Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Recipe: "Picnic" Cake

For a dinner party we had here last night, I baked a cake that has long been traditional in Sue's family.  The much-stained recipe card bears the title "Great-Grandma Becker's Picnic Cake."  That makes Sue and me the fourth generation to bake it.  Exactly how old the recipe is, I can't be sure.  I'm inclined to say that it isn't all that old, because of the use of sour cream.  That wasn't widely available commercially until about the first quarter of the 20th century.  Still, a recipe that's been around for a hundred years is pretty venerable.  That it's time-tested is nice; more importantly, it's delicious.

The name "Picnic Cake" is interesting.  Reading the recipe, I'd be inclined to call  this a molasses cake, or maybe a molasses spice cake.  I think the name "Picnic Cake" came about in Sue's family because this was Grandma Becker's standard cake to make for a picnic.  It's the kind of cake--heavy, dense, and not likely to dry out easily--that would hold up well in a picnic basket.

This is not a delicate gateau:  it's a sturdy, hearty cake.  It keeps well; indeed, it tastes better the next day.  I've made a few slight changes to the original recipe; nothing really major.  My version is a tiny bit moister than the original, and I like that about it.  But no matter what, this is a tried and true recipe that you're sure to enjoy.

(click here for a printer-friendly version)

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • pinch of salt
  • 3-1/2 cups white flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • pinch of nutmeg and ginger
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup chopped nuts, such as pecans
  • 1/2 cup very hot water or hot coffee


1.  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Grease and flour a tube pan or a 9 x 13-inch pan (or spray it with Baker's Joy).

2.  Using a wire whisk, combine the oil, sugar, and eggs in a large bowl.

3.  Stir in the molasses (warm it for a few seconds in the microwave and measure it in the cup you used for the oil--this will make it easy to pour and easy to get from the measuring cup), sour cream, and vanilla.

4.  Add a cup of the flour with the spices, salt, and cocoa, and stir to combine.  Add two more cups of flour, and stir quickly.

5.  Combine the remaining 1/2 cup of flour with the baking soda, and stir that in.  (You could also combine all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and stir them all in at once.  This saves dirtying another bowl, and it works just as well.)  Stir in the hot water or coffee, then the raisins and nuts.

6.  Immediately pour the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top with a spatula, and tap the pan once sharply on the counter to settle the batter and get rid of any large air bubbles.

7.  Bake in the middle of the preheated oven.  The tube pan will take 1 hour and 20 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes.  The 9 x 13-inch pan will take about an hour; less if it's glass.  The cake is done when a toothpick or broom straw inserted into it comes out clean.

8.  Cool 1/2 hour before removing from the pan if using the tube pan.  Dust the top with powdered sugar if you like.  You can serve it directly from the 9 x 13-inch pan while it's still a bit warm, which is also wonderful.

I never met Great-Grandma Becker, but I've met many of her descendants.  There's something very reassuring about baking something that women (and at least one man--me!) in Sue's family have been making for a century or more.  It makes me hope that people we love and their descendants might still be eating this cake at a lovely picnic a hundred years from now.  I'm sure Great-Grandma Becker would be pleased.


  1. Per the recipe, the basic nature of this cake appears to be muffinesque. Is mixing to be done as in the muffin method-- stirring just until all ingredients are moist-- or is the mixture to be stirred enough to create a smooth batter?

    Might slightly-drained plain (or vanilla) yogurt work as well as sour cream?

    Nice story. A good recipe file is great history.

  2. Stir it all you like; you can't wreck this cake. You're basically going for a smooth cake batter. You can even do this in a mixer, if you feel like getting your mixer dirty. It works just fine with a spoon.

    Yes, I've made it with plain yogurt, and that's also good. You might cut down the water or coffee a bit in that case. The batter is relatively thick.

    I hope you try it and enjoy it!

  3. Eek! I just noticed while reformatting the recipe so I can read it (large print with lots of white space, which won't be white after I've used the recipe a few times) that the hot liquid isn't mentioned in the procedure. I suspect it is added after all the dry ingredients are stirred in, just before the raisins and nuts are stirred in.

  4. EEK is right! That's my nightmare, and it finally happened. Fortunately, you guessed correctly. And I've fixed it. Thanks for the catch!

  5. Thank you. I have an applesauce cake recipe from my grandmother (died in 2002 at the age of 108) that uses baking soda for leavening and includes hot water. The baking soda is dissolved in the hot water and mixed in at the last. Apparently this keeps the soda from giving off too much carbon dioxide before the cake needs it.

  6. I've seen that in old recipes, too, but I had never heard the explanation. Here, the hot water thins the batter a bit and yields a moister result. In the interest of full disclosure, this is one of two changes I made to the recipe. The other was substituting oil for shortening and increasing the quantity (the original recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of shortening and doesn't have either hot water or coffee in it). You might want to try it with the lesser amount of fat and without the water or coffee to see what you think.

  7. Oh, I also meant to point out that you wouldn't want to dissolve the soda in the coffee, because the acid in the coffee would activate the soda and lessen its leavening effect. In fact, soda fizzes in my tap water, too, so I wouldn't mix it in with that, either!

  8. My grandmother lived in southwest Arkansas, where the water is rather soft, and activating the soda wasn't a problem for her. My coffee would certainly activate soda-- I like it strong.

    Was one to cream the sugar and shortening together? That's a lot of sugar for 3 Tbsp. of shortening-- and a lot of hard work; I'm getting carpal tunnel just thinking about it. (Our ancestors seem to have been made of sterner stuff.) But that would explain the smooth batter: you've converted this into a chiffon cake. Interesting. I guess the next step would be to substitute applesauce for the oil.

    Thank you.

  9. Yes, the shortening and sugar were creamed together. Trust me, this is no chiffon cake. It's hearty stuff. Adding a little more oil and some hot water just moistens the batter a bit.

  10. Your comment that this was now a chiffon cake troubled me, because it's nothing like any chiffon cake I've ever tasted. So I did a little research: for chiffon cake, you'd use a whole lot more egg, and you'd separate the yolks from the whites. You'd then make a meringue of the whites and fold them in at the end. By using the eggs whole--and, I suspect, adding the molasses--you end up with something far more rich and dense than a chiffon cake.

  11. Right. The chiffon cake was invented in order to allow the use of oil instead of shortening, and I was thinking more of that than of the meringue. (The use of a meringue in the chiffon cake provides aeration normally created in the creaming process.) More correctly, the use of oil makes this more like a muffin recipe, as I said earlier, but the stirring into a batter gives it a finer crumb and more even texture than a muffin would have, with a similar heft.