“The first American cake wasn’t sweet, wasn’t frosted, wasn’t grand.” So begins the fascinating, delightfully original “American Cake” (Rodale, $29.99), author Anne Byrn’s can’t-stop-reading history lesson that’s masquerading as a cookbook. One that’s bound to be a prizewinner.
The story tracks the evolution of American tastes and technologies through 200-plus years and 125 gotta-bake recipes, from George Washington’s mother’s gingerbread through the Pillsbury Bake-Off’s Tunnel of Fudge Cake.
Byrn, author of the “Cake Mix Doctor” cookbook series and the former food editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, spoke from her home in Nashville.
Q: How did you decide to trace American history through the prism of cake?
A: I don’t claim the idea. A Nashville author, Alice Randall, came up to me at a book launch party, pointed her finger at me and said, ‘You need to research the history of American cake.’ The thought had never even entered my head. I couldn’t get to sleep that night because I realized that she was right. I don’t think I paid attention in history class, at all, so it’s so ironic that this idea became lodged in my head. It turned out to be the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on.
Q: Why is that?
A: If you can read the history behind the recipe, you can understand why someone baked that cake, and then look at it through their eyes. It’s a form of culinary empathy, to get out of the world we live in and go to the world they lived in. Let’s not judge them on if it’s too sweet, or too dry. It was a fine line between honoring those old cakes and determining whether people would make them today.
Q: How did advances in technology change cakes?
A: You start to write a book about cake, but it quickly becomes something else. It’s about the ingredients you use, the ovens you use, the pans that were dictated by the ovens you were using. Early ovens — if you can even call them that — were built into the side of the fireplace. It was a tiny chamber. Bread could be shaped into a loaf, so cake had to go into a loaf pan, too. That’s what fit into that small space.
Q: You cover a lot of ground in the book. Do you have a favorite period?
A: I love the cakes of the 1930s and 1940s. I have so much respect for people who have been through hardship and who bake through economizing, through rationing. It’s just amazing. The use of meringue, that was not a decorative flourish, that was economizing. You had the egg whites, so go ahead and use them. That was hardscrabble, and resourceful.
Q: Why the enthusiasm for cakes from the 1960s and 1970s?
A: You look at cakes of that era, and those are the cakes that we’re still baking today: German Chocolate, Red Velvet. I loved interviewing Lindsey Shere. She was Alice Waters’ first pastry chef at Chez Panisse. She said that all of these artists and creative people came to Berkeley because of the peace movement. They needed jobs, and restaurants like Chez Panisse put them to work. That was so fascinating to me, to think that the California food movement started because creative people started working in food, and look what came out of that. I wonder: Are the young people working in restaurants today, do they have the artistic ability to create something new? We’ll see.
Q: What about the current state of American cake baking?
A: I had to do some digging and reporting on what is being baked today. There’s the interest in local and regional ingredients, and smaller cakes, and less-sweet cakes. I also saw an interest in bare cakes, and that reminded me so much of early cakes. Those early cakes didn’t have a lot of frostings, because sugar was a very dear, expensive ingredient. This return to our roots has been really eye-opening to me as a journalist.
Q: There are more than a dozen chocolate cakes in the book. What is it with chocolate cake and Americans?
A: It’s funny, because it took a while for chocolate to get into cake batter. It started with frosting. The early chocolate cakes did not have the intensity that they do today. Chocolate was rationed during World War II, and so it wasn’t until after that when people became more accustomed to cakes with a deep, rich, moist chocolate flavor. We can thank the French flourless chocolate cakes of the 1980s for opening up our palates and showing us just how rich and flavorful chocolate can be in a cake.
Q: What would you suggest, recipe-wise, for cake-baking beginners?
A: Anything baked in one pan is a great way to start. James Beard’s Huckleberry Cake, that’s a lovely cake. It couldn’t be easier, and you can substitute blueberries for huckleberries. Cinnamon Flop is an easy one. That’s an early cinnamon coffee cake. The Chez Panisse almond torte is a lovely, simple dinner party cake. You can serve it all year long, with fruit or gelato.
Q: The book has plenty of Midwestern ties. I think I already know the answer to this one — because I baked it last week and loved it — but what’s so special about Orange Chiffon Cake?
A: It’s probably the most American cake of all. It wasn’t brought over by the English, or the French, or the Germans. It was developed in America by Harry Baker. I love the fact that he was this salesman/pastry chef who went to Hollywood and baked cakes for the Brown Derby, and that he developed this secret formula. It was so secret that he had to hide his garbage to keep people from going through it. Then he sold the formula to General Mills. Chiffon Cake is probably the recipe that we can thank for the use of vegetable oil in cake baking. It inspired the carrot cake and the zucchini cake, and all those other wonderfully rich cakes.