One year after it premiered in the United States on the Food Network, Save My Bakery is now showing on the channel’s sister station in the UK.

SpouseMouse and I have been enjoying the programme. For me, the bakeries featured are a blast from the past. SpouseMouse is bemused by what passes for a ‘bakery’ in the United States. ‘First, there are no breads or rolls. Secondly, most of what’s on offer looks as if it were intended for a bake sale.’ I try to explain that that is the nature of neighbourhood bakeries. Although nothing was fancy, everything was a favourite.

Kerry Vincent is the Australian makeover lady who helps beleaguered bakeries out of a hole. She focussed her efforts on Pennsylvania, particularly establishments in or near Philadelphia.

Her brusque manner is offputting as is her penchant for fondant-covered cakes which did not feature in the establishments shown (initially) or in the ones I frequented as a child. Hmm.

However, she does seem to be good at conflict resolution. In every one of these shows, the bakery owners are at odds with their children or younger employees with regard to overcoming an impasse in sales.

I am still thinking about the episode at Schenk’s Bakery in Philadelphia. Their website has a thank you to Vincent for remaking their shop and offering advice on their products. I hope they continue to prosper.

Schenk’s cake line used to feature three cakes which Vincent advised against: pound cake, Washington cake and Goldenrod cake.

The last two came as a revelation. I’d not heard of them before. I was very disappointed that Vincent did not help the Schenks to keep these items on sale by improving the texture and flavour. Washington and Goldenrod cakes are historical artifacts.

Pound cake

But, first, let’s look at pound cake, one of the few cakes which does not need icing. Not so long ago, most grandmothers made pound cake. Mine did and hers was still the best I’ve ever tasted. The best part is the crunchy exterior, the product of the amount of butter in the batter.

In researching pound cake recipes, I was surprised to see how huge they are and that they are now made in ring tins. My grandmother used to make hers in much smaller quantities in a well greased loaf tin. The top used to split ever so slightly, giving a craggy appearance with extra crunch.

A loaf tin pound cake will probably serve a dozen people. The texture is dense and rich, similar to a French quatre-quarts (‘four quarters’, equal weights of eggs, butter, flour and sugar). A little goes a long way.

Since I’ve been on the ketogenic diet, I don’t make it anymore. However, those who enjoy traditional cakes will find it worthwhile practising making it. I would recommend several tries, because it can be challenging getting the consistency light enough. For this reason, I would suggest cutting the following recipes in half and using a loaf tin. King Arthur Flour’s site has the traditional recipe and Chef In Training has one for a coconut version.

Vincent did approve of a remake of the Schenks pound cake, to which they added orange flavouring and topped with sliced almonds. It looked delicious!

The Goldenrod

The Goldenrod, or Golden Rod, was popular in the late 1890s through to the early part of the 20th century.

It is — or was — probably the only full-size triangular cake in existence. This photo from a 1906 cookbook, courtesy of Resurrected Recipes, shows the special tins used:

These tins are not available today, however, using a loaf tin would probably do the trick. Cutting the rounded top off the finished product then neatly slicing diagonally down the middle should produce a good result.

Resurrected Recipes compares and contrasts the recipes for the Goldenrod with another popular cake of the same period, the Waldorf Triangle. Both look easy enough to bake.

The Goldenrod must have orange flavouring in the batter. Vincent said that the Schenks’ version could have used more of it. Why did she not help them with such a small improvement? If I were in the area, I would have loved trying it.

This is another missed opportunity; the bakery could have introduced the Goldenrod to a new generation.

It is also interesting that the Schenks frosted one side with white icing, piped it along the top ridge and frosted the other side with chocolate icing. One wonders if that decoration was particular to Philadelphia or to Mr Schenk’s father who emigrated from Germany and founded the bakery in 1938. Resurrected Recipes tells us that this cake was also popular with German bakers.

Washington Cake

This cake has undergone several reiterations since Martha Washington first made her Great Cake to share with guests on Twelfth Night (Epiphany) 1798.

Her husband George had announced before Christmas 1797 that he would not be serving a third term as America’s first President. He returned to his home in Mount Vernon for the holidays.

Mrs Washington’s great cake was modelled on the traditional English recipe for Christmas cake. It was a pound cake made with currants and spices.

