Lemon Poppy Seed Crazy Cake

  • Serves: Makes one 8-inch (or 9-inch) square baking pan
  • Baking Temp (degrees F): 350
  • Views: 7987
  • Comments: 2

Variation: Wacky Chocolate Cake
The preparation couldn't have been simpler. Into an ungreased pan we sifted a combination of flour and baking powder, with added sugar and poppy seeds. Three round indentations then were formed in the dry mixture. Into one went lemon juice and vinegar, in the second a small amount of vanilla extract and in the third canola oil. The final step was to pour boiling water over the whole shebang and stir until it morphed into a smooth batter. And, then bake!

From the LA Times: "I call them folk art cakes," says Sarah Phillips, founder of the website CraftyBaking (formerly baking911.com). "They're ingrained in our society. They're easy to make, delicious, you make them in one bowl or two, they get passed down through the centuries."

While some cookbooks place the origin of crazy cake in the 1970s, food historian Lynne Olver, a reference librarian who created the website Food Timeline (www.foodtimeline.org), says that the cake existed as early as World War II, when rationing forced bakers to deal with shortages of key ingredients like eggs and butter.
"I bet you could push that recipe back even further," says Olver, adding that though the cake may have been born from necessity, by the 1970s women's magazines played a role in making crazy cake seem modern and trendy: "You were not just making a cake, you were conducting an experiment."
Olver speculates that the recipe was probably discovered by accident by a creative home cook: "Using vinegar in baking was not uncommon in the late 19th century. Presumably, the method (all mixed in one pan) was the byproduct of necessity. Smart cooks have been doing this for thousands of years."

1 1/2 cups (6.4 ounces) unbleached flour; use a a higher-protein all-purpose flour, such as King Arthur brand.
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup poppy seeds; store in freezer when not in use

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons canola oil

1 cup boiling water

1. Position an oven shelf in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Into an 8-inch (or 9-inch) square baking pan, sift together the flour and baking powder. Stir in the sugar and poppy seeds until well blended.

3. With the handle of a wooden spoon, make three holes in the flour mixture.
Put lemon juice and vinegar in one hole, vanilla and lemon extracts in the second and the canola oil in the third.

4. Pour the boiling water over everything. Stir with the wooden spoon until the mixture is JUST incorporated.

2. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs, but not batter, about 30 minutes.

3. Cool the cake on a wire cake rack, then brush with a fruit glaze or sprinkle with powdered sugar.

1/4 cup apricot jam
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon water

1. In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the jam, lemon juice and water.

2. Continue to cook under low to medium-low heat, stirring frequently until the jam melts, about 3 minutes.

3. Remove from heat to a small bowl. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 1 week.

Each of 12 servings, with fruit glaze: 220 calories; 2 grams protein; 34 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 9 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 mg. cholesterol; 20 grams sugar; 65 mg. sodium.

Wacky Chocolate Cake

The key challenge of crazy cake is getting the cake to hold together. Corriher explains that in a normal recipe, eggs and flour supply the protein required to set and hold the cake. Without eggs, the flour is responsible for giving the cake its form and texture. For crazy cake, she says it's essential to use a high-protein all-purpose unbleached flour such as King Arthur.

"You need a flour with all the protein you can get," Corriher says. "When you add water to flour and stir, the proteins in the flour grab the water and each other and make these springy elastic sheets of gluten. . . . With an eggless cake, you don't have much to hold the cake together. So you've got to give those glutens every advantage to get together. The reason for the vinegar in the cake is to do this. An acidic batter helps the proteins to set faster. And the other thing that helps is the ca-razy method of putting it together."

Forming the three holes, then pouring water over all and stirring allows the oil to float on top of the liquid, letting the water get directly to the flour, so it can make some gluten.

Food scientist Harold McGee explained in an e-mail that the acidity is necessary to react with the baking soda and produce the air bubbles that leaven the cake, making it lighter. Hot water speeds the reaction and if the water is hot enough, it will also thicken the batter, which would help it retain the bubbles and make the cake lighter still. But he also suggested that substituting baking powder, which leavens both with acidity and the heat from baking, would make an even lighter cake.

McGee was right, I got much better results using baking powder. And when I used a combination of fresh lemon juice and cider vinegar, the texture of the cake was just right.

Recipe adapted from Mad for crazy cake, By Emily Dwass, Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2010

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