Aunt Joel made this cranberry cake for Thanksgiving in 1980, before she was Aunt Joel and before she was Mrs. Davy. Out of the gate it didn’t seem to be such a big deal, which only goes to show how wrong first impressions, can be.
It’s a nice-looking cake, but nothing special. And it’s not hard to make either, so you’re not going to impress anybody that way. But it has a sauce that goes with it, and the sauce makes the cake miraculously greater than the sum of its parts.
The sauce is a simple browned butter and cream sauce. You have to figure — butter and cream, what’s not to like? Still, it’s just butter, cream and sugar. And it has a scary I’m-going to bubble-out-of-the-pan-and-kill-you moment, or as Joel said, glancing over her shoulder the first time she made it for us, “you’ve got to be right with The Man Upstairs to get this part right.” Use a big pan and you’ll be fine; it’s only scary the first time.
You’ll be tempted to fiddle with the recipe because it looks too simple. Don’t. The batter is dense and thick, but it needs to be that way in order to support the cranberries and keep them evenly distributed within the cake as it bakes. And don’t add more cranberries, either – it will make the cake gummy and sour. Also: you have to brown the butter or the sauce won’t taste or look right.
That’s right, I thought I knew better than Aunt Joel. And I was wrong.
Aunt Joel passed away in 2007, and I hope somebody in her family knows where to find the recipe. It’s a classic, and someone should make it every few years to remember what a great cook Aunt Joel was, and what an accomplished hostess, and how, in 1980, she was prettier than anybody and Uncle Kent was so in love that he didn’t know what to do with himself.
Aunt Joel’s Cranberry Cake
makes one 9 x 9–inch cake
- 2-cups sifted flour
- 1-cup sugar
- 3-teaspoons baking powder
- 1-teaspoon salt
- 3-tablespoons melted shortening
- 2/3-cup milk
- 1 egg
- 1-teaspoon vanilla
- 2-cups cranberries
- Grease and flour a 9-inch square pan.
- Whisk the melted shortening, egg, vanilla and milk together.
- Sift in the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
- Beat with a hand mixer (a whisk is not equal to the task) for two minutes.
- Stir in the cranberries by hand.
- Turn the batter into a greased and floured 9-inch pan; bake at 350F for 40 minutes.
- 1/2 –cup butter
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4-cup light cream
- Brown the butter in a large pan; a three-quart saucepan is just about right.
- Whisk the sugar and light cream into the hot, browned butter. The mixture will bubble up and look scary, but keep stirring; it will settle down. If you’ve used a large enough pan, boiling over will not be an issue. Make sure you scrape up any bits of browned butter that are stuck to the bottom of the pan as you whisk.
- Cook and stir over medium-low heat for five minutes – the sauce thickens and takes on a golden color s as it cooks, and the tiny bits of browned butter will be suspended in the liquid.
- Serve warm over cranberry cake.
- Refrigerate any unused sauce; reheat before serving.