Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cake Lady

This is not a political blog. If I want that kind of debate, I need look no further than my own kitchen table. So I am not going to share what I think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - except to say that I wholeheartedly support our deployed soldiers who are sacrificing so much to serve our country.

I do a lot around this issue. Through a non-profit group called Soldiers' Angels, I have "adopted" many soldiers overseas. I volunteer at the VA Hospital here in Atlanta. I also write letters on a weekly basis to soldiers who have been injured (thus far, I have sent over 700 - what a sad statement). But the happiest thing I do is bake for our troops on a monthly basis.

Here's how it works: every month I receive the name of a commanding officer or soldier "in charge" then I send over whatever I wish to bake. My recipient distributes the baked goods throughout the company or platoon so that everyone gets to enjoy a taste from home. Over 125 of us do this each month so it amounts to a lot of homemade treats!

It's not quite as easy as it sounds. First there's the issue of customs. You have to fill out a detailed form for each box and the only way you can ship it is to take it in person to the post office. And then you wait... and wait... and wait. Nine times out of ten, there is only one postal clerk (oh, but wait - this isn't a political blog!) One time though, I was in there with my five boxes and there was a long line behind me. The lone postal clerk announced to the line that he was processing home-baked goods to send to our troops. Everyone in line broke out in applause!

The biggest hurdles are timing and heat. It takes at least a week for a box to arrive over there and the heat can be deadly. M & M's survive quite well but chocolate chips? Not so much. And no matter how well-wrapped it is, odds are that it won't be fresh by the time it arrives.

Voila! Enter mason jar cakes. Sterilize jars in boiling water, air-dry, spray with cooking spray, fill halfway with cake batter, bake, screw on sterilized lids and rings, let them seal and there you go. The things will stay fresh for MONTHS! Not that they will last that long once they get over there...

So every month I send 24 "Amazing Chocolate Cakes." They're good, too! Damn good, actually. WSB-TV here in Atlanta came over and did a segment about this and they couldn't get enough of them!

The only thing is, I can't figure out the frosting part. So I send the canned stuff. Oh well, I guess if you are stuck over there in Iraq or Afghanistan, you're not going to be too picky. Still, I'd like to find an alternative. I've read a couple of recipes where you make a topping and then pour it over the warm cakes before sealing them. Think I will test that soon. I'll let you know how it turns out.

I have received some amazing letters, emails and even flags flown over missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, dedicated to "Cake Lady." You don't do this for thanks, but it brings you to your knees when you get stuff like that. Click on the Cake Lady photo above and read some of the comments - this was a group in Afghanistan last year. Just yesterday I received an email from a nurse who took care of the wounded in Germany. She tasted one of my cakes that ended up there. She's home, but now her daughter is in Afghanistan. She wondered if I would be willing to send some cakes to them. I am humbled by that (and of course I am baking them tomorrow).

I did the math yesterday. I've been doing this for two years. That means I have sent 576 cakes and 288 cans of frosting so far. I had no idea. Sometimes I even surprise myself......

So here's my "Amazing Chocolate Cake" recipe. It makes a great hostess or holiday gift. If you don't want to bake it in mason jars, then just use it like a regular cake batter and bake in your pan of choice. You're on your own for the frosting, though!

Amazing Chocolate Cake (In a Jar)

3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup water
2/3 cup cocoa
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325-degrees.

Sterilize 12 (1 pint) straight-sided, wide mouth canning jars by placing them in a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Remove with tongs and set aside on a clean towel to dry and cool. Spray each jar well with cooking spray. Place lids and rings in the water and boil for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and keep them in the hot water until ready to use.

Combine flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Set aside.

Combine butter, water and cocoa in a saucepan. Place over medium heat and cook until butter is melted, stirring frequently. Pour into the bowl with the flour mixture and blend with a wooden spoon or whisk. Add buttermilk and blend, then and eggs and vanilla and stir well to incorporate.

Place 1 cup of batter into each prepared jar (I use an ice cream scoop for this). Batter should come up to the middle of each jar. Wipe any batter from rim of jars with a damp paper towel. Place jars on a baking sheet and bake for 45-55 minutes or until cakes have risen (test with a cake tester or press top with fingertip - if it doesn't give, then cake is done). Carefully remove from oven.

Make sure jar rims are clean. If they aren't, the jars will not seal properly. While jars are still hot, place lids on jars and screw rings on tightly. It's okay if cake has risen above the top of the jar. Just press it down with the lid and screw ring on. The cakes will shrink as they cool.

Let covered jars cool on the counter until you hear a "ping" sound as they seal. If you miss the "ping", wait until jars are cool and press on top of the lid. If the center of the lid doesn't move at all, then it is sealed.

Yield: 12 cakes
(Note: recipe can be easily halved)

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