My beloved grandmother often made Spanish Cake for dessert and this is very first cake that I learned how to bake. It's humble, not anything like today’s lofty, three-tiered, mousse -filled, marzipan decorated confections we've come to know as cake.
It's a single loaf, aromatic with a full tablespoon of cinnamon, nutty, frosted with a simple buttercream frosting. This little cake was meant to be served as a little sweet after dinner--it was dessert, when desserts were a common part of the family dinner. As we've become busier, this tradition has faded, like the yellow pages of my grandmother's sole cookbook, Rumford Cookbook (my grandmother’s copy was published in 1933 but there have been numerous reprints over the decades by the Rumford Baking Powder people). But it is no less well-loved.
For me cooking is about tradition; it's a connection with our past, a link to our future. I am richly blessed with two beautiful nieces, Hilliary and Laura. When they were wee girls, they used to come and stay with me and we used to talk, play, learn things together. One afternoon, I brought out my grandmother's treasured cookbook (now yellowed, fragile, pages crumbling, repaired binding falling away). I started by saying, “When I was little, this was the very first cake your great-grandmother taught me…”
We proceeded together, laughing, sugar and flour in the air, in our hair, about the counter, even some in the huge ceramic mixing bowl. We took turns, measuring, mixing, reading the directions. Laura, the youngest, was chosen to fold in the egg whites.
That day I could see my grandmother's hand. I felt her soft, wrinkled hand holding mine. In my heart I also felt her approval as I now held Laura's hand, guiding her: cut, sweep, fold over; cut, sweep, fold over. Someday, if my nieces choose to have children and if I'm fortunate enough to cook with them, I'm going to teach them this recipe. And I’m going to start by saying, "When I was little, this was the very first cake your great-great grandmother taught me..."
You'll notice there's no salt, and that's the way I've always made it. Similar recipes on the web add 1/4 teaspoon, which I think would be fine, too. I leave that up to your tastebuds to decide.
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened but not melted
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup milk
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon cinnamon (yes, that's right, an entire tablespoon)
2/3 cup chopped nuts
2 egg whites, beaten to stiff peak
Grease and set aside a 9x5 loaf pan. Chop the nuts and set aside. Preheat oven to 350F.
Cream the butter and sugar until a nice, light creamy consistency is achieved, about three minutes.
Add the milk, mix well.
Sift together all the dry ingredients and add gradually to the wet ingredients. Stir in the chopped nuts.
Whip the egg whites to a stiff peak. This means that when you lift the beaters from the beaten egg whites they will stand up straight, not fold over (which is soft peak). The egg whites will go from soft to stiff peak pretty quickly so take the time to check your progress. Overbeaten egg whites will break down and you'll have to start over.
Add the egg whites to the batter by folding them in. Folding is not stirring! The best tool is a sturdy spatula. With the side of the spatula, cut into the batter, sweep that portion towards you, turning the spatula over to bring the bottom of the batter up over the top of the egg whites. Turn the bowl, repeat the motion. Continue to repeat until there are no more egg whites showing. Doing this to add loft and tenderness to the cake. Stirring will break down the air that you're trying to add.
Bake in a 350F oven for about 45 minutes, using a wooden toothpick to test the center for doneness. Depending on your oven, you may need a little less or a little more time. I peek at 40 minutes and give it a little poke and then start adding minutes. Cool completely on a rack. Frost.
Really Good Buttercream Frosting
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup butter (try not to use margarine or shortening; it just won't have the same delicious flavor), softened but not melted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon whipping cream (you could substitute milk here, but the cream is heavenly)
Measure the sugar and butter into a medium bowl. Mix until well blended; you're looking for a nice creamy appearance where the sugar has lost its grainy appearance.
Add the vanilla and cream and continue to beat. Add more cream, in small drops, as necessary to achieve a desirable spreading consistency. If you became heavy handed with the cream, just add in a little confectioners' sugar.