Elevate Difference

The United Cakes of America: Recipes Celebrating Every State

I’m the girl who never goes to a party empty-handed. I come bearing brownies, fudge, or cake balls for all of the guests. And every week I make my seventy-eight-year-old great uncle something decadent, and usually chocolate. He has an astounding sweet tooth, despite not having a single tooth left in his head. (Maybe it’s from all the sweets?)

But, truth be told, I really dislike baking. It’s too scientific, too laborious, and feels like a chore. I much prefer the pinch-of-this, dash-of-that approach I take to cooking. I’m also not very fond of sweets, but I always find myself making them because it’s what others love. If it were entirely up to me, I’d show up to the party with a perfectly roasted chicken and a fifth of whiskey—but the world does not bend to my will.

Before receiving The United Cakes of America, the baking books I’d encountered only legitimized my distaste of the craft by suggesting odd techniques, requiring specialty equipment, and featuring overly complicated or poorly written recipes. But Warren Brown’s The United Cakes of America flipped a switch in my head and made me realize baking doesn’t have to be a frustrating affair.

Brown is a former lawyer who shifted his focus to baked goods by opening the Washington, D.C. bakery CakeLove in 2002. He wanted to honor the dying art of baking from scratch. Now years later—after scouring the internet, traveling the country to extensively speak to locals, and compiling a sort of Americana cake history—The United Cakes of America is born.

It all begins with an overview that details the finer points of baking, such as the importance of unsalted butter, when to use different types of sugar, and the utility of equipment like scales, stand mixers, and candy thermometers—none of which I have. But I quickly learned that, while these items are ideal, they aren’t strictly necessary for many of the recipes in the book.

Brown breaks each cake down into sections: filling, wet ingredients, dry ingredients, and frosting. You can prepare each component separately, and once it’s time to actually build the cake, your life is made exponentially easier.

The book is split into four sections—The Northeast, The South, The Midwest, and The West—with each state represented by a different sugary confection. We have the likely suspects: Boston’s cream pie, Mississippi’s mud cake, and New York’s cheesecake. But other cakes are a little more… interesting.

Brown chose avocado cupcakes to represent California, my home state. I love avocadoes. I’ve had them in milkshakes, and I’ve eaten them smashed up with milk and sugar (as is common in many Filipino homes), but it would have been more appealing to honor California’s rich Mexican heritage with a tres leches cake, or something equally delicious. I suppose I was just hoping for more, and, frankly, there is something very off-putting about garnishing a cupcake with a slice of avocado.

On the other hand, I really loved the Texas sheet cake. The chocolate cake portion took only minutes to whip up, but the labor intensive (yet well worth the trouble) chocolate pecan icing and sugar pecans threw me for a loop. This is not a cake for the faint of heart; it has enough sweetness to make your teeth hurt, but in the best way. Needless to say, it made my Great Uncle Willy a very happy man.

The Delaware coffee cake was the best I’d ever had. I was sure I’d mess up the nutty, heavily spiced filling and crunchy, ginger-laced topping since I’ve had so many baking mishaps, but after pulling that glorious golden brown cake out of the oven, I felt a sense of accomplishment.

I may become better suited for baking with age, as it requires a great deal of patience. Unlike cooking, it’s not about instant gratification. There is dough to rise, cakes to cool, and frosting to set up. It’s something different, something slower, something sweet. How could that ever be a bad thing?

Written by: Tina Vasquez, September 14th 2010

I try to bake a new cake every weekend and give it to someone. For me, the delayed gratification of baking is one form of meditation for me. I like that you brought up the difference between cooking and baking through patience.

I actually picked up this book from the library the other day and really liked it. I'm getting married soon, and my fiance and I decided for the reception, we'd bake cakes that represent Missouri and Maryland (where we grew up), New York (where we fell in love and got engaged), and Colorado (where we met, are getting married, and live).

I really like how Brown separates the steps as well. It makes these recipes really user-friendly. My only complaint is that with the rising need for gluten-free baking, I wish more attention was paid to that in the ingredients. Or at least a section on how to substitute allergy-prone ingredients. Other than that, I'm right there with you-- it's a great book.

Safa: I think your idea to bake state cakes according to your love story is a beautiful idea! Good luck on everything and I'm glad you enjoyed the book as much as I did.