Splendid Spices

I had a moment of anxiety recently, when I discovered that my husband’s favorite flavor of cake was getting hard to find in cake mixes. Carrot cake doesn’t equal spice cake, although we do like it, and Butter Pecan isn’t right, either, although it’s good too. Spice cake on Amazon was nearly six dollars a box, wally world didn’t have it or even a hole where it had been… fortunately, I did find it a few days later at the local grocery, and bought a couple of boxes for the pantry. However, as I noted to the First Reader when I got home and showed off my find, the spice cake mix was twice the price of most other common mixes like yellow and chocolate. I had to think about that for a while to come up with why.

Spices are no longer the province of the wealthy and well-connected. I have spices in bulk in my pantry, and don’t have to count my peppercorns as I read of one medieval woman doing. Although if you read enough history as I do, you feel luxurious when you dump cinnamon and cardamom and ginger and… into a recipe with wild abandon. This is one of those recipes. Spice cake, I am fairly certain, is more expensive because of supply and demand. The demand for spice cake has fallen off, as it is an old-fashioned cake once treasured and valued for the very spices we now hold cheaply. Supply followed suit, so it’s no longer as cheap as the boxes of popular flavors. And it’s harder to find.

From scratch cake is so rewarding.

That doesn’t change the beauty of a good spice cake, however. They are a delight to the senses, spices assailing your nose and tickling your palate along with the moist, dense texture. While I’m a big fan of box mix cakes, because they are so very easy and reliable, I also enjoy the process of making a cake from scratch from time to time. For one thing, the texture of the finished product is different – less tender, and less likely to crumble, in the case of this spice cake. And that’s not such a bad thing. I didn’t have time when I made this one, but this cake would lend itself very well to multiple layers. Hmmm… Have to come up with lovely filling ideas that aren’t all buttercream frosting. I love cream cheese or buttercream, but too much of a good thing is sickening.

Knowing this was an old-fashioned treat led me to look in a vintage cookbook for a recipe, and my 1957 Meta Given’s Encyclopedia of Cooking fits the bill. It’s pure nostalgia for me to pull it off the shelf and flip through the pages, especially of the cakes and cookies and bread sections. I’d done my level best in my early to late teens to make all of those recipes. I don’t remember trying this one before, but as soon as I saw the name, I knew it was the one for this trial. I’ll look for and make others in the weeks to come – the First Reader is all on board with that plan! – as I seek the perfect spice cake recipe.

I did not sift the flour six times. Nor did I sift my sugar. It’s sort of cool to reflect that in the last sixty years, quality control in our food products has improved to the point where I don’t need to do that. Not only am I saving time, it’s less waste. I don’t keep buttermilk on hand, however, so for that I acidulated my milk with about two teaspoons of lemon juice. I also added a half teaspoon each of ginger and cardamom (OK, I added more like a teaspoon of ginger. That was a heaped measuring spoon. I like ginger) to further boost the spiciness. I don’t keep shortening in my pantry, so I substituted lard.

I ground most of the spices from whole, in a coffee grinder (electric) I keep for this task. The house smelled like heaven. I strongly recommend this if you can, as the flavors will be richer and more potent. I topped the whole thing off with a very simple cream cheese frosting, and not a lot of that. The Otaku Princess doesn’t care for frosting, and I wanted the cake itself to shine.

Semi-naked cake!

The cupcakes were a nice touch. There really is enough for two layers and a half-dozen cupcakes, which were indeed delicious eaten as the recipe suggested, warm and unfrosted. I baked them for about 12 minutes at the 400 degree mark. This recipe is not tooth-achingly sweet, so they would work well as muffins. Throw some dried fruit, nuts, berries, or shredded carrots in there and they would make great grab-and-go breakfast.

The First Reader, when I asked him what his thoughts were on the spice cake from scratch, asked “could I have some more, please?” He says it was very very good, one of the best spice cakes he’s ever eaten, and much better than from a box. “Please make that again!”

mmmmmm… so spicy

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