Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Devil's Food Cake

Photo: Mom's devil's food cake for Tim's birthday
Here is the devil's food cake
I made yesterday for
Tim's birthday.
My grandmother claimed that she didn't like to bake, and she was known for throwing out a whole batch of biscotti if it didn't meet her high standards. Somewhere along the line, though, she brought home a recipe for an amazing devil's food cake. Since my mother was always the one to bake this cake, it eventually got to be known as Mom Milanese's Devil's Food Cake.

When my brothers were little, Mom would bake this cake for their lunches, and they bragged about the trades they could get for it, especially since they knew there was more cake where that came from. When I was old enough to try my hand at baking, this was the first cake I made, and my brothers told me it wasn't as good as Mom's. While I do believe that Mom makes the best devil's food cake, I think that maybe they were teasing me and wanted me to try, try, try again, guaranteeing a constant supply of devil's food cake.

Birthdays still demand devil's food cake, a cake that can stand up to frosting, a cake that can serve a crowd, a cake that tastes best with a tall glass of milk. My husband prefers his devil's food cake with chocolate frosting, but the kids side with me on this one, so for their birthdays it's a devil's food cake with buttercream.

Here is the recipe. This is not an average devil's food cake, even though even an average devil's food cake is pretty darn good. This cake is outstandingly moist and chocolaty, a cake worthy to be served at birthday parties, but also a cake that deserves to be made anytime you need a chocolate fix.

When you test it, make sure that there are still a few moist crumbs clinging to the toothpick or it will be dry.  You get to decide whether you top it with chocolate or buttercream frosting!

Mom Milanese's Devil's Food Cake

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch round pans.

1 cup sour milk (Add 1 Tablespoon vinegar to a measuring cup and fill to one-cup mark with milk. Stir and let sit for five minutes. You can substitute buttermilk if you have it on hand.)

1 cup water
1 cup Crisco (don't substitute butter or margarine)

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 cup cocoa
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla (Don't substitute artificial vanilla flavoring.)

Make the sour milk and set aside. Put the water and the Crisco in a 4-cup measuring cup and bring to a boil in the microwave (or put water and Crisco in a small pan and bring to a boil). Stir to melt Crisco. Set aside.

Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Add the sour milk, hot Crisco and water, eggs, and vanilla. Stir by hand until smooth.

Divide batter evenly between the two round pans. Bake 30-35 minutes. Don't overcook! Cool for 10 minutes on rack, then remove from pans. Turn so the cakes are right side up. Let cool completely before frosting.

This recipe can also be used to bake a 9x13 sheet cake or 24 cupcakes. Adjust baking time--about 40 minutes for the sheet cake or 20 minutes for the cupcakes.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


There were so many figs this morning that
I'm making Drunken Fig Jam 
Is this a waste of Courvoisier?

I remember Nick Paputo's fig trees. Nick was a good friend of my father's, a Sicilian mason. When he built his own stone home, he transplanted the trees he brought from the old country, trees he had nurtured until they could become the crowning glory of his garden. These figs were accustomed to the warmer Mediterranean winters and needed protection. In the winter, his trees looked like silver spaceships, branches tightly tied so he could cover the tree with aluminum-backed insulation.

Growing up, the only fig trees I knew about belonged to recent immigrants, immigrants who smuggled innocent-looking sticks into the country, sticks that held the promise for figs galore. Despite the most ardent care against the cold, many of these trees didn't survive. In my innocence, I assumed that the only way you could get a fig tree was to travel to Italy and defy customs. But then, my father casually mentioned he wanted a fig tree for his yard. If you have ever tried buying a present for a man, you know that I leaped on his suggestion and went hunting for a fig tree in the good old USA. Surprisingly, they were available from a nursery online. SCORE! And just like those words you learn that suddenly seem to crop up everywhere, fig trees seemed ubiquitous, at Longwood Gardens, at James Madison's house in Virginia, dwarfing a three-story row house in South Philly, in a neighbor's front yard.

Even though my mother is the family member with the green thumb, Dad's fig tree grew quickly. It put out hundreds of figs each season, but he was careful to wrap his tree each fall so it could survive our bitter Pennsylvania winters. When Dad developed cancer, he was initially well enough to protect the fig, but in his last winter, no one thought about the fig. Fortunately, it was not a particularly harsh winter, and the tree managed to survive. My brother took a clipping from Dad's tree, and that tree  still produces lots of figs.

Meanwhile, my family bought me several fig trees, but none of them ever thrived. That is until the year after my father's death. That fig tree slowly adapted to its home on the south side of our house. My husband wraps it carefully each fall, and this year it looked like we might get a bumper crop. We could see lots of baby figs, but that's no guarantee that they will ripen before the first fall frost. But this year everything, from lilacs to lily of the valley to peonies to crape myrtles, has been ahead of season. The figs are no different.

A week ago, the first figs suddenly turned from hard and green to soft and golden. Each morning I've been able to harvest at least six and up to a dozen figs. Now, if your only only experience with figs has been inside a Fig Newton, you are missing one of the most exquisite culinary pleasures imaginable. People have described them as a cross between a strawberry and a peach, but that description does not do justice to the sweet and juicy fruit. You have to experience fresh figs for yourself. They are delicious out of hand, but I'm looking forward to a fig torte, figs wrapped in prosciutto, figs stuffed with cream cheese, figs added in the last thirty minutes to a roast pork. I'm also hoping to turn some into fig jam to extend their season into winter, when our fig tree is hibernating under burlap, waiting to produce next year's crop.
My fig tree