cookbooks: what to bake & how to bake it

vanilla sponge cake with chocolate frosting | merry gourmet

I am a collector of cookbooks, but it has not always been this way.

My first cookbook was an early version of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, and I received a short, thick paperback copy when I went away to college. I’m pretty sure my parents gave it to me, but it could have been some other well-meaning high school graduation gift-giver. I remember thinking that it was such a sweet gift, and I put it on my bookshelf where it remained until I moved, then it went into a box with other kitchen items, then back onto the bookshelf in the next apartment. This cycle repeated more than a few times.

I received another copy of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book when I got married. That book, a larger hardback binder version with five metal rings holding the recipes inside, went onto the bookshelf beside its older, petite sister. They stood side-by-side for another five or six years, rarely moving off the shelf and definitely not getting the attention they deserved.

vanilla sponge cake with chocolate frosting | merry gourmet

Flash forward to today, when my kitchen shelves are filled, overflowing even, with stacks of loose recipes, ripped out of magazines, stashed on top of the tight stands of upright cookbooks. My collection overflowed into the living room, and gradually, my fiction hardback books have been moved up, up, up to the very top row to make room for the several shelves of cookbooks below. Because the cookbooks need to be reachable, you see, at a moment’s notice.

Now, I read cookbooks for fun. I find inspiration and history in their pages. I remember when we first made that lemon tart recipe from the one cookbook and when I made the peach cobbler from the other. I’ve not cooked from many of them – from most, truthfully – but I have learned from each one. And they all stand ready to teach and guide and inspire, whenever I need it, like friends and mentors.

vanilla sponge cake with chocolate frosting | the merry gourmet

Not long ago, a new cookbook arrived at my home, a complimentary copy sent to me by the book’s publisher, Phaidon. What to Bake & How to Bake It, by Jane Hornby, was stunning: a big, heavy hardback, with beautiful illustrations and gorgeous step-by-step photography. I am drawn to unique design and simply styled food, and this book had both. Hornby gives step-by-step instructions for each recipe along with helpful tips and substitutions to make the baking easier or more flexible.

Though I’ve only made a few recipes from the book (including this spectacular vanilla sponge cake with chocolate frosting), I have read it, cover-to-cover, at least twice. I have many other recipes bookmarked, like the carrot cake with cream cheese frosting on page 92, the coconut layer cake on page 142, and the whole orange and almond cake on page 202.

vanilla sponge cake with chocolate frosting | the merry gourmet

Now, this cake. I’m a big fan of this cake. The layers baked up tall and golden. The cake rose so evenly that it didn’t require much trimming – though I couldn’t help myself, since I like a very even and symmetrical cake – but I am so glad I did. I folded a piece of trimmed cake into my mouth and was immediately struck by how moist and light the sponge cake was. The cake was fantastic when frosted, but the sponge cake alone would make for a fine dessert, perhaps topped with some whipped cream and berries.

But you know me: I frosted the pretty layers with chocolate frosting, because everything is better with chocolate. And I ate all of those trimmings, too.

Yield: Serves 12

Vanilla Sponge Cake with Chocolate Frosting

This moist butter cake is on page 46 of Jane Hornby's What to Bake & How to Bake It, and is reprinted with permission for you here. In the cookbook, Hornby layers the cake with strawberry jam and buttercream on the inside and a dusting of powdered sugar on the outside. As an alternative, however, she suggest pairing it with chocolate frosting. So I did.


For the cake:
2 sticks (1 cup) soft butter, plus extra for greasing
1-1/2 cups sugar, preferably superfine
5 eggs, room temperature
2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

For the chocolate frosting:
14-oz can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
7 oz bittersweet chocolate, 50, 60 or 70% cocoa solids, depending on your taste
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Make the Cake:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Use a little butter to grease two 8-inch round cake pans with removable bottoms, then line the bottoms with parchment paper. Put the butter and sugar in a large bowl, then beat with an electric mixer until creamy and very pale.

Crack the eggs into a measuring cup. Pour 1 egg into the bowl with the butter and sugar, then beat it into the creamed butter and sugar mixture until it looks fluffy and light. Add the next egg and repeat. If the batter starts to look a little slimy at any point, beat in 1 tablespoon of the flour.

Stir the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl. Put the milk, vanilla, and oil in the eggy cup (to save washing another dish). Sift half of the flour on top of the batter, then fold in the milk mixture using a spatula or large metal spoon. Finish with the rest of the flour mixture and keep folding until you have a thick, smooth batter. A big blob of batter should drop (but not slide) away from the spatula if you give it a little shake. If it seems to stick on, then the batter may be a little dry; add 1 tablespoon more milk.

If you want to make this cake more quickly, cream the butter and sugar together as in step 1, then add the rest of the ingredients, plus an extra 1 teaspoon baking powder, and beat them in with the electric mixer, taking care not to overwork the batter once it looks smooth and creamy. Cakes made this way can have a slightly less delicate texture and a lower rise, but if you’re in a hurry, then go for it.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the tops. For a nice, even cake, try to ensure each one has about the same amount in it.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until the cakes are golden, have risen, spring back to the touch, and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes away clean. If the cakes are browning unevenly, they can be safely turned around after about 15 minutes, or once they have risen evenly and the surface looks dry. Be quick while you do this, to preserve heat in the oven. Let cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then turn out. Peel the parchment paper from the bottom, put this on the cooling rack crumb-side down, then put the cakes on top.

