It will break your finger.
In honor of National Bake Week this week, I decided to try out my vintage 1950s Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. It was quite the experience, and one I am going to share with you in excruciating detail.
It took a while to pick a recipe: Do I go with cookies, cakes, desserts? A lot of these baked goods talked about softening shortening in the recipe, which scared me because I was under the impression that shortening was already pretty soft. Was shortening different in the 50s? I don’t know, because I am absolutely ignorant to all things food and cooking–which will become more obvious as this endeavor goes forward.
I selected the Sour-cream Chocolate Cake: Simple enough ingredients, not a terribly complicated process. Plus, the only things I needed to buy were sour cream and cake flour. Naturally I selected the flour that screamed, “Betty Draper used me!”
Let’s first notice the ambiguity of this recipe, things like “thick sour cream” and “teaspoon soda.” You mean baking soda, right? And sour cream is anything but thick? That sounds disgusting. But okay. I’ve got the book, and I’m ready to roll.
Step 1. Melt chocolate in water over low heat; cool.
“Stove or microwave?” I asked myself. Stovetop, naturally. Did they even have microwaves then? Yep, ignorant. NO idea. In the small saucepan the chocolate looked funny. It didn’t melt smooth. It just got lumpy. And dark. And I worried I burned it. So then I tried in the microwave. Just maybe they did have those by the late 50s. They had TVs, right? The TV dinner couldn’t be too far behind. Well, the microwave produced the same lumpy mass. Seriously looked like dog shit. Pft. Whatever. What does “melted” even mean? And I was out of chocolate squares.
Step 2. Beat egg yolks with cream; gradually add sugar and beat vigorously until thick. Add chocolate mixture and vanilla, mixing well.
It’d been years since I separated my yolk from my whites. That shit is viscous. But I did separate like a pro. Like it was just another day at home with the kids. I’m ready to beat it vigorously. But wait: Did they use electric beaters? Or whisks? I mean, if they didn’t have microwaves… Well, I’m using an electric beater. Seems so unlikely that they didn’t at least have hand-held mixers. Good thing I don’t have a fancy stand-mixer to cramp my vintage style. But what, exactly, does “thick” mean? I beat it for a bit, and it seems thicker than before. Is that thick enough? Now it looks like I threw dirt in milk. If the chocolate pooh was supposed to dissolve into the egg/cream thing, it didn’t.
This would be the moment I decided not to photograph the prep process. It was shameful. And ugly.
Step 3. Sift flour, soda, and salt together 3 times; add to cream mixture, beating until smooth.
I don’t take sifting seriously, but sometimes, when Matt and Alex are around, I’ll sift. Because, you know, they don’t let me do much else. But sifting seems dumb. What does it do? And I thought that the whole point of cake flour was that it was super-fine and sifted already, or something. Wait, what is the point of cake flour? Don’t know. So, in the spirit of Bake Week and the good old days, I busted out my sifter. This was a disaster. I don’t know if sifting makes the dry ingredients appear to increase, but it sure felt like they did, which was a good thing because trying to sift three times, and sift from one measuring cup into the next, left a big ol’ mess of flour on my counter. But still, magically, I think I had enough. I think I actually sifted 3.5 times. Whoops.
4. Fold in egg whites.
These egg whites had to be stiff-beaten. I know that means they turn white and get peaks. Sweet. Throw ’em in a bowl and get to whisking. Whilst whisking, I Googled to see just what “stiff” meant. Yahoo! Answers was full of advice, like beat them when they are at room temperature (awesome! already doing that since I’m such a slow cook) and don’t beat them in a plastic bowl (fuck! switch to metal bowl), and don’t ever, ever beat them with a whisk, always use a beater: it takes forever and your arm will fall off before you even reach soft peaks (the stage before stiff peaks, duh). STOP. RIGHT. THERE. Did you just tell me, that the way I’d always imagined peaks being formed–a bowl, cradled in the nook of my left arm, and me, whisk in hand, casually going to town on those eggy bastards–isn’t doable? YEAH RIGHT MOTHERFUCKER. I’LL SHOW YOU. I’MMA WHISK THESE BITCHES TO STIFF PEAKS OF GLORY. This was an interesting choice on my part. I’d already decided to use the beater previously in the process, why not just clean it off and use it for this? Especially since I had never seen stiff eggs, or even beaten whites before. But I had the ultimate music to mix to: a Rolling Stones + Raphael Saadiq Stone Rollin playlist. I whisked to “Get Off My Cloud.” Vigorously whisked to “Heart Attack.” Determinedly whisked to “House of the Rising Sun.” Rocked out and whisked to “Radio.” Danced dirty and whisked to “Stone Rollin.” Tried new methods of whisking to “Satisfaction.” Seriously, I whisked for well over 20 minutes. The eggs got white. And frothy. But damnit, they got stiff. It was painful. The same, whisking motion, over, and over, and over. I never thought it would end. And I didn’t have the stiffest peaks ever, I’m sure, but they were stiff enough for this girl. My arm is made of steel. ($20 says I won’t be able to type tomorrow.)
Fold. Pour. Bake.
(Without paper. What do they mean, paper. Parchment? The Sunday comics?)
The end result: This highly unimpressive looking cake.
It tastes all right. Not a strong flavor, but I wouldn’t call it gross (which is pretty much what I was anticipating). I sort of like it.
What’d I learn? Homemakers in the 1950s knew their shit. Recipes today do a lot of handholding. I definitely have come to expect it. Don’t just tell me to melt it, tell me how long, and where, and what consistency the chocolate will be when I’m done. Beat for how long? At what speed? And when you say bake 45-50 minutes (which, by the way, I only baked for 30. I think our fancy modern-day ovens must be stronger) tell me how I know it’s done: Are the edges brown? Does a toothpick in the center come out clean? Does the top spring back when you touch it?
It was hard for me to not have these little details, and I respect the 1950s baker because she just did it. Knew it. Got it from her mama. National Bake Week lesson learned.
And, let me just say, there is a serious joke in here about the cum-like foamy egg whites and my intense arm workout that probably rivals a high-schooler giving a handjob and waiting for it to just be over. I’m just too exhausted to work it out.