Earl's Cake, Why I Bake

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.

Earl’s Cake
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.

-I used a combination of candied citron and candied citrus peel for the candied citrus.  Both of the recipes are available using the links provided, though you could also just buy some.


Candied Assorted Citrus Peels, Not Glitter Skulls

I know I hinted at the promise of Earl’s cake last week.  Spoiler alert: it’s coming.  But I wanted to get all my cyberspace mis en place together.  Which means I first need to talk candied citrus peels.

These peels came to me by way of Martha Stewart.  I am like Martha Stewart in the same way that I imagine making bûche de noël is like opening up a box of Little Debbie Christmas tree snack cakes.  That is, not at all. 

I have never made a glitter skull candelabra, nor have I ever felt the desire to sew red homemade felt slippers.  I have not had the opportunity to craft a nativity set from jail, either.  Should you be wondering.

We do seem to share a common bond with our love of candied fruit.  And candied fruit counts for something.  In fact, today it counts for a lot.  Because you can use it in Earl’s Cake or as a last minute gift, if you are a bit behind in the Christmas gifting department.

It’s a fairly simple process if you have a few citrus fruits and a sack of sugar lying around.  And while you could worry about doing this process multiple times, with separate batches of citrus, I did not have the time or temperament for this. 

So I threw orange peels, lemon peels, and even half a grapefruit peel into the same pot.  Blanched them twice.  And did not feel the need to swear once.  Success.

They don’t glitter like a skull candelabra might, but they do come off looking like little citrus jewels.  And they make lovely presents, especially for any bakers on your “nice” list this year.

Candied Assorted Citrus Peels
Adapted from Martha Stewart


2 oranges
2 lemons
½ grapefruit (optional)
4 cups of sugar, plus more for rolling
4 cups of water


Using a knife, make six slits going from the top to the bottom of each citrus fruit (so that you will have six separate pieces of peel per fruit); cut through the peel with each slit but do not cut into the fruit.  Using your fingers, gently remove the peel and reserve the fruit for another use.  Using a sharp knife, remove any excess pith from each piece, like you are filleting a fish (I ended up taking off most of the white).  Slice each piece into ¼ inch strips. (You’ll want them to be the same size so that they cook evenly.)

Place the strips into a saucepan and cover them with cold water.  Bring the water to a boil and then drain off the liquid.  Repeat this process.

Place the sugar and water in a large saucepan over medium high heat and stir to dissolve the sugar.  (Once the sugar dissolves stop stirring.)  Bring the sugar water to a boil.  Add the citrus strips to the boiling liquid and reduce the heat to medium-low.  Simmer the mixture gently for about an hour until the strips are translucent (this took me about 90 minutes).  (You can stir occasionally, as needed.) 

Remove the pan from the heat and let cool about 20-30 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, scoop up the peels and place them on a wire rack set over your kitchen sink (or over a clean sheet pan) to let the excess syrup drip off. 

Place some sugar on a clean sheet pan and roll the strips into the syrup.  Let the strips dry for 30-60 minutes (you can leave them in the sheet pan or place them on a clean wire rack).

Store in an airtight container.

Makes 3-4 cups

-I used the grapefruit because I was craving a little bitterness.  Feel free to leave it off.  If you would like to make only one type of citrus peel do 2 grapefruits, 3 oranges, or 4 lemons.

-I recommend gifting the citrus peels in WECK jars.

-Martha notes to hold off on the final sugaring if you are baking with these citrus peels.  However, the candied fruit in Earl’s cake sparkled like a diamond; I wanted to recreate this.  Also, I just like the look of sugared candied fruit. (This, of course, will make what you bake a bit sweeter, so keep this in mind.)


Candied Citron and the Promise of Earl’s Cake

I am not going to sugarcoat what happened here.  I had a lot of issues. 

The recipe I found advised to cook the citron cubes at a light simmer for roughly thirty minutes until they turned translucent.  After well over an hour, opaque citrus bits were still bobbing in the pan. No lucidity to be had. 

I also knifed my way quite blindly through a Buddha’s hand citron.  With its bumpy canary yellow fingers protruding spindly out, it’s a pretty intimidating fruit to cut. Not to mention the entire candying process ended a little later than expected.  11:40 PM on a Wednesday night to be exact.

And, in the midst of things, a certain someone came home and said, “what are ya doing?”  Sounds innocent enough.  But I know this comment. 

It gets said from the other room if I’m cooking a steak and the sizzling gets too loud.  It gets said if I am making beans and I mindlessly dump out the cooking liquid.  It gets said if I attempt to truss a two pound bird.

It’s not really a question.  More of a statement.  The translation: “you're doing it wrong.”  

But this comes with the territory when you happen to date a very talented chef.  In this case—thank heavens—it caused some recipe adaptations that produced lovely crystallized citrus bits, while also allowing me the luxury of getting to bed before midnight. A win-win.

Especially with the candied citron.  After letting it rest overnight in a cookie sheet full of sugar, the outer bits hardened to a light, sparkly sugar coat while the inner flesh stayed soft.  A garnish destined for a dessert plainly called “Earl’s favorite cake” from the blog Julie Takes Photos (previously titled Always with Butter).

It's is an heirloom recipe taken from a family that I have no ties to.  But when you see great grandpa Earl holding out his cake in a little saucer garnished with sugary fruit, twinkle in his eye, you’ll see why I was moved to candy citron.

