Monday, November 1, 2010

Maida Heatter's Buttermilk Spice Cake

Maida Heatter didn't get her Book of Great Desserts inducted into the Cookbook Hall of Fame for nothing. While there is a time and a place for pulling recipes from the internet, when I'm looking for traditional recipes, I turn to the books. 

Maida Heatter reminds me of my grandmother and her desserts do too. Her cookbook is filled with classic recipes for devil's food cake, linzer torte, cream puffs, tea cakes, gingerbread and creme brulee as well as recipes that are very much of her generation like Irish coffee jelly, pineapple custard pudding, cream cheese and yoghurt pie, peace and plenty, caraway seed cake and Palm Beach Chocolate Tube Cake. 

Why don't we have desserts like these anymore?!

Since I got her cookbook, I've been dying to make her buttermilk spice cake. So, over the weekend I got all the ingredients together, halved the recipe and when I removed it from my toaster oven realized I had forgotten to halve the butter. Ooops. Let's just say it was very buttery.

So, still having some buttermilk, I decided to make it again this afternoon. I cut down on the sugar a little, correctly measured the butter and then forgot the lemon zest. Ai yai yai. So instead, I stirred it into the cream cheese frosting and I think I like it even better.

When Chris took a bite this evening he said it tasted just like fall. Yes it does.

Go out and vote tomorrow and then have a piece of cake!

Maida Heatter's Buttermilk Spice Cake (Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts, 1965)

To make your own buttermilk, warm 1 1/2 cups of regular (sweet) milk over low heat to room temperature (about 70 degrees). Place 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Then fill it to the 1 1/2 cup line with the room temperature milk, stir, and let stand 10 minutes. Now you have 1 1/2 cups buttermilk.

3 cups sifted cake flour (I use King Arthur cake flour)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves
6 ounces butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
finely grated rind of 1 lemon

Adjust rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13 X 9X 2-inch pan and dust it all lightly with fine, dry bread crumbs (I just used flour).

Sift together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Set aside. In a large bowl of electric mixer beat the butter to soften it a bit. Add the vanilla and then, gradually, both sugars and beat for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the eggs individually, scraping the bowl as necessary with a rubber spatula and beating well after each. On lowest speed alternately add sifted dry ingredients in three additions and buttermilk in two additions, scraping the bowl with the spatula and beating only until smooth after each addition. Remove from mixer and stir in lemon rind.

Turn into pan and spread top level.

Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until the top springs back when lightly touched and cake begins to come away from the sides of the pan.

Let cake cook in the pan on a rack for about 15 minutes. Cut around sides to release. Cover with a rack or a cookie sheet and invert. Remove pan. Cover with a rack and invert again to finish cooling.

I halved this recipe to make one, 9 inch round cake and it turned out great (I'm guessing you could make the full recipe and divide the batter into two 9 inch round pans for a layer cake). It baked about 30-35 minutes at 350 degrees. I didn't have a mixer so I beat everything by hand and I made up a cream cheese frosting instead of the Brown Sugar icing recommended. And of course, I baked it in my toaster oven. I just kept an eye on it and after about 25 minutes of baking put a layer of foil on top to prevent burning. Also, I like to cut out a round of waxed paper to fit in the bottom of my cake pans after buttering and flouring.

Brown Sugar Icing

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tbs. butter
Pinch salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a medium size saucepan, over moderately low heat, stir the sugar and cream to slowly dissolve the sugar, brushing down the sides occasionally with a wet brush to remove any sugar granules. Stirring constantly, slowly bring the syrup to a boil and let it boil for exactly one minute. Transfer to a small bowl of electric mixer. Add butter and stir to melt. Add salt and vanilla and beat until creamy and slightly thickened. It will still be warm. Immediately pour over the cake and, with a long, narrow metal spatula, spread to cover.

Note: Do not freeze this cake after it has been iced-the icing will become wet when thawed.


  1. You must try her recipe for sour cream pound cake; it's a to-die-for traditional pound cake, and just lovely with fresh fruit. I brought it to the beach for a week with college friends several years ago (paired with some ripe, in-season strawberries) and have heard plenty about that cake ever since. I'll have to try the buttermilk spice one!

  2. Can I ask for your recipe for cream cheese frosting? It looks delicious!!

  3. This is an adaptation of the cream cheese frosting from The Frog Commissary Cookbook. For one layer I used 4 ounces room temp. butter and eight ounces room temp. cream cheese with half a one pound box of powdered sugar, 1/2 tsp. vanilla and the zest of one lemon. Cream the butter and cream cheese together, sift in the sugar and then add the vanilla and zest. The original recipe for a two layer cake calls for 8 ounces of butter and 8 ounces cream cheese, 1 1-pound box powdered sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla extract. Thanks for asking!