The radiators in both of our apartments kicked on last night. Fall is almost here. Figured we probably should make a cake to celebrate.…
There’s a lot of stuff we hope you take away from reading this blog. Little things like making sure you eat (so you don’t turn into a cunt). Jokey stuff about not eating dairy on Valentine’s Day (which is actually very sound advice). Even bigger preachy shit about maaaybe giving yourself a break and NOT viewing weightloss as the pinnacle of being a successful human.
But the biggest thing we hope you remember after reading my dumb little words and looking at Lucy’s photos: food doesn’t have to be fancy to be delicious. Nothing tastes better than getting out of the way of tasty ingredients. And, right now, our ingredient of choice is strawberries.
Chocolate is so much more than the heart shaped buttery sweetness of the season. There’s also a weird malty, smokey thing happening just under the surface. It’s tannic and bitter and, more than anything, Chocolate tastes like minerals. Which, if we’re honest, is just the nice way of saying dirt. But, like, really fucking good dirt. Dirt with chocolate in it.
While we’re sure that there’s some hip post modern, even nihilist, allegory in the inherent dirt flavor of the patron sweet of romance (something about how we never really know anyone or whatever the Valentine’s industrial complex, man) it mostly just reminds us of beets. Because beets also happen to taste like delicious clods of dirt.
I (Rachel) grew up fairly religious. It was more because it was the thing you did in a small town with lots of corn rather than actual devotion, but the holidays were always particularly reverent. While there definitely was Santa Claus and presents and good, good secular shit, we totally kept the Christ in Christmas.
Despite the religion, it wasn’t the most stable environment. We tried, our parents tried, but it always stayed a mess. Christmas time, though, was always a time when we were on our best behavior. Even when things were patently not good, we would rally and put the trouble behind us. I think that we saw the Holy Family and realized that if Joseph could buy a line about Mary getting knocked up— knocked up by GOD— before he even got a piece, and that he could love her and that child AND be a real father to Him; the least we could do was be sweet for a few weeks of the year.
The big JC and relatives influenced most of our big family traditions, but the best tradition, by far, was spending Christmas Eve with my mom making Him a birthday cake. It was usually just a microwave cake— the kind that came in a plastic tray and had pleasantly chemical chocolate fudge frosting— or a box mix, but every few years we would go really wild and make it from scratch. Those were the best years.
Even when it was just a box cake, we always turned it into a bit of a production. Or it felt that way to me. I bugged my mom for weeks to go get ingredients and we agonized, in a good way, over what flavor to get. My brother and I would take turns actually insisting that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, preferred Butterscotch or Chocolate Fudge, respectively. Which conveniently happened to be our favorite flavor.
About a half an hour before bed, after the sprinkles and white plastic tubes of writing icing and church, my dad would turn out the lights, and we knew it was time to gather around the cake with a box of unlit candles. My brother and I took turns, putting one candle in the cake for each person we could remember that was present at the Nativity, lighting them one by one. I typically made sure all of the animals were present and accounted for while Zach tried slipping in extra Wisemen whose names sounded strikingly similar to Ninja Turtles. Whoever named the most got to blow out the candles and then we’d sing Happy Birthday to Jesus, actually out loud, without a hint of irony, and totally off key.
Whatever remained after we each ate our fill became property of Santa, and was served with a glass bottle of Coca-Cola, and some chex mix for the reindeer in a big, lemon yellow, plastic bowl.
Part of becoming an adult means choosing what you want to take from your childhood and putting it into your real life. Choosing what and who your family is, and how to best navigate those relationships. You aren’t stuck completely with the past, but you also aren’t left to face the future without a template.
While my faith is radically different than when I was a kid, and the four of us don’t get together for the holidays, making Jesus a birthday cake and lighting the candles on Christmas Eve is something I’ve held on to. Maybe it’s because I fucking love cake, or because, regardless of any divine status, a dude who asked people to be excellent to each other, to break from their classist, capitalist bullshit, and to stop using God as an excuse to be dicks totally deserves a dope birthday. It is definitely something that makes my holidays feel complete and I’m glad it’s stuck around.
This year, Jesus is getting a cake that’s the birthday tradition from another one of my favorite families. Earlier this year, Lucy and I got to celebrate our sweet friend Ashley’s commitment to her partner Karen and their family. Lucy did an incredible job photographing the day, and I had the honor of baking. Part of that honor included making Mary Phillips’ Chocolate Banana Sour Cream Cake, a treasured family recipe from Ashley’s beloved grandmother.
