Working With What You Have: A Homey Little Cake

DISH: Whole Grain Hot-Water Cake
MAIN INGREDIENT: Eggs, Cornmeal, AgaveThis cake is a funny mix of inspiration. In part, it comes from the variety of angel food cake-like recipes in James Beard’s sort of miraculous cooking tome, American Cookery. I wouldn’t have known much about cooling a sponge cake upside down if it weren’t for James Beard. On the other hand, I think it’s an inspiring project that the 101 Cookbooks author has undertaken, to revamp some classically delicious dessert recipes with natural sweeteners and whole-grain flours.

Before telling you about this strange but homey little cake I made, I should make three things clear about me, desserts, and natural sweeteners. One, I consider such a revamped recipe a success only if it tastes perfect and delicious in its own right—not almost delicious, but not quite as good as the original. Be that as it may, I do think whole-wheat flour tastes good and it doesn’t bother me that you often notice its presence. Second, such desserts are still not healthy like salad is healthy, they just don’t contain so many super-refined ingredients and have a more nutritious vibe than regular-old confections. And third, sometimes I don’t use refined sugar because I don’t have any in my pantry. In fact, this cake’s particular ingredient combination is in part a result of the lack of sugar and flour in my cabinets. But (see point number one), it tastes delicious, so I figure we’ll let it slide.

Anyway, the cake is the kind of thing I imagine might have made for spontaneous company in, like, the 1950s (Beard seems to trace it to the 1890s, even). It’s great warm out of the oven and is mellow enough you could eat it for breakfast without suffering from a morning sugar rush. Or, as I did, you can up the ante (and lower the nutrition value) by filling and frosting it. Which I guess brings us to an unanticipated fourth point: this is much more flexible than James Beard might ever have imagined.

From my kitchen, albeit small, to yours,



Whole Grain Hot-Water Cake
Makes one 9-inch cake

My decision to make this cake wasn’t unbiased by the fact that I love playing with my new hand-held electric egg beater. If you don’t have one (or, of course, an standing electric mixture), you’ll get a good arm workout whisking away.

2 eggs, separated
1 cup agave nectar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup boiling water
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup finely ground white cornmeal
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder

Blueberry Filling (see below)
Vanilla Icing (see below)

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

In a large bowl, whip the egg yolks with 1/2 cup agave nectar until lightened, thickened, and slightly syrupy, 2-3 minutes with an electric beater. Slowly, while whisking, add the hot water and the vanilla extract.

In a separate bowl, stir together the flours, cornmeal, salt, and baking powder. Fold gently into the egg yolks. Set aside.

In a third bowl, whip the egg whites until foamy. Gradually add in the remaining 1/2 cup agave and the 1/2 cup maple syrup, beating all the while until the white are large and the beater leaves soft peaks when you pull it out.

Fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture, trying not to deflate them.

Pour into a 9-inch round cake pan and put into a middle rack in the oven. Cook for about 25 minutes, until the top is browned. When the cake is done, it should bounce quickly up if you press it with your finger.

Balance the cake pan upside down on several ramekins. Cool for 20-30 minutes, then loosen the cake from the pan and remove.

If filling, split the cake using a sharp, unserrated knife. Because the cake is spongy, you might have to use your hands or a fork to help tear, but it shouldn’t fall apart when you split it. Scatter the filling across the bottom, and don’t worry too much about it being perfectly even. Replace the top layer.

When cake is completely cooled, spread a thin layer of vanilla icing across the top. Serve with extra blueberry sauce or some fresh blueberries if you come by them.

For the filling (optional):

1/2 cup frozen blueberries
1 tablespoon agave nectar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Put the blueberries in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave until defrosted, then add the remaining ingredients and microwave, pausing to stir often, 3-4 minutes, until the blueberries are melted and syrupy.

For the frosting (optional):

1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Mix the butter with the sugar until very creamy. Drizzle in the milk as needed, then stir in the vanilla.

  • Kate

    mmmm, what a yummy sounding cake! If I was running low on either of the flours, is it possible to substitute in all white flour or all wheat? Or, do I need to change the proportions?

  • Barbra

    The only thing better than cake for breakfast is pie for breakfast.

  • Phoebe and Cara, the Quarter-Life Cooks

    yes – you could definitely change the proportion of flours, though the cornmeal does add to the texture. if you’re going to leave out white flour all together, though, it’s probably best to use whole wheat pastry flour rather than regular whole wheat.

  • Sara Bennett

    I often bake for my vegan son, sometimes using substitute powder, sometimes (for cookies) using about a T soymilk where an egg would normally be used, and sometimes using applesauce or silken tofu. Any idea what might work best here? (I’m not a big fan of the substitute powder, but that’s usually my inclination when I’m not familiar with the recipe.)

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