Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Travel back to 1942

My New Year's resolution for 2008 was to read The Art of Eating, by M.F.K. Fisher.  A compendium of her writings on food from 5 previous books.  I've failed at finishing it in one year -- I have a tendency to read one essay then put it down then read another.  I've, sadly, spent more time last year with it being put down than reading.  But I'm determined to finish it this year, along with The Odyssey by Homer. 

One of the books that this includes is How to Cook a Wolf, teaching people to cook well using the ration books that they received in war time. It somehow seems appropriate in our current financial crisis mode.  So, I've been turning down corners and saying, "I've gotta make this." So today I did.

War Cake
M.F.K. Fisher

2 cups flour, white or whole wheat
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup shortening (bacon grease can be used, because of the spices which hide its taste)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon other spices (cloves, mace, ginger..)
1 cup chopped raisins or other dried fruit (prunes, figs, etc.)
1 cup sugar, white or brown
1 cup water

Sift flour, soda and powder together.

Put remaining ingredients in a pan and bring to a boil. Cook five minutes. Cool thoroughly. Add the sifted dry ingredients and mix well. Bake 45 minutes or until done in a greased loaf pan in a 325 to 350 (F) oven.

Whenever I would ask my grandmother how to know if something was done, she'd say, "It feels done".  Not helpful to a little kid.  But as I was trying to talk to J about this cake, I was trying to explain why I was letting the cake cook a bit longer, after I touched it.  And I said, "It just doesn't feel done."  Grandma was right. 

This warm-spiced fruit-type cake is just that: warmly spiced with cinnamon, ginger and cloves that would have covered up any bacon taste, but I used butter instead.  What drew me to it was the fact that you boil the fat with the spices and sugar instead of creaming them together.  After you boil it for 5 minutes and let it cool completely it gets a bit syrupy. The dried fruits are softened and not the hard overly chewy bits in some fruitcakes.  This must also add to the overall moisture of this cake.  The texture is moist and dense.  Just lovely. It was a bit difficult to get out of the pans, but I think if you cool it completely, it will come out better.   Ms. Fisher says that the cake would keep well.  I can see my grandmother making something like this and wrapping it in wax paper. 

Full disclosure:  The photo included here is from my second try at making this cake. I bet my grandmother never left her cake in the oven to begin working on her blog like I did.  This time, I doubled the recipe and as you can tell, we liked it so much we didn't wait to take a picture, we just dove right it.  Luckily we have one in the freezer.  (Please notice the cake plate: a gift from my Mother and Father-in-laws.  A wedding gift to them, and the best "re-gifted" Christmas gift I've ever received.)

Until I started to read How to Cook a Wolf, I always wondered why my Grandma had a jar of bacon grease on the stove -- Now, I realize now that she was born in 1899 and was 29 when the Depression hit and old habits are hard to break.


Janet said...

Actually, rendered bacon fat has very little taste so long as you don't over cook the bacon. I tried using it as the fat in waffles one time thinking that -OMG, bacon IN the waffle!!! Yeah!! However, they just tasted like waffles- big bummer.
My Dad's mom was a saver- Depression era habit- and was always careful to cook bacon without too much browning so the saved fat could be used for biscuits, etc.

Robb said...

I don't remember everything tasting of bacon growing up and after reading this wondered why. My grandmother must have done the same thing.

Now, if we can find a way to put bacon in the waffles....

Maxine said...

Hi Robb - I (of all people) was put in charge of recipes for my company newsletter and included the recipe for the War Cake. I haven't made it (ok - I will really), but the story alone was interesting enough for the entry. Thanks so much :-)