Moist is probably the worst word on the planet, but it aptly describes this cake. It is so moist. It’s yielding. It’s tender. It has an inexplicably delicate crumb that turns the modest cocoa powder into an explosion of dark chocolate goodness and is just hardly scented with bananas and looks like cakes do on TV every single stinking time.
It is, without question, the most delicious cake that has ever existed.
- 2 c. Sugar
- 1 c. Shortening
- 2 ½ c. Cake Flour— Lilly White is going to give you a better cake, if it’s available in your area.
- 2 tsp. Baking Soda
- ¼ tsp. Salt
- ½ c. Natural Process Cocoa Powder
- 2 c. (or 4 medium) Bananas, mashed
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup Buttermilk
- 1 c. Boiling Water
- Makes one 13x9” sheet cake, or 24 cupcakes.
- Preheat your oven to 350°. Grease a cake pan, line with parchment, grease again, and dust lightly with cocoa powder, or drop cupcake liners into your tins.
- In your stand mixer, cream together the Shortening and Sugar.
- Put some Water on to boil.
- Sift together Cake Flour, Baking Soda, Salt, and Cocoa Powder, and set aside in a separate bowl.
- In yet another bowl, smush or blend the Bananas, Eggs, and Buttermilk.
- Add ⅓ of the Flour mixture to the Shortening and Sugar. Mix until hardly combined. Add ½ of the Banana mixture, mix until combined, and then add ½ of the Boiling water, and stir until things kind of look like batter.
- Add ½ of the remaining Flour mixture, followed by the last of the Banana mixture and Boiling water, just like you did before.
- Finish it all off with the last of the Flour mixture, and stir by hand with a rubber spatula, being sure to scrape the sides down well.
- Evenly distribute in the prepared pan. Bake until just set in the center, a few moist crumbs should cling to a toothpick but it shouldn’t look like pudding; 45 minutes for a 13x9”, 20 minutes for cupcakes.
- Cool completely and top with Chocolate Frosting and sprinkles, or just a dusting of powdered sugar.
Malört is what the socially maladaptive elite drink so ironically that it has become sincere again. It’s a wormwood liquor of Swedish origin, manufactured in Florida, that has become as essential to the Chicago drinking scene as $6 OldStyles in the Bleacher Seats, Whiskey Wednesday, and PBR.
Malört has a, uh, pronounced flavor. Most people will tell you that drinking it is like huffing burning hair. We think Malört’s closer to tire fires, with a note of cat piss and white people who wear dreadlocks.
Two years ago, our friend Nick Disabato introduced us to the ridiculous beverage and, pretty much as a joke, we developed a cake recipe featuring the noxious liquor. It’s become the standard birthday cake of our friends and has been adapted enough times that we figured it’s time to share the real recipe.
Even though Malört is an acquired taste, we found that if you can temper the bitterness of the wormwood with brown sugar and the gut-rot burn of grain alcohol with butter fat and egg yolk, you get a cake that is surprisingly refreshing with hints of bright, warm citrus and bitter green herbs.
While Malört should only be consumed on a dare or if you’re an old Swedish man (by birthright or wardrobe), this cake can be eaten with sincerity. It’s fucking delicious.
Making a cake by hand is no more difficult or time consuming than using a boxed mix, just expect a few more dirty dishes and be ready for three points that will need extra attention. Be sure to sift your flour, check the expiration date on your leaveners, and, more important than anything else: be nice to your butter.
Butter delivers a considerable portion of flavor to your cakes, and is responsible for about half of the texture. Be sure to use the freshest unsalted butter you can get your hands on, and slowly bring it up to room temperature.
It’s important to cream your butter thoroughly, and, unless you do hella Tae Bo, that’s going to mean using some kind of electric mixer. Stand mixers seem like the standard, but a sturdy hand mixer will get you there, too. When you cream the butter and sugar together, you’re actually poking tiny holes into the fat structures that allow your cake to rise and have a soft, fluffy texture. Insufficiently creamed butter leads to dense, greasy cakes, with smaller yields and rubbery crumbs.
