February 2009

Desserts of the Atomic Age: Cake

I've been watching Mad Men this week. Everything about this show is wonderful, including the food. (When asked what he wants for dinner, one character replies "A ribeye steak, cooked in the pan, with butter." Butter?!) After watching an episode that revolved around a child's birthday party, I found myself surfing Allrecipes.com late one night, looking for 50s cakes. Any 50s cake worth its snuff must begin with a box of cake mix, either white or yellow. Cake mix was invented shortly after the end of World War II, after almost ten years of intense study by the whitecoats at the Betty Crocker labs. The world of cake mix exploded in the early 50s when the original line up of White and Yellow cake was beefed up with the introduction of Marble, Chocolate Malt, and Spice cake mix. (Interesting fact: they could make a cake mix which only required the addition of water. However, the researchers found that housewives were more accepting of cakes which required the addition of eggs and/or oil. Made it seem more homemade, and alleviated their guilt at not serving cakes from scratch.) The fewer ingredients added to the cake mix, the better.

Crème Brulee

Crème brulee, or "burnt creme," or crema catalana in Spain (Crème brûlée or crème brulée for Francophone purists) is one of those classic desserts that's both simple and elegant. My first experience with crème brulee was in England. I'd had, and enjoyed, and even made egg custard before, but my Scottish host had covered her egg custard with an egg-shell thin crust of slightly burned but very sweet crisp sugar. Each mouthful of the delicately flavored custard was accompanied with a crisp wafer of the sugar crust. It was wonderful. She offered to show me how to make it, and I took her up on the offer. If you already know how to make custard it is surprisingly easy, since the last step is simply to place the ramekins of custard under a broiler so that a thin layer of sugar sprinkled on the top melts slightly, then solidifies into a golden sugar shell.