My buddy, Dave, is the ultimate audience for my cooking. Heck, for anyone’s cooking. Better known as Coondog O’Karma, Dave is a retired professional speed eater and connoisseur of good eats. Many of our conversations are about food, so I wasn’t surprised when he shot me a Facebook message in December with photo of a Spanish Bar Cake and this plea: “Jane Snow, will you make this for me? Please! Please!!!!
I meant to surprise him, but winter turned to spring and the cake slipped my mind. Coondog was still on the scent, though. “Jane, please make me an A&P Spanish Bar Cake and I will come over and clean up after all the pets,” he wrote a couple of weeks ago.
Okay, okay. It was time. I had not tasted the raisin spice cake since I was a kid, and neither had Coondog. It was an iconic product of the A&P supermarket chain, where my friend was once employed as a stock boy. I remember the cake as dark and spicy with an overtone of cloves or allspice. It was a long, narrow double-layer filled and frosted with a thick, sweet white icing.
Knock-off recipes are everywhere, so that was no problem. I made the cake in a 9-by-13-inch pan and cut the finished cake in half lengthwise for the two layers. The recipe I found came with a recipe for the white icing, and although I don’t think the original was a cream cheese icing, it was good.
At the hand-off Tuesday Coondog vowed to eat every bite of the cake by himself. From the way he ogled the cake, I have a feeling he ate it on the way home in his car. He has been starving lately, he said.
“Lisa (his wife) is on a diet and the meals are killing me,” he confided. “I need carbohydrates.” No problem. That cake is a guaranteed sugar high.
SPANISH BAR CAKE
2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. cocoa powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups applesauce
1 cup raisins plumped in hot water
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 tbsp. butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
Drops of milk if needed
For the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine flour, sugar, baking soda, cocoa powder, salt and spices in the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix briefly on low speed. Add oil and beat until dry ingredients are moistened. Beat in applesauce. Beat in eggs one at a time until batter is smooth. Stir in raisins by hand. Pour into a greased and floured 9-by-13-inch pan that has been lined with parchment paper and greased again. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until the cake pulls away from sides of pan and top is dry to the touch.
Cool cake in pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a foil-lined counter. Peel off parchment paper and cut cake in half lengthwise. Cool completely.
For the icing: Beat cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer until fluffy. Beat in vanilla. Beat in sugar a little at a time, adding a drop or two of milk if needed for proper spreading consistency.
Place one cake layer, flat side up, on a platter or a piece of cardboard covered with foil. Spread a thick layer of the icing over the top of the cake layer. Top with second layer, flat side down. Ice top of cake only. Dip a fork in water and drag the tine the length of the cake, making subtle back-and-forth squiggles. Repeat the pattern over the entire top of the cake. Cut crosswise into slices to serve. Store in refrigerator.
Note: You will have icing left over unless you choose to ice the sides of the cake, which is not necessary.
*What I ate in restaurants last week:
Gumbo at Constantine’s Marketplace in Cleveland; omelet and fruit at Alexandri’s in Wadsworth; Cheeseburger and onion rings at Swenson’s; Thai chicken salad at Panera; eggs, bacon and homemade potato pancakes at the Circle Restaurant in Deerfield, and thin-crust pizza from Earth Fare.
What I cooked last week:
Pan-grilled steaks with Japanese sweet potatoes; egg salad; Spanish bar cake; sugar-free brownies, and Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk for our 10th anniversary. The recipe for the luscious chicken is from the April 20 New York Times. Sam Sifton wrote, “ It is the sort of meal you might cook once a month for a good long while and reminisce about for years.”
A whole broiler-fryer is browned in a pan just large enough to hold it, and baked with milk, lemon peel, a cinnamon stick, lots of garlic and sage leaves. The sauce is supposed to get stringy and clumpy but mine didn’t. Others have had this problem, and one Times emailer said she solved it by using shelf-stable milk (Parmalat). Even without the interesting texture, the chicken was delicious.
JAMIE OLIVER’S CHICKEN IN MILIK
1 whole chicken, 3-4 pounds
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small cinnamon stick
10 cloves garlic, skins left on
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 handful of fresh sage, leaves picked — around 15-20 leaves
Heat oven to 375. Season the chicken aggressively with the salt and pepper. Place pot that will fit the chicken snugly over medium-high heat on the stove, and add to it the butter and olive oil. When the butter has melted and is starting to foam, add the chicken to the pot and fry it, turning every few minutes, until it has browned all over. Turn the heat down to low, remove the chicken from the pot and place it onto a plate, then drain off all but a few tablespoons of the fat from the pot.
