Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Snow and Books, 13

This is a different sort of Snow and Books post; not a quasi-review of a Connecticut guidebook, but a quasi-taste test from a cookbook containing a recipe with a Constitution State connection.

It begins at Ocean State Job Lot. I'd been fascinated by the Waterford location of the store since first moving back to Connecticut seven years ago. There it stood, across from my regular Stop & Shop, looking vaguely shady with its basic logo and weirdly recessed parking lot. I looked over at it countless times, thinking "Someday..." But I never went in until a few weeks ago.

I had expected dimly lit aisles full of gym socks with one deformed toe and boxes of toothpaste that just might have fallen off the back of a truck in 1985. And that's pretty much exactly what I found. (Along with racks of strange clothing, a curious assortment of packaged food, stacks of carpets, creepy little figurines, and about a million other things I didn't need.) There were also two large shelves full of very heavy, very glossy, very price-reduced cookbooks. I don't know if OSJL is always a cornucopia of deeply discounted cookbooks or if this was a fluke occurrence, but I could not resist. I walked out with a copy of United Cakes of America: Recipes Celebrating Every State by Warren Brown (full price $29.95) for $3.99.

Here's why I had to buy this book: One, I have weakness for hokey Americana (like books with a silhouette of the U.S. cut out of the cover.) Two, Brown clearly loves factoids and odd little moments of American history, and incorporates then into his writing and recipes. And three, Connecticut's cake is actually representative of Connecticut. Most food-by-state lists I've read treat Connecticut like an afterthought, sticking it with the one recipe they had no better place for but nevertheless wanted to include. This one, though, gets it right: Connecticut's dessert is an updated version of Hartford Election Cake.

Since actual elections in Hartford have been a disappointment and embarrassment lately, making Election Cake seemed a nice distraction. The traditional Election Cake was like a dense English fruitcake; Brown respects that version, including some early and inscrutable directions, but also offers up a  modern, lighter, nutmeg-y recipe that I had to try.

I didn't follow the book exactly; as a thrifty Yankee I was not about to run out and acquire a whole nutmeg and a grater or superfine granulated sugar when I had plain old supermarket nutmeg and regular granulated sugar on hand. Making do with what I had, I told myself, was a Connecticut tradition too.

The cupcakes turned out light and spicy,  really more like muffins than cake. (If I make this again, I'll probably do it in a loaf pan.) I eschewed the complicated buttercream recipe that goes with them and instead made the cream cheese frosting intended for Kansas's carrot cake. Is that breaking the rules? maybe. But it's Hartford Election Cake, after all.

Nutmeg Spice Cupcakes

(From United Cakes of America: Recipes Celebrating Every State by Warren Brown)

Yield: 10 Cupcakes

Dry Ingredients:

Superfine granulated sugar   8 ounces (1 cup)
All-purpose flour     5 ounces (1 cup)
Potato starch    1 tablespoon
Kosher salt    1/8 teaspoon
Nutmeg, freshly grated   1/2 teaspoon
Allspice      pinch
Salt         pinch
Baking soda    1/8 teaspoon

Wet ingredients:

Butter    3 ounces (6 tablespoons), melted
Half-and-half   1/4 cup
Rum     1 tablespoon
Vanilla extract    1/2 teaspoon
Whole eggs   2
Egg yolk       1

1. Preheat the oven to 325F and place the rack in the middle position. Lightly coat a cupcake tray with non-stick oil-and-starch spray and line 10 of the cups with paper liners.

2. Measure and combine all the dry ingredients in a deep bowl. Whisk lightly for about 15 seconds to blend.

3. Combine all the wet ingredients in a container with a tight-fitting lid and shake well for 15 seconds.

4. Lightly whisk the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. This should take about 15 seconds.

5. Scoop or pour 2 ounces of batter into the paper-lined cups. (Using a food scooper or ladle works best.)

6. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the tops of the cupcakes are golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the center of one comes out clean or with just a few crumbs.

7. Cool the cupcakes for five minutes before removing them from the tray. When they are room temperature, frost or decorate them with the Old-Fashioned Milk Buttercream.

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