One of the things I miss most about the area in which I grew up is the bakeries. An advantage of living in a place that didn’t just spring up a few decades back is knowing that the recipe used to make the baked good you’re currently scarfing down is the same one used by the grandfather who opened the bakery in the first place. There’s something to be said for tradition and a sense of heritage. And lots of butter, back in the days before trans fats.
Perhaps I’m biased. Perhaps that strip mall bakery is owned by the grandson of an old-world baker. Perhaps I’m totally off-base in my assessment. I stand by it nonetheless.
Back to the subject: Awesome, awesome bakeries which we’d go to for special occasions like graduations and baptisms and 1st Communions. It was tradition. And at one bakery there was one cake in particular which was a total knockout: Butter Cake.
On special occasions Dad would buy Mom one of these cakes. The bottom half was almost bread-like in its density and had a touch of sweetness. But the topping was where the love lived. Living somewhere between between custard and heaven, all golden and rich and insistently sweet.
There was something about the smell and flavor that lingered on in my mind long after the last bite was gone. It haunted me.
But I like food a lot more than I should so maybe you should take that last part with a big grain of salt.
Anyway, years passed. And before I knew it, I was planning a dinner for my Mom. She’d already told me what she’d love to have for the meal (boeuf bourguignon, in case you’re curious, which I’m sure you’re not) but left dessert up to me.
So I thought and thought and voila! The idea came to me! Why not make a butter cake like we used to get way back in the day?
I’m not talking Paula’s Gooey Butter Cake. Sorry, Paula, but for these purposes “your” recipe just doesn’t cut the mustard. And I put “your” in quotation marks because I’ve seen very similar versions, oh, everywhere. It’s a southern thing, or so I’ve read.
No. I wanted the real deal. So after much frustration I came up with the idea of searching “Philadelphia butter cake” and BINGO! There was a recipe which didn’t look like the dozens or so I’d already found. So I gave it a shot.
And can I just tell you that even as I was watching the cake bake, I knew I’d found “the one”?
As soon as it came out of the oven I broke off a bit of the crackly crust which had formed on top and popped it in my mouth.
In that one moment my childhood came rushing back. The taste transported me right to the very chair in which I sat in my parents’ dining room, with the blue wallpaper my Dad hung upside down (incidentally this went unnoticed until we realized that the tiny printed flowers weren’t facing the same direction flowers usually face in such situations), and I was taking my first taste of the Very Special Butter Cake.
And that, my friends, is why food is magic.
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 envelope active dry yeast (2 1/2 tsp)
1/2 cup warm milk
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Dissolve yeast in warm milk, then set aside. Cream butter, sugar and salt. Add egg and beat one minute until well blended. Add flour, then milk-yeast mixture and vanilla to dough batter. Mix three minutes with dough hook or by hand. If mixing by hand, turn out onto floured board and knead for one minute – can be kneaded by dough hook in stand mixer. Place in a lightly greased bowl, cover with a towel and set in a warm place to rise for one hour or until doubled. Meanwhile, prepare topping; set aside.
Pat dough into 9×13 pan, bringing dough halfway up sides of pan to hold filling. Prick dough all over with a fork. Pour topping over dough, spreading evenly. Let cake stand 20 minutes before baking in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Do not over-bake! (I cannot overstate this) Topping should be crusty, but gooey – should jiggle slightly when shaken. Allow cake to cool before cutting.
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup flour
2 cups sugar
2 extra large eggs
4 to 5 tablespoons milk
Cream butter. Stir together flour and sugar. Gradually beat sugar mixture in butter. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add milk, one tablespoon at a time, just until mixture reaches a spreadable consistency – should still be thick!
Tell me – did you grow up with any special treats that you wish you could recreate today?
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