The cook-historian Tori Avey tells us that after Washington’s death, a Manhattan shopowner named Mary Simpson made Washington Cake every year on his birthday, February 22. She was popularly known as Mary Washington, as she claimed to have been one of his slaves. Customers flooded in to buy a slice of cake and a small glass of punch or cup of coffee.

In the 19th century, American bakers created variations of the Washington Cake. One used cherries, recalling Parson Weems’s legend of young George cutting down his father’s cherry tree. When Washington State was incorporated into the Union, their version had apples, the fruit for which the state is known.

Avey says that Philadelphia had its own version, which emerged in the 1950s. The Schenks made this variation, which was a spiced cake with chocolate and scalloped-edged white icing.

Kerry Vincent didn’t like their Washington Cake. Admittedly, the one shown was poorly frosted. However, whether it was the amount of spice in the cake or the frosting, she said it had to go. Unfortunately, the Schenks agreed.

Another opportunity missed! Why not improve it and introduce it to people — especially children — who have never tried it?

Suggestion for the Schenks

My better half and I suggest that the Schenks offer one of these types of cakes — pound, Goldenrod and Washington — on special once a month at the weekend. Make sure Washington Cake in on sale during Presidents’ Day weekend in February.

Have a sign up — ‘This week’s special’ — and tell everyone how good it is. Have some samples on the counter. Let people try it.

It would be a shame to lose these historical recipes for the sake of a few minor improvements to flavour and appearance.

Kerry Vincent

Hmm. She’s an acquired taste, certainly.

However, after having researched her biography, I can understand how her background shaped her outlook on baking and life.

Zap2It has a fascinating, if brief, interview with Vincent. We discover that, like many Australians living on sheep stations (ranches), she went to school via radio. I remember reading about this method of education in geography class when I was eight years old. Households had pedal radios — operated by foot pedal — which, when used with a telephone line, could enable any Australian youngster to communicate with the teacher. Parents were responsible for reviewing homework!

She also told Zap2It that her mother taught her how to bake at a very young age. One of the first lessons young Kerry Flynn learned was how to test an oven. Mrs Flynn told her to stick her hand in it to get a true feel for the temperature. Vincent does the same today because:

I don’t even believe the calibrated oven because it is never calibrated. Shove your hand in, and feel this, and close your eyes, and that’s the temperature you need for a sponge [cake] and the rest of the baking.

At the age of 8, Kerry won first prize in an adult baking competition at Albany Fair in Western Australia.

As a young woman, Vincent was a Western Australia state finalist in the 1964 Miss Australia Quest. She went on to a career in modelling hats and as a cigarette girl:

The fashion co-ordinator at the Perth department store Boans wanted her for millinery: “She said, ‘I could put a jerry [chamber pot] on your head and it would look good.’ ” For tobacco brands Rothmans and Dunhill, Kerry wore navy and white, pillbox hats and white boots, and moved from trackside to cocktail party as a promotional girl. “It was elegant then; you smoked with a pair of long satin gloves and a holder.”

In 1973, whilst on a working holiday in London, she met the love of her life, Doug Vincent, an American oil engineer, in a pub. They married in 1974 and live in Oklahoma.

Vincent’s baking and sugar-crafting career has taken her around the world, winning her accolades from the rich and famous to hundreds of aspiring home bakers.

The Pennsylvania bakers who took part in Save My Bakery say that Vincent’s bark is worse than her bite.

Stephen Riccelli of Schubert’s Bakery in Nazareth said:

I think she’s a very nice lady but I also think she may not have been the best fit for our bakery.

I agree. She never understood the Moravian cake which isn’t exactly patisserie but has deep historical and cultural roots in that part of the Lehigh Valley.

Richard Wilcox of Phatso’s Bakery in Chester told his local newspaper:

The host’s venomous demeanor is just a front, Wilcox said, explaining that Vincent was very helpful and pleasant off camera.

“Kerry is a wonderful lady,” he said. “We had a very pleasant time working with her. She was not the same person when the cameras were off.”

Vincent clearly did not understand the slang word ‘phat’ — beautiful, excellent — which can be used to describe anything from food to women.

It was also a play on words, as Wilcox called his younger son Fatso as a toddler. He gave the name to the bakery. Vincent wanted to change it!

I’m glad to read that Wilcox saved his past awards and put them back on the wall of his bakery.

Vincent insists that America’s tastes are changing. Possibly.

However, there is always room for enduring American, cross-generational favourites. May they — and family-owned bakeries — long continue.

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