- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

I’m caked out, actually. It has not been an easy spring, summer or fall. I have a freezer full of failed cakes. Take the great American pound cake. Everybody says my daughter-in-law’s mother, Bonnie, makes the best. Then there is my stepdaughter, Lisa. Her friend’s mother’s pound cake has the reputation for being the best pound cake ever.

Sylvia of Sylvia’s Cakes and Breads says: “This is undoubtedly one of the most popular cakes that ever came out of my shop. I have shipped them all over the United States and got nothing but rave reports.”

My fascinating discovery was that these three great cakes are all essentially the same recipe. They all have 3 cups flour, about 3 cups sugar, 21/2 to 3 cups fat, 5 to 6 eggs, less than a teaspoon of leavening, 2 teaspoons flavoring and 1 cup liquid. But each has a different liquid. Bonnie’s has sour cream. Lisa’s has buttermilk. Sylvia’s has milk.

So I had a great pound-cake recipe. People all over the country had proclaimed that this cake was wonderful. Bonnie’s and Lisa’s were prepared in a Bundt pan, while Sylvia’s directions say to prepare in a 10-inch tube pan or two 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans.

I decided to make it with sour cream, and I wanted two beautiful loaves. Joyously, I prepared the pound cake, beating air into the butter well, beating air into the sugar-butter mixture and beating in one egg at a time — all the techniques for a great cake. It was to bake in a 325-degree oven for 1 hour (loaves) to 11/2 hours for the Bundt or tube pan.

Anticipating a masterpiece, I rushed to the oven when the timer rang. I was devastated. Both loaves were not only flat, but they sank in the middle, too. How could this be? This was the great American pound cake that everyone raved over. What on earth could be wrong?

With determination, I prepared the cake again. This time, I made it with buttermilk and came up with the same results. One more time, I made the cake. This time I made it with milk and in a large Bundt pan. To my amazement, the cake was perfect. I brushed it with a melted apple-jelly glaze, and it was a work of art.

I made the cake again, this time with sour cream and in a Bundt pan. It was beautiful. It’s no wonder that the loaves were sunken in the center. This recipe had too much butter and sugar for the amount of flour and eggs, the proteins that provide the structure.

Once again, I made the cake. I filled one loaf pan with the batter as I mixed it. To the rest of the batter, I beat in 1/4 cup flour and an egg, which provided the proteins that were missing to create sound structure. The first loaf sank, just as it had before, but the loaf with the additional flour and egg was magnificent.

The moral of all of this? Make cakes in a Bundt pan. They can’t fail. Who cares if they come out level or concave on top? You’re turning the thing upside down, so no one will ever know.

You can understand why I just can’t face making another cake right now, but I needed a company dessert. In my despair, I began thumbing through a Williams-Sonoma catalog. There was a beautiful Catalan dried-fig-and-almond cake doused with muscatel.

This was the answer: a cake with nothing but fruit and nuts mixed together. I remembered a wonderful Siena cake I made years ago. It was made of roasted nuts with candied citrus peel held together with honey. The top was dusted snow white with confectioners’ sugar. It was incredibly delicious. No wonder the Italians have been making it since 1205. It’s easy, and you will love it.

The magnificent panforte di Siena

A specialty of Siena, Italy, this panforte (fortified bread) is a descendant of the peppered bread given as a form of tax to the nuns in days of old. It is recorded on parchment from 1205.

The idea of replacing the pepper with spices and also calling it “muscia” is attributed to Nicilo de Salimbenti. In the archives of Genoa, it was recorded that “panforte was one of the most famous sweets in Italy.” Documents record its presence on the menus of the feasts of rich noblemen in every part of Italy.

CRUMB PAN LINING:

Nonstick cooking spray

1 tablespoon fine bread crumbs

1 tablespoon cake flour

2 tablespoons finely ground almonds

Spray an 8-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray and line the bottom with a parchment circle. In a small bowl, stir together bread crumbs, flour and ground almonds and sprinkle evenly over the bottom.

CAKE:

½ cup blanched almonds, coarsely chopped

½ cup hazelnuts

½ cup candied lemon peel or citron, chopped

½ cup candied orange peel, chopped

½ cup cake flour

1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg, freshly grated

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

½ cup honey

½ cup sugar

TOPPING:

3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Spread almonds on one end of a baking sheet and hazelnuts on the other. Roast on bottom shelf of 350-degree oven until almonds begin to brown, about 7 to 10 minutes. Wrap hazelnuts in a damp towel and close for 4 to 5 minutes, then rub vigorously to remove skins. Discard skins. Coarsely chop hazelnuts. Turn oven down to 300 degrees.

In a medium mixing bowl, stir together roasted almonds, hazelnuts and lemon and orange candied peels. In a small bowl, stir together flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and coriander. Then stir this mixture into the nuts and peels.

In medium saucepan over low heat, stir together honey and sugar, and bring to a full boil. Boil for about 1 minute, then stir into nut mixture.

Pour honey-nut mixture into prepared pan. Wet your hands and smooth out in the pan. Bake in 300-degree oven until mixture begins to simmer around edges of the pan, about 30 minutes.

In a small bowl, stir together 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon. Sift mixture over top of cake. Cool completely in the pan. Then run a knife around the edge to loosen, invert onto a plate (Don’t worry if you lose a little confectioners’ sugar) and peel away the parchment. Invert again onto a serving platter, and sift a little more confectioners’ sugar over the top just before serving.

This cake keeps well if tightly wrapped, and it can be frozen for up to six months.

Makes about 16 servings.

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