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.
Kathleen - Gonna Want Seconds,
Linda A - There and Back Again,