April 9, 2010
Book Club, Lane Cake
Yesterday our Book Club met to discuss A. S. Byatt’s THE CHILDREN’S BOOK–a dense, amazing, informative, complicated, wonderful novel. In may ways, this novel is as much history as it is fiction. Set in Britain, Germany, and France, but primarily in Britain, in the years before World War I erupts, the novel explores so many themes we got dizzy trying to identify all of them. Certainly class conflict, art, artisans, theater, puppets, philosophical and political groups, gender issues, connections to nature and the loss thereof, the power of national groups when war looms, the power of geography to form culture, the production of fairy tales in this era by many authors, and on and on.
Byatt sees this period as a Silver Age that degenerates into a Lead Age with the war and its aftermath. The Golden Age preceding the Silver Age has already passed. It’s clear that she sees that the fermentation of politics and culture change drastically with the war. All the energy, especially the energy of young people across Europe, pours into nationalism. The result is that cultural changes that could have taken place in lieu of war don’t. It’s not so much that the slate is wiped clean, but that all the energy for change is dissipated for those who survive the war.
In this way, the characters in the novel are not unlike the puppet theaters Byatt reproduces throughout the novel. We perform inside scripts created by forces that drive us, and while mankind created those forces, we have lost touch with how they do drive us. Plus, we have lost touch with nature, which is a primary ingredient of the Golden Age. Thus, the descent into an Age of Lead begins. And, I think, Byatt is saying that, by extension, that is how we have arrived where we are now, where more than ever before, the hidden scripts of economics drives us, where we are detached from nature, and where we are at a crossroads where life will change drastically in some direction.
The Lane Cake
My grandmother used to bake two cakes around the winter holidays: a Lane Cake and a Japanese Fruit Cake. The Lane Cake was always my favorite. It was a minimum of three layers, filled with a raisin, coconut, pecan, wine or whiskey filling, and iced with a cooked white icing.
I’ve never been a good cake baker. Maybe I avoided them since they are exacting, and I’m more of a handful of this and a pinch of that kind of cook. And, since my 30’s, I’ve struggled with weight issues, so baking didn’t seem a good idea. Anyway, baking some of Julia Child’s cakes this winter made me see they are full of eggs and butter and not a lot of sugar. Making those cakes gave me a bit of courage. So, I thought to try the Lane Cake recipe of my grandmother’s, especially since I have all the fresh eggs now from the chickens. I figured I could bake it for the Book Club meeting since it is way too special to have for everyday use.
You must start it three days ahead, as it needs to season with the filling. It called for “pastry” flour, which I had my doubts about. I think that term might not have translated across time and space. But, against my better judgment, I used it anyway. The layers rose amazingly tall. It may be ok, I thought. The filling was tedious, but easy, and tasted divine. I filled the cake and left it to sit for three days. On the day of the book club, I iced it, and that went fine as well.
But, the cake layers were not light and wonderful, but heavy and coarse. So, next time, I’ll use cake flour. I’m sure it will be quite wonderful then.
I researched the recipe, which is very old. Here’s some history from a web site on food history: http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcakes.html#lane
“The Lane cake, one of Alabama’s more famous culinary specialties, was created by Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Barbour County. It is a type of white sponge cake made with egg whites and consists of four layers that are filled with a mixture of the egg yolks, butter, sugar, raisins, and whiskey. The cake is frosted with a boiled, fluffy white confection of water, sugar, and whipped egg whites. The cake is typically served in the South at birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and other special occasions. The recipe was first printed in Lane’s cookbook Some Good Things to Eat, which she self-published in 1898. According to chef and culinary scholar Neil Ravenna, Lane first brought her cake recipe to public attention at a county fair in Columbus, Georgia, when she entered her cake in a baking competition there and took first prize. She originally named the cake the Prize cake, but an acquaintance convinced her to lend her own name to the dessert.”
Here is my cake:
And, here is a recipe I think will work:
Preheat oven to 375
8 egg whites, stiffly beaten; 1 cup of butter (two sticks); 2 cups sugar; 1 cup sweet milk; 3 1/2 cups CAKE FLOUR; 2 teaspoons baking powder; pinch of salt for egg whites; 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Sift flour and baking powder 4 or 5 times. The more the flour is sifted, the lighter the cake. Cream butter and sugar together until foamy. (Sift sugar for a lighter cake.) Add flour and milk alternately to butter/sugar mixture. Begin and end with adding flour. Add vanilla. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Bake in four 8-inch cake pans that have been greased with butter and floured. Or, three larger cake pans. Bake at 375 for 30 to 35 minutes. Keep a sharp eye, as doneness depends upon the size of the pans. Allow cake to sit in pans for a few minutes, then turn them out onto wire racks to THOROUGHLY COOL.
8 egg yolks; 2 cups sugar; 1/2 cup butter (1 stick); 1 cup raisins chopped; 1 cup fresh coconut or good quality freeze dried; 1 cup chopped pecans (soak these first in salted water and dry in the oven or a dehydrator to remove the phytates); pinch salt, 1 cup brandy or 3/4 cup wine or 1/2 cup whiskey; 1 teaspoon vanilla. (I added grated lemon peel and that was nice–1 or 2 tsps.)
Beat egg yolks until lemon colored. Add sugar, salt, and continue beating until mixture is light. Melt butter in top of a double boiler and add egg-sugar mixture; stir constantly until thickens (up to 20 minutes). Add other ingredients. Let cool, spread between cake layers. Let cake sit for up to 3 days before icing.
4 egg whites, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1/4 cup water, 1 tsp. cream of tartar, pinch of salt, 1 tsp. vanilla.
Put everything BUT the vanilla into a double boiler and cook for about 5 minutes, beating with a hand electric mixer. Remove from heat when mixture forms good peaks and is shiny. Add vanilla. Continue beating until spreading consistency is good.
Make it for a special event and ENJOY!!!!