Add the cinnamon stick and garlic to the pot, and allow them to sizzle in the oil for a minute or 2, then return the chicken to the pot along with the milk and sage leaves. Use a vegetable peeler to cut wide strips of skin off the two lemons, and add them to the pot as well. Slide the pot into the oven and bake for approximately 1½ hours, basting the chicken occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through and tender and the sauce has reduced into a thick, curdled sauce. (If the sauce is reducing too quickly, put a cover halfway onto the pot.)
To serve, use a spoon to divide the chicken onto plates. Spoon sauce over each serving. Goes well with sautéed greens, pasta, rice, potatoes, bread.
* Plating pains:
”A spoonful of sauce slid on the plate looks like the cat’s ass has been used to drag the puree across. It was novel at first, but now it’s done in Los Angeles, Tokyo, London… You have no idea where you are in the world because the plate is exactly the same.”
— Jeremiah Tower in Bon Appetit. magazine
I agree fully with you about most buffet food being bland, stale and flavorless but the one I like very much, although not quite local, is Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen in Mt. Hope, a 45-minute drive south of Akron in the middle of Amish country. It has a great salad bar and most of the traditional Amish-type comfort foods but the item I yearn for en route is the wonderful pressure-fried chicken. it has a very light, flavorful batter and is cooked perfectly. The chicken alone makes the trip worthwhile.
From Marty: If you want to try some country-style hearty food, cruise down to Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen in Mt. Hope. They have both a buffet as well as made-to-order menu. This is Amish cooking and the bread is baked on the premises. It is wonderful. Here is a link to the website: http://mrsyoderskitchen.com.
Dear Geoff and Marty: I had forgotten this buffet in my list of ones Tony and I have tried — probably because he got the buffet while I had half of a hot pork sandwich with homemade mashed potatoes. Don’t know how I could forget. It is indeed first-rate.
From Jenny K.:
A few weeks ago my husband and I discovered an Asian buffet called Katana in the Belden Village area near Burlington Coat Factory. We thought the food was very good and items were replenished immediately as needed. The price is very affordable; the food was fresh and well-prepared. They say they serve Chinese, Japanese and some American.
In the same area is Buffet Dynasty near the corner of Belden Village Avenue and Dressler. I love their coconut shrimp, but I don’t think their other offerings are as extensive as Katana. There is or used to be an Asian buffet in Twinsburg that was very popular. It has been years since we’ve been to the Royal Seafood Buffet in the Chapel hill are but it was very good when we used to go.
From Chris Avers:
The best buffet around is Katana’s at 4758 Everhard Road in Canton, next to Burlington Coat Factory.
Dear Chris, Jenny and others: Katana is now on my dance card. Thanks for the suggestion.
From Judy A.:
Sahara Grille on Dressler in the Belden Village area has a Middle-Eastern buffet that is great and very fresh — kibbee, fatoush, lentil soup, m’jadara, Lebanese green beans, etc. The hours and address are on the webpage here: http://www.saharagrille.com.
The owners of Sahara were the original owners of Sanibel Middle Eastern Bakery on South Street in Akron, and also the original franchisee of Aladdin’s in Highland Square.
Dear Judy: This is great news. I love their food and am happy to hear they now have a Middle Eastern buffet.
I’m with you on buffets but Tony might like the lunch buffet at Bombay Sitar in Canton (www.bombaysitar.com). It’s a favorite of all of my daughter’s friends (especially the vegetarians and vegans) when they are in town. The restaurant recently made the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s list of 50 things to eat and drink in Greater Cleveland.
Dear Francie: I have only eaten there twice, but it was enough to made Bombay Sitar my favorite Indian restaurant in the area. The lunch buffet can get crowded, so go early if you can.
In mid-Atlantic aboard Celebrity Reflection, I chose the 12th deck buffet morning, noon and night — well, we take most of our nighttime food in one of the tablecloth restaurants, but I check the dinner buffet to see what I missed. While I agree with your general characterization of American buffets, the cruise industry has got it right, and with live prep stations does a limited number of quick-serve items, too.
Dear M.A.: I haven’t cruised as yet. I was holding out for the QE II and its all-you-can-eat caviar policy. Alas, I waited too long and the liner is now docked permanently in Dubai. Does Cunard’s new Queen Elizabeth play loose with the caviar, too, I wonder?