Each year my extended family would gather to celebrate my grandma’s birthday. She planned everything for us, all we had to do was show up and celebrate. Not too bad. Except for her, um, quirky tastes in food. One year, her 80th, she had been talking to her hairdresser about her favorite flavors. To which the hairdresser exclaimed: “Oh, Murnie! I’d love to make you a cake for your birthday.”
So after dinner we were all treated to a dessert like no other. Lemon-caramel cake. Essentially she had created a lemon chiffon cake with a heavy coating of caramel sauce. The effects were jarring. The bright citrus of the lemon ran into the cloying sweetness caramel, and the light and airy texture of the cake crashed into thickness of syrup.
“What is happening in my mouth?!” my cousin exclaimed.
Lemon and caramel are not easy flavors to blend. But it does make for an unforgettable dessert. In fact, the lemon caramel cake is the only cake any of us can remember from her birthday gatherings. Imagine my surprise when I opened Valerie Gordon’s new dessert cookbook, Sweet: Inspired Ingredients, Unforgettable Desserts, and found the first recipe to be essentially a lemon caramel cake. OK, it’s a lemon cake with a toffee crunch, but in my book toffee is pretty close to caramel. Naturally, Gordon does a better job of blending the subtle side of the flavors and textures together. I only wish my dear grandma were still around, this cake would send her over the moon.
Interestingly, Gordon talks about the connection of food, specifically sweets, with memories in our lives. You may not remember all the details of an event, but if you had, say, a lemon caramel cake there, a rush of memories will follow that connection. Gordon, a self-taught baker from Los Angeles, started the business at her kitchen table and still adheres to handmade touches that make desserts “personal indulgences.”
Her cookbook runs the gamut of indulgences from the upscale champagne cake with 23-karat edible gold (this is a thing?) to down-and-dirty Rice Krispies squares (there are more than three ingredients in hers). You will find pumpkin seed toffee, and blackberry-mango curd pie, along with ice creams, cookies, and petit fours. There’s even a recipe for soap: lavender-Earl Grey mini cakes with lemon ganache. OK, maybe that’s a dessert after all, I’ll have to get back to you.
My favorite so far has been the white chocolate coconut cake. It’s so worth the effort, and the cost of ingredients. It calls for a pound and a half of butter and eight eggs! But what really sets this cake off is the tart juxtaposition of the buttercream filling. A buttercream made with my old nemesis: passion fruit purée. I spent weeks seeking this elusive ingredient for another baker’s confections. Ah, memories…
Something I found to be most interesting is that Gordon is a bit of a dessert anthropologist. She has researched several old recipes from famous restaurants like the Brown Derby and Chasen’s. Yeah, I wasn’t so familiar with Chasen’s either, but apparently it was big in the ’50s and they made an impressive banana shortcake. The point is, Gordon has carefully restored these recipes with the help of former restaurant bakers, employees, and even patrons and their taste memories. The results are sometimes old-fashioned, but that seems to be the point. They remind us of moments gone by. And though our sense of presence, or touch, may no longer be connected to the memory, our sense of smell and taste can still take us back.
Who hasn’t wanted to recapture a memory from the past? For me, there is that delicious banana crepe from a French restaurant, long closed. Or the brownie that was a mash-up of a blondie and Key lime pie. Heck, I’d be happy to re-discover that epic chocolate chip cookie of my youth. Until then I’ll dig deeper into Sweet and enjoy the stops along memory lane.
A note on Durango Cookies
I admire when a baker takes a classic recipe and turns it into something completely new and unique. Gordon has riffed on the chocolate chip cookie. Sometimes these bakers can send us on wild goose chases for elusive ingredients. She’s added some unusual ingredients like Durango salt and cocoa nibs to create a unique and tasty flavor mash-up in her Durango cookie.
Where’s the Ingredient Hunter app for my iPhone?
Until that’s developed, let me offer you some tips. Durango salt is smoked salt. I have found something similar in EarthFare’s bulk herb section: applewood smoked salt. The good news is you can buy a scant tablespoon. Cocoa nibs are not in the baking aisle. You will likely find them in the supplement section of many grocery stores. A bag will set you back $10, but you can make several batches of Durango cookies with them and make friends smile. Oh, and one recipe note: chill that dough. These cookies are crammed with butter, if it’s not cold dough going into your oven you will have a cookie puddle (a delicious one though).
Support the Charleston City Paper
We’ve been covering Charleston since 1997 and plan to be here with the latest and Best of Charleston for many years to come. In a time where local journalism is struggling, the City Paper is investing in the future of Charleston as a place where diverse, engaging views can flourish. We can't do it without our readers. If you'd like to support local, independent journalism: