Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sponge Cake Recipe

I’m not usually baker. My creative outlets are painting, photography and writing. I often get distracted by a new idea and leave things to burn. Plus I have a suicidal mixer. It vibrates across the counter, making a terrible racket, and tries to take a dive. I don’t bake often enough to justify the cost of replacing it (the beaters are warped.)

I bake a sponge cake for family birthdays, just like my mother did for us. She got the recipe from my Jewish grandmother, who had adapted it from Meta Given. Something got lost in translation. Actually, it was the opposite of lost. My mother accidentally doubled the sugar, and the result was divine.

The cake isn’t that sweet (it tastes tart from the lemon) but the sugar creates a crunchy crust. It does not need frosting. Note that there is no cooking fat/oil in the recipe. This cake is a traditional Jewish delicacy, especially if you use leftover Hanukkah candles for the birthday child.

Maybe the reason I dislike baking is because this recipe is a killer. To make the sponge light and spongy, you need to resift flour and master the technique of cut and folding batter into the egg whites. I learned by watching my mother.

While baking, the cake rises almost like a soufflé. My mother used to say it would collapse if we made too much noise (ha!) That bought an hour and a quarter of silence, especially because my brother and I had our tongues engaged licking mixing bowls. That was back when moms didn’t freak out about salmonella. It’s interesting how hazards haven’t increased but our awareness and fear have.

It’s a pain getting the cake out of the tube pan. I often wonder if a spring-form pan would work better, but I’m a creature of habit.

I’m also a creature of careless mistakes. I planned to post this recipe when I made it last time, but it was a disaster. The cake didn’t rise, or rather it did rise in the oven and then collapsed while it cooled. Was my mother right about the noise after all? It still tasted good, but the texture was too dense and heavy.

I figured out the mystery this time. There were two cans of baking powder in my pantry: the fresh one, and one that was so old it had a sticker from Star Market in Massachusetts. We moved to Maine 12 years ago. This is why I should not bake anything more complicated than brownies from a mix. Still, this cake is so absolutely delicious, that it’s worth the effort. I baked it for my daughter's 12th birthday this month.

Sponge Cake Recipe (adapted from Meta Given)

1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 tsp D.A. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups sugar
6 extra large eggs, separated
1/4 cup cold water
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp grated lemon rind, packed tight

Use 10 inch tube pan – do NOT grease. Start oven 10 mins before baking at 325 F.

Sift flour, measure, resift 3 times with baking powder, salt and 3/4 cup sugar. Put egg whites into a 4 qt. mixing bowl and set aside.

Put egg yolks into a large mixer bowl, add water and lemon juice then beat at medium speed until thick and spongy (see bubbles) in about 4-5 min. Without stopping beaters, add 3/4 of remaining sugar gradually and vanilla and beat until the mixture is again thick and spongy. Turn mixer to lowest speed and add flour in 4 portions, scraping sides and bottom of bowl constantly with rubber scraper. Beat until batter is just smooth. Now stop beating. Add lemon rind to yolk mixture.

With a rotary beater (or hand electric) quickly beat egg whites until stiff enough to form shiny peaks. Then beat in remaining 1/4 cup sugar gradually until whites form shiny peaks that curve at tips (above photo.) With a rubber scraper, cut and fold yolk mixture into whites, lightly but thoroughly. Flow batter into pan.

Bake 1 hour at 325 F and then test: the cake springs back when touched lightly if done (usually 1 1/4 hours.)

Remove from oven and invert over large funnel or bottle. When just cooled (30-45 mins.) remove from pan. Serve with vanilla ice cream (Haagen Dazs is best) and fresh sliced strawberries.

Happy Birthday to my daughter!

Blog watch: It’s fun to connect with bloggers from far away. Sapphire in Japan blogged about a beautiful sculpture garden in Hakone and a horrible theft of a Henry Moore sculpture. The crime defies imagination both as to the means and the ends. Another newbie to my blog, Delwyn@a hazy moon posts gorgeous nature photos from Australia. Phoenix@Talking to Myself blogged about her new hometown of Delhi. Cynthia@Oasis Writing Link in Puerto Rico also gave us a tour of her hometown. Mama Shujaa revisited Nairobi, where she grew up. Globe trotting is so easy in cyberspace.

