Well, it’s Christmas and we’re off to a rough start in this household. My mother and I spent 4 hours shopping for all the Christmas dinner necessities yesterday and realized at lunch we forgot about 52 things. It’s not Christmas until you run to the store 17 times, I suppose. Then, in the capper of all things, she looked into the kitchen last night and said, “Why is there smoke billowing out of my oven?” Yes mom that would be the pizza box you forgot was in there before you turned the damn thing to 400 degrees. My sister pulled into the driveway at this exact moment to smoke pouring out of windows, fire alarms screeching, the two of us yelling and coughing and waving newspapers around in some strange ritual dance. Chaos. Complete chaos and the house still smells like a bbq. Merry Christmas indeed.
Right now I’m procrastinating, lying in bed, the acrid smell of burnt cardboard permeating my room. I have a lot to do today and I don’t want it to start quite yet. So I’ll tell you about a personal triumph instead.
For the last several years, I’ve had a little bet with a friend’s husband. It started with the annual deluge of Christmas cards. The family picture kind. While I enjoy seeing my friends and their families over the years, I have a little pet peeve with these cards. I want to see my friends, many whom I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in years. I appreciate that they have families, lovely children, dogs, new houses. Wonderful, I’m happy for them but I want them in the picture. For many, I’ve never met their children nor pet that dog. Receiving holiday pictures of children I’ve never met is the holiday equivalent of the photos that come in new wallets. I’m on the edge of not caring. Get yourself in that photo. I want to see you, see how well you’re aging and remember in your face all the good times we’ve had. News flash – I don’t see that in your kids. It’s not the same.
So this husband completely disagrees with me. Says no one wants to see a picture of him, it’s all about the kids. To which I completely and totally disagree. I argue that if anyone should be in the photo card if should be him and his wife. They are gorgeous people. He rolls his eyes and disagrees, repeatedly. But this guy has a weakness – rum cake. So after much arguing we strike a deal – put your mug in the family Christmas card and I’ll make you that rum cake you swoon over; the one from your brother’s ex-girlfriend that no one is allowed to talk to anymore since he married someone else but you still somehow finagle a cake out of every year. It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable and you have no business talking to the woman and know it. But I’m familiar with that cake – soft and yellow, soaked with rum. It’s a staple on every potluck table across the country. His eyes light up. We strike a deal. Men are easy that way.
So the next year rolls around and I’ve completely forgotten about this agreement. Until the card shows up. The family Christmas card made me laugh out loud. It is a collage of the two kids throughout the year – summer vacation, school plays, sporting events, typical cute kid photos. My friend is in there with the kids, looking stunning as she usually does. And in the bottom left hand corner, in the tiniest of tiny pictures, is the husband with a dumbass grin on his face. OK. Technically, yes, they’re in the card. I will acknowledge that and pay up.
So I go to make this rum cake, only I’m not going to do it the traditional way with boxed cake and pudding mix. Oh no. I’m going homemade. And it’s terrible. Not in the way you’d expect – rich with butter and sugar, it was a delicious cake. It just wasn’t THAT cake. After three tries and running out of time, I give up, find a recipe, buy a couple boxes and bang one out. He is thrilled. Me, not so much.
The next year an even more spectacular card shows up – this one with the entire family in matching khaki shorts and white linen shirts posing happily on a windswept beach with their two dogs. Wow. There are my friends looking happy and spectacular and aging very very well. And again, I try two more attempts at a homemade rum cake. Dammit. Box cake one more time.
And this cycle repeats itself for two more years, each card more spectactular and ridiculous than the previous year and mainly because of a lack of time to sit down and really figure out a scratch version, I fall back on box mixes. It’s not the flavor; that I’ve gotten down. It’s the texture, that soft slightly spongy moistness that only comes from a box mix. I’m annoyed but will lean on Pioneer Woman when I need to. And though I’m loath to admit it, it’s a pretty tasty cake.
So this year, I decide I’m going to buckle down and figure this out. In the midst of the 14 consulting projects I’m juggling and zillion cookies I have to bake, I will figure this out. I’ve always thought that pastry chef Christina Tosi was onto something with her homemade confetti cake recipe. So I take that recipe and tweak it a bit, ditch the boxed pudding and bake a few cakes.
