Much like Adrienne Rich did at the advent of the Gulf War with her book-length poem, “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” after this heartbreaking year many of us are taking stock of our nation, the people in it, and what it means to live in a fractured society today.
We are seeing the same things now that Rich saw then: we are mired in the beauty and pain, the vast inequities this disaster has laid bare, the ever-widening expanse between people’s lived realities, the displays of empathy, and the showcasing of callousness. Our history looms large over us and still we turn from it. Our past repeats on an endless loop but we chase the fleeting pleasures of modern life.
In the last section, entitled, “Dedications,” Adrienne Rich turns to the readers of this poem and extends her loving eye outward. I think of the mother she evokes, warming milk for her child while she reads the poem, and I feel like Rich sees, knows, remembers my own mother warming milk for me as a child so that I would feel safe for a moment in this difficult world.
In the spirit of the radical hope that both my mother and Adrienne Rich seem to share, I have adapted the Depression-era baking technique of adding hot liquid to a batter that results in a simple, impossibly plush cake that retains its sweet freshness for a long time on the counter. The scent of it baking transported me instantly to those fretful childhood nights soothed with a cup of cinnamon-laced warm milk.
A note about ingredients: I call for unrefined nut oil here, which really brings out the toasty flavors of the browned butter. If you have a nut allergy, I suggest using pumpkin seed or avocado oil. Neutral vegetable oil will certainly work as well, although the cake won’t taste quite as complex. Finally, this cake is pleasantly sweet and milky so therefore excellent with a cup of strong coffee.
Cinnamon Hot Milk Cake
- Cooking spray, for greasing pan
- 4 large eggs
- 2 cups (241 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ⅓ cup (67 grams) unrefined nut oil, such as macadamia, hazelnut or almond
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 cups (397 grams) organic cane sugar
- 4 tablespoons (57 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 cup (227 grams) whole milk
EQUIPENT: Stand mixer or hand mixer with whisk attachment, large bowl, metal mesh strainer for shifting, 9” by 13” baking pan with at least 2” sides, saucepan, measuring cups & spoons, heat-proof spatula
YIELD: One 9” by 13” cake
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit (162 degrees Celsius). Lightly coat 9” by 13” baking pan with cooking spray and set aside.
- Crack eggs into the bowl of an electric stand mixer and place bowl on top of preheating oven to come to room temperature while you assemble the rest of the ingredients.
- In another large bowl, sift together flour, kosher salt, baking powder and cinnamon. In a glass measuring cup with a spout, measure out nut oil. Add vanilla and almond extracts to the oil.
- Add sugar to the mixing bowl with eggs and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Stop the mixer and use a spatula to scrape down the sides and the bottom of the bowl. Beat for 30 seconds more, and then reduce speed to low.
- With the mixer running on low, slowly stream in nut oil and mix until fully incorporated.
- Stop the mixer and add the flour mixture. Beat on low until just incorporated (a few dry streaks at this point are fine). Stop the mixer and use a spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Mix for 10 seconds more and then stop. (Over mixing will cause the cake to be tough!)
- In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. When the butter is fully melted, begin swirling pan. The butter will foam initially and as the foam subsides, the milk solids in the butter will begin to toast. Keep swirling until the butter begins to brown and smell nutty.
- As soon as the butter is deeply browned and smells like toasted hazelnuts, slowly pour the milk into the saucepan with the butter. Be very careful with this step-- the butter may sputter and splash! Bring the heat up to medium and, using your heat-proof spatula, scrape the bottom of the saucepan to loosen any good, browned butter bits on the bottom. Bring mixture up to a bare simmer, stirring constantly. You are looking for steam to rise from the milk/butter mixture and for the surface to tremble slightly, not a full boil.
- As soon as the milk/butter mixture begins to simmer, immediately remove from heat and pour into cake batter. Whisk vigorously for 15-20 seconds or until completely incorporated, taking care to scrape the bottom and the sides of the bowl until the mixture is homogeneous.
- Immediately pour batter into prepared cake pan and place on the bottom rack of the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes.
- After the 30-minute mark, rotate the cake from front to back and place on the top rack of the oven. Bake for 10-15 minutes more, or until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean and you see the cake pulling away slightly from the edges of the pan.
- Cool cake completely on a wire rack. Wrapped tightly, this cake will store at room temperature for up to 4 days.
Sara May is a cook, baker and recipe developer based in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. A recent transplant from the Philadelphia restaurant scene, Sara is passionate about equitable food systems, natural wine and pizza.
Poetry Potluck is curated by Leela Denver and Wren Awry.