Monday, June 25, 2012

Hello again

I stopped writing here six months ago to finish my MFA thesis and now it's all done. Hello! Happy summer! 

It's funny — I had anticipated all I would feel when school was over would be relief, that the lid of the pressure cooker would be removed and all my stress and anxiety would roil upwards and evaporate. But instead it just feels as if the pressure cooker has... disappeared. And now I'm wondering what to do with myself. Keep going, I think. It's odd to think there's time to do that. For the thesis, I researched and wrote about the early days of the Hy-Vee grocery store corporation, which one of my ancestors was involved in during its infancy and which opened just days before the Great Depression. In spite of the bad timing, it grew to become Iowa's largest employer, in part because of its progressive business practices. I called the project "Of what mettle a man or store is made: the true story of an ethical capitalist," and since it has a name and 100 pages to show for itself, it seems like a good project to keep going with. 

But the other thing I'm hoping to do with more regularity now is get to some of the recipes that have been on my mind during all this time. After spending so many hours reading about the 1920s and 1930s, the ingredients that sound the most interesting to me are the ones more common in that era that have since fallen out of fashion. There's a lot to be said for modern America — running water ranks pretty high on the list  — but in making room for all our new knowledge we erased older mental files, especially when it comes to the goings on of the kitchen. Buttermilk is one of the staple ingredients of just a generation or two ago that seems recently marginalized; though my grandparents say they drank it in tall glasses like regular two-percent during meals, it's something I rarely buy at all. I wanted to see what could be done about that, and relying on the ratios of pound cake recipes, decided to expand my buttermilk use beyond pancakes and biscuits. I used olive oil, because I love the taste in baked treats, but you could use any high-heat oil you like. Coconut oil might be tasty. Or you could go crazy and use all butter. A dense butter buttermilk cake.

The batter tastes sharp and yogurty, but the flavors mellow and blend during baking and the cake ends up lighter and fluffier than a pound cake. I was especially happy with the texture; the cake crumb is delicate but still rich and sweet-tooth (and fat-tooth) satisfying.

Buttermilk cake
Adapted from several pound cake recipes, including from Cooks Best Recipes

1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup olive oil 
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 10-inch pans or one 10-inch bunt pan. 

2. Cream together the butter and the sugar. Then add each egg one at a time, blending slowly. 

3. Mix the remaining wet and dry ingredients separately in two bowls. Add to the butter and sugar, alternating between the two and starting with the liquid ingredients.

4. Pour into the prepared pans and bake 35 minutes for the two 10-inch pans or 50 for the bunt pan. 

Here's the thesis, bound and ready to be dropped off. I'd never written anything longer than 20 pages before. Pages 95 to 100 were the toughest. It was also tough not to obsessively read and re-read the thing, looking for mistakes. I know theyre in their.


  1. Yay! You're back! Did I tell you about Mark Kurlansky's _Food for a Younger Land_? He unearthed an abandoned WPA project on regional food and compiled the best of it. It's pretty interesting, and especially so if you're into the food of the 20s and 30s. Tallie

    1. Hi Tallie! That's so interesting -- I will look it up right away. A big hug to you.