Who knows how the cake recipe will turn out.  Some recipes shine.  Others never quite make it.  The ones that work for me are what you see posted here. 

Overall, I try not to blame recipes too much.  Ingredients, kitchens, and cooks are all different.  There is no one way of doing anything.  

As a result, today I happen to have candied citron.  And later—if I’m lucky—I’ll have some of Earl’s favorite cake.

Candied Buddha's Hand Citron
Adapted loosely from David Lebovitz


2 buddha’s hand citrons
3 cups of sugar, plus additional sugar for tossing the fruit into
1 tbsp light corn syrup


Wash and dry the citron fruits and cut them into ¼-½ inch rough cubes (I cut only the pieces of citron that touched rind, which meant I discarded some of the all white center).  Place the citron pieces in a large saucepan and cover generous with water so that the pieces bob about.  Simmer for over 1 hour or until the pieces just start to turn translucent (mine never fully turned).

Drain the citron.  Place 3 cups of sugar, 2 cups of water, and the corn syrup into the large saucepan.  Place the citron back into the pan and cook the sugary citron mixture on medium heat until the temperature reaches 230 degrees (or until the syrup is very thick and almost gone).  As the citron gets close to being done, stir the pot occasionally to ensure the citron pieces don’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  (The citron should turn completely translucent during this stage, which took about an hour.)

Once done, turn off the heat and let the citron sit in the syrup until it cools (20-30 minutes).  Strain out the citron using a slotted spoon and place the bits onto a sheet pan with sugar tossed in it.  Roll the citron around in the sugar, breaking it up into bite size pieces if the citron starts to clump.  

Let the citron dry out overnight (uncovered) in the sugar and then place the candied citron pieces into airtight containers. (Dust off any excess sugar first.)

Makes about 4 cups

-The yield may vary a bit depending on the size of your citron.

-These make wonderful last minute gifts.


A Very {Merry} Ginger Loaf Cake

It’s December.  The gingerbread lattes are out.  The Christmas songs are here having been playing since Veterans Day. 

I don’t really need to convince you that it’s time to eat a cake made of ginger, now do I?  But, if you insist, how about this: this cake is fit for breakfast.  In fact, it excels at it.

It’s really a cross between a bread and a cake.  It’s what I might refer to as a “loaf cake.” (And I shall from here on out.)  Rose Bakery, on Rue des Martyrs in Paris, labels it as simply “ginger cake.”  Which is charming, but it’s really so much more than that.

The very best part of this cake is the sheer amount of ginger it calls for.  It requests an obscene amount.  An amount that would normally make you call into question certain things.  But it’s Christmas.  Tis the season to let things slide.

And this is an important point to stress here.  Christmas context is everything.

Take gingerbread.  Around this time of year it becomes anthropomorphized and weirdly gendered.  I know it’s confusing, Mr. Gingerbread.  We neglect your man parts and give you red and white buttons and bow ties made of icing.  And then after all that we eat you.  Sorry for the mixed signals.

And we look fondly on Christmas carols that—upon closer inspection—seem to hint at date rape. You see, in any other circumstance, “no cabs to be had out there” is not the proper response when a lady friend asks you, “say, what’s in this drink?” Yes, baby, it is cold outside.  But we can read between the lines, Dean.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  Happy holidays!

Ah the spirit of Christmas.  

What I really mean to say is that in such company a gingery loaf cake doesn’t seem odd or inappropriate or excessive in any way.  It really, truly is a lovely little cake. 

The extra spice seems just right.  It feels homey.  Not at all overpowering.  And should you pass on its invitation as a breakfast cake, it makes a great snacking cake too.  One to enjoy all year through.

But for now, go on, bake yourself a very merry ginger loaf cake.  It's a little piece of Christmas.  And all the crazy %#@* it brings.

A Very Ginger Loaf Cake
Adapted from Breakfast, Lunch, Tea: The Many Meals of Rose Bakery


1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened (plus extra for greasing)
¾ cup all-purpose flour
scant 2/3 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground coriander
¼ tsp nutmeg
pinch of cayenne pepper
2 tbsp ground ginger
¼ tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup muscovado sugar
2 tbsp golden syrup (or honey)
2 tbsp freshly grated ginger
2 tbsp molasses
¾ tsp baking soda, divided
2 eggs, beaten


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 10-inch loaf tin and line the base and sides with parchment paper.  In a medium bowl, sift the flours, baking powder, spices, and salt together.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the butter, sugar, syrup (or honey) and fresh ginger until light.

In a small bowl, mix together the molasses and ½ tsp baking soda and then mix this into the butter mixture.  Boil ¾ cup water and add in the ¼ remaining tsp baking soda; whisk to combine and then pour this into the butter mixture on low speed; add in the flour mixture until just combined.  Stir in the eggs until fully incorporated.

Pour the mixture into your prepared tin and bake for about 35 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.  Cool the cake before removing it from the tin.

Makes 1 loaf cake

-I actually used whole wheat white flour because I had some.  I'm sure that regular whole wheat flour would be marvelous here.

-I found golden syrup at Whole Foods.

-What's that?  Yes, spices are wonderful for you, too.  Check out this blog post where I wrote about such important matters.