Welcome back! I’m cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook and I’m inviting you to follow me on this journey of culinary discovery, for better or worse. Today, we’ll be testing out a cake from the American Beauty.
Billie Dove is pretty much known today for two things: The Black Pirate and Howard Hughes. Since I’m not reviewing The Black Pirate until next month and I try to avoid all unnecessary discussions of affairs and whatnot, I shall instead share a GIF from Dove’s 1929 part-talkie, The Man and the Moment, in which she wears a smashing hat:
So now we have the big question: we know Billie was a charming silent star but could she also bake a cake that lives up to its lightweight name?
This is also the first recipe in this series that I actually thought would cause me grievous bodily harm. Yay?
Before we begin I should mention that the American perspective of cake texture has undergone a massive change since the cake mix boom of post-WWII and the chiffon cake fad that took place around the same time. The exact preferred lightness of cake varies depending on where you are in the world but people in the United States tend to prefer things on the moist and fluffy side. (Countries like Korea and Japan like cakes that practically float off the plate and my Ukrainian classmate constantly complained that American baked goods had no heft. It’s all about what you’re used to and, frankly, I’m never going to turn down cake.)
My point in all this is that this is not an angel food cake recipe (it has more in common with this Victoria Sponge recipe) and the perception of lightness was different when this recipe was published. So don’t be disappointed if it seems a bit too dense to be called a Feather Cake.
The recipe calls for fine cake flour and I used Swan’s Down brand because it’s what my local market carries and because it was actually around when this recipe was first published.
I sifted together the flour and baking powder, along with a quarter teaspoon of salt. The recipe doesn’t call for it but I felt weird leaving it out. Next, I creamed the butter for a bit in my stand mixer and gradually added the sugar. I mixed the eggs and added them gradually to the mixer, beating the whole thing to a fluff.
I gradually added the dry ingredients interspersed with the milk and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. (The recipe says to flavor to taste. Almond extract would also be a period correct option.)
I cut out rounds of parchment paper, greases three 8″ cake pans and spread the batter with an offset spatula. This recipe will either yield three skinny cakes or two fatter ones in 8″ pans. I don’t think it will work as well in 9″ or 10″ pans.
Because I didn’t want to lose too much cake to domed tops, I used my cake strips. They’re oven-proof padded fabric strips that you soak and wrap around your pans. I know that some people don’t like them but they always work like a charm for me and I hate trimming domed cakes, so there you have it.
I baked the cakes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 minutes but you’ll want to keep an eye on yours the first time out.
And now we come to the point where I feared for my life. (About time!) The frosting recipe is what I have always known as boiled icing. Basically, you make syrup and then pour it over beaten egg whites while stirring like crazy.
You have to understand that I am terrified of this sort of thing. I received severe burns all over my body in a kitchen accident as a child (no scars, I’m happy to say) and have never been able to deal with hot syrups, candy making or deep frying. (The accident involved a coffeemaker. Yes, I still can drink coffee but my family used instant from that day forward.)
And this recipe is asking me to pour 235-degree sugar syrup into a moving mixer? Good lord!
So (gulp!) I did it. I got the syrup to 235 per my instant read thermometer and I pour it into the mixer. And… I ended up with white goo. I think in my haste to get this over with, I poured in the syrup while it was too hot. But I tasted the frosting and it was… okay. Kind of like marshmallow fluff. Certainly not worth a nervous breakdown.
So, I waited until I was done shaking, drank some lavender tea and then I made some whipped cream frosting instead, slid some sliced strawberries between the layers, took it to a party and called it a night.
Verdict: 3 out of 5. The cake itself is quite tasty. It uses a fair amount of baking powder, which gives it a biscuit-like flavor and despite the sugar, it’s not overly sweet. The texture is pretty airy, though hardly feather-like. I would say that it’s the flavor and not the texture that sets this cake apart.
I’m not likely to attempt the sugar syrup experiment any time soon but I can see myself using this cake as a base for strawberry shortcake. The tasters were enthusiastic and devoured the thing.
Not my finest hour in the kitchen but the result wasn’t half bad and I wasn’t horrendously burned. A victory all around, I think.
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