This is another post having nothing to do with my grandfather and his calendars. It has nothing to do with my family at all, really. It’s just another of my weird semi-historical jags. If you’re on the train for the calendar entries, the next one will be along on Monday.
My grandmother was a plain cook of the old school.
No flashy triple-decker birthday cakes or hand-iced petits fours for her. Dessert at 1107 Hope Street was more likely to be something homey and traditional — a plate of cookies baked from some venerable recipe, or my great-grandma’s plum cake, or perhaps a blueberry pie.
(Blueberry pie became my grandma’s go-to dessert after one visit where my brother mysteriously decided he couldn’t get enough of it. It was a short-lived affliction, but the pies kept coming.)
Dessert at my other grandma’s was a little fancier — banana splits with maple syrup, or a box of those Stop n’ Shop sandwich cookies with a little square hole in the top cookie where the peanut butter would poke through.
As a kid, I was more impressed with the store-bought stuff. As an adult and an experienced cook, I think I would be more receptive to the homemade desserts. Cookies are a vector for conversation, after all, and if they’re too good or too sweet, they overshadow the companionship. (A decent cup of tea goes a long way toward redeeming dry or bland cookies, too.)
I thought of my grandma and her predilection for original-gangsta desserts the other day while reading one of the better cookbooks in my collection — Evan Jones’ “American Food: The Gastronomic Story.”
The first half of the cookbook is a series of narrative chapters, explaining how food traditions evolved in different areas of the United States. The second half consists of regional recipes, ranging from the familiar (Thanksgiving turkey, U.S. Senate bean soup) to the exotic and unusual (West Coast abalone steak, Virginia chicken and oysters over cornbread.) I scored my copy at a deep discount on closeout, and have been grateful ever since.
One of the first recipes in Jones’ dessert section is something called Carversville Black Walnut Cake. It’s baked in a greased and floured loaf pan, so it looks more like a loaf of bread than a cake. And its only decoration is a light gilding of confectioners’ sugar.
The idea of a cake without frosting sounded like something that would have been right up my grandma’s alley. It exuded an air of thrift and simplicity that appealed to me. (Once, years ago, I made a Depression-era mock-apple pie just for fun. It was surprisingly tasty.)
When you stop to think about it, don’t most cakes nowadays seem to exist for the sole purpose of holding up big gloppy piles of icing? Not so Carversville Black Walnut Cake. It makes its own friends, needing neither buttercream nor ganache for support.
There was a local connection, as well. The village of Carversville, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is maybe an hour’s drive from where I live. By making a Carversville Black Walnut Cake, I would not only evoke the spirit of my grandmother, but might also gain a little bit of self-administered eastern Pennsylvania street cred.
There was nothing else to do, then.
How was it? Excellent. Agreeably crunchy on the outside, and open and crumbly on the inside.
And the distinctive flavor of the black walnuts seemed to go down a notch with cooking — which is good, since the cake is liberally laced with nuts, and their flavor would have been overwhelming otherwise. (I am sure the recipe would be equally noble, and slightly cheaper, if baked with regular ol’ walnuts.)
This is a cake fit for any rainy-day kaffeeklatsch; any kitchen table laid with oilcloth; or any Sunday-afternoon gathering of the septuagenarian ladies of the church. An American classic, in other words.
Carversville Black Walnut Cake
1 stick butter, softened
1 cup plus 2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp orange juice
2 cups cake flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup black walnut bits
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar (I used a few pinches)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs, vanilla and juice and mix thoroughly.
Sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Stir this into the first mixture along with milk and nuts.
Spoon batter into a greased and floured loaf pan and bake for 1 hour 10 minutes.
Remove from oven and sprinkle top with confectioners’ sugar.