The Beauty of Bundt

Heavenly: A cathedral-shaped bundt cake from a Nordic Ware pan
courtesy of Nordic Ware

by Susanna Short
$16.95, Minnesota Historical Society Press

5005 Highway 7, St. Louis Park

So, I'm flipping through the latest Williams-Sonoma catalog and I come across a funny, oblong, scallop-bladed knife. What is it? It's a $99.95 "sandwich slicer" with a rounded tip "ideal for spreading condiments." Well, snap my snowmobile-suit straps and call me Elmer, what'll them city slickers come up with next? A hundred-dollar way to get mustard onto bread.

I rolled my eyes and turned for relief to my new copy of ReadyMade, my favorite shelter magazine. Under the heading "Five Simple Ideas for a Festive Holiday Table" I read: "Rather than buying flowers that will promptly be removed when dinner is served, forage the sidewalks for fallen sweet gum tree burrs and use toothpicks to connect them in a starburst pattern. Spray-paint the assemblage with a metallic color for an atomic-era centerpiece." I'm guessing if you start foraging now you should hit some sweet gum tree burrs by the time you get about halfway through Arkansas.

But why aim so low? Here's my far superior idea for your holiday table: For the price of only a few handfuls of fresh grass, you could entice the nearest Galapagos tortoise to remain in the center of your table through several courses, to show your loved ones you really do care, and thus fill them with rosy memories.

Or, you know, you could bake a cake.

Because there's a time and a place for diver-caught scallops on a bed of sea-urchin tartare in yuzu foam, and there's a time for plain, virtuous, real home cooking. And I think that time might be now.

Because you know what I like? Bundt cake. You know why? Because you can take an ingredient-first philosophy and use the freshest, most local, best butter, eggs, cream, and so forth to make them, and when you do, you know what you've got? Real food. Butter. Eggs. And so forth. Nuts and berries if you like.

You know why else I like them? Because many take mere minutes of prep work, and they don't require any equipment. Every Bundt cake I've ever made—even the fancy chiffon ones—was done with a couple of mixing bowls and my Grandma Kay's 1970s-era handheld electric mixer.

Finally, I like them because I like to buy American and I have lots of hometown pride. Bundt pans are made by Nordic Ware, just west of Uptown Minneapolis, in a factory near the intersection of Highways 7 and 100 in St. Louis Park. The pans were invented in 1950 by Nordic Ware engineers trying to replicate a German coffee cake pan, or "bundkuchen" pan, for Jewish women working on a fundraiser at the local Hadassah society. Engineering the pan was no mean feat. It has to be made of thick, highly conductive metal to allow the cake batter to form the crust that allows the cake to release easily from the mold.

I went to the new Nordic Ware Outlet store in St. Louis Park for this story, and watched an instructional video about how the pans are made. It impressed the bejeezus out of me, as it involves lots of molten aluminum (so that's where those recycled cans in the alley go!), hand labor, and machinery the size of houses.

Of course, part of the joy of Bundt cakes comes from the Bundt pans themselves: While I think Williams-Sonoma's $100 sandwich knife is an object for the spendthrift insane, I think their exclusive Nordic Ware pan of cupcake-size vintage toy cars ($34), including a '60s muscle car that just might be a Trans-Am, is the cutest thing since cartwheels, and my number-one thing of the year I don't need but must have. (I already have the cupcake pan that looks like train cars, available at both the Nordic Ware store and Williams-Sonoma, and every time I assemble that train I get the same thrill I got when I was seven and received new Barbie clothes: So cute! So, so, so cute. It's an un-nuanced thought, but one that permeates me down to my toes: Now I have a toy train I can eat! Joy!)

YOU KNOW WHO else likes Bundt cakes? Susanna Short, the author of the brand-new book Bundt Cake Bliss ($16.95) from the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Short's book includes some 50-odd cake recipes, some family heirlooms, some Midwestern scratch-baking classics, some newfangled gourmet recipes (like one with pine nuts and ground, dried chiles), and even a few campy, retro Jell-O "salads" (like the one with pretzels, Cool Whip, and strawberry Jell-O).

