Friday, February 24, 2012

Edna Lewis's Busy Day Cake

Texture. It threads its way through everything. Through art, through relationships, through nature and of course through food. I think about the textures of my days - my silky ones versus my woolly ones. Texture brings vavoom to the days, doesn't it? Even though there may be days when you truly want the vavoom to stay away. It certainly makes things interesting.It's the texture that brings the vavoom to Edna Lewis's "Busy Day Cake."  




For Week 36 of Gourmet's Women Game-Changers in Food, I have left pasta behind and visited the rural American south. Edna Lewis is our guide and I have had a week of amazement as I researched Lewis and her accomplishments. She has drawn me into her world more than any of the web-based mega-recipe developers of recent weeks.  I am glad to have been acquainted with her but now - I crave more.


Photo by John T. Hill, NY Times

This is a woman/chef/cookbook author/restaurant owner who knew a lot about texture. The threads of her life reach back into rural Virginia, to New York City and into the blossoming local food movement in California. Credited with refining southern food and bringing southern cooking into its own, Edna Lewis life's and cooking was multi-facted - knobby and silky, brightly-colored and shaded in subtlety.

Born in 1916 in rural Freetown, Virginia, Lewis was the grand daughter of one of the three founders of Freetown - all emancipated slaves. She credits her Aunt Jenny with her cooking skill - a skill learned on a wood-fired stove. No measuring spoons were to be had so baking powder was measured on the top of a penny, baking soda was on a nickel and salt was measured on a dime. 

At sixteen, Lewis left Freetown and headed up north. She was hired in a laundry and spent three hours ironing before her ironing skills left everyone unimpressed and she was dismissed. She fared better as a seamstress eventually sewing copies of Dior for Dorcas Avedon (Richard Avedon's wife). She worked for the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and eventually married a retired merchant seaman Steve Kingston who was a communist. This was a time when being a communist put you under great scrutiny. 


But it was her friendship with antiques dealer John Nicholson that changed the course of her life. Together they opened a restaurant in 1948 called The Nicholson Cafe in which Lewis was the cook and part owner. Remember that this was 1948 in New York city - African-American female chefs/restaurant owners were few and far between.  It became a huge success - the darling of the "bohemian set." Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon and Marlene Dietrich were frequent patrons. Her husband criticized the glittery following.

"This restaurant should be for ordinary people on the street. You're catering to capitalists," he would say. Lewis remembered those admonishments and said she thought "it was such a bore."

In the late 1960's after breaking her leg, Lewis used this time to write down her recipes. Along with her recipes, she included the history of the recipe and her reflections on growing up in the rural south. The book, The Edna Lewis Cookbook was lauded and others soon followed. There is so much more to this  remarkable woman - for further insight into her life and how she changed the face of southern cooking, please check out:

The more I read about Lewis, the more I want to know.

Molly from Orangette has a beautiful post about Lewis and a soul-satisfying description of this Busy Day Cake. She calls it "Like a Lullaby." Please check out her post here. It's worth the cyber-trip.

"Is it cornbread-cake?" I was asked.

No, it's a white sugar cake - pure and simple - but the sugar does bring out the texture and there is a beauty of the middle soft, crumbly cake slowly stretching itself to a bit of browned, crunchy edge of sweetness. Plus you have to love a recipe that calls for 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract - that is aromatic bliss in my kitchen. 

I used the recipe and advice from Orangette.  Finding Edna Lewis's cookbooks proved problematical - but it has set me on a mission to unearth one of her cookbooks. (Can you tell I am smitten?)


Edna Lewis's Busy-Day Cake Ingredients
1 stick of unsalted butter (8 tablespoons) at room temperature
1-1/3 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pinch of freshly-grated nutmeg (perhaps measure it on a dime)
1/2 cup whole milk or buttermilk at room temperature

Edna Lewis calls for a 10' x 10' square pan. Molly used a 9" round springform pan which is what I used since that is what I own. I have yet to collect an arsenal of baking pans

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease or spray your pan. Use a stand mixer or hand-held mixers. In a large bowl mix butter and sugar until well blended. Add the eggs one at a time - mixing well between each addition. Add the extract and again - mix well.

In a medium bowl combine the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Add 1/4 of the flour mixture to the butter and eggs and mix. Add about 1/4 of the milk and mix. Alternate flour and milk until all is combined well.  Scrape the sides of the large bowl to get all the sugar mixture into the buttery mix.

