Sunday, October 19, 2003

She bakes outside the box

York Street cook's cakes always start from scratch with butter, eggs

Annabel Stolley doesn't understand why people don't make cakes from scratch. And once you watch her make one, it's hard to argue.

"Using a mix takes almost as long," she says.

And you can bet her cakes turn out better than anything that starts in a box.

It's mid-morning Wednesday and the maker of cakes, soups, sandwiches, quiches and just about everything else edible stands in the small, shotgun kitchen at York Street Cafe in Newport in sleeveless gray shirt and white apron. She's been working three hours and still looks fresh.

"Even if you don't do everything right, the cake will taste good," Stolley says.

First thing to remember, she says, is to have all the ingredients - especially the butter - at room temperature. Best way to do that is to put the butter, eggs and milk on the counter an hour or so ahead, depending on the temperature of the kitchen. All you have to do is to remember to pull it from the fridge.

"See, feel this," Stolley says, touching the bottom of the mixer bowl holding the butter and sugar. "Still too cold."

So we talk a few minutes longer about making cakes, cooking and eating. Growing up in Hyde Park, she never baked with her mother. She learned while working at a coffee shop, watching another woman make cakes and pies.

"I think some people are intimidated because they think this is really complicated," she says. "It's not."

Intuitive measuring

Stolley admits she never sifts flour. Nor does she precisely level ingredients in cups using a butter knife. On this morning, she doesn't even need a recipe for her basic Buttermilk Cake. Between the feathery layers, she will tuck fresh sliced strawberries, bananas, pistachio cream and other flavors.

The butter has warmed sufficiently, so Stolley starts the mixer.

"The most important thing is to cream the butter and sugar well," she says.

To the beat of the mixer, Stolley talks about the week a few years ago she spent with a friend in France, cooking and shopping for food. Food is more important to the French, she says. But even here, customers appreciate her made-from-scratch cakes.

Now, she adds an egg to the whirring Kitchen Aid.

"When they say add one egg at a time, they mean it," Stolley says.

She lets the batter absorb the egg before adding three more, one at a time. She adds half of the flour mixture, then half of the buttermilk, followed by the rest of the flour and buttermilk.

"This is where I become impatient sometimes," she says, stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Bigger base

Stolley cranks up the mixer again. Within a few minutes, the batter changes from yolk-yellow to a lighter lemon color.

It's time. Stolley scrapes the batter into two round cake pans, adding a little more batter to one pan, which will serve as the cake's base. She slides the pans into her roaring gas oven.

"They'll be done in about 45 minutes," she says. "I know because I know this oven."

While the cake bakes, we lament the crime of chain food. Stolley tells how her teenage daughter - who used to eat chain burgers - now will eat only hand-formed cheeseburgers cooked on York Street's ancient, char-black grill. Once they taste the difference - burgers or cakes - it's hard putting the inferior back into their mouths.

Stolley tests the cake by reaching into the oven to tap its perfectly brown center. It springs back, so it must be done. The kitchen air smells of butter, sugar and vanilla.

"I'd bake a cake from scratch just to make my house smell like this," she says.

Hard to argue with Annabel on that one, too.


Annabel's Buttermilk Cake

1 cup butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter with sugar in mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 10 minutes. Crack eggs into bowl and add vanilla. Add one egg at a time to butter-sugar mixture, waiting until each egg is incorporated into batter before adding another. Beat another few minutes on medium speed, stopping several times to scrape down sides of bowl.

Mix flour with baking soda and salt. With mixer running, add 1/3 flour mixture, then half of buttermilk. Wait until flour and buttermilk is incorporated completely and continue beating a few more minutes, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl. Then add 1/3 flour, remaining buttermilk and remaining flour mixture, again waiting until each ingredient is incorporated before adding the next. Continue beating until batter turns light yellow color.

Lightly butter or grease two 9-by-2-inch cake pans. (Optional: Place cut-out of round of parchment paper in bottom of each pan.) Scrape equal portions of batter into each pan and smooth out with spatula.

Place pans on center oven rack and bake about 45 minutes, until center springs back when touched and cake begins to pull away from sides of pan. Cool in pan a few minutes, then remove cake from pans to cool completely on wire rack. Add fresh sliced strawberries, sliced bananas or other fresh fruit between cake layers. Spread favorite cream cheese or chocolate frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake.

Note: To refrigerate or freeze cake layers, seal each tightly with plastic wrap while cake is still warm to preserve moistness.

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