I found a 1955 copy of Household magazine at my parents’ house recently, and the beauituful coconut cake gracing the cover compelled me to flip through the pages. Once I found the section of cake recipes that the cover promised, I scanned them over and came to an “Almond Burnt Sugar Cake” that caught my interest because I remembered reading that the use of burnt sugar began during the Great Depression. Indeed, this burnt sugar cake is a perfect example of the resourcefulness and creativity that was stimulated during those lean times. Expensive ingredients were nearly unattainable and to keep things from getting redundant, housewives invented new ways to flavor desserts without actually having to purchase anything extra, such as burning sugar & turning it into a syrup before adding it to a cake. Sadly, we have nearly forgotten this inexpsensive and tasty flavoring because many of us rely on mixes and fast fixes in this age of convenience & cheap substitutes. Before stumbling upon this magazine in my Dad’s abundant collection of old books, I’d never in my life tasted burnt sugar and when I found the recipe for the burnt sugar cake, I knew it was high time I bring this tiny piece of history back to life.
The cake I made is in the lower left corner, and I obviously had more trouble with mine than whatever chef whipped that beauty up.
The funny thing about burnt sugar is that it doesn’t particularly smell or taste good in its syrup state, but once added to cake or turned into frosting, the slight bitterness subsides and what remains is a flavor very similar to caramel and brown sugar, but different enough that I wanted to keep tasting it to try to ascribe it some elusive adjective. It was a pointless endeavor because burnt sugar is its own flavor & the only way to describe it is, “burnt sugar.” And it is wonderful. I have to admit that the cake as a whole was somewhat disappointing. The velvety light batter, so silky I wanted to lie in a bed made with it, held such promise! Alas, though I pulled off a series of time-learned stunts to ensure a glorious result, I still ended up with a cake that was slightly dry & crumbly, and with icing that was more like a grainy liquid caramel (seriously, half of it ran off the cake and I had to keep scraping off the growing pool around the bottom) than the fluffy/creamy stuff most cakes are frosted with. Don’t get me wrong, the flavor was divine, but the textures weren’t. If you are a baking pro, perhaps you can pull it off with greater success than I, but even if your result is similar to mine, I think you’ll appreciate the flavor & your loved ones most likely will not be complaining (mine aren’t). In fact, it’s probably just the cake snob in me that finds anything wrong with this recipe at all. As for me, I won’t be trying this recipe again (I plan to incorporate the burnt sugar syrup into another cake recipe to see if I can enhance the crumb) but I feel I should share the original with you, to fulfill my objective of keeping this piece of history alive. *Pictures of ads from the magazine follow the recipe.
My cake is pictured on a reproduction of the Depression-era Madrid-pattern crystal glass cake plate, a gift from my father.
Almond Burnt Sugar Cake
From Household Magazine, March 1955
3 cups sifted cake flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) butter
1 ¼ cups sugar
3 eggs, unbeaten
1/3 cup burnt sugar syrup
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
Prepare burnt sugar syrup as directed in recipe below. Sift cake flour with baking powder, soda and salt. Cream butter until fluffy. Add sugar gradually, beating until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Stir in 1/3 cup of burn sugar syrup and the vanilla, blending well. Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, stirring until smooth after each addition. Pour into 2 oiled and wax-paper-lined, round 9-inch layer cake pans 1 ½ inches deep. Bake in moderate oven (350 F) about 35 minutes. Remove to cooling rack and cool in pan about 10 minutes. Remove from pans, peel off wax paper carefully, and complete cooling. Frost with Burnt Sugar Frosting.
Burnt Sugar Syrup: Place 1 cup sugar in heavy saucepan. Stir over medium heat until sugar melts and turns golden brown. Lower heat and gradually add ½ cup boiling water. Stir until sugar dissolves and syrup is slightly thickened. Cool. Blend in water, if necessary, to make 2/3 cup syrup.
Burnt Sugar Frosting
1/3 cup burnt sugar syrup
½ cup almonds, blanched and halved
2 ¼ cups sugar
¼ cup butter
½ tsp soda
¼ tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
Place 1/3 cup burnt sugar in 4-quart, heavy saucepan. Add almonds and stir over low heat for one minute. Remove almonds from syrup to cookie sheet, separating them with fork. Add sugar, butter, soda, salt and milk to syrup in saucepan. Cook to soft ball stage (234 F). Cool. Sir in vanilla. Beat until creamy. Spread on top and sides of layers. If frosting gets too stiff, add few drops hot water. Decorate with the caramel-coated almonds.
*Veronica’s notes: be sure ALL your cake ingredients are at room temperature (including the syrup). When cooking the frosting, I recommend using a dutch oven or stock pot as the mixture boils up 2-3 times it’s uncooked volume. It boiled over in my 3-quart saucepan and probably would in a 4-quart as well.
Household Magazine’s 10 Tips for Better Cakes
1. Begin with high quality ingredients.
2. Have all ingredients at room temperature.
3. Be sure baking temperature is correct.
4. Use the pan size specified in the recipe.
5. Measure ingredients exactly, using standard measuring cups and spoons.
6. Always sift flour before measuring.
7. When using an electric mixer, scrape sides of bowl and beaters often during mixing.
8. Use low speed to blend and medium speed for beating.
9. Cool butter cakes in pan (upright) on cake rack for 10 minutes; then remove from pan.
10. Before frosting, cool cake thoroughly and remove excess crumbs from surface.
Now you know when instant oatmeal was invented–1955! Also, the picture is too small to see it (darned Picassa), but Quaker Oats used to also make “Mother’s Oats” which had a picture of a mother with her son on the canister, pictured to the right of the Quaker Oats container we still see today.
I wonder when Kellogg’s got the idea that putting the word CONSTIPATED in bold black letters at the top of their Allbran ad wasn’t the best way to appeal to someone’s appetite?
Karo makes it “extra good?” Well, isn’t that swell!
This is one part of history I’ll happily leave behind!
I enjoyed your receipt and comments about making a burnt sugar cake. When I was a kid living in Denver there was a bakery on Broadway that made the best burnt sugar cakes and I will always remember how much I loved that cake.