Helpline: Why Does my Sponge Cake Collapse?
  1. See Phillip's second comment below: inversion helps cake firm up as it may collapse when hot - do this until it cools.
  2. Along the same line, opening the oven too many times to check the cake will cool it and might make it collapse.
  3. You forgot to add a rising agent like baking powder/self-rising flour or it has expired.
  4. Not enough egg white. If using smaller, organic eggs, try adding 1 or 2 extra egg whites (not the yolks).
  5. Not beating the egg whites enough or letting them sit too long. Use an electric beater or enlist a helper if you get too tired.  The whole prep should not take more than hour.  Bake immediately.  The cake can sit all day until you eat it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wild Things

I’m back from my blissful vacation on Nantucket Island (above.) I missed all the excitement back home in Maine. A moose went OVER the dam in town. That’s a good 30 foot drop in high rapids down to sharp rocks.

Amazingly the adolescent moose survived the fall and climbed onto an island. He munched some greens before swimming to the bank of the Androscoggin River. The incessant rain in Maine this summer had raised the water level. Lucky moose (photo by Troy R. Bennett for The Times Record.) It was a big story in our local paper.

I heard about the moosecapade from my neighbor, author Cynthia Lord. In her blog Cynthia quoted a Maine warden:

“It’s just one of those moose that’s a year-and-a-half old, and trying to learn to be a moose. He hasn’t really figured it out yet."

My woods have only chipmunks, squirrels and birds, but my neighbors had some fun guests. This vixen denned in their woodshed for several weeks while raising her kits (photo by Robert Rand.) We’ve only once spotted a fox in our yard in town.

To see wildlife in abundance, you need to drive 2-3 hours north from the coast. The North Woods of Maine have only a few dirt roads, lots of lakes and plenty of black flies. The interior is almost unpopulated and 90% of the entire state is forested.

My son is hiking the Appalachian Mountain Trail from central Maine to the peak of Katahdin (tallest mountain in Maine.) It will take three weeks. He’ll turn 15 on the trail. And, no, my son doesn’t have a mistress in Argentina like Governor Stanford. Talking about wild things….

When my son was little, his favorite story was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It got to the point where I could recite it without looking at anything but the fabulous illustrations.

“The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good bye….”

Where the Wild Things Are is being turned into a movie:

Sleep well and Happy Birthday, wild thing!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Dartmouth Arms Book Club (North London)

A book club at a pub? Only in North London! I was in Kentish Town last month doing research for my novel, NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE). Two of my (fictional) characters grew up in this neighborhood. I had to visit the local boozer. I was impressed to find them reading Man Booker Prize literary fiction.

Look inside the Dartmouth Arms. Can you imagine curling up on that leather armchair before the fire with a pint of Adnams in one hand and a novel in the other? Bliss. I could hear my characters talking to me.

How did I find this gem? My husband once lived in this neighborhood. He rented the garden flat in the house with the purple door. Years ago we had gone back to visit, and the memory stayed with me. When I pictured my imaginary families living side-by-side in North London, this was the image that came to mind.

The Kentish Delight Wine Bar (above) looks new, but most of the neighborhood hadn’t changed much in two decades. This is not a posh part of London, but it’s affordable. The high street features row shops selling: greasy kebabs, fish and chips, discount electronics, Middle Eastern carpets, polyester clothing, flimsy furniture etc. North London hosts an ethnic mix and plenty of bohemian intellectuals and artists, like my characters.

The Owl Bookshop has been on the Kentish Town Road since the 1970s. This well-stocked independent bookshop is worth a trip on its own. Maybe one of my characters could own it. I'm browsing.

The low-rise neighborhood has a timeless, gritty quality to it. This isn’t touristy London.

You can imagine having a relationship with the butcher (if you weren’t a Vegan) instead of grabbing cellophaned packages. One change was a butcher advertising “organic” meat and fish. Probably the same stuff, just updated marketing.

