When friend and AJC colleague Wendell Brock emailed me in October with the subject line “Cakes and cocktails at the Margaret Mitchell House,” I immediately opened the message. Evenings out with the James Beard award-winning writer are always full of cocktails, culinary delights and charm. Little did I know, he was introducing me to former AJC food editor Anne Byrn (aka the Cake Mix Doctor) known for her love of baking layered and unlayered confections and turning her research into books.
Byrn’s latest cookbook, “American Cake,” tells the tale (with recipes) of more than 125 beloved cakes throughout American history. I was thrilled when I learned that veteran Atlanta bartender Jerry Slater would be joining Bryn at the Nov. 30 event to lend his historic cocktail expertise.
Needless to say, I was sold on the idea of sipping cocktails and nibbling on cakes while listening to these history buffs lecture on ingredients and long-lost recipes.
Cakes are more than delights of sugary, frosted dessert food. To Byrn, they are snapshots of life in America at a given moment in time. But, cakes and cocktails? What could the two possibly have in common? Both serve as timestamps with ingredients, technique and preparation giving us a glimpse into the country’s past lives. And, both are celebratory.
Byrn served as the AJC’s food editor from 1978-1993 at a time when Atlanta’s dining scene was transforming from down-home, country club cuisine to global fare. In 1980, Hartsfield Airport opened the city up to international travelers and brought in chefs from around the world. This coupled with the opening of chef and author Nathalie Dupree’s cooking school in the basement of the old Rich’s Department store in downtown Atlanta were key influencers in the city’s culinary explosion. Byrn, who has always had an interest in cooking, began taking classes at the school. James Beard, Marcella Hazan and Julia Child all taught there throughout its decade-long run.
“I’ve been the designated cake baker in my family since I was 13,” Byrn said of her baking background. “I’ve always been fascinated by the chemistry of cakes and their stories. It was Nathalie who encouraged me to further my culinary education and take a sabbatical from the paper and go to France to bake at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris.”
After leaving the newspaper and moving back to Nashville with her young family, Byrn says the story which finally thrust her into life as a cookbook author was a simple “how to” on using a box of cake mix and doctoring it up.
People started coming to her for cake advice.
“American Cake” is Byrn’s twelfth book and chronicles a few of the country’s most well-known cakes. At the Nov. 30 event, she will be discussing three recipes and their histories, with cocktail pairings by Slater, as well as how each could be used for entertaining during the holidays.
The tasting lecture will include a German jam cake paired with an Old Fashioned containing black walnut bitters and sorghum, a nouveau American cake with a hat tip to Italy using ricotta cheese and cranberry paired with traditional eggnog and a French layer cake paired with the Cognac-based classic French 75.
“Many of the ingredients these recipes contain were coming into vogue or speak to the flavors of a specific period in American history. There’s something unique about what was driving their use in homes and in bars,” Slater said of why these recipes were chosen.
Byrn said she’s on a jam cake kick at the moment and really wanted to include the recipe for Granny Kellett’s Jam cake due to its warm spice notes and simplicity for holiday parties. Not to mention her love of the caramel icing poured over top.
This old school, German-style spice cake headed South way back when and is filled with nostalgia for many southerners who grew up with their grandmothers baking it for special occasions. Slater says pairing the jam cake with a black walnut Old Fashioned sweetened with sorghum rather than simple syrup will emphasize the confection’s and his own Appalachian roots.
“You can cut it into squares, place the bites on a long, white platter and decorate with holly. It’s really beautiful. This is a simple, time-saving measure for serving a crowd and a wonderfully fragrant and flavorful cake for the holidays. I’m excited to taste it alongside Jerry’s Old Fashioned,” Byrn said.
Byrn and Slater hope to showcase how cake and cocktails have shaped the celebratory landscape in America. Like edible time capsules, the pair will not only give us tips on entertaining for a crowd during the holidays but pluck recipes from history to dissect the ingredients and give us a glimpse into our country’s past.
But, this has me wondering. What do the cakes and cocktails of today say about us–about America in the early 21st century?
This is a question I’ll be asking Byrn and Slater that evening.
Cake and cocktails, Nov. 30, 7 p.m. Margaret Mitchell House, 979 Crescent Ave. N.E., Atlanta. $10 nonmember, $5 member. For tickets: call 404.814.4150 or visit atlantahistorycenter.com/programs.