Almost exactly one year ago, I put forth this blog’s very first recipe. It was old-fashioned; it was fairly simple; it was, by all accounts, not much to look at. But it was also satisfying in a homey, comfort-food sort of way, the way only something that’s homemade (and looks it) could be.
Which brings me to our 52nd (!) recipe: a dessert presented in Nonnie’s cookbook as “Cooky Shortcake,” a name that reveals just about nothing. Is it a cookie? Is it a cake? Is it short? The answers, in order: no, yes, and yes.
For some reason, Nonnie elected to preface a pretty basic shortcake—that is, a “short dough” that’s baked, then topped with fruit and whipped cream—with the word “cooky,” perhaps because her base is a pretty standard poundcake rather than a biscuit. (Which still isn’t a cookie, but whatever.) And it’s a solid poundcake, too, the type of sturdy, lightly sweet one my mom made often when I was growing up; she’d also serve it festooned with fresh berries and whipped cream.
The only real difference between that cake and this one is that Nonnie’s recipe takes things a step further, having you bake the cake in a round pan—rather than as a loaf—then split it in two, fill it with juicy fruit, replace the top, and cover the whole thing with whipped cream and more fruit. It’s tasty; it’s summery; it’s kind of profoundly ugly, but hopefully in a way that’s charming rather than sad.
Which, hey, is true of many of the successful recipes I’ve made from this book over the past year, precious few of which are particularly photogenic. (I am also a profoundly terrible photographer, which doesn’t help matters.) But making beautiful, Instagram-worthy dishes has never been my point. I started this blog so that I could spin a creative project out of my cooking habit, so that I could explore weird midcentury cuisine, and probably most importantly, so that I could feel closer to the grandmother I’d just lost. On all three counts, I think my first year has been a success. Here’s to the next 52. Let’s celebrate with cake.
1/2 cup butter or margarine [Just always use the butter. It’s better. Butter better.]
1 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar [What is cream of tartar? Frequently, it’s used to stabilize egg whites; mix it with baking soda, and you get baking powder. Why Nonnie asks us to leaven her cake with both cream of tartar and baking soda rather than just calling for some baking powder is a mystery lost to the ages.]
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cream shortening [slash butter] and sugar together until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating each one in thoroughly. Sift flour, cream of tartar, salt, and baking soda together. Work this mixture into the first mixture.
Pat dough into a greased round cake pan. It should be about 1/2″ thick, but will rise during baking. [Something to note: The stuff that will eventually become a cake is very thick, sort of halfway between stiff cookie dough and semi-liquid cake batter. Maybe that’s why Nonnie calls it a “cooky”? In any case, you might need to use your hands to get it to behave when you’re trying to get it to spread all the way to the edges of the pan. Actually, you’ll definitely want to use your hands, because this dough/batter/whatever is delicious; it tastes just like shortbread.]
Bake at 375 about 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Turn from pan onto cooling rack and cool. When cool, split into two layers. [I did my best by turning the cake on its side and sawing it in half with a serrated knife; it wasn’t perfectly even, but hey, it’s homemade!]
Spoon strawberries or fresh peaches, or any juicy fruit over first layer. [I went with a peach-blueberry mixture—two juicy peaches, about a cup and a half of bluebs—which I jazzed up a bit by mixing with about a tablespoon of sugar to draw out their juices.] Cover [with the top half of the cake—not, like, saran wrap], and spoon more fruit over top layer and top with whipped cream.
The verdict: Ta-da! I told you it was kinda ugly. Even when I sprinkled raspberries onto the top:
Er, especially when I sprinkled raspberries onto the top. (Don’t you love that artistic ring around the border of the cake, though? What, you didn’t even notice it was there?) But don’t be fooled by appearances: while it didn’t look anything like this, the cake tasted pretty wonderful.
You could get a more aesthetically pleasing result by doubling the cake recipe, cooking two separate layers in round pans, and stacking those instead of splitting a single layer in half; if nothing else, doing this would certainly make your cake look less lopsided. You could also be more generous with the fruit than I was; the cake is sturdy, and it can take more.
That said, those would only be small improvements to a recipe that’s pretty lovely as is—one just aching to be made before summer is snuffed out like a candle by a birthday boy.