Howdy! Welcome to the first ever virtual Cook’s Country Fair. With a cornucopia of agriculture-themed posts and down-home cooking competitions, for 12 weeks we’ll pay homage to our rural roots and those who taught us to enjoy good, simple food. We’ve got our summer jam-packed with fun stories, blue-ribbon winning recipes, and exciting giveaways. Each week we’ll be asking you, our fans, to share your personal stories in our comments, and we’ll pick a new story each week to be our winner. We hope you’ll join us for the festivities every Thursday afternoon from June to September!
It was my first 4-H Layer Cake Competition. A stack of dirty dishes nearly a yard tall were piled in the sink. I had just pulled the last few pans from the oven and covered the kitchen counters with racks of cooling cake layers and bowls of buttercream frosting. My mother had vacated the area, leaving me to my own devices. I began to assemble the cake layers, one for each color of the rainbow, and started to spread thick gobs of off-white frosting in between each. Once the cake was completely constructed (and I decorated the tops with mounds of rainbow sprinkles), my mother helped put it in a new bakery box and drove us to the 4-H exhibition hall. At the mere age of 10, there were only two things on my mind: the possibility of bright blue ribbons and the hope that Mom would forget that pile of dirty dishes back at the house.
Photo credit: Kimberly Vardeman
Although I didn’t win any ribbons in the end, my cake remained memorable simply for being so carelessly constructed. I now realize that my solo attempt at a layer cake was fueled by a pastry-bag dream and a half-hearted glance at a couple of dusty cookbooks. I should have consulted the experts, the heavy-frosters; those who had learned the tradition of cake-baking from generations before them and had entered and won too many competitions to count. I should have called Grandma.
Like many other women of her era, my grandma learned to cook and bake from the family matriarchs and found ways to improve upon those recipes as time went on. After she married, my grandma found even more excuses to start larger baking projects: a child’s 1st birthday cake, a church ladies’ potluck, a friend’s wedding cake. Soon her tiny kitchen was stuffed with cake tins of every shape and size; her cupboards teemed with pastry bags, dragées, off-set spatulas, and cardboard cake rounds. The requests would filter in, one after another, and word traveled around that my grandma could bake some of the best cakes in town. At that point, her baking evolved beyond home cooking and she began to assume a role many of us modern cooks idolize; she became a layer-cake queen.
Photo credit: Montana State University
Now, I know this might seem a little dramatic, but if you’ve ever watched the little ladies who deftly drop their multi-layered and fancily-frosted cakes (weighing anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds) onto the exhibition table at their local country fair, you would know that these bakers mean business. To my grandma’s generation, layer cakes are more than a special Sunday afternoon treat, but rather a status symbol demonstrating their ability to mold basic ingredients, like flour and sugar, into a coveted, edible sculpture—a downright essential in community food events. Essentially, these women have their cake and eat it too.
Since my grandma shares the layer-cake throne, I’ve become privy to some of the more guarded secrets of the trade, like how a drop of blue food coloring will keep frostings bright and white (unfortunately, I have yet to learn any secrets for speeding up cake-pan washing). One of the most important things I’ve learned is that layer cakes need not be daunting, but they do take some dedication (especially if you want that blue ribbon). Thankfully, we have quite a bit of dedication here at America’s Test Kitchen, which is why we can bring you several traditional and time-tested layer cake recipes that will please your grandma and your dinner guests alike.
HOW THE COOK’S COUNTRY FAIR WORKS
Every Thursday this summer, we’ll post a new story on the Feed. Let us be your virtual bakery for the week with a selection of the finest layer cakes like Ambrosia Cake, Chocolate Shadow Cake, Pink Azalea Cake, Mint Chocolate Chip Cake, and Classic Lane Cake.
MAKE IT NOW
Our recipes for are free through August 7, 2013.
SHOW AND TELL
HOW TO WIN THIS WEEK’S GIVEAWAY
We’re giving away a copy of the Cook’s Country Blue Ribbon Desserts Cookbook! Want to win? Leave a comment below telling us about the first cake you ever baked. Entries due Wednesday, August 7, 2013, 11:59pm EST. Giveaway for continental US residents only.
LAST WEEK’S WINNER
Congratulations to lilylillylillie who made our mouths water with her comment about East-meets-West Coke and Chinese 5-Spice Powder Slow Cooker Ribs, and won a 1-year online membership to cookscountry.com. Thank you to all who shared their stories on meat dishes; read them all here.