Goin’ one better on the cookbooks. Again.

A few years ago I bought a couple of Scandinavian cookbooks.  One is a book on Swedish baked goods, and while I’ve enjoyed reading it, cookbooks being largely recreational reading for me, I’d never attempted any of the recipes.  This week I tried two with interesting results.

Today’s cake began life as a Lingonberry Spice Cake.  I chose the recipe because I had most of the ingredients or their equivalents on hand, and because it was fast to put together and Glinda and I were starving.  So here’s the recipe as I made it:

  • 1 stick (8T) of butter.  (I used salted. If you prefer to use unsalted, I’d add a pinch of salt.)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/4 C dark brown sugar  (I’m partial to Muscovado sugar but that’s awfully dark for some people.)
  • 3 tsp pumpkin pie spice  (I use a blend from The Spice House which is a local business.  It includes: cinnamon, allspice, powdered cassia buds, ground nutmeg, ginger powder, ground mace, and ground cloves.)
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 cup orange juice mixed with 1/4 cup half and half  (The original recipe called for buttermilk, but I didn’t have any so I mixed up an alternative. The juice clabbers the half and half and gives it a nice orange flavor.)

So heat your oven to 350.  (What’s that you say?  No lingonberries?  Nope, didn’t have any.  Thought about using Glinda’s leftover cranberry sauce, but decided against it.)  Grease and flour a 6 Cup loaf pan.  Then melt the butter and let it cool.

While it’s cooling, beat the eggs with the sugar.  The book says to beat the mixture until it’s thick and light yellow, and here’s one of the problems I had with the book:  You’re using dark brown sugar. There’s no way this mixture will ever be light yellow!  If you beat it hard for a few minutes it’ll become a nice tan color.  Just beat it until it’s thickened.

Then you add the flour a bit at a time, alternating with the liquid and butter until it’s all blended.  It should be a nice, thick batter, and very smooth.  Pour it into the pan and bake.  Second problem with the book: It says to bake for an hour.  I tested it at 40 minutes and it was about as done as I would ever want a cake to be.  This is a lesson I learned with the first recipe I tried from this book, about which more in a minute.

Breakfast Spice Cake


However, right now, enjoy the sight of an excellent spice cake (which broke in half when I tried to turn it over on the cooling rack) with a beautifully moist, tender crumb, and a crust that had a wonderful sugary snap to it.  It’s very spicy, and might not be to everyone’s taste, so I urge you to add your spices accordingly.  It is, as Glinda pointed out, very good with coffee making it an extremely Scandinavian recipe.  It would be hella good with a bit of whipped cream.

So about the first recipe… Well I’ll tell you.  I never tried making anything like a coffee cake before, and since I have been enjoying my experiments with yeast breads so much I thought “What could it hurt to try one of the raised cakes in the book?”  I chose what’s called an Apple Wreath, and made a couple of changes to the filling, using finely chopped apples and sugar, and adding finely chopped almonds and dried apricots.  I didn’t make any changes to the dough.  I respect the dough.  Here are the problems I encountered:

  1. Yeast starts to die at 120 degrees F.  The recipe called for the milk and butter to be heated to 115 degrees F before adding to the yeast. This is, at least based on my experience, not a great idea.  It took a very long time for the dough to rise.  Now granted, it’s a heavy dough, not at all like the beautiful, silken bread doughs I’ve been working with, but it should not have taken over an hour to double while sitting on top of a stove where the oven is at 400 degrees, the warming spot is on and the hood light, which throws off a whole lot of heat is also on.  Next time I melt the butter, add the half and half and use it as is, which would be about room temperature or a little higher.  The yeast will be just as happy.
  2. The oven is at 400 degrees!  This is really hot for baked goods, especially one with an egg wash and a sugar sprinkle.  25 minutes in that oven produced a vastly over-baked product, slightly burnt-looking on one side.  Granted I should have checked at about 15 and 20 minutes, but still.  Next time 375 degrees and checking constantly.  Yes I have an oven thermometer.  Yes, I checked it.
  3. The filling recipe was kind of mingy. It called for 2/3 cups applesauce or grated apples with sugar and cinnamon to taste.  I chopped two Granny Smith apples, added a healthy handful of almonds, and a big handful of dried apricots and made about a cup, maybe a cup and a quarter of filling, and I still think it was skimpy.  I’d double the amount next time.

I was disappointed in the wreath, but both Glinda and our neighbor, Linda, said it was very good.  I think they were being a bit kind.  I thought the raw dough tasted better than the cooked.  I’ll be trying it again, possibly with a slightly different filling.  I’m thinking almond paste and apples sliced on the mandoline.

Since then both Glinda and I have found a number of problems with the recipes in the book.  That doesn’t make them any less useful, but it does mean that we’ll have to be cautious about the way we use them.


Review: Kathe Koja’s “The Mercury Waltz”

Revisiting the fin de siècle with two gentlemen of the road

Kathe Koja has a feel for Europe’s fin de siècle, and the themes that inspired writers and artists, poets and musicians. Through the adventures and misadventures of Rupert and Istvan, the heroes of “Under the Poppy,” she again explores the uneasy alliance of sex, politics and commerce, though this time in a more roundabout manner.

While Decca remains at The Poppy, and with Lucy married to Pimm and settled into a theatrical life, Rupert and Istvan are on their own, at least for a short while. But they seem to draw people to them, people who become family. Into their sphere they welcome Tilde, a maid-servant devoted to Rupert’s happiness, Haden St. Mary, a pimp and a spy, and Seraphim, a critic with more than his share of secrets. In this new town, the pair have opened a theater of their own — The Mercury — and their plays tweak the noses of local authority and cause scandal to the moralists of the town. Rupert and Istvan are older, but not necessarily wiser, at least about their relationship with each other, and yet their love for one another is the single enduring thing about their world. Even when that love is tested by a figure from their past.

Relationships are reiterated, forming and reforming in different configurations. Themes dear to the heart of fin de siècle authors — the vigor and strength of the new, the decadence and failure of the old — make the story richer and deeper. As with “Under the Poppy” Koja’s prose is elegant and difficult. It requires your attention and rewards that attention with gorgeous, sometimes dizzying passages that flow like a vast river. And if you haven’t yet read Poppy, I urge you to do so before tackling “The Mercury Waltz” because it may stand on its own, but it is far richer for familiarity with its prequel.

If you love the fin de siècle, as I do, if you enjoy a writing style that makes demands on you, and if you want a story of love that isn’t simple or saccharine, then I recommend both “The Mercury Waltz” and its prequel, “Under the Poppy.”