Baking is an everyday act of pure magic. The alchemy of time and heat and chemical reactions that transform a dough or a batter into a stack of chocolate chip cookies or a loaf of banana bread is commonplace, but that never makes the end result any less awe-inspiring.
Or give me New England spider cake! I stumbled upon spider cake several eons ago by way of Jonathan Reynolds' recipe in The New York Times. It had an ingredient list so odd and so intriguing that I had to try it. Vinegar? Cornmeal? Challenge accepted — and I've been hooked ever since!
Contrary to its spooky, Northern Atlantic name, this is no Halloween-themed treat. Instead, the "spider" here is a core of silky baked cream that tendrils out toward the cake's edges like the arms of an arachnid. The unique baking technique gives spider cake its remarkable texture: crumbly and buttery all around with a heavenly surprise in the center. It's like the Twinkie grew up and became its best self — true to its casual origins, yet somehow sophisticated at the same time.
While the inclusion of cornmeal in the recipe may set off breakfast bells, I promise that this cake is too good to limit to one specific time of day. The amount of cornmeal here adds a little snap and sweetness, but it doesn't define the dish. The vinegar, meanwhile, does exactly what buttermilk would do (without requiring another trip to the grocery store). While this is undeniably an excellent alternative to your morning muffin, it's also a welcome afternoon snacking cake — and a damn fine way to end dinner.
It's also a very, very easy cake that asks almost nothing of you in terms of equipment or effort. Mix this up in one bowl with a spoon, bake it in a skillet to give it that delicious crunch, then sit back and enjoy being praised. I like to make this in my 6-inch cast iron pan — it makes a perfect-sized cake for a family to nibble on throughout the course of a day or two. If you're looking for a more substantial cake here, this is a simple recipe to convert. Just use a 12-inch skillet, double the ingredients and increase the baking time to about 45 to 60 minutes.
Recipe: Cream-Filled New England Spider Cake
Serves: 4 to 6
- 1 tablespoon of melted butter, plus more for greasing pan
- 1 cup of milk
- 6 tablespoons of white sugar
- 1 egg
- 2 teaspoons of vinegar (White vinegar is typically suggested, but I love this with balsamic or apple cider vinegar)
- 1/2 cup of white flour
- 6 tablespoons of yellow cornmeal
- 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda
- Generous pinch of sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract (optional)
- 1/2 cup of heavy cream
- Confectioners sugar for topping
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
- Generously butter a 6-inch cast iron pan, then put the empty pan in oven.
- In a large bowl, stir milk, sugar, egg, butter and vinegar together. Let mixture sit for 5 minutes.
- Stir in flour, cornmeal, baking soda, sea salt and vanilla. Mix well.
- Remove your pan from the oven, and pour in the batter.
- Pour cream into the center of the batter.
- Bake for 30 or so minutes, until golden on top and just a little jiggly still in the middle.
- Top with confectioners sugar, and serve warm.
Chef's Note: If you're feeling wild, there's nothing stopping you from pouring on a little chocolate sauce, too.
More Quick & Dirty:
- The best Sunday night comfort meal is rotisserie chicken chili, especially with a pinch of cinnamon
- Cacio e pepe pie is an insanely easy pasta dinner to make on nights when you don't feel like cooking
- A chocolate sandwich tastes exactly as comforting as it sounds — and it's sublime
- The viral feta pasta dish everyone's raving about is even better without pasta
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