I approached the dessert section of At Home on the Range trepidatiously. The last time I’d really looked at Gima’s cookbook was as a teenager, when I was much more ambitious in the dessert department. It was the 80s, and death by chocolate was all the rage. Gima’s basic cakes and custards seemed lackluster, at best. I put her back on the shelf, and moved on to the chocolately seductions of the times.
Revisiting Gima’s cookbook all these years later, I pondered whether or not I’d erred as a teenager. Obviously, everyone errs as a teenager when it comes to dating, hairstyles, and acid-washed Guess jeans with leather patches. But had I been unfair in my dismissal of Gima’s desserts? While I wasn’t going to dispute her kidney stew prowess, had I overlooked her genius with chocolate cake? I decided a taste test was in order.
I believe that one’s success with chocolate cake is entirely audience-dependent. My maternal family of chocoholics would have disdained my flat, leaden effort. In fairness to Gima, I took liberties with her recipe, and the addition of mascarpone cheese was a no-no. But when combined with her serviceable boiled white icing, and graced with a heap of coffee flavored Häagen-Dazs, several Gilberts had no trouble clearing their plates. John and Nick, two of Gima’s grandsons, recognized this cake as a childhood friend, and were happy to welcome it home.
My childhood friend is caramel frosting. Chocolate cake, in any form, serves only as its delivery vehicle. So whether it’s the effort of a homemade cake, or a box of Duncan Hines Dark Chocolate Fudge cake mix makes little difference.
It was from my maternal grandfather, Gramps, whom I inherited a burning desire for the elusive, caramel sweetness of penuche. It was his traditional birthday frosting, and mine, too. But it’s a bitch to make, and Aunt Barby made no bones about her distaste for the temperamental nature of boiled frostings. So if I wanted penuche frosting, I was making it myself. I’d made it so many countless times that I’d not only taken the magic of its creation for granted, I’d come to resent it. And yet I continued to make it for every bridal shower, office party, and holiday hoedown that I was invited to, cursing myself and those who requested its presence.
But sometimes all it takes is gilding the caramel-frosted lily to remind you how delicious a tried-and-true recipe actually is. And sometimes, the way to gild that lily is with the addition of maple sugar. In Somerset, PA, while serving an appointment as the oral historian for the Flight 93 Memorial, I learned about the miracle of maple sugar. Pennsylvania supplies most of the maple syrup consumed in the United States (suck it, Vermont!). The folks of rural Somerset know their liquid gold. They also sell it in the museum gift shop. One slow workday, our friendly educational director showed me the alchemical properties of this amber delight. When it is put into a saucepan, brought to a boil, and allowed to cook—stirred vigorously, all the while—it will turn to maple sugar. From a liquid to a granular solid, before your very eyes. The very moment that you fear it will boil over and burn, it magically transforms into sugar. The first time I tried it in my caramel frosting, the transmutation of flavors made me feel like the Tycho de Brahe of desserts. This maple sugar can and should be substituted for brown sugar in any and every baking application. And that pot that you made the maple sugar in: guard it with your life. You have given yourself the tool to make the most ethereal batch of oatmeal you will ever consume. If you’re me, you will consume it greedily in the communal office kitchen, hoping that no one else sees your gluttonous weakness and takes it as a sure sign of your unsuitability for the job.
Maple sugar is something I wish I could have told Gima about. I’ve made caramel frosting using Gima’s recipe, and with maple sugar; it may be my maple bias, but I think I come out the winner. Gima’s writing radiates with her love of traveling, meeting new people and learning new recipes, from rabbit stew to Guadalcanal pigeon milk. Maple sugar would have delighted her.
ALEXA’S CARAMEL FROSTING
Melt one stick of butter over medium low heat. Add one cup brown sugar, or substitute up to 1/2 cup of it with maple sugar. Bring just to a boil, stirring; remove from heat. Add 1/4-1/3 cup light or heavy cream, even half and half, but not plain milk. Return to heat; bring just to a boil while stirring.
Allow pan to cool to lukewarm; you can also put it over an ice bath, but don’t bring the temperature down too much, as mixture should still be quite loose.
Gradually beat in powdered sugar just until you reach spreading consistency. While the original recipe calls for two cups, I think it far too much. Start with 1/2 cup and work up from there. Too much sugar will overwhelm the delicacy of the maple. If it gets too stiff while frosting, you can warm the frosting gently (too much and it can separate). This should make enough to frost and fill a nine-inch cake. You can also double it, which is my general advice. Much will be lost to tasting while frosting.
I like to refrigerate the cake, and serve it just slightly chilled. It is also worth making a tester so that you can shove the warm frosting down your gullet on the back of a warm, tiny cake.