Northern Roots

November 27, 2010 § Leave a comment


I had intended for this to be a quick and dirty post, giving another good party cake recipe, since I know you all will have followed my advice and rushed out to buy a bundt pan. And then nostalgia got in the way, through a pretty unlikely connection. I guess food works like that, certainly when it’s at its best. A perfectly shucked oyster becomes a childhood Saturday building sandcastles at the seaside; the smell of a banger in the pan a whole four awkward early-teen years spent eating pretty much nothing but sausage and chips (true story). In the hands of masters an ice-cream can jolt you instantly to a bleary breakfast of eggs and bacon: dishes transcend time and space and somehow become tied to two moments concurrently. I mean, people, I’m not telling you anything that hasn’t been said in somewhat more striking prose before, but sometimes you forget just how powerful the sensory experiences of eating can be and when you stumble upon one of those experiences the serendipity is all the more intense. As with this all-American cake that somehow led me to the beginnings of a new exploration of Lancashire cookery.

This cake, as conceived by the geniuses behind Brooklyn’s Baked bakery, is absolutely intended to evoke nostalgia, just of a different kind. In its full expression it’s a piece of quintessential Americana: a root beer float in cake form, of the kind that brings to mind chrome-edged counters lined with plush red upright stools and young guys with slicked-back hair manning soda fountains. The sort of thing Marty McFly orders to fit in with George in the 50s. Those creative Baked boys took this idea and came up with a base cake almost moist enough to drink, then slathered it with a tooth-achingly-sweet chocolate and root beer fudge topping, the stuff of dentists’ nightmares. The finishing touch is a generous scoop of vanilla-flecked ice-cream on top.

So how do we get from a sunny American history lesson to childhood in grey and wet 1980s Northwest England? One word: sarsaparilla. I’d been inexplicably drawn to the medicinal flavours of root beer for a while but it was only earlier this week, sitting down with a piece of this cake and a good book that I had that involuntary Proustian memory of almost the exact same taste. Indeed, the roots used for root beer are very closely related to those used to brew sarsaparilla and the resultant syrupy, herbal beverages are clear siblings. Growing up, I recalled instantly, sarsaparilla came from a stall in Blackburn’s covered market and I was allowed a glass as a treat while out shopping with my nanna and auntie. The flavour memory is much sharper than that of the scene itself but I’m hoping I’m not too far off the mark in saying that the drinks were doled out by a gruff chap in a grubby white apron and cost 10p a serving. A far cry from the midcentury soda fountain for sure, but equally evocative.

I’ve since come to notice that I’ve basically been making the Northern market sarsaparilla version of the Baked recipe. That is, I make this cake quite often without bothering with the fudge or ice-cream. On its own the cake casts off its airs and graces: it’s less sweet, more humble, a tea-time treat rather than a full-on dessert. It’s also incredibly quick and easy to make, comforting, and grounded. You should have a go at making the full recipe with the frosting and ice-cream and all at some point but if you never get past the basic base cake I won’t think any the less of you.

Root Beer Bundt Cake
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking By Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

Yields 1 10 inch Bundt Cake

For the Root Beer Bundt Cake:

2 cups/500ml root beer (non diet; try substituting sarsaparilla if you can get it!)
1 cup/100g dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup/1 stick/115g unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups/200g cane sugar
1/2 cup/90g firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 cups/200g all-purpose/plain flour
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 large eggs

For the Frosting:

2 oz/60g dark chocolate (60% cocoa solids), melted and cooled slightly
1/2 cup/1 stick/115g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup/60ml root beer (or sarsaparilla)
2/3 cup/70g dark unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/2 cups/250g confectioners’ (icing) sugar

For the cake:

Preheat the oven to 325F/170C. Grease your bundt pan thoroughly either with non-stick cooking spray or by brushing it with melted butter, making sure to get into all the nooks and crannies.

In a small saucepan, heat the root beer, cocoa powder, and butter over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the sugars and whisk until dissolved. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs lightly then whisk them into the cooled cocoa mixture until combined (be sure your cocoa mix is cool enough not to scramble the eggs). Pour this mix over the flour and gently fold until just combined. Keep the batter slightly lumpy as though making muffins: I often use a whisk for this process as it prevents overmixing.

Pour the batter into the prepared bundt pan and bake for 35-40 minutes directly on the oven shelf so the air can rotate through the centre hole of the pan, until a small sharp knife inserted into the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Gently loosen the sides of the cake from the pan and turn out onto the wire rack.

For the Frosting:

Put all the ingredients in a food processor. Pulse in short bursts until the frosting is shiny and smooth.
Use a spatula to spread the frosting in a thick, even layer over the cake. Leave to set before serving, with vanilla ice-cream on the side.

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