Thursday, October 25, 2012

Vanilla Butter Cake

This week has certainly lent itself to nostalgia. A few days ago, I wrote about a popular Canadian food writer whom I had never met, but who - through the many recipes she published - taught me how to cook. And now, quite unexpectedly, I’ve just heard the sad news about Maisie Pinkerton. 

Most of you didn’t know Maisie, who died at 89 years old this past March. Had I heard of her passing sooner, I would have said something before now. I met Maisie Pinkerton once and only once, not quite 40 years ago, but she was unforgettable. 

It was then a young, self-assigned journalist writing in the features section of the local newspaper. I’d received a tip about a whirling dervish of a woman who was a gifted cook - a story that wouldn't make it into today’s news pages, but was grist for the mill four decades ago. I sensed something of interest, took a gamble, and asked to interview her. 

Those were the days of recipes typically titled Cheez Whiz ’n’ Tuna Bake or Pork Chop Ketchup Surprise - the real surprise being that anyone would eat it. They were the days when great home cooks were rare, and when women who were great home cooks and great cooks in their professional lives, were even rarer. 

(Things are different, today. The explosion of recipes on the Internet and the number of people who eat out or consume frozen, prepackaged meals means that anyone with a clutch of recipes can pose as a great cook - and I do mean anyone.) 

Marion (Call me Maisie”) Pinkerton was the genuine article, having trained at London’s Cordon Bleu and having taught cooking in various locales before eventually becoming a caterer. Canada’s Maisie Pinkerton became Martha Stewart even before Martha Stewart became Martha Stewart.

I don’t remember everything we talked about all those years ago, but I do remember one thing that immediately and permanently influenced how I cook. Maisie taught me that cooking is a sensory experience - that you should taste, smell, and feel the food, mixing it with clean or gloved hands instead of a spoon. 

I feel as though Maisie’s sitting on my shoulder each time I advise you to beat a cake’s sugar-butter-egg mixture “until no grainy feeling remains when you rub some of the batter between your thumb and index finger …” I learned that from her. I also learned that good cooking often requires more intuition - determining which flavors and spices work best with a dish - and fewer actual recipes.

Maisie would probably have approved of today’s Vanilla Butter Cake with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting. I do! I recently toted this cake - frosted right in the pan - to a picnic. No one complained - their mouths were too full.

Vanilla Butter Cake:

⅔ c. soft butter or margarine
1-¾ c. sugar
2 large eggs
3 c. cake flour (see Note)
1 tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1-¼ c. milk
1-½ tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Have all ingredients assembled and at room temperature before starting. Grease and flour a 9x13-in. cake pan (or a greased pan with parchment paper trimmed to fit the bottom). Beating at medium speed, combine butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating about 5 min. until no “grainy” feeling remains when you rub some of the batter between your thumb and index finger. With mixer on low speed, add sifted dry ingredients alternately with milk and vanilla, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Bake 35-to-40 min., or until the cake tests done when a toothpick inserted at the center comes out dry.

Note: No cake flour? For each cup of cake flour required, substitute 1 cup all-purpose flour with 1 tsp. added cornstarch. 

You know exactly how to make a cake!

Easy: From Step 1 to completion!
Trust in your ability, Dollinks!

Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting:

One 8 oz. (250 g) pkg. brick-style cream cheese, softened
2 tsp. vanilla (see Further Note)
1 c. sifted icing sugar (“confectioners” or “powdered” sugar)

Beat cream cheese with vanilla until well blended. Gradually add icing sugar until smooth and creamy. Makes enough to frost one 9x13-in. cake.


Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting:

Omit vanilla. Add 1 tsp. each finely grated fresh orange and lemon rinds with 1-½ tsp. lemon juice, proceeding as above.

Further Note: For a bright white frosting, use white vanilla, available in sensible supermarkets. For a tan-colored frosting, shrug your shoulders and measure out the standard vanilla extract.

Frost 'n' go: Dash to that picnic, Dollinks!

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