Julia had her broken omelette.
With me, it was a flat cake.
Carefully I read the recipe from one of my mother’s few cookbooks, The Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, by Meta Given (1955). Recipes for cake in my first cookbook, the “Red Plaid” Better Homes & Gardens Junior Cook Book (1955), only called for boxed cake mixes. My mother never made cakes from scratch, but my grandmother — who lived 1500 miles away — did. I loved Big Grandma’s cooking and her gentle ways. Nostalgia, yes.
So that’s why I opted to go for it and bake a cake, just like one of my grandmother’s. And I relied on Meta’s cookbook for this journey into the more complex world of “big people” cooking.
Baking powder, sour milk, baking soda, flour, salt, all were measured and sifted dutifully into a bowl. Tablespoons, teaspoons, cups, all were new to me. Butter whipped with sugar, eggs beaten in one by one, milk scalded briefly in a small saucepan. Oven preheated to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Even a neophyte cook like me could easily follow the well-written directions.
I poured the batter into the greased and floured and papered pans, the first time I had ever done anything like that. Excited and ready to eat the results of my labors as soon as they came out of the oven, I set the timer and sat down at the kitchen table like a proud mother waiting for her child to wake from his nap.
After about 10 minutes, the smell of something baking emerged from the oven. I always have had a sharp sense of smell and even in my culinary inexperience I could tell that something just wasn’t right with my cake. The air in the kitchen smelled funny, like my baby sister’s sour diapers or something equally distasteful.
My heart started beating faster. I knew I must have done something wrong. But what was it?
My mother walked into the kitchen, sniffing, and noticed the same odor. After another 10 minutes, she opened the oven to look at the cake. It wasn’t rising at all. And the sour smell was even more pronounced now. Anxiety gripped me as I realized that I had made a big mistake.
“What on earth did you put in that cake?” Mom growled at me.
I pointed at the cookbook. Then found the page with the recipe.
Mom went through the list of ingredients. I showed her how much of each ingredient that I put in the cake. When we got to the baking soda, a light bulb went on in my head, because it said, right there in black and white, “3 tsp. baking powder.” And a bunch of stuff with perplexing scientific names.
I had apparently put 3 tablespoons of baking soda into the batter! No wonder it smelled like somebody’s armpit and wasn’t rising!
Mom explained what I did wrong, smirking a little, but realizing, I suspect, that we all make mistakes, especially when we do something for the first time.
Just then my father came home from work.
“What is that awful smell?” he bellowed.
“It’s Cindy’s cake,” Mom told him, laughing a little bit nervously.
Dad wasn’t happy, shall I say. Not at all. Suffice it to say that I never, ever made a mistake with recipe again.
META GIVEN’S BASIC 4-EGG WHITE CAKE WITH SWEET MILK
3 cups cake flour
3 tsp. D.A. baking powder or 3 1/4 tsp. tartrate or phosphate type
1 tsp. salt
1/3 cup soft butter and
1/3 cup shortening
1 3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. almond and 1 1/4 tsp. lemon extract or
2 tsp. vanilla
4 egg whites, unbeaten
1 1/3 cups milk
Grease two 9-inch layer pans for thick layers or three 9-inch pans for medium layers; line bottoms with waxed paper — grease paper. Start oven 10 minutes before baking set to moderate (375 F).
Sift flour, measure, resift 3 times with baking powder and salt. Cream butter and shortening with wooden spoon until smooth and shiny, add sugar gradually, creaming thoroughly. Stir in flavoring. Scrape off spoon and remove. Add egg whites in 2 portions and beat vigorously with rotary beater after each until fluffy. Remove beater. Now add flour and milk alternately in 3 or 4 portions., beginning and ending with flour and beating with wooden spoon until smooth after each. Turn into prepared pans. Bake the 2 layers 23 minutes and the 3 layers about 20 minutes or until the cake tests done.