The first one was promising – it looked right, it smelled right. But it won’t come out of the pan. I poke. I prod. I wiggle a paring knife gently into the grooves of the bundt pan. I tap, softly at first and then with great big whacks and the cake, only the top, falls out. Half a stinking cake. I hold the pan over the garbage and scrape the remains out with a spoon. Dammit. I really hate greasing and flouring bundt pans but even I’ll concede that it’s necessary. Dammit. But before I toss that last piece, I taste it. I’m onto something here. This is promising.
So I try it again, buttering and flouring that pan well. It works. The cake plops gently from the pan; steaming and I brush it with a butter rum glaze. It’s good, the texture is close but the rum flavor needs to be stronger. Back to the drawing board.
Then there was cake #3. Pan is well greased, rum is added to the batter and given an extra good soak before setting to cool. It smells promising. It looks promising. And it tastes … perfect. Golden brown, tender, rich with butter and a slight but distinct hint of rum. Best of all, it has that gooey rum soaked bottom layer, a hallmark of this cake. The crumb is tender and soft, not as much as a box mix I’ll admit but pretty close. I am happy. Finally! No more box mixes!
So on this Christmas Eve, maybe you’ll skip the boxes too and make a fresh rum cake for the family. You probably have the ingredients in the house (and if not, go buy a bottle of rum immediately – you’ll need it.) It doesn’t keep as long as the boxed version, no preservatives and other garbage you know, but it won’t stick around long enough to be an issue.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: FA LA LA LA LA!! This one was HUGE for me. After years of frustrations and annoyances at conceding to a box mix, I finally have a rum cake that makes me happy. Is it exactly the same? No. There’s none of that strangely pleasing spongy texture that only comes from a box but it’s pretty damn tasty, I might even venture to say I like it better. Because I do. Giving it away makes me immensely happy, ridiculously so. Merry Christmas to me.
On this blog five years ago: Making Gingerbread Houses
On this blog four years ago: Making Gingerbread Houses Part II
On this blog three years ago: Homemade Gifts for the Holidays
On this blog two years ago: Lemon Slice Cookies , Gingerbread with Bourbon Sauce
On this blog one year ago: Peppermint Cookie Platter , Pumpkin Roulade
SCRATCH RUM CAKE
Makes one 10” bundt cake
For the cake:
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature (1/2 stick)
1/3 cup vegetable shortening
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
½ cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla or vanilla bean paste
2 Tablespoons dark rum
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
for the rum glaze:
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature (1 stick/4 ounces)
1 cup sugar
pinch of kosher salt
½ cup dark rum
- Preheat the oven to 325°F
- Sift the dry ingredients – flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
- Combine the butter, shortening, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high for 2-3 minutes.
- Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the eggs, and mix on medium-high for 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once more.
- On low speed, stream in the buttermilk, oil, and vanilla.
- Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and paddle for 4-6 minutes, until the mixture is practically white and doubles in size. There should be no streaks of fat or liquid. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- On very low speed, add the sifted dry ingredients.
- Mix for 45-60 seconds, just until the batter comes together. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Butter a bundt pan well and add about a 1/2 cup flour. Turn and tap the pan to coat well with flour and tap out the excess. Really give it a few good knocks to tap out any excess flour.
- With a spatula, spread the cake batter in an even layer in the pan.
- Bake 45 minutes and check with a toothpick inserted just off center. It should come out clean with moist crumbs. Bake 5 more minutes – and start glaze.
- for the glaze: 5 minutes before the cake is done baking, melt the butter in a small saucepan then stir in the sugar.
- Boil for 4-5 minutes, stirring constantly until the sugar dissolves.
- Turn off heat and pour in rum. Stir to combine and reheat for 30 seconds.
- Remove cake from oven and poke numerous times with a toothpick or a skewer. Really poke a lot of holes so the glaze can soak the cake.
- Immediately drizzle about 1/3 of the glaze on the hot cake.
- Let sit on a wire rack for 5 minutes to soak up the syrup.
- Carefully invert the cake onto a wire rack set on a sheet pan or a piece of parchment paper to catch any drips.
- With a toothpick or skewer, poke the cake all over – tops and sides.
- With a pastry brush, glaze the top and sides well to give it a good coating.
- Cool to room temperature before serving to ensure glaze has soaked in. (though it’s very very good warm.)
- Wrapped tightly the cake will keep for a day or two but is at it’s very best the day it’s made.