My friend Brooks is a cake person. I’m all about pie. When Brooks forced people to choose one or the other (and you couldn’t waffle and say “both”), an interesting discussion ensued on eGullet.
I’ve always liked pie, whether fruit or custard based. Chocolate or nuts. Apple, cherry, blueberry, or peach — pie is the dessert that I most often crave and enjoy to make. I love making my crust, and I make a damn fine one.
But I recently received a simple new cake cookbook that has captivated me: Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations, by Chapel Hill’s Nancie McDermott. I first learned about this cookbook when Bill Smith, chef of Crook’s Corner, told me how he has been making McDermott’s cakes for several months, and they’ve been selling like, well, hotcakes. He’s made everything from coconut cake to Lady Baltimore Cake to, and I’m not kidding you, tomato soup cake. I was intrigued, but when I met Ms. McDermott at the SFA Symposium in Oxford, I was smitten. While braving the cold on the top of a double decker bus on the way for a catfish dinner, she told me stories of how integral cakes were in her family meals in the Piedmont of North Carolina. How the raising of her own children instilled a new-found appreciation of Southern baking, and how they could be involved. And then, when giving a lecture on the “State of Coconut Cake,” she stated that the future of Southern cooking lies with our children, presenting an image of the two year old daughter of pastry chef Phoebe Lawless licking the batter from a mixing bowl, Nancie McDermott had become my new culinary hero.
I ended up spending several hours with Nancie over that weekend, and I now have her book. It’s a very simple paperback, with lovely photos and plenty of recipes that an average home cook can master. Each recipe has a fabulous story about the cake, and I’ve now read the book cover to cover. But I hadn’t baked anything out of it, until yesterday.
I had made a pumpkin and pecan pie for our meal, but I kept thinking of Brooks’ claim that only cake made an event truly festive. Damn him! Plus, my 13 year old son was being particularly helpful, and he wanted to know if he could assist in the kitchen. I asked him if he wanted to make a cake, and he immediately smiled and accepted. We decided on Ocracoke Island Fig Cake with Buttermilk Glaze, a fairly simple spice cake with figs and nuts and a decadent glaze. My son was excited because he knew his grandfather loved figs, and he was from coastal North Carolina. So, with minor assistance from me, Everett made this cake. At the end of the meal, when the desserts came out, Everett watched his grandfather closely as he sampled the cake. “Mmm, that’s some mighty fine cake,” my father-in-law stated. “Mighty fine cake, indeed.” Everett beamed. A new baker was created yesterday, and I realized that I just might have a bit of a cake personality after all. Thanks, Nancie!
Recipe after the break.
Ocracoke Island Fig Cake with Buttermilk Glaze
- 3 eggs
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 cup oil
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking soda, dissolved in a little hot water
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 cup coarsely chopped preserved figs, or fig jam
- 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans or walnuts
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube or Bundt pan. Beat eggs well until smooth, add sugar and oil, and continue beating until you’ve made a thick batter.
Combine flour with nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and salt in small bowl. Add half of this flour mixture to the egg/oil/sugar batter, beating gently. Add buttermilk, continuing to beat. Add remaining flour mixture with dissolved soda and buttermilk. Beat gently until fairly smooth. Gently stir in figs and nuts and pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake at 350°F for 40-50 minutes until brown and firm on top and a toothpick comes out clean. Prepare the glaze while baking.
Make the glaze by combining buttermilk, sugar, butter, cornstarch, and baking soda in a medium saucepan, and bring to a gentle boil. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Stir in vanilla.
When cake is done, cool in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Remove cake from pan and put on serving plate. While cake is still warm, slowly pour glaze over the cake. Allow to cool completely.
From Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations, by Nancie McDermott