An Elegy for Van Gogh


When my mom was visiting recently I bought a few of her favorite flowers—sunflowers—for the guest room. After she left they were still lovely, but definitely close to death. Fresh, vibrantly alive sunflowers are fine and all, but it's the dead and dying ones I love the most. The petals deepen in color and take on texture and character. Seeing them in the vase in that state I thought immediately of Van Gogh. And me being me, I thought next of cake.


They've been dormant and drying in the kitchen for a few weeks now while I pondered what, exactly, I wanted to create. Finally, today, inspired by the need to test a recipe for an upcoming article and looking for something to do with the kid after camp I baked up two 6" layers of perfect white cake (recipe in the works) and whipped up a batch of Swiss Meringue Buttercream (from THE BAKER'S APPENDIX). Armed with paintbrushes and some inspiration we got to work...


Episode Four Notebook: Shomari Wills and Mary Ellen Pleasant

 Photo of Shomari Wills courtesy the author. Photo of Mary Ellen Pleasant via The Paris Review.

Photo of Shomari Wills courtesy the author. Photo of Mary Ellen Pleasant via The Paris Review.

Find Shomari Wills on Twitter @showills. Black Fortunes is available wherever books are sold!

 Photo of Octavia House courtesy SF City Guides

Photo of Octavia House courtesy SF City Guides

Pages from one of Mary's handwritten recipe diaries. With thanks for Sho!

The Cake of the Episode—Pineapple Upside-down Pound Cake with Sweet Cream Lime Curd Ice Cream—in honor of Mary Ellen, Sho, and his grandmother.


Pineapple Upside-down Pound Cake
Oven preheated to: 325° 
Pan: 9" round set upon a half-sheet pan

1/2 c (105 g) brown sugar
1 20 oz. can pineapple chunks, drained, each cut in half top-down
1 stick plus 3 T (154 g) unsalted butter, very soft
1 1/2 c (150 g) cake flour
1/4 t baking powder
1/4 t fine sea salt
1/2 c (120 g) whole milk
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 c (113 g) Spectrum brand shortening
1 1/2 c (300 g) granulated sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature

Smear every last bit of 3 T (42 g) soft unsalted butter all over the bottom and sides of a 9" cake pan. Sprinkle and press around the brown sugar. Circle the pan from the outside in with the halved pineapple chunks. 

Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, and sea salt.

Mix together the milk and the vanilla extract.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the remaining 8 T (112 g) unsalted butter with the shortening and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about five minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time, letting the mixer at medium speed for one minute between each egg. Make sure to scrape the sides of the bowl. Alternate the dry ingredients and milk/vanilla in three parts, beginning and ending with the dry. 

