“American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Story Behind Our Best-Loved Cakes from Past to Present” by Anne Byrn (Rodale, $29.99); due to be released Sept. 6, 2016.
By Wendell Brock
Henceforth, when I have a question on cake, I will refer to Anne Byrn’s ambitious, fastidiously researched volume.
Author of the best-selling “Cake Mix Doctor” series and a former food editor of this newspaper, Byrn does her homework, sifting through layers of baking arcana to pile high the fascinating layers of the history of American cake , from Colonial times to the present, from 1700s gingerbread to today’s Beet Red Velvet Cake.
From Byrn’s authoritative and eloquent voice, a narrative rises: The story of a nation — changes wrought by war, politics, fads, shortcuts, new tools, ingredients and techniques — told via pound cake, fruit cake, spice cake, sponge cake and angel food cake, among numerous others.
As Byrn sees it, cake is much more than butter, eggs, sugar, flour. It’s geography and fashion and the make-do, can-do spirit of a people. It’s Cowboy Cake (cooked in a Dutch oven), Robert E. Lee Cake, Bangor Brownies, Appalachian Apple Stack Cake, Coca-Cola Cake and Pink Champagne Cake, as pretty and feminine as Marilyn Monroe.
A child of the ’70s, I had forgotten about Watergate Cake (made of white cake mix and pistachio pudding mix, topped with, ahem, Cover-Up Icing) and Sock-It-To-Me Cake (a sour cream coffee cake swirled with cinnamon, brown sugar and pecans), though my mother and her circle certainly baked and shared plenty of them.
The recipes that grab my eye here are the timeless ones: Leah Chase’s homespun Butter Cake, Julia Child’s Queen of Sheba Cake (an elegant affair of chocolate, rum and almonds), and Amelia Simmons’ gingerbread, which is not all that different from the version my grandmother baked nearly 200 years later.
Every cake has a story. We are lucky Byrn has chosen to tell them.
Anne Byrn will appear at the AJC Decatur Book Festival. 10 a.m. Sept. 3. Look for her on the Food and Cooking Stage. Decaturbookfestival.com.
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