Pour the mixture in the prepared pan (I poured it directly into the center and let it spread evenly - I then had to help it a bit with a spatula and well... I still had a few waves.) Bakes 30-35 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Molly advised tenting the top with some foil after 20 minutes so that the top did not brown (which I did). Serve alone, with whipped cream, with berries (I mixed berries with a touch of sugar), creme fraiche, sweetened mascarpone or what you will. It is indeed easy enough for a busy day - and satisfying for all days. I am wondering about adding a little lemon zest to the batter next time.... because I cannot leave well enough alone. 



I look forward to seeing what the other bloggers have cooked from Ms. Lewis. She has certainly sparked my mind and spirit.

Please check out what the other bloggers are doing for Week 36 of Female Chef Gourmet Game Changers. And if you want to join in the fun, e-mail Mary at  One Perfect Bite. Mary started this delectable journey. 

Susan - The Spice GardenHeather - girlichef,
Miranda - Mangoes and ChutneyJeanette - Healthy Living
Kathleen - Gonna Want Seconds

49 comments:

Mary said...

Claudia, this was a wonderful tribute to a woman of spirit as well as color. Her recipes are really wonderful and her use of words almost uncanny. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed your post today. And the cake? Well the cake is now at the top of my to-do list. Have a great weekend. Blessings...Mary

Tina said...

This was a great post, I am now intrigued by this woman and I find it shocking that her books are not that easy to find. I have shelled out for out of print cookbooks before and have not been disappointed. Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe and the intro to Edna Lewis!

Heather @girlichef.com said...

I'm smitten by Miss Lewis, as well. I want to try this recipe soon. Love the sound...the texture. =)

Myfrenchkitchen said...

busy day cake...I've never heard of it...sounds very homey with vanilla flavoring the kitchen, sugar and all things comforting.
Ronelle

mr. pineapple man said...

Yum!! Mouthwatering :)

Sue/the view from great island said...

Your photos really bring out the crumbly light texture of this cake. I am bookmarking this until I can get hold of one of her books myself. Your write up is lovely.

Lori Lynn said...

Fabulous post Claudia!
Can't leave well enough alone, eh?
The light in the photos matches your writing, texturally speaking.
LL

Lyndsey said...

Texture! I love it and you show it off so well here. A very nice post indeed! Sometime it's the simple things that are best.

Jeanette said...

Your photos definitely show off the crumb of this cake - lovely recipe choice and writeup on Edna Lewis.

Veronica Gantley said...

It does look like corn bread. I think Edna Lewis so far is my favorite game changer. Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe with us.

Lizzy said...

My husband would be happy if I baked more cakes...and the simplicity of this one is so appealing! Moist and delicious~

Lizzy said...

PS...has your daughter heard back from Iowa yet?

Rebecca Subbiah said...

lovely cake and wow can't believe how they used to measure ingredients

Cucina49 said...

I remember reading a great article about Edna Lewis years ago in Gourmet (of course--it all goes back to Gourmet for me!). What a gorgeously simple cake, perfect for serving with ripe fruit.

janet@fromcupcakestocaviar said...

Oh, I love Edna Lewis. I took a cookbook by her many years ago from the library and I've adored her books ever since. This cake looks absolutely delicious, Claudia :-)

Sam @ My Carolina Kitchen said...

Edna Lewis is one of the most interesting ladies in this group.

It's funny about texture. Texture is also very important in decorating too. Love the name of this cake. Makes you think ordinary, but it's far from it.
Sam

Mary said...

I'm so glad you are trying the soup. I really think you will enjoy it. I've got my fingers crossed:-). Blessings...Mary

Pegasuslegend said...

I love this type of cake, I can serve it up plain or with many kinds of fruit toppings and its always a new dessert, this looks wonderful and certainly the coffee is on?

Erica said...

I love this event!!! What a great tribute to this woman!!The cake looks delicious!

SKIP TO MALOU said...

"Texture. It threads its way through everything". I love that line... yes you got me on the first line Claudia!

Thank you for introducing us to Edna Lewis, a woman of texture!

...and thank you Claudia for bringing in "texture" to my blog... post after post.

have a great weekend,
Malou

Susan Lindquist said...

