On a Saturday in early December I met up with friends for some holiday baking. Each person brought a few recipes. In addition, my friend Theresa brought a few bottles of prosecco. Nothing says Christmas like booze in the kitchen.
She also came with a pistachio cookie recipe and with the hope that it tasted like the kind she had at Modern Pastry, in Boston. (It didn’t. But it still would have made a Sicilian grandmother proud.)
She had cornflake wreaths on her list for her midwestern boyfriend, as well. Which—if you are unfamiliar—are like rice crispy treats, except that you use cornflakes and add enough almond extract and green food coloring to give you a migraine and possibly rupture a few blood vessels. The coloring also taints your tongue in a way that would make the Hulk proud. Not that any of this prevents you from eating the suspicious emerald green batter.
My friends, Justin and David, had visions of cocoa thumbprints and vanilla bean shortbread. Plus sugar cookies destined to be cut into the silhouettes of candy canes, snowflakes, and … dinosaurs. The dinos conquered. All the cookies delivered.
And I came with a recipe for chocolate caramels gilded with cinnamon fleur de sel and the promise of Earl’s cake. The caramels were a disaster. In kind, I treated them like a failed relationship, obsessing about what I could have done differently and eating my feelings by way of leftover chocolate, plus anything else within arm’s reach.
Heartbreaks (and headaches) are the occasional byproducts of baking. Sometimes you are just disappointed. But when a recipe really works, the stories around it get baked into what you make. Memories are created. Sometimes these memories can linger for a very long time. For a lifetime even. Which brings me to Earl’s cake.
I have wanted to bake Earl’s cake since I first read about it over a year ago. It’s a recipe that a fellow blogger found while rummaging through her great grandmother’s recipe box. In the box was an index card with the title “Earl’s favorite cake.” And in that cake was a memory. It was a cake that Earl, her great grandfather, used to have as a child. His favorite cake.
The original recipe called for shortening and was missing a set of instructions. Earl’s only stipulation was that it had to be a square (!) cake with white icing. The rest was pieced together. In short, it was a great story set around cake. And when I sent it to Justin it made him cry.
Which is the beauty of baking. There’s love, and hope, and the promise of something like Earl’s cake folded into the batter. Whatever recipe you use becomes your own; it gets mixed with new memories before being passed on again.
And so we sat around a dining room table eating the cake we simply started to refer to as “Earl.” Which, of course, made us giggle like a bunch of schoolgirls, mouths full of frosted cake filled with cherries and candied fruit. A few glasses of bubbles deep.
It’s a childlike cake. The kind that makes you feel like you are ten years old again. It tastes like a marriage of eggnog and fruitcake. Lighter than both, but still fairly sweet. It’s an American-style cake tamed by lemon peel in the frosting and bits of citrus in the crumb. It’s perfect for the holidays. Or for any old time.
It’s an old recipe. A new memory. It’s a favorite cake of a man I’ve never met. Earl.
Adapted from Julie Takes Photos (formerly Always with Butter)
for the cake
2 cups flour
½ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup low fat buttermilk
½ cup raisins
½ cup candied citrus, finely chopped (reserve a few pieces for garnish, I used candied citron for this: see notes)
¼ cup booze-soaked sour cherries (or you could try maraschino, either way: see the notes)
for the frosting
½ cup butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tsp vanilla
2-4 tbsp milk
zest of 1 lemon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 8 x 8 baking dish (we only had a rectangular dish, sorry Earl). Sift together the flour, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy. Slowly add in the buttermilk while the mixer is still running. Then add in the flour mixture in three separate parts until just combined. Stop the mixer and fold in the raisins, candied fruit, and cherries; all of the flour should be incorporated at this stage, but do not overmix.
Pour the batter into your prepared pan and bake for 30-45 minutes or until the center is set and comes out clean when you insert a toothpick into it.
When the cake has completely cooled, beat all the frosting ingredients together; add additional milk, as needed. Spread the frosting over the cake and top with the reserved candied fruit. (Candied citron is pictured on top.)
-I might decrease the powdered sugar in the frosting to make it less sweet next time, as this is how I tend to prefer my frosting. Feel free to play with the amount. Not to change “Earl” too much, but I imagine a sour cream frosting would be lovely here too.
-I used some cherries that I had previously frozen from this recipe, which I adapted this summer by using cherries instead of cranberries. I also added vanilla bean and took out the wintry spices. You could also try making your own maraschinos, see here. Or buy them.