I’ve always loved Valentine’s Day, ever since the first time I sat in the middle of my living room floor as a kindergartener, meticulously applying stickers to cardboard valentines emblazoned with Disney characters. I’ve never met a heart-shaped box of chocolates I didn’t like, and a giant bouquet of perfect blush-colored roses accompanied by something equally trite (like chocolate covered strawberries, or a fondue fountain) is the easiest way to make me swoon.
You can imagine my dismay when I married someone who flatly refuses to even acknowledge the existence of the holiday. It took literal years, but I was determined to find something that my husband would find redeeming about Valentine’s Day. It came in the most unexpected form: a retro recipe for a bubblegum-pink cake aptly called a Sweet Story Cake.
The first recipe I found for this cake was in a 1948 advertisement for Spry Cake Improver. Spry was a vegetable-based shortener not unlike Crisco, and claimed that it’s soft, pre-creamed texture made from cakes that not only had a finer texture, but were easier to make.
Unlike butter, which has to be softened and creamed (mixed at 65 degrees Fahrenheit) with sugar before being added to cake batter, you could take Spry straight from the can and add it to your dry ingredients: an early version of the now-ubiquitous one-bowl cake method. Baking with shortening also traps more air bubbles in your cake, which can lead to a higher rise and a softer texture. In short, all good things. (If you don’t keep a can of vegetable shortening stashed in the back of your pantry, this recipe is a good reason to pick one up next time you’re at the grocery store.)
As I dug into my research, most of the recipes I found were fussy layer cakes embellished with whole maraschino cherries, sliced nuts, and mildly horrifying amounts of American buttercream. I really hate making layer cakes. I find them to be unnecessarily complicated, with often unbalanced ratios of cake, frosting, and filling, and hard to cut and store besides. So when I set out to give the Sweet Story cake a little update, I took a shortcut and turned it into a snacking cake.
Snacking cakes are everything that layer cakes are not, with all of a proper cake’s best qualities. You can throw them together on a whim, cut them into squares, serve them frosted or not, for breakfast or in the middle of the day or at midnight. Snacking cakes, like the best romances, can be spontaneous and a little bit messy.
I made this cake on a snowy Saturday in late January. We had a house full of people and half a jar of maraschino cherries in the fridge. From the first bite, people were obsessed–my husband liked it so much, he’s decided it can be our official Valentine’s Day tradition.
For the cake:
- 2.5 cups cake flour, sifted
- 1.5 cups white sugar
- 3.5 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ cup shortening
- ¾ cup whole milk
- ⅓ cup maraschino cherry juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 4 egg whites, whipped to soft peaks
- ¼ cup maraschino cherries, roughly chopped
- ¼ cup dried sour cherries, roughly chopped
- ⅓ cup chopped nuts (you can use walnuts, pecans, almonds, or a combination)
For the frosting:
- ½ cup butter, softened
- 1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- 5-7 drops red food coloring
In a large bowl, sift together cake flour, baking powder, and sugar. Add shortening and mix until it has the consistency of damp sand.
Combine milk, extracts, and cherry juice in a separate bowl. Add ⅔ of the mixture to your dry ingredients. Mix until just combined.
In a separate bowl, whip egg whites to soft peaks. Pour into batter, along with the remaining milk and cherry juice, and mix until no dry spots remain. Gently fold in fruit and nuts.
Bake in a 9-by-9-inch square pan at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 45-50 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean and the top is golden brown. I used Silpat’s tablet cake mold for this recipe, which resulted in a delightfully crisp exterior–and it makes the cake easy to portion into squares for serving.
Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then cool completely on a wire rack.
While the cake cools, beat together softened butter, sugar, and extracts. Tint pink with a few drops of red food coloring.
Once the cake is completely cooled, frost the top with a layer of buttercream.
Store in the fridge for 3-5 days, tightly wrapped. If it lasts that long, this cake gets better as it ages.