Which is the fairest cake of all?
Sprung from The Recipe Box Project, blueberry cake provokes worthy challenges, but takes the top shelf
It all started innocently enough. Debra Samuels, the food section contributor who is overseeing the Recipe Box Project, in which readers are sending us their favorite family dishes, received a blueberry cake with streusel topping. She made it immediately and as soon as it was out of the oven and cool enough to taste, she called to say, “This is the best blueberry cake I’ve ever had.’’
“Really?’’ I said. “I’ve just tasted the best blueberry cake I’ve ever had — at an inn in Maine.’’
We mentioned this to several people and immediately other blueberry recipes started stacking up in our inboxes. We intended to ask you, dear reader, to chime in, but our ovens were quite full in no time. We think of it as a classic New England community cake. Everywhere you go, someone has a recipe for one, often from a mother or grandmother. For this comparison, we wanted formulas that used nothing like sour cream to amp up fat content, and no funny flavorings. With six cakes in hand, we stopped testing and started tasting.
Janine Sciarappa, culinary arts baking instructor at Boston University, made all the recipes — most twice — so each would have one person’s touch. She added a pinch of salt to the cakes that were lacking that. We also decided to toss the berries in 1 tablespoon of flour for each recipe in which that was possible. This prevents them from sinking in the batter.
We had two Bundt cakes, one from the Harpswell, Maine, innkeeper I had bragged about. Anne Moseley of Harpswell Inn uses frozen wild Maine berries. Another recipe is from the Globe trainer’s mother (we exercise where inkwells used to be stored, and after this project, we needed to!). Carole Cohen sent in what my own mother used to call a “sister-in-law’s recipe.’’ Instructions said to bake in a rectangular pan and it was such a pathetic pancake, we asked if she gave us the right instructions. Please use a Bundt, came the next e-mail. Hers is glazed with an almond-flavored icing.
We also tasted the recipe that started all this, sent in to the Recipe Box Project by Jane Connelly of Scituate. Hers is baked in an 8-inch square and has a thick streusel topping, no nuts. Lynne Wilson of Wilson Farm in Lexington gave us her blueberry coffee cake, also streusel topped, but with walnuts. Pat Concree of the Blueberry Farm in Hanson sent in a recipe for a large rectangular cake with a thin lemon glaze. At the last minute, I added a blueberry loaf cake my cookbook coauthor Julie Riven and I have been making for years, which has a crusty top from a sprinkle of granulated sugar. (When I made one early on to see if it was good enough to enter, my sister told me, “It’s tasteless’’; but what are sisters for?)
It seems amazing that you can take flour, leavening, butter, sugar, eggs, and milk and make such different confections: two Bundts, two squares, one loaf, one rectangle; both squares had streusel topping, the rectangle and one Bundt were glazed. Many in the eager group who gathered at The Globe to sample the cakes liked the way a Bundt cake looks. As one said, “It’s always appealing because of the design.’’ Some thought the large rectangular cake with glaze looked like it had a former life as a doughnut. Another said it resembled something from Entenmann’s.
And now to the taste: The Harpswell Inn Bundt cake, said one, “is very serious, very professional.’’ Several chose it as a favorite. Someone else thought it was gummy. There were hardly any comments on the smaller Bundt with almond icing. The simple loaf cake had many fans — first or second choice for the tasters — because of its texture, which is like pound cake, and “the best tasting blueberries.’’ In fact, all the blueberries were from New Jersey (local ones had not arrived yet).
If you fall into the must-have-streusel camp, you had two squares to choose from. Wilson’s cake got both the worst and best reviews. Someone thought it tasted like banana, another said it must have whole grains (it has neither); one savvy person commented on the baking soda “and I can taste it.’’ (This ingredient surprised our professional baker because there is no acid in the cake to offset the soda, so the baking soda makes the flour dark). But its fans were adamant: “Who’d have thought such a sad piece of food would be so delicious?’’ “Very light. It feels like a treat.’’
In the end, Samuels’s rave about the cake the reader sent in was justified. Nearly everyone chose the streusel-topped square as first or second choice. “Nice blueberry taste,’’ said one. “Best texture on top, plus cinnamon,’’ said another. “It’s crunchy, still cakey, and I like cinnamon paired with blueberries.’’ “It’s everything a blueberry cake should be.’’
When Connelly sent in the cake, she wrote, “It travels well and my kids have made many friends in their dorms over a piece.’’ Recently, when she made it for the first time this year, she told us, “My husband took a bite and said, ‘This is the best cake.’ ’’
Mrs. Connelly, your husband is right.