Pam’s Pictorama: The holidays came late this year to those of us at Pictorama and therefore I ask for your indulgence as tidbits continue to pepper these posts in coming weeks. One reason for this is fairly self-evident – generally I am a cheerleader for making the most of what is good about the holidays, but with my dad’s death in August, none of us much had the stomach for it and we approached Thanksgiving gingerly. Setting the bar low helped, and we limped through without any group weep-a-thons, although I guess that would have been okay too.
At some point in the days before Christmas, I found myself reading the electronic version of the New York Times (something I do early in the morning over breakfast while Kim is already grinding away at his pages at the other end of the table) and as usual continued reading on my (usually) brief train ride on the Q to midtown. I believe I was on the Q when I read an essay about a lost fruit cake which had been sent to the author by his father several months before the father died. The cake was from a company, not homemade, and never arrives, but the son ultimately orders another and eats it. I had two reactions to this essay. The first was to get weepy – believe me, when I started the essay I had no idea a father was going to die in it or I wouldn’t have chosen it. However, more important to today’s story, it carried a reference to Poor Man’s cake which is something I have not thought about in years, and frankly thought was a term that might only be known to my family and that I had no idea was in general use.
A Poor Man’s cake, also known as a Depression cake, is one that doesn’t require the use of eggs, sugar or butter – all things that were in short supply during the war and Depression years. Like fruitcake, it will keep in your refrigerator or freezer for a long time – although as my mother pointed out when asked, we never put it to the test as we always consumed it in full immediately. It was a staple in my grandmother’s repertoire, at the heart of an ongoing rotation of recipes and it was as likely as not that she’d throw one together if she was in the house. (So often did she make certain recipes – this one, her one for bread which was heavenly and some of her Christmas cookies – that actual recipes seemed to elude her when asked. My sister Loren did work on writing some down. It was all a bit of this and that, done by touch and texture.) As I teased out my memory of her version of the cake, I remembered that it utilized boiled coffee, margarine (or bacon fat as an alternative) and molasses.
I became mildly obsessed with re-creating the cake. Maybe I needed a holiday distraction of sorts. Meanwhile, for those of you who aren’t familiar with my origin story – when younger I actually did time as a pastry chef (and a garde manger) working under, among others, Jean Georges Vongerichten at his first restaurant in Manhattan. That is clearly another whole post, but I mention it to say, while I definitely know my way around pastry, I haven’t made so much as a loaf of banana bread in years. Here at Deitch Studio, we’re pretty maniacally careful eaters (green smoothies, largely vegetarian) and while we might happily eat a bit of cake or pastry out in the world, I do not buy it, let alone produce it. Suffice it to say that the baking muscle has seriously atrophied, and executing even this simple cake required some both metaphorical and real dusting off of things.
In addition, the Pictorama kitchen is a tiny thing. I have often lamented that if we got a large dog it wouldn’t even fit in our kitchen. With some forethought I can claim a space of about six square inches to work on our limited counter space. Ironically, working in professional kitchens in Manhattan was good practice for this as I never had more than about a foot of space to work in – real estate is at a premium for them as well. Storage is another issue and as I did a quick assessment I realized my cooking supplies are somewhat pared down.
As I remember, my grandmother often used a Pyrex loaf dish. I know I owned or had owned one of these – I actually did make banana bread in it at one point. A quick search did not however turn it up. It either wandered out of the house in a cabinet purge, or has skulked far out of reach. (I did however find a pastry scale – so serious were my past baking endeavors – and the possible purge of a Pyrex dish while keeping that does seem somewhat ironic.) Undeterred, I turned to eBay and within 48 hours and for $5 I had one that was identical to what I remember. There were things I decided I could forgo, such as a flour sifter and a cooling rack.
Happily in the age of Google it took no time at all to find a number of recipes and by piecing them together I began reconstructing my grandmother’s version of the cake. The recipe I offer below is an amalgam of several recipes. I have replaced sugar with molasses, butter/bacon fat with margarine, water with coffee. Additionally I have changed the seasoning. There was much debate about the use of ground cloves and my mother remembers my grandmother using them, but I found them overwhelming in my first go at this and struck them out subsequently. I cut the amount of raisons – the original recipes called for two cups which seemed absurdly heavy. I realized that the recipe I took most of this from used baking soda and I used baking powder – I’ll probably try baking soda next time. As you can see from the photos, it is a pleasant looking cake, but not a real beauty. It is some rib sticking coffee cake – vegan for that matter as well.
I finished the cake with a sprinkling of powdered sugar which was what my grandmother did most often. (Oddly, the Upper East Side of Manhattan was literally sold out of powdered sugar. After trying Whole Foods and Gristedes, I purchased the very last bag at Fairway. Holiday cookies I assume? Weird, right? I began to wonder if people had stopped using it.) I have a memory of her occasionally using a chocolate glaze on it as well, although mom doesn’t remember that.
Even with my first try, the cake emerged as something close to what I remember. (I credit this with it being pretty much a no fault recipe!) Years of after school snacks, in evidence at every holiday and many weekend mornings was this cake. It had been a part of my life growing up that was a constant and I never really thought about until it was gone. My mother has never been a baker and when my sister died much of the family baking lore went with her. While asking about the cake, my mother and I have had several wonderful talks about other food we remember my grandmother making. She and her sisters were all gifted chefs – one sister owned a restaurant and was a private cook in wealthy homes.
Cake #2, shown with sugar at the top and made yesterday, is now tucked in my bag as I head to New Jersey this morning. I am anxious to show it off to my mother and cousin who will be stopping by for a piece later. I don’t know that it will become a staple here, but I suspect we can count on my making the occasional one now that I am getting the hang of it. There’s always my office, ready to consume some additional carbs if we are overwhelmed by my new cake ambitions.
Reading the recipes online I saw some complaints about some of the recipes running dry. I have not had that issue at all and suspect that the replace of sugar with molasses helps with that. I also think the loaf pan is better than the suggested two small cake pans as thinner cakes will cook faster and be more prone to drying out. I have included the nutritional information although I would imagine that it is a bit skewed with the adjustments I have made, likely lower calories and carbs with fewer raisins and no bacon fat!
- 4 tablespoons of molasses
- 2 cups coffee
- 2 tablespoons margarine
- 1 cup raisins
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- Confectionary sugar to taste for topping
- In a medium saucepan combine the molasses, coffee, margarine, and raisins, over medium heat. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes, then set aside to cool.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Grease and flour a loaf pan.
- In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Add the ingredients, a little at a time, from the saucepan and mix until well blended.
- Bake for 45 to 50 minutes in the preheated oven. (Test with a knife to see if cooked through.) Cool in pan for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack (if you own one!) to cool completely.
- Sprinkle confectionary sugar or add chocolate glaze once cool.