In the house where I grew up, the kitchen had an oven mounted on the wall, so high up that I couldn't reach the handle to open the door until I was eight years old.
My mother wasn't tall, either, and I remember her hefting all sorts of things into and out of the oven. Chickens, turkeys, fish, meatloaf, pots of this and pans of that, but not one single cake went in, or came out.
Is it any wonder that I never heard of cake flour?
Made from soft wheat flour, cake flour has a much lower protein count (6-8%) than all-purpose flour (10-12%), which is made from a blend of hard and soft wheat. Most cake flour is treated with dry bleach and chlorine gas, which change the nature of the wheat starch, allowing it to absorb more liquid. Bleaching also makes the flour more acidic, ensuring that the starch sets more quickly, which means that foods made with cake flour will be lighter than those made with all-purpose flour.
Until last year, all cake flour on the market was bleached, but King Arthur Flour now offers unbleached cake flour, with no added chemicals. A blend of wheat flour, malted barley flour, and unmodified cornstarch, it sells for $4.50 for a two-pound box.
You can make your own cake flour; for every one cup of sifted cake flour, substitute approximately 3/4 cup sifted bleached all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Note that this really is an approximation. If you want a consistent product, buy commercially produced cake flour. (You can make your own gluten-free cake flour, too.)
Black and white cookies with royal icing
You're right. These cookies aren't black and white, like the cookies we used to get in New York when I was growing up. They're not, but they could be. The cookie recipe comes straight from the Lower East Side, from The Veselka Cookbook, by Tom Birchard with Natalie Danford. Real "black and whites" are covered with fondant, but I had leftover Royal icing, so that's what I used. It worked well and tasted better than fondant, even if my color selection was a bit limited. Makes 18 large, cake-like cookies.
1-3/4 cups sugar
16 Tbsp (8 oz) vegetable shortening
6 large eggs
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
6 cups cake flour
1 Tbsp plus 1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk (I used skim milk; use whatever you have on hand)
1 batch of Drop In & Decorate Royal icing
Preheat oven to 375°F. Line three cookie sheets with parchment paper.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, cream together the sugar and shortening on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs and vanilla.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt.
Add one-third of the flour mixture to the mixer and beat to combine; then add one-third of the milk and beat to combine. Continue to alternate with two more additions beating smooth between each addition, until the flour mixture and milk have been incorporated.
Fill a pastry bag fitted with a round piping tip (or a ziploc bag with one corner snipped off), and pipe cookies about 2 inches in diameter onto the prepared cookie sheets. Wet your finger with water, and press down the center of each cookie to flatten the little point that sticks up from the piping.
Place cookie sheets in the oven and reduce the temperature to 350°F. Bake cookies for 5 minutes at 350°F, then reduce oven temperature to 325°F. Bake until the bottoms of the cookies are golden and the tops are firm, 12-15 minutes.
Slide the parchment paper with the cookies to racks, and allow the cookies to cool completely.
Divide the icing in half, and mix each half with a different color (black and white, blue and green, red and pink, whatever you wish). Place each color into a plastic squeeze bottle or ziploc bag with one corner snipped, and decorate the cookies as in the photos.
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