Saturday, April 17, 2010

Absolute culinary disaster

Or...Sugar Cakes: The Nightmare. (Where's Gordon Ramsay when you need him?)

I always thought that sugar cakes were a Pennsylvania Dutch treat, so you can imagine my shock a few years ago when I asked the folks at the local Amish market (we apparently import actual Amish folks from Ronks, PA into this part of New Jersey to provide us with things like shoo-fly pie and whoopie pies) about them, and got looks that implied I had begun to channel spirits in Arabic. How could they not know about sugar cakes??

I've since concluded that sugar cakes, as I know them, must be a York County phenomenon. Lancaster has apparently never heard of them (Ronks is in Lancaster County). Neither has Linda, who grew up not far from Allentown. And alas, thanks to the aforementioned culinary disaster, I have no photographic evidence to demonstrate just what I'm talking about, so I shall have to describe them and hope for the best. (I can't even find any photos online. Rats!)

The only way I know of to describe a sugar cake is to borrow from the humble (but delicious) whoopie pie. If you're familiar with a whoopie pie, you know that it's sort of like an overgrown Oreo, where the wafers are actually small individual cakes, flat on one side and somewhat domed on the top. In between, there's a creamy filling. (If you're not from areas that have whoopie pies, the first thing I need you to understand is that these are NOT MOON PIES. They are nothing alike. Not even a little. For one, absolutely no marshmallow is harmed in the making of a whoopie pie. For another, whoopie pies look like this. Nabisco totally swiped the idea and now provides a super-processed and preservatived shelf version that they call Cakesters.)

Sugar cakes are like the cake part of the whoopie pie, only without the cocoa. They're slightly yellow, pack a bit of a vanilla hit, and are domed. They usually have granulated sugar sprinkled on the top.

Linda was curious about these treats, having heard me mention them on many occasions, and ventured forth to help concoct them. Little did she know what awaited her.

Gma's recipe is one cut out of the local newspaper. Bear's Department Store was a fixture in downtown York, right on the Square, until I was a small child (I barely remember it), and it was famous for its cafeteria. Gma clipped the recipe for Bear's sugar cakes and stuck it in her box, where I found it. It's not complicated--flour, sugar, vanilla, buttermilk, baking powder, baking soda in a little vinegar...what could possibly go wrong?

Everything, it turns out. The first batch looked great in the oven--puffed up nicely, right color, right smell...and then they fell back to earth when we took them out. This...they are not meant to do. They ended up being like a slightly cakey sugar cookie, which they're not meant to be. They were also the only thing I've ever baked that has stuck to parchment, which should have been our first clue that this recipe had issues.

The second batch went on a greased cookie sheet to see if actual oil would help the sticking problem. We apparently also used more batter. These? We didn't even try. Our first, rapidly aborted, effort made such a mess when we tried to get them off the sheet that we decided it wasn't worth it, and that the only thing for it was to let it all cool completely and scrape it into the trash.

In a moment of inspiration (or perhaps desperation!), we decided we'd be better off chucking the rest of the batter into the 8x8 cake pan and tossing the lot into the oven all at once. We sprinkled it with some sugar and hoped for the best.

To my surprise, the actual cake turned out quite well. We had some leftover sugar, so I sprinkled that on top when it came out, and served it up a few hours later. It had the right scent, the right flavor, and only the texture was off. I think perhaps we had too much leavening, because if that's not it, I honestly haven't a clue. It's also worth noting that we made this thing almost a week ago, and I had the last piece tonight. It was not stale at ALL, and I'd only covered it with a piece of foil. Clearly, this recipe will make you a nice, light, simple cake if you need one. Just...don't try to make individual ones on a cookie sheet.

Bear's Department Store Sugar Cakes

2 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter
1 cup buttermilk
3 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in (small amount) vinegar

Beat eggs first, then add butter and beat till soft. Add rest of ingredients and mix well. Drop onto cookie sheet by spoonfuls and sprinkle sugar on top of each cake before baking.

Bake at 400 degrees. Makes about 2.5 dozen sugar cakes.

As you can see, there's no baking time listed. We figured 8-10 minutes was about right (the full-size cake took longer, of course). And a teaspoon of vinegar dissolved the baking soda nicely while giving it enough liquid to blend into the batter well.

If any of you give it a try and end up with something that, for a start, doesn't fall apart when you try to get it off the parchment/cookie sheet, do let me know!


Anonymous said...

Baking soda mixed in vinegar seems not right. Base and acid could neutralize the leavening power of the soda. I will have to look into this!

Nancy said...

This was EXACTLY my reaction when I first read the recipe, but Lissa assured me that she'd heard of such a thing and that I should probably do it, so I did. Too much leavening and the cake isn't dense enough, but this...I have no idea what happened here except complete sugar cake FAIL.

Dianne said...


You're on the right track Nancy. The batter consistency depends on the egg size. An extra large or jumbo egg (or too much buttermilk) will make a looser batter and cookies that spread farther in the pan. You'd need to compensate by adding a bit more flour or one less egg. The batter should be soft, but also somewhat stiff.

My Grandmother would make the 4-5" cookies and sprinkle them with colored sanding sugar at Christmas. They're delicious with afternoon tea.

Dianne said...

Oops, almost forgot. I use cooking spray on the cookie sheet, remove the cookies immediately, and cool on a wire rack.

Yes, use the vinegar and baking soda solution, in addition to the baking powder.

Grandma would beat the eggs first, then add the butter, mixing until soft. Then add the remaining ingredients.

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