- 1 cup Malört
- 1 ½ cup Brown Sugar
- 1 Grapefruit
- 2 sprigs Rosemary
- This syrup is used for both soaking the cake and making the frosting. We like to make it before we start the cake, so it’s nice and cool when we’re ready for it.
- In a large sauce pan, combine your Malört and Brown Sugar. Take several big hunks of zest off of the Grapefruit and then juice it. Add the Juice and Zest to the sauce pan, along with Rosemary.
- Over a medium-low heat, reduce the Malört, Sugar, and Juice. This will make your house smell like burning tires. Though you may be tempted to expedite the process by cranking the heat, please remember that alcohol can catch on fire and keep the flame low. Also. Use stay close by because this is not a thing you want to boil all over your stove.
- Reduce the syrup by about half, or until it looks like pancake syrup, and leave it alone for at least 15 minutes because that shit is real fucking hot. Once cool enough to not ignite your arm hair, run it through a sieve, discard the Rosemary and Grapefruit zest, and set aside.
- The syrup will take at least an hour, if not two, to cool completely.
- 3 sticks Unsalted Butter, at room temperature
- 6-8 cups Sifted Powdered Sugar
- ⅓-2/3 cup Malört Syrup, completely cooled to the touch
- ¼ tsp Salt
- In your largest bowl or mixer, begin creaming the Butter. Give it about 45 seconds in the mixer before you begin to slowly add powdered sugar. Keep adding Powdered Sugar to the Butter, while constantly mixing, until it is thick and looks a little clumpy.
- We provide a range of amounts for Powdered Sugar in this recipe. Moisture content of butter brands can vary, and the way sugar blends into icing depends on lots of factors like temperature, humidity, and other complicated garbage. That means that a quantity that works in August might not work super awesome in January– even when all the other factors are the same—so follow your eyes and shoot us an Ask if you have questions.
- Once you get to the right amount of Powdered Sugar, turn off your mixer and scrape down the bowl. Resume mixing and, after about 60 seconds, slowly drizzle in Malört Syrup until it reaches a consistency that you’re comfortable using. Looser frostings will be easier to get onto the cake smoothly and have a Malört-ier flavor, while tighter frostings hold their shape better, and typically do better left out at room temperature.
- 2 sticks Unsalted Butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups Sugar
- 4 Eggs, at room temperature
- 3 cups Cake Flour—because Cake Flour is made of teeny, tiny, easy to pack granules, it is important to sift the flour before you measure it. While it’s an extra step, it’s important to not skip it; measuring straight from the box will lead to inaccurate measures and your cake suck.
- 2 tsp Baking Powder
- ½ tsp Salt
- ¾ cup Milk, at room temperature
- 3 tbsp Malört
- Preheat your oven to 350˚.
- Grease three 9” cake pans, line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper, and lightly flour.
- In a large bowl, cream together Butter and Sugar with a hand or stand mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs one by one, waiting until each egg is fully incorporated to add the next.
- In a separate bowl sift your Cake Flour (yes. Again.) with Baking Powder and Salt. We like to sift instead of whisk, like some recipes suggest, because it makes it easier to combine wet and dry ingredients and can make for a finer cake texture.
- Incorporate ⅓ of the Cake Flour mixture with your Butter mixture by hand. Add ½ of the Milk and stir. Stir in ½ of the remaining Cake Flour mixture, followed by the remaining Milk and the 3 tbsp Malört. Finally, mix in the last of the Cake Flour until just hardly combined. Over-mixing here will make a messy terrible thing happen.
- Evenly distribute the batter into your prepared pans.
- Bake at 350˚, rotating after 10 minutes of cooking time. The cake should take about 20 minutes, ours took 22, and you’ll know it’s done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
- Let the cakes rest for 15 minutes before you take them out of their pans and let them cool upside down on a wire rack. Using a pastry brush, soak the surface of each cake with Malört Syrup. Because cakes are literally sponges, in a few minutes the surface of the cake will look dry-ish and you will be able to add more syrup. The more syrup you add, the more moisture you’ll bring to the cake and the more Malört flavor. We like to soak the cake 4 times, and we suggest you do it no less than 2.
- After thoroughly soaked, let the cakes cool completely, which should take a minimum of 2 hours. Patience is a virtue. Cakes that are even slightly warm will melt the butter in your frosting and turn it all into an oil spill.
- Frost the cooled cakes, using plenty of frosting between the layers, and serve to your least favorite friends.