Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Making Cake

Once upon a time, Rachael brought cake to knit night. Raspberry buttermilk cake. She said she brought it for everyone, but I think we all know, deep down, that she really brought it for me, so I could gobble it down like a pig, then beg for the recipe so I could eat the cake at home, thereby hiding the shame that comes from eating an entire cake by myself.

I realized this Monday that I'd purchased buttermilk for another recipe, which meant I had buttermilk LEFT OVER, and in my life, that means I get to make that cake again. This time, I would throw in some of the blueberries we have frozen. I took out a cup and thawed them.

Then I measured out the flower. Then the sugar, then I grabbed an egg, the buttermilk, and I reached for the butter.

We had no butter.

Well, we had a little tiny butter lump, sitting on a butter dish, fused to the dish by the butter Mom had melted when trying to get the butter soft enough to spread.

I could not make my cake.

I really wanted that cake.

Maybe if my urge to bake came at, say, mid-afternoon instead of at 7:00 p.m. when the convenience store has already closed, I would have been able to leap into the car to go GET the butter, but I was screwed. There was no butter to be had unless I went to an actual grocery store, and, as I've complained before, the nearest one of THOSE is 30 minutes from my house.

I really wanted cake. IMMEDIATELY.

Then I remembered: The heavy cream!

As some of my fellow country-folk will remember, back in the fourth grade, butter-making was kind of a THING. See, in fourth grade, if you live in Indiana, you learn Indiana history (as opposed to New Jersey history or Oregon history). And learning about Indiana history means herding together a group of ten year-olds, dressing them like pilgrims, and making them SQUARE DANCE. We also learned things like where the Indiana capitol USED to be (who cares?) and teachers try to convince us that, even though Lincoln was totally from Illinois, he was secretly from Indiana, since he lived here for like two weeks or something. After that there are funnel cakes, and you can go home and hurl your bonnet across the room, confident in the knowledge that, no matter how tasty, you will never be forced to pull taffy again.

At any rate, in the fourth grade, somebody had the brilliant idea to teach us how to churn our own butter, something they accomplished by handing out glass jars filled with cream and a single marble. They then forced us to shake the jar around until the marble made the cream turn to butter.

How well did that work, you ask? NOT WELL AT ALL. Imagine getting a group of kids, forcing them to dance, then promising them taffy and a funnel cake, if only the butter could be churned first. Then imagine ten kids, shaking glass jars around vigorously, and, fuelled by hatred (they did have to square dance), imagine the children leaping, running around the table, and jumping up and down rather than continue the shaking, because NOTHING WAS HAPPENING.

Cut to Laura, age 22, sitting in the backseat of a car with her parents. You see, it was Christmas time, and Paul couldn't leave home for whatever reason (probably so he could cling to whatever shreds of dignity he still had left), and we were all headed to Connor Prairie.

If you're not from Indiana, you likely have not heard of Connor Prairie. It is a refurbished farm from way-back-when, and locals are hired to dress up and pretend to be from 100 years ago. Basically, a museum, only the exhibits work and are operated by people acting like they have no idea what a cell phone is, even if they likely have one stored on their person, perhaps under their corset.

It's actually pretty fun.

The church had given us a trip there as our family Christmas present. They thought since Dad secretly believes he would have been a tough-guy mountain-man who trudged through the wilds with a flintlock rifle and killed wolves with a club and a hunting knife, he'd get a kick out of seeing what life was really like back then. And we all got to go along. The church is so sweet to us.

So we drove to Connor Prairie and met up with our guide, a 60-something man who was just snarky enough for me to like him. We spent the evening, along with a few other families, cooking a meal the way meals were made in ages past, then eating our handiwork. I spent my time quoting literature back and forth with our guide in a rather epic verbal-sparring match. It was fun.

The second we walked into the kitchen, they'd handed Mom a butter churn and sent her to the corner. My job had been to shred cabbage. It took like five minutes. Probably less, because, well, I can use a knife. Then I went to help Mom.

To say that the entire group was waiting for Mom to finish churning the butter would be an understatement. No matter what she did, NOTHING HAPPENED.

"Do you think the cream is defective?" She asked. "Maybe it's bad cream."

We decided to take turns.

"The fire is too hot," I said. "It's making the fat in the cream stay liquid instead of becoming solid!"

"The room is too cold," Mom said. "It's making the heavy cream whipped instead of separating it!"

It must have taken 45 minutes to churn that flipping butter. Eventually, the cook took pity on us and grabbed the churn. She had butter in 30 seconds. I think maybe she used magic.

After that, she showed me how to press the remaining liquid--the buttermilk--out of the butter, so it would be ready for consumption. She also showed me how to mold it into a pretty shape.

And after that, I decided butter-making was pretty darn cool.

So when I discovered we were out of butter and spied the heavy cream, I thought, "We are in business."

I broke out the electric mixer. Butter-making is much easier with an electric mixer, I have learned. I dumped the cream into a bowl. Then I cranked that mixer up high.

It should be noted that, when using a mixer to make butter, a splash guard is...handy. In my case, my laptop served as a splash guard, as did my shirt, the fridge, and the wall. It's also helpful to have your bowl chilled to start with, or so I've been told.

As I churned my butter, I noticed something strange. The mixer was dissolving in my hand. Well, not exactly dissolving, but the casing had come un-cased, and the motor was exposed. So instead of the bowl, I started holding the casing together as well as the handle of the mixer. And if you've ever used an electric mixer, you know how important it is to hold the bowl. Oops.

I needed 1/4 cup of butter. My cream yielded 1/4 cup of butter. Exactly.

After all that, the cake went together rather easily. It finally came out of the oven at 10:30 p.m., but it was good cake. And it had vanished by morning.

Make your own butter.

Make your own cake.

Just try to start a little earlier than I did.


  1. Well done, little pioneer!

    Butter is super easy in a food processor. Just FYI.

  2. I did always want to be Laura Ingalls!