Ever wonder why stories from by-gone eras fill us with longing, romantic musings, and a yearning to somehow experience a bit of times past? Why is it that holding an old book and smelling the paper as the pages turn are part of the satisfying experience of reading a novel set in a time period when perhaps you weren't even born? As a child, the local library held a fascination for me whose magic started when I walked through the door and inhaled the smell of books. Thousands of them! I spent dreamy days exploring the rivers barefoot with Huckleberry Finn, and The Sugar Creek Gang kids. I suppose this love affair with books naturally extended to cookbooks, and old recipe cards, as I watched my mother enjoy flipping through her Betty Crocker cook book to find yet another piece de resistance with which to wow her family and our many guests.
I was 20 years old in 1973. I lived in a small rent house behind a large square 2 story 1920's white clapboard house. Our landlords, Mr. and Mrs. T.L. Floyd lived in the lower floor and closed off much of it in the winter to save on heating costs. She was in her 70's and I remember her white apron, and the wonderful smells that came from her kitchen on a regular basis. She loved to cook and watch us eat her old-fashioned country dishes. She was proud of her kitchen, from her big gas stove to her white porcelain sink.
Always interested in stories from days-gone-by, I thought it would be fun to go through her over-stuffed recipe box with her. One well-worn piece of paper caught my eye; it was written in pencil on a scrap piece of paper, yellowed and creased, obviously well-loved and well-used. Smoothing out the wrinkles, on it was written only the name of the cake, and a short list of simple ingredients; no mixing directions, no mention of what type pan or at what fahrenheit to bake the cake. I listened intently to her tell of growing up in the early 1900's, and learning to cook at her mother's side. Bringing her attention to the well-worn paper, Mrs. Floyd matter-of-factly told me the Black George Cake recipe was "what girls learned to cook on" when she was growing up. I could hardly wait to get back to my little cottage with my newly-copied recipe and contemplate baking the cake. I knew enough about baking cakes to assume this had to be a pretty fool-proof recipe, and if I mixed the dry ingredients together, and creamed the shortening with the sugar, then alternated the shortening with the hot liquid into the dry ingredients I would be ok. I rushed off to the grocery store to pick up molasses, and upon my return, promptly set about making this curious cake. Patience has never been my strong suit, so I measured out the ingredients and throwing caution to the wind, started dumping everything in the bowl, mixed it together with a wooden spoon, then poured the hot water over the top! Ha, that's the way a little girl would probably do it! Let's put this cake recipe to the test! I baked the cake in a square pan at 350 degrees, for about 30 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the middle came out almost clean, with only a couple of crumbs clinging to it. While it baked, I imagined little girls in starched white aprons excitedly begging to open the oven door- 'no child, the cake will fall!' while the boys of the house hungrily watched for signs that the cake was done 'hey- how long does it take for that cake to bake anyway?' and 'does it HAVE to cool off before we can have some- I'm starved!' Hmm wonder if the daughter proudly brought it in on a platter after supper-time for the whole family sitting around the Norman Rockwell table to admire and brag on? M-M-M my first bite proved, this cake was delicious, even a child could make it and gain the confidence to attempt another culinary challenge! Having learned how to measure, sift, stir, and pour hot water, follow momma's directions recited from memory, would have been a great start for a girl of the 1910 era. Nothing left to do but o-o-h and ah-h and slather that earthy spicy moist confection with real butter! I could almost hear her daddy proudly pronouncing his daughter to be as good of a cook as her momma!
Step 1: What You Will Need.
Black George Cake (Vegan, Eggless, Dairy-free)
1 cup sugar
1 cup sorghum (don't use a cheap brand, it is usually very bitter) molasses
1/2 cup shortening (I used butter flavor)
1 teaspoon flavoring (I used vanilla)
1 cup hot water
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
Step 2: So Easy, Even a Kid Can Do It.
Preheat your oven to 350.
I would suggest combining the dry ingredients together. If you want to do it properly (confession: we didn't, but I will next time!) I would then cream the shortening and sugar together, then add the sorghum and the flavoring. Now you can just start beating the dry ingredients and the creamed sugar mixture together, and if it gets thick, go ahead and dump in some of the hot water! From experience, if this cake had eggs in it, and you poured hot water over the eggs, you would get some poached eggs! So interesting that this cake has no eggs for the beginning cook. Thinking of how Mrs. Floyd's momma would have instructed her as she put the ingredients together, of course made me think of my mom and how I would stand on my tip-toes to watch her cook.
Step 3: Prepare to Bake
You can coat a pan, about 9x9 with shortening so the cake won't stick. I used my mother's cast iron deep skillet, and it stuck pretty badly, but I love the crispy sweet crunchy edges it makes without using flour to help it release. Pour in your cake batter (it's kind of runny) and set it in the middle of the oven about 30 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out almost clean, with a crumb or two stuck to the toothpick. If you can wait, let it cool until it is just warm enough to eat. It is rich, moist, dense and hearty by itself, but a cold glass of milk, a dollop of sweetened whipped cream, sweetened cream cheese spread, or a pat of real butter would be wonderful on this. It's kind of gingerbread-ish, sweet, sticky. Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, raisins, nuts are some options that can also be added for future taste tests. Take a bite with your favorite cup of coffee. Does it take you back to the days of big families around a kitchen table, with laughter, teasing and prayer? There is some rich history in this recipe, and so much besides the art of baking a cake is taught!
Step 4: Taste Test!
The proof is in the pudding!
Step 5: 10 Things One of Us Learned From Baking This Cake:
1. I want to know what the contest prize is before I stop playing minecraft to help you (I had to bribe him someway!).
2. It smells good until you add sorghum.
3. Then it looks and smells like poop with white things floating in it.
4. You have to take your apron off before you leave for the restroom.
5. Is the prize money, because you should split it with me (that is if we win lol) (just dawned on me, this could get expensive for grandma since cookware is not exactly what little boys have in mind-).
6. Why do you have to use the wire thingy, don't you have one of those beater thingies like mom does?
7. If you open the door to the oven too soon, the cake will fall and have a sinkhole in the middle (it didn't affect the taste though).
8. You have to find an antique little boy (like grandpa) to taste test because I have never eaten such a thing as sorghum (what is it anyway? Gram, you know what it looks like, right?)
9. If you were born in 1955 or before, like grandma and grandpa, you have probably tasted sorghum.
10. Grandpa says "It's as good as your grandmother's cake!" Hmm! made some special memories.
We did get the boy to taste it, first bite, he said 'like german chocolate!', 2nd bite 'like toffee!'. Hmm maybe there's more behind this heirloom recipe than just learning to bake a cake. Thank you Mrs. Floyd :)
"Tell me and I forget.
Teach me and I remember.
Involve me and I learn."