugar cane grown in nearby Louisiana, and heated it to a nearly burnt caramel color, which gave the frosting its distinctive flavor. Old-fashioned caramel frosting isn’t easy to pull off, which makes the caramel cake one of America’s most difficult, and at the same time, most bragged-about cakes.
This ability to use what’s on hand, the knowledge of how to bake a cake, and the ingredients that were uniquely American and regional – this was the recipe for American Cake. So this year, instead of baking a flag cake or red, white, blue cupcakes, bake the cake your mother baked for July 4, or her mother. Dig deep into your family’s recipe box, and you might find the most American cake of all.
(My book, American Cake, hits bookstores Sept. 6. Inside the book are the recipes for cakes shared in this blog – Angel Food Cake, Delta Caramel Cake, Red Velvet Cake, Gingerbread, German Chocolate Cake, and more. To pre-order your copy, click here.)