I like Bundt Cake Bliss for a lot of reasons, not least because it's hard to find the old, classic, scratch-baking Midwestern recipes without collecting vintage cookbooks. There's a recipe for grinding a whole orange in with the batter that I find particularly intriguing, for instance. And I always wondered how exactly you got those 3-D Easter lamb cakes to look like woolly white lambs. (Answer: With a frosting made mostly of butter and confectioners' sugar, enhanced with lots of flaked coconut.) So I trundled over to Short's St. Paul house, which is unnervingly within earshot of the wolf pen at Como Zoo, to talk to her. I learned that Short likes Bundt cakes even more than I do, and even sees them as rather subversive.

Short is a preacher's kid who grew up among an extended family of farmers, some dairy, some corn and soybean, in the Battle Creek, Michigan, area. In a lot of ways it was an ideal childhood. Short's parents loved kids and being around them, and would do things like invite all of Short's friends for a sleepover on the night before an expected snow day, so a full day of Bundt cake eating (starting off with a Bundt-pan cinnamon roll loaf, called Bubble Loaf) and cross-country skiing could follow. Of course, adulthood made things more complicated. "I was the first woman in my family to go to college, to move away, to go to Europe, to marry a girl," Short told me. "Not all of those were seen as positive developments."

Years of creating a non-farm-girl adult identity followed, years when she went to sophisticated urban dinner parties with nary a Bundt cake in sight. She worked as a clinical social worker, adept at crisis intervention, often in domestic violence cases. Then came a brain aneurism, which by all rights could have killed her, but from which she miraculously recovered. Then came the Bundts. "It was like: I'm not dead!" Short said, laughing. "So it's time to celebrate myself. I realized: I went to college, I married a girl, and guess what? I like Bundt cake—that's who I am. Deal with it."

Once she embraced her Bundt cake past, Short told me, basic ideas about the nurturing role of cooking became ever more important to her. "I love complicated cooking, and I have friends who are fabulous cooks but basically make one blowout meal four times a year. I know people who are like, 'Oh, we never eat sweet corn without truffle salt,' but that's not me. I think it's important to get dinner on the table every night, and the experience of making food in the real world is what's important."

When Short was growing up, her mother always cut extra portions of Bundt cakes for her children to deliver on plates to elderly neighbors, an experience that Short treasures, and which has little in common with the truffle-salt trends of today. Now Short bakes and caters for her church. "Bundts, for me, are a symbol of a way of cooking that everyone can participate in. They were invented because people who came from really far away wanted to make this culture their own. They're beautiful; they're not hard to do. Any 10-year-old can make one." Short's own 10-year-old frequently does.

"The Bubble Loaf I make for my kids is the same one my mother made for me," Short said, "and I'm just softhearted enough to hope they'll want to have kids of their own and make it for them. If it's inconvenient for me sometimes to bake—I'm busy, I'm tired—so what? That's what your life is, the things you do when you're tired that are worth doing, that show people you care. It makes me kind of sad sometimes now, we have a church potluck and everything is from Kowalski's. But for me, it's been an enormous relief to realize, no, I don't have to choose between my contemporary self and my past self. It's not an either-or.

"It's funny, during the last presidential campaign, when all that nasty advertising [opposing gay marriage] was going on, this older man at my church came up to me and said, 'You know, Susanna, I want you to know, when I see you I never think, oh, there's the gay caterer. I think, oh, there's Betsy and Susanna. I wonder what sort of Bundt cake you're going to bring to the deacon's supper.'" Short paused and stuck a fork in the innocently simple apricot-almond pound cake she had baked for my visit. "That's Bundt cakes," she told me. "It feels great to do what I love and be who I am and not worry about what it is magazines think I should do."

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