Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I say Caramel...you say Careamel

Southerners have had a long love affair with cake. Like sweet tea, it's a staple at church dinners, family reunions, funerals, and celebrations of any kind. Many of these cakes have names as interesting as their ingredient list. Hummingbird cake, a longtime favorite for showers of any type, contains mashed bananas and pineapple. Lane cake, a specialty from here in Alabama, is a multiple layer cake filled with whiskey soaked raisins. Then it's frosted with a fluffy white boiled icing, another Southern favorite. There are many more cakes, each with interesting histories and closely guarded family variations on the recipes, that make the baker a legend in their part of the world.
I grew up in a family with Pennsylvania Dutch roots. We were more likely to eat a funny cake than a Mississippi cake. My first experiences of Southern cakes as a child, came while visiting an elderly woman that lived nearby. It didn't matter when you stopped by, she always had some kind of cake under a glass domed cake plate in her kitchen. Mom would stop by often to visit this particular neighbor, for various reasons. Not exactly a thrilling prospect for me and my younger sisters. We were expected to sit quietly while the adults conversed. The television, which was always on, offered no escape from our boredom. Our neighbor was an avid watcher of what she called "her stories", daytime soaps.  Mom knew to time her visits until after "As the World Turns" or there would be no conversation until a commercial break. She used the commercial break to fill us non-watchers in on what was going on in the World as it Turned. Yeah, not exactly the way I wanted to spend a summer afternoon. However, these visits did come with a silver lining; cake!  She would always offered us slice, or rasher, as she called it, of cake. I didn't know what a rasher of cake was, but I knew I wanted it! All of her cakes were amazing, but I especially loved her twelve-layer chocolate cake. Unbelievably thin layers of yellow cake stacked twelve layers high with rich chocolate frosting between all twelve layers. One bite and I was sent into cake induced nirvana, even the Turning World became a bit more enjoyable.
I recently purchased Southern Cakes by Nancie McDermott. It's full of all the old Southern favorites. I decided to attempt a caramel cake for my book club. I have a couple of older Southern ladies in my book club and I knew they'd love this cake. I'd made a burnt caramel cake before so I thought this would be similar and no big deal to make. The yellow cake was very straight forward and made a lovely light as air cake. However, the icing was nothing I've ever worked with before. Maybe Southern women have some crazy lighting fast cake icing skills. Perhaps this icing recipe, which comes from before the days of air conditioning, doesn't set up as fast in an 80+ degree kitchen. Whatever the case, you've got to get this icing on this cake in 5 minutes or less or forget it! It starts to harden and I don't care what the recipe says there's not much you can do about it. So my first attempt at this cake was not a pretty one. It tasted divine which is really what matters, but my cake did not look like the picture in the book..at all!
I served it at my book club and found out I've been mispronouncing the name of this cake my whole life. Southerners love syllables as much as they love cake. I called it cara mel cake (2 syllables) and got odd looks from the 2 older ladies in my book club. They both simultaneously said, oh you mean care a mel cake, (definitely 3 long syllables). Oops, there go those Yankee roots popping up again!

Gigi's Fabulous Caramel Cake
Source: Southern Cakes by Nancie McDermott


Yellow Cake 
3/4 cup butter
1 cup milk
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2teaspoons salt
4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Gigi’s Caramel Icing
2 2/3 cups light brown sugar (or one 1-lb box)
1/2 cup butter (one stick)
7 tablespoons evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pre-heat the oven to 325°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.
Combine the butter and milk in a small saucepan, and cook over low heat until the butter melts. Do not let it boil or the milk will curdle.  Stir well and let cool to room temperature.
Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl, and mix well with a whisk. In a large bowl, combine the eggs and sugar, and beat well at high speed, scraping down the bowl often, until light yellow, smooth an thick. 3-5 minutes.
Stir the flour mixture into the egg mixture, mixing only until the flour disappears. Add the cooled milk mixture and the vanilla, stir well, and divide the batter between the prepared pans.
Bake at,325°F for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cakes are pale golden brown, spring back when touched lightly in the center, and begin to pull away from the sides of the pans.
Cool in pans for 10 minutes on wire racks. Then turn out the cakes onto racks to cool completely, top side up. 
Make the icing; have the cake layers handy and ready for frosting, so that you can spread the warm frosting quickly once it is ready. In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the brown sugar, butter, evaporated milk, and vanilla. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir well and then adjust the heat so that the frosting boils and bubbles gently. Cook for 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool for 5 minutes.
Beat the icing with a wooden spoon until it thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Place a cake layer, top side down, on a cake stand or serving platter. Quickly spread some icing over the top, and cover it with the second cake layer, top side up. Ice the top quickly and then spread the remaining icing over the sides.
If the icing becomes to hard to spread, warm gently over low heat, add a spoonful or two of evaporated milk, and then scrape and stir well until the icing softens enough to spread again. Dip a table knife in a very hot water to help soften and smooth out the icing once it is spread.

See the icing looks like it was put on with a putty knife!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rosemary Infused Honey

 I 've been busy as a bee the past couple of weeks preparing for opening day of the farmers market that I manage here in my home town. It takes months of work, hundreds of phone calls, and thousands of emails to get the farmers market ready for business each year. I helped build our local farmers market from the ground up. It took well over a year of planning just to get it off the ground. Last summer was our first season. It was so gratifying to see those tents go up and the people in our community line up to buy fresh produce from our local farmers. I feel very strongly that we need to support our local growers and think more locally when it comes to eating.
Having a year of experience under our belts, made planning and executing this years market a little easier. The best part, for me, of managing the market is getting to know so many of our local farmers and producers. They are a wonderful hardworking and independent group of people. I look forward to seeing them each week and love buying what they've grown. It's so nice to have a face attached to the food your eating. 
The Beekeepers Association has a booth at our market. Each week different beekeepers run the booth and bring along the honey they've collected from their bees. They encourage their customers to sample the different honey. It's amazing how the honey for one grower tastes completely different from that of another grower. Their hives may be only a few miles apart, yet have a completely different taste and color.
I can't help myself, I always buy too much at the market. I end up having to freeze, or can, or throw a party, to use up everything I've bought each week. I decided, since I had quite a bit of honey, I'd try infusing some of it with herbs and see what happened. I went with rosemary this time because I think that rosemary and honey are a terrific combo and because I have the world's largest rosemary bush. Seriously, it's like some mutant plant or something. Anyway, I used the quick method of infusing my honey. With the slower method, you don't heat the honey at all. The herbs slowly over time infuse the honey with their flavor. The honey has a longer shelf life if you use this method, but I'm too impatient to wait several weeks for the honey to be infused! So I used the quick method. It's quite easy and I loved the end result. Rosemary is perfect with honey. I've already used this honey in so many things: salad dressing, drizzled over cheese, on fresh fruit, and in my marinades. It would be perfect in place of regular honey in the grilled figs I made here.

Quick method for infusing honey with rosemary

1 cup honey (such as clover honey)
a good sized handful of rosemary

Place honey in a double boiler with water in bottom. Squeeze rosemary
leaves to release flavor and add to honey. Bring water to a boil; bring
honey to 185°F and keep at 185°F for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and
let stand for 10 minutes. Strain while still warm. Strain into a clean glass jar.
Makes 1 cup. Store in the refrigerator. Honey should be good for several months.
Stop by your local farmers market and pick up some local honey and infuse some for yourself.
P.S. Infused honey would make a great gift.