That Sinking Feeling – Cake Disasters

I really wanted my next post to be about something yummy, but that won’t be for this post. I’ve been wanting to try making a banana cake for some time now. Banana cake was a very popular cake that has since gone out of favor. Today, you use your bananas to make banana bread. But open up pretty much any pre-1970s cookbook and you will find one if not more recipes for banana cake.

Sadly, I seemed to have picked the wrong version from the wrong cookbook! I chose The Service Cook Book by Mrs. Ida Bailey Allen, 1933. The book was published “exclusively” for F.W. Woolworth Co. So who was Ida Bailey Allen? It seems she was the Martha Stewart of her day, gaining even more fame than Fanny Farmer.

She launched her cooking career with a cookbook in 1917 and in 1924 as the food editor for the Sunday New York American. Thanks to newspaper, radio,  television and published cookbooks (over 50!) she quickly became the woman all housewives turned to for recipes and household hints.

Her radio career began in 1928 when she hosted a daytime cooking show which expanded to two hours the following year. An astute marketer, she not only hosted the show, but she produced and sold her own advertising. Rather than have one company sponsor the whole show which was the norm, Mrs. Allen sold spot advertising thereby increasing the show’s profits. When this program ended in 1932, she went on to host a syndicated cooking show on the Columbia Broadcasting Network. With the advent of television, she became the first female food host on her show Mrs. Allen and the Chef.

She was also a prolific food writer and editor for magazines and newspapers like The Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle and Parade.

So Mrs. Allen – where did we go wrong here with this recipe for Banana Cake? Most of the recipes I have read for Banana Cake are plain white cakes baked in two layers. A banana filling divides the bottom from the top layer. Then the whole case is iced and decorated with sliced bananas.

Mrs. Allen’s cake sounded like this, but the end result was quite different. Here’s the recipe and what I think went wrong:

  • 1 c. sugar
  • 3 tbs. melted shortening
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp. orange extract
  • 1 1/2 c. cake flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 c. milk

Beat the sugar, melted shortening, egg and flavoring together

Add the milk

Sift the dry ingredients and combine with the wet mixture

Transfer to two greased cake pans (Wait – here’s a problem. No WAY would this amount of cake batter be enough for two cake pans. So I opted for one)

Bake in a 375 degree oven for between 25-30 minutes

That sinking feeling

Once I took the cake out of the oven I had that sinking feeling as I watched the center of the cake deflate. And truthfully the whole cake didn’t rise very well.

Was it me? Mrs. Allen? Were flour and butter too expensive for the typical Woolworth’s customer in the 1930s and so she scrimped? Even her recipe for banana frosting didn’t come out right. It was runny and overly sweet.

To compare, I got out the 1943 version of Joy of Cooking. Let’s compare ingredients side by side:

Allen                                     Joy

1 c.                                        1 1/2 c. sugar
3 tbs melted butter           1 1/2 c. softened butter
1 egg                                     2 eggs
1/2 c. milk                          1 c. mashed bananas with 1/4 c. sour milk
1 1/2 c.                                 2 1/2 c. cake flour
1 1/2                                     1/2 tsp. baking power
none                                     3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp.                                1/2 tsp. salt

And the oven temperature also differ. 375 for Allen vs. 350 for Joy.

Its obvious that the Joy of Cooking version with more egg, butter, and especially flour would make two 9″ layers. And I think the lower temperature would allow the cake to cook through properly.

And as for the sinking cake? After some reading on the internet, I think it was a combination of too much leavening and too high heat for the oven. I think.

Next weekend I will try again using the Joy of Cooking recipe. I’m sure this could be very tasty cake. Oh, and Dan and I did eat a piece or two before dumping the cake in the trash.


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