Cookbooks, particularly baking books, that cross the Atlantic have the well-earned reputation of being troublemakers. Differences in flour have long been suspected of being the culprit. When MacMillan of London bought the rights to publish my book The Cake Bible in the U.K., I was determined to get to the bottom of this culinary Tower of Babel. A British friend began sending me kilograms of the two basic flours available to British consumers: self-raising and plain, and I started baking. Much to my alarm, the cakes produced with the British flour were unrecognizable from their original models. It was hard to believe that innocent seeming flour could be responsible for such a dramatic difference. The logical way to conquer the problem seemed clear: to retest and redevelop the recipes to work as well as the originals, but with British ingredients. The only place to do this was in the UK with native equipment and native ingredients.
Kyle Cathie, my brilliant British editor with pioneering spirit, made it possible for me to spend two weeks in a charming airy flat retesting recipes. She purchased a heavy duty mixer, food processor, 12 dozen eggs and arranged a shopping tour to Sainsbury, a large British supermarket. I was delighted to discover that England is a baker's paradise: double cream with pure uncooked flavor, wondrous clotted cream which is divine simply spread on cake in place of buttercream, glorious golden refiners syrup, flavorful marzipan and nuts of every type and gradation imaginable.
The problem was indeed the flour. Bleached cake flour is indispensable for butter cakes. But the only bleached flour available was the "self-raising" variety which contained leavening. When a cake uses an acid ingredient such as sour cream, it needs to be tempered with baking soda. But when the flour already contains the maximum amount of baking powder, adding baking soda would make the combined leavening too high, causing the cake to collapse. Fortunately, the plain unbleached flour is just fine for all the sponge type of cakes.
The solution was first to assess how much baking powder was contained in the cake flour and then to create a blend of self-raising and plain flour in order to lower the overall leavening but still have the benefit of the cake flour. This necessitated other changes as well, such as replacing all yolk cakes with whole eggs and decreasing butter to strengthen the cakes' structure. With sour cream cakes, extra sugar was needed for aeration. Each and every cake had to be adjusted separately, sometimes as many as three times before it was exactly right. It was a night and day job, without much sleep, but well worth the effort because I can now be confident that when a British person is baking one of my cakes, it will have essentially the same flavor and texture as mine.
While in England, Kyle told me that the book could not be called The Cake Bible if it did not contain the beloved British gingerbread, a moist, spicy cake with an intriguing blend of buttery, lemony, wheaty treacley flavors.
I developed the recipe while still on British soil but am happy to report that it works equally well in America, especially if you use the golden refiners syrup. It is easy to make, not even requiring a mixer, and is a wonderful addition to the book. Regrettably, I didn't know to include it in the American version, so here it is now!
Beloved English Gingerbread Cake
Serves: 10 to 12
8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter
1¼ liquid cups golden refiner's syrup or corn syrup*
¼ cup dark brown sugar
1 heaping tablespoon marmalade
2 large eggs
2/3 cup milk
1 cup (4 ozs.) sifted cake flour (lightly spooned into cup and leveled off)
1 cup -1 tablespoon (4 ozs.) whole wheat flour (lightly spooned into cup and leveled off)
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
a pinch salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar
One 8-inch square cake pan, preferably metal*, greased, bottom lined with parchment or waxed paper, then greased and floured.
Note: some metal pans slope inward and are less than 8-inches at the bottom. In this case it is better to use a 9-inch square pan or fill the pan ½ full and bake the excess batter as cup cakes.
In a small, heavy saucepan, on medium-low heat, stir together the butter, golden syrup, sugar and marmalade until melted and uniform. Set aside until just barely warm, then whisk in the eggs and milk.
In a large bowl, whisk together all the remaining dry ingredients. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring with a large spoon or rubber spatula just until the batter is smooth.
Pour the batter into the prepared tin, no more than ½ full. Bake for 50-60 minute or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. The cake should start to shrink from the sides of the pan only after removal from the oven.
To make syrup: In a small pan, stir together the 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons softened butter and the 3 tablespoons sugar. Heat stirring, until the butter is melted and the sugar dissolved. Brush half the syrup on to the top of the cake. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes.
Loosen the sides with a small metal spatula and invert onto a greased wire rack. Brush the bottom with the remaining syrup. To prevent splitting, reinvert so that the top is up.
For extra moistness, cover the cake with plastic wrap while still hot and allow it to cool. Wrap airtight for 24 hours before eating.
FINISHED HEIGHT: about 2 inches
STORE: 2 days room temperature, 5 days refrigerated, 2 months frozen.