Monday, May 21, 2018

Cooking challenge: Baking a layer cake that nods to Dad's upbringing, for Father's Day

I got cocky.

My other two kitchen challenges went so well. Decadent chocolate truffles. Spicy chipotle chicken. This time, I told myself, I could tackle anything — even a four-layer cake for Father's Day.

But I was flying way too close to the sun.

Before I tell you my tale of woe, let's back up a little. The story begins as I am scrolling through an online Martha Stewart slideshow of cake recipes, bypassing the easy chocolate cakes in favor of something more challenging.

Then I see it: Four-Layer Appalachian Stack Cake. According to Martha: "In Kentucky and its environs, this dessert once served as a wedding cake; neighbors and friends might have each brought a layer, and the hosts would add the filling."

This is the one. Not only does the molasses cake look delicious, it also links to my roots. My dad spent his childhood on his family's Kentucky farm, then returned as a young man to work the land — hanging tobacco to dry in the barn and tending the cattle. Like his father, he is quiet, resilient and kind.

I decide this is the perfect Father's Day cake: delicious and sentimental.

Oddly enough, I've never heard of the recipe before. Don't get me wrong — family reunions have acquainted me with the best of Kentucky food. Fried chicken, fried french fries (yes, fried french fries), homegrown vegetables, buttermilk biscuits, sausage gravy and every kind of pie. Once, I even tasted pickled watermelon rind.

But Four-Layer Appalachian Stack Cake? This must be something extra special.

I text my dad the recipe: "Would you want to eat it?"

"Sounds good. Lot of work," he replies.

A lot of work? Ha! I laugh in the face of impending culinary doom.

On Sunday morning, I get up early (okay, 9) and choose hot pink nail polish for a pedicure. Not the sort of thing I usually wear, but I'm also not the type to bake a cake on a Sunday afternoon. Cooking reminds you of your inner strength, I tell myself. I am drunk with power and possibly nail polish fumes.

At Trader Joe's in St. Petersburg, I purchase a bag of organic cane sugar and dried New Zealand apples, plus two sunflower bouquets.

The apples simmer for an hour on the stove, soaking up apple cider until they become a sweet filling for each cake layer. I poke them occasionally with a wooden spoon until my mom tells me it's best to actually stir, so the apples are equally coated in sauce.

"Smells good," my dad says, walking into the kitchen. "Smells like apples cooking."

I forgot to tell you this about my dad: He is super encouraging. You could hand him a charcoal slab of toast and he'll say that's just how he likes it. No matter how this cake turns out, he'll eat it.

I remove the cakes from the oven and they smell like Christmas: a combination of molasses, ginger and cloves. I Snapchat a photo to my boyfriend, who compliments their rustic charm.

I don't yet feel the sun melting the wax of my wings.

When it's time to cut the two cakes horizontally, I quaver. How does Martha expect me to do this? I can't even cut paper straight. My dad, on the other hand, spent 20 years as a house painter. His hands have the steadiness of a sharpshooter's.

With characteristic precision, he cleaves the cakes in half.

Then it happens.

As we gingerly stack the cake layers, spreading a generous amount of filling between each, the top cake suddenly cracks. It looks like the San Andreas Fault just opened up.

There's no icing to hide this imperfection, only a delicate dusting of powdered sugar, according to the recipe.

I dump that powdered sugar on it till it looks like a blizzard hit, but my efforts are in vain. This lopsided, cracked cake is more Dr. Seuss than Martha Stewart.

For the first time, I feel myself careening toward Earth.

The verdict

The molasses cake itself is delicious — spicy; you can taste the ginger and cloves — and the powdered sugar melts on your tongue. I could eat helping after helping of this hearty, slightly sweet cake. The fruit filling is less successful, tasting sweet, then almost bitter, with a chewy texture.

The recipe has almost 4 out of 5 stars on, so where did I go wrong?

Desperately reading the reviews, I discover that a user named "beach-bound" made it with blackberries, and "marilynann" used apple butter instead of dried apples. Yep. Both substitutions would have made the cake better.

As a novice cook, I'm still learning not only how to follow recipes, but how to evaluate them. Maybe I did something wrong, or maybe this cake just isn't for me. Next time, I would try substituting a different fruit, one that is fresh instead of dried, or simply spread a thinner layer of the dried apple filling between the cakes.

As it is, I carefully scrape off the fruit and eat only the gingerbread.

"This is for people who like fruitcake," my boyfriend says.

"It's more of a breakfast cake," my mom offers.

"Very tasty," my dad says.

I told you he'd like it.

Contact Emily Young at [email protected]

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