For fun you’d go hear the latest indie rock live. Back in the 1980s the hmv forum was the Town and Country. My husband saw Stiff Little Fingers play there.

There has been only a touch of yuppification.

I have to admit to enjoying this new addition: Satuma Japanese Restaurant.

It was a trip down memory lane for my husband. He was a wonderful guide. In order to know characters, I walk the streets of their childhood. I won’t include the entire back story, but I want to understand it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande

Speaking of freaks of nature, check out my dog. Stella stuck her head in a garbage bin and couldn’t get out. Not all dog behavior is adaptive. Humans breed them for certain characteristics (like staying cute and puppyish) that wouldn't help them to survive in the wild.

Retrievers are like grown puppies. Their ears remain floppy (instead of perking up like a wolf's ears in adulthood) as this secondary trait accompanies domesticity. If you selectively breed foxes to be friendly to humans, their ears droop too. In Robin Brande's young adult novel, Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature, two teenagers test the theory of evolution on a litter of puppies.

The book opens with a living nightmare: Mena Reece has been expelled from her church for doing what she believed to be the right thing. Even Mena’s parents are disappointed in her. The Reeces have lost social standing and their family business is threatened. Everyone blames Mena. She starts high school with all of her friends hating her.

Then Mena makes a new friend in Biology class. Casey is a boy genius with a sense of humor and a house full of puppies (smarter than mine.) Plus he’s cute. Life is good until Ms. Shepherd begins the unit on evolution. In protest, all of Mena’s old church buddies physically turn their backs on the teacher. They demand that Ms. Shepherd teach intelligent design, not evolution. Mena is in a quandary: can she believe in evolution and in God? Mena opens her Bible and searches for a resolution. She blogs as Bible Grrrl.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature is a sweet, innocent story which I think would appeal most to girls aged 11-14. The science is explained and simplified for young readers and put in a real-life context. I would have loved having Ms. Shepherd as a teacher. She really brings the subject to life and makes it fun without sounding too didactic.

Mena narrates the story day-by-day with lots of detail, just like my middle school children when they come home from school. As a result, the voice sounds authentic, but the story doesn’t really take off until we finally hear what it was that Mena did that turned her church against her. Keep reading, it’s worth it. Curiosity and good writing kept me going.

It was an excellent choice to have an evangelical teenager who likes science as the protagonist. Mena is a very sympathetic and likable character. I wish Brande had fleshed out the other evangelical characters because it was hard to see why Mena was once friends with them. All we hear about is how mean and unreasonable they are to Mena and to others.

Nonetheless, this isn’t an anti-religion book but an exploration of how one might reconcile faith and science. Brande was once a Sunday School teacher. It’s a book with a message and won an American Library Association Notable Book Award for 2007.

Additional Reading:

My friend Maria Padian, a YA author, recommended Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature to me because my novel, S.A.D. (not yet published,) deals with a similar topic. My story is about school board politics and how the issue of intelligent vs. evolution divides a small town. I use adult and teenaged characters of several faiths to give multiple perspectives. It was interesting to see this material interpreted for a younger audience. Brande did a great job with it.

I’d recommend Born Again by Kelly Kerney to all ages. It’s a young adult crossover novel about a teenaged girl discovering evolution and questioning her evangelical beliefs. The author was raised in a Pentecostal Church and graduated from Bowdoin College. It's very good.

To learn more about the philosophical debate on intelligent design, read Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, edited by Robert T. Pennock. It includes essays on both sides, although the editor is a critic of I.D. The thick book is an excellent resource geared toward a college audience.

For anyone looking for a guide to the American legal history, I’d recommend In the Light of Evolution: Science on Trial by Randy Moore published by the National Association of Biology Teachers. It was designed as a classrom supplement for high school teachers.

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@Barrie Summy

Congratulations to my daughter! She has a poem, “American in England,” in the summer issue of KidSpirit Magazine.

Have a Happy Fourth of July! I’m taking a blog vacation to hang out at the beach with the kids and my paint brushes. I’ll be back in two weeks to show you around North London where I collected material for NOT CRICKET (my work in progress.)
Next post: Wednesday July 15th.