Make the Frosting:

Pour the condensed milk and cream in a saucepan and stir it over low heat until it starts to bubble at the edges.
Take care and keep stirring, as it can easily stick on the bottom. Break up the chocolate into squares while you wait, then chop it fairly small. Cut the butter into cubes.

Remove the pan from the heat, add the chocolate, butter, and vanilla, then let melt, stirring now and again. It will thicken as it cools. Beat it occasionally, until thick and fudgy and completely cooled.

Frost the Cakes:

To frost cakes, ensure the cakes are at room temperature. Place 1 layer on a cake plate. With an offset spatula, spread top with chocolate frosting. Place the second layer on top, and spread frosting evenly over top and sides of cake.

Adapted from What to Bake & How to Bake It by Jane Hornby (Phaidon, $35.00), reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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18 Responses to “funeral food, and a recipe: lemon buttermilk pie”

  1. Kimberley Mulla — March 9, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

    I’m new to your blog but the idea of lemon buttermilk pie brought me here. And then I read your post. My Dad passed away a year ago. We lived on takeout for two weeks while we slept in his room at the hospital. But we are not in the south so didn’t get to enjoy such beautiful food at his funeral. Southern food was my dad’s favourite. Mine too. Hugs. Sending your family peace and best wishes.

  2. Macaroni Mama — March 9, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    Bits and pieces made up our lives over the past few weeks. I love this post.

  3. Renée J. (RJ Flamingo) — March 9, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    Thinking of you all, MJ.

    We have funeral food for Jewish funerals – and for a full week after that. It’s mostly cold cuts and cake at first, then the casseroles and roast chickens after that. And more cake.

    It’s at times like these that I feel sorry for people who say “Eat to live, not live to eat.” They’ll never quite understand the warm, comforting hug inherent in a beautiful pie like this one.

    xox – RJ

  4. Jacqueline — March 9, 2014 @ 11:54 pm

    This beautiful photograph just seems so poignantly perfect. Bright and comforting, somber and serious. I want to make this pie, now. Thoughts are with you and your family.

  5. Sending you all so much love MJ. That you found the words to write this post is simply inspiring. And yes, I do bet your dad would have loved this pie. XO

  6. Gail — March 10, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    While there was plenty of food after my parents’ funerals, nothing was homemade. Platters of cold cuts (which I never eat except at funerals) for sandwiches, platters of smoked fishes & fish salads are all the ‘food of my people’. That, in and of itself, makes me feel good.

    But a little homemade something or other would never hurt.

    Love this pie, love this post. Love you.

  7. Catharine — March 10, 2014 @ 9:37 am

    We love this pie! You’re invited to come link it up (and your other pie recipes you may have) at our Pie Party here:

    Have a great day,

  8. dina — March 10, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    oh my! i’m a huge buttermilk fan. this pie looks amazing!

  9. Jeannine — March 10, 2014 @ 11:34 am

    I’m from Alaska, originally, and was still living there when my father died. Our neighbors and friends filled both our fridge and freezer with love and empathy in the form of carob cakes and casseroles, pies and baked meats. Not just a Southern thing, but strongly a fortunate thing, and I’m glad you have a caring community around you. May you, your mother, and your family heal stronger than you now believe you can.

  10. Eileen — March 10, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

    This pie recipe looks like a “keeper” Jennifer. I'[m partial to custard pies so this looks perfect to me. I’m from the North, and it’s very common here for people to deliver food when someone is very ill or has a family member pass. Recently my neighbors lost their 40+ year old daughter to cancer. I felt horrible for them and didn’t know how to express myself so I baked a huge pan of homemade dinner rolls and delivered them while they were still warm. I think delivering food to someone who is experiencing a loss is one universal way of showing how much we care. I hope your days begin to get easier for you and your family.

  11. Laura — March 10, 2014 @ 11:35 pm

    What a beautiful pie and touching words. You and your family continue to be in my thoughts and prayers.

    When my grandmother passed away unexpectedly in fall 2012, so many friends and neighbors showered us with food gifts, it was so touching! We were in North Dakota, so it must not be just a regional practice. Grief is such a funny thing… sometimes I wasn’t hungry at all, and other times ravenous. There were so many details to be dealt with and having peoples’ food gifts available was such a blessing. I’m now trying to remember to pay it forward and give food gifts to those grieving/going through illness/have new babies, etc.

  12. Kathryn — March 11, 2014 @ 5:42 am

    Such a beautiful post xo

  13. Such beautiful writing, as usual. I wish you a sense of peace and comfort in the days and weeks ahead.

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  16. Brighid — March 17, 2014 @ 8:54 pm

    My father passed away at the end of February so your account resonates so much with me. While there wasn’t different food for our family, it was still part of how we cared for each other. My days were similarly broken up between the normal and the demands of the situation.

    Your pie looks lovely and someday I’ll make it for my family, think of my Dad and your Dad. I know mine would have also loved your pie.

    Thank you for the gift of your words and your recipe.

  17. Funeral food is a church thing up here in the North. I’m so sorry about your dad’s passing, MJ. I don’t have great words in these situations, but wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you and your family. And that pie? I think I’ll make it for someone I love and share the love.

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