Monday, December 19, 2016

American Cakes: From Colonial Gingerbread To Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best Loved Cakes by Anne Byrn

One time journalist and busy career woman, Anne Byrn, is mainly known for her popular cookbooks published under various "The Cake Doctor" titles.  Her long ago need, as a busy working mother, to supply the many cakes and baked goods for her friends and family took her on the path to becoming a cookbook author.  The convenience of baking from a mix inspired her to fix cake mixes of the day to produce a better cake .  She has gone on to develop a line of her own mixes in competition with nationally known brands.  She claims her mixes are more flavorful, moist and in plain words, just produce a better cake.

Her newest book American Cake is an extension of her passion for baking.  It seems she's come full circle to combine her earlier skills of research and writing, with her talents as a baker to produce this spectacular book.  With her understanding of the chemistry of baking, she is able to translate the historic recipes she's researched over the years to help us produce replicas of more than 125 of the best loved cakes throughout American history.  Her help in deciphering the amounts in antique measurements of ingredients, such as a gill, a wineglass, butter the size of an egg or the differences in modern leavening agents or types of sweeteners used historically is invaluable to produce successful baked goods. The book, American Cake, will not only give you the recipes for successful baking endeavors but also provide the backstory of baking through the centuries as our young country grew and changed from 1650 to present day.

I found this book fascinating and inspiring. Her research helps you to celebrate the diversity of our ancestor's ethnic origins, ingredients that were available during each decade along with their evolution and the changes in baking methods, so you fully appreciate the difficulty of the task.  It isn't just a history of baking, it recognizes the ingenuity of our ancestors and how fortunate we are to live in such modern times.  All the recipes she provides have been tested with modern ingredients and baking methods.  No need to whisk your eggs with tree branches or guess if your oven is the proper temperature by throwing flour on the floor of the oven to see if it is the right temperature.

Because I collect George Washington artwork and am particularly interested in the Federal Period of our history, I started with our first president's mother, Mary Ball Washington's Gingerbread recipe. It was also called Lafayette Gingerbread in its day.  It was reported to have been served to the Marquis de Lafayette during his visit to Kenmore in 1780.  Facts point out that this recipe was instrumental in helping to renovate Kenmore Plantation in Fredericksburg, Virginia after being discovered in a diary in the attic of a family relative.  The recipe was photocopied and sold for ten cents a sheet before being sold to the Hills Brothers Company in New York. If you have ever used Dromedary Gingerbread Mix, you may have already experienced a version of the recipe found on page 17.  The holiday season is a perfect time of year for baking this cake.

It is also fun to look back on decades in each chapter that pertain to when you or your family were growing up to see what cakes were in fashion. Of course the photography in this book is first rate and should inspire you to try many recipes.  Along with the history of each cake, there are also cake notes for baking tips along with additional information, highlighted in green, that provides more history for each period in time the cake originated from.  There are just too many wonderful things to relate about this book in this review so I hope you can find the time to read and enjoy it fully.  It's so much more than just a cookbook!  I have loved it so much I have put it on my shortlist for Santa.  Fingers crossed!

The American cakes, featured in this book, are so much more than flour, sugar, butter and eggs.  They are our heritage.  For more insight into cooking from the past you might want to try the book: Something From the Oven by Food Journalist and Historian, Laura Shapiro, which is available in our system.  Or you could try The Great American Cookbook by another pioneering New York Food Editor/Historian, Clementine Paddleford.  Hats off to the Cake Doctor for another wonderful book!

Reviewed by Phyllis

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