Saturday, January 17, 2009

Playing with the Devil

I flew back to New Zealand a few days ago, after nine months of living in Australia. Mostly I was living places where it was impossible, or almost impossible, to bake (which shouldn't lead you to assume that Australia is without ovens, just that I was living a bit rough). Starting this blog was like paying attention to an itch I couldn't scratch, so when I got to Hamilton I asked Martha and Norman if I could bake a cake at their house.

Martha keeps a copy of the Devil's Food Cake recipe on the pantry door

I wanted to try making the Devil's Food Cake with the controversial substitution of buttermilk for sour milk, and mum suggested I make cup cakes to make the result easier to freeze or give away. Given the general lack of enthusiasm for cake eating among most of the people around me in Hamilton (Norman made a face like I was forcing him to eat worms), combined with the chocolate alternatives available everywhere I go (chocolate mousse, chocolate macaroons, chocolate bars etc etc) this seemed like a smart move.

I was very excited to use the big enamel bowl in which the batter is always mixed in Martha's kitchen. It has a groovy '60's sunflower pattern and really high sides so the batter doesn't slop even after you pour in the hot water at the end. As a child I learned to bake using that bowl (which was also our big salad bowl for years and years). It was a wedding present to Martha and Norman in 1965 and is still going as strong as their marriage, if a little chipped and scratched- the bowl, not the marriage!

I can't say I was very impressed with the buttermilk version of the cake, which seems to me a less moist than the sour milk version, possibly with a finer crumb. Also the colour wasn't the rich reddish almost-black brown I remember. So, these buttermilk ones were a bit bland in colour, texture and taste. I'm going back to sour milk for sure next time.

A few years ago, I learned that using less sugar will stop the top of the cake from cracking in the oven, so I always use 1 1/2 cups instead of the 2 called for in the recipe. So these cupcakes have lovely smooth tops.

If you haven't checked back on my original Devil's Food recipe post, Martha added a detailed historical caption to the photo of grandma Ada and there's been a lively debate in the comments section. Worth a look if you are interested.


  1. The bowl is beautiful. I don't remember ever using sour milk but memories are tricky. Your cupcakes look yummy wish I could have had one. I will try using less sugar and see how it turns out for me.

  2. I'm not going to debate sour milk vs buttermilk - and I don't know how it is made in NZ - but I know that the way it is made in the US is very different than how it would have been made when Ada Ruth would have used it in cake. Originally it was the leftover liquid from the butter making process (hence the name). Now they take a skim or low-fat milk and introduce cultures to produce the sour flavor. So the change in how it is produced may impact how good it is in recipes!!

  3. Time for me to put in my two cents worth.
    The bowl is a wedding present given to Martha and myself by our good friends Neal and Julie Gantcher. Neal passed away last year, so the bowl has even more special meaning for us. Everything made or served in it is a memorial to him.


  4. At Grandma Kellerman's house in the country she kept a jersey cow and churned her own butter. Jersey milk is high in buterfat and is excellent for whipped cream or home churned icecream, maybe made with tree ripened peaches from her garden. Maybe the buttermilk then was higher in fat content; certainly the sourness was natural. If i've got it in the kitchen I sometimes use sourcream.

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