"I felt I'd been born in a kitchen and had lived there all my life."
This is a confession. A man has been shot dead. The speaker is sitting in a police station wearing a fur coat. She dishes up a simmering story of love, jealousy, and murder - all beginning with cakes and pies.
In Mildred Pierce (1945), film noir is blended with "women's melodrama," creating a richly marbled effect. Joan Crawford plays a devoted mother and housewife, who earns a bit of money on the side baking birthday cakes for neighbors, in order to pay for extras for her daughter, like music lessons and fancy clothes.But when her husband suddenly leaves her with a stack of bills to pay, Mildred shifts into kitchen overdrive. She gets a job as a waitress, using her free hours at home to bake peach, berry, and cherry pies for the restaurant. But her exquisitely monstrous daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), isn’t satisfied. She is ashamed of her mother's "common" occupation and has her sights set on high society. Desperate to please Veda, Mildred uses her considerable culinary talent to open a restaurant, which soon becomes a chain, and then an empire. But when a handsome ne'er-do-well from the society pages steps in, tensions between mother and daughter come to a boil.
Here's a deliciously dark-noir recipe from an ad of the period in Life Magazine. (We speculate that the "2 eggs" reference is due to wartime rationing.)
Double Mocha Chocolate Cake
2 cups sifted Swans Down Cake Flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
4 squares Baker's Unsweetened Chocolate
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup coffee syrup [recipe below]
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup sour milk or buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs, unbeaten
(To make coffee syrup, bring 1 1/3 cups water and 3 tablespoons sugar to a boil; add 3/4 cup ground coffee. Remove from fire, cover, and let stand 5 minutes. Strain through double thickness of cheese cloth.)
Sift flour once, measure, add salt and soda, and sift three times. Combine chocolate, butter, and ½ cup coffee syrup in top of double boiler; place over boiling water and cook until chocolate is melted, stirring constantly. Cool and add sugar. Add flour and milk alternately in two parts, stirring until blended. Add vanilla and eggs and beat 2 minutes. Bake in two greased 9-inch layer pans in moderate oven (350° F) 30 to 35 minutes. Spread Coffee Butter Frosting made with remaining coffee syrup between layers and on top and sides of cake. Decorate with a border of chopped pecans.
Coffee Butter Frosting
2/3 cup butter
5 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
5 tablespoons coffee syrup (about)
Cream butter. Add part of sugar gradually, blending after each addition. Add remaining sugar, alternately with coffee syrup, until of right consistency to spread. (All measurements are level)
Sara Kate is the founding editor of The Kitchn. She co-founded the site in 2005 and has since written three cookbooks. The third, written with co-author Faith Durand, is The Kitchn Cookbook. It will be published in Fall 2014 by Clarkson Potter.
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