In the good old U.S.A, we hold our cakes to higher standards than cookies. A cookie can be dry and crumbly (that's what coffee is for). A cake must be both beautiful and tasty (good luck, as fondant will never taste good) and stay fresh for days (impossible without copious amounts of booze or sugar syrups, which sort of turns cake into bread pudding). And so, when United Cakes of America hit our doorstep, we placed our usual lofty cake expectations upon it.
It's written by the owner of Cakelove, the small bakeshop turned mini-empire of popular Washington D.C.-area bakeries owned by former Food Network host Warren Brown. Judged on looks alone, the book is a shoe-in for that coveted guest-of-honor space on your baking shelf. The hardcover jacket is a clever hook, with the shape of the United States cut out like a puzzle piece so you get to peek into the interior photo spread of cupcakes, pound cakes and whoopie pies. And how can you not love the topic — the top cakes from every district in America? Plus, the photos by Joshua Cogan of that chocolate chip cake (Massachusetts) and carrot layer cake (Kansas) are mesmerizing. The recipes are easy to follow and fairly simple overall, as Brown notes in the introduction that part of the point was to introduce our nation's cakes to all levels of bakers. Bring on the baking powder.
Somewhere along the way the book fell just shy of our hopes and dreams. Yes, we can't wait to make that chocolate sauerkraut cake (Michigan) that Brown says he found after getting suggestions from customers and researching local Detroit food history, which has a large German and Polish community. And we applaud Brown for tinkering around and updating the historic recipes — we all know the recipes from ages ago rarely suit the modern palette, nor do they usually work with modern appliances.
But there are inconsistencies in tackling the subject that can be frustrating. This kind of book is unavoidably linked to culinary history, and those are precisely the cake entries in this book that work really well. That silver cake (Alabama; essentially a glazed pound cake, only lighter as it uses egg whites and powdered sugar rather than yolks and granulated sugar) comes with a great description of the cake's background. The history of Abby Fisher (the recipe is based on one from her 1881 cookbook), the problems with baking in the late 1800s (the equivalent of baking in a wood-burning pizza oven, the absence of many modern ingredients) are discussed eloquently at length, just as they should be. Then Brown serves up his tweaked and meticulously tested recipe. Beautiful.
What's odd is that many of the entries jump to the other side of the spectrum: Brown's personal experiences. The Florida entry includes a lemon-ginger cake because “lemons and cakes go so well together that I started with that and let the flavors of the tropics lead me.” To a lemon-ginger-white chocolate cake. Great, but the disparity between the thoughtfully discussed and tweaked historical recipes on one page, and Brown's personal pet projects on another, just doesn't mesh well in this kind of cookbook. When you call a book United Cakes of America, we want to know more about the Abby Fishers as well as the modern-day Betty Crockers across the country, not the celebrity baker.
What's also odd: recipes other than those for cakes are also included. As Brown says, “I took the liberty because the recipes are just that much more interesting.” Pecan cornbread is the Iowa entry because, as he notes, the state is “the country's biggest corn producer.” Fine, but Squid Ink thought this was a cake book. Sure, one could argue that cornbread is technically a version of what used to be called corn cakes (or hoe cakes, or Jonnycakes — a recipe for which is also in the book, under Rhode Island), but if you're going to use that logic, you might as well include custards in a cake book (the Vermont entry is a maple crème brûlée). Rice Krispie treats are among the Michigan recipes because “how can we pass up one of America's favorite snacks?” writes Brown. How about because it's not a cake?
Ultimately, we suppose, United Desserts and Snacks of America just wasn't that catchy a book title. Or is it more that we American bakers are just too hard to please when it comes to our Cake Expectations?