This IS a wonderful cake! As you suggest, so many things can be done to 'tweek' this cake to the purpose of the fruit at hand ... or not. It's beauty is its simplicity that lets it stand alone by a cup of Joe and still satisfy like the most elaborate dessert! Kudos! You've given us a great post ...

Natasha Price said...

A terrific cake here, I like the touch of nutmeg, yummy!

Fresh Local and Best said...

I like the simplicity of this recipe and of course the addition of nutmeg. What an amazing woman Edna Lewis must have been.

Mari said...

I love Edna Lewis recipes, I have several of them stored as favorite it my personal recipe files. This is a wonderful cake. Thank you for sharing it.

Hugs

Ciao Chow Linda said...

Thank you so much for introducing me this interesting woman. your writing really drew me in, but the soft texture of that cake is mesmerizing as well.

Nami | Just One Cookbook said...

I had never heard of Edna Lewis story, so it was fun reading about her. Lovely cake and looks easy enough for me to bake it.

Angie's Recipes said...

A cornbread cake...that's very interesting. Love its fine and smooth texture.

FOODESSA said...

Yes, Claudia...I completely agree...I'm smitten with her too.
Her journey and reflections through her challenging path has to be admired.
The recipes she developed are quite interesting. Although, far from perfect, always workable and inspirational.

Thanks for sharing this particular cake and your tip off (with Orangette)as well ;o)

Have a fabulous week,
Claudia

bellini said...

This would be a lovely cake with any seasonal fruit!

Barbara said...

Great write up, Claudia! And I love that oil painting.
Super cake recipe...easy to make so the name fits perfectly.

Jeannie said...

Great write up, now I know something about Edna Lewis:) and easy recipes, I like a lot. Got to bookmark this to try:D love the pale top and crusty sides.

Purabi Naha said...

This looks awesome!! Loved the droolworthy pictures. Bookmarked!
http://cosmopolitancurrymania.blogspot.com

Mireya @myhealthyeatinghabits said...

Claudia,
What a wonderful write up about Edna. And this cake sounds pretty yummy.

Gera @ Sweets Foods Blog said...

OMG with this cake I know that is absolutely wonderful and with a dollop of ice cream on top, more strawberries is heavenly :)

Cheers,

Gera

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

A simple cake is one of my husband's favorite. I like the idea of lemon zest as well. This would be wonderful with sliced fresh strawberries and whipped cream like shortcake.

BeetleBuggy said...

What a lovely post you've written! That cake is to die for and your pictures really do bring out the story of 'texture' as well! :) Absolutely wonderful!

Catherine said...

Dear Claudia, Thank you for introducing me to this wonderful lady. I love southern cooking and all it offers.
This is a perfect cake for anytime of year and to serve with fruit or a glaze. Blessings my dear, Catherine xo

Kathy said...

Claudia, I absolutely loved this post! I was so sorry to miss out on posting about Edna. She's led such a fascinating life and is so very interesting. I may have to do a catch up with this one.
Your cake is lovely! It's the kind of cake that is perfect anytime.

Reeni said...

What a lovely cake for so few ingredients! So perfect with a smattering of berries. Try Better World Books.com - they have the 50th anniversary edition - I think it's a reprint of her first one.

Beth said...

She really does look remarkable. What a terrific thing your group is doing by educating us on these amazing women!

Amy said...

I love that this cake is so simple and yet so delicious! Edna definately knew what she was doing when it came to baking!

Stephanie @ Eat. Drink. Love. said...

Great post! I have never tried one of her recipes, but I have always heard good things! I love the simplicity of this cake!

LinsFood said...

This is a wonderful post, thanks for bringing this lady to our attention, I'm going to hunt her down!

oysterCulture said...

What a great read and fantastic tribute to a person who sounds just amazing, and plain inspirational. This cake sounds divine and especially with fresh fruit.

oysterCulture said...

What a great read and fantastic tribute to a person who sounds just amazing, and plain inspirational. This cake sounds divine and especially with fresh fruit.

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

This cake looks wonderful and so delicious! A lovely tribute to Edna Lewis.

Chers,

Rosa

Magic of Spice said...

What a fantastic post and wonderful tribute to Edna Lewis...great lady!

Bo said...

Great post! I've tried a few of her recipes...since Southern food is so near to me...the cake is so simple and old fashion...Perfect!

Gina F. said...

Simple and tasty cake. A very nice end to a lovely meal. We found leftovers were best with heated in the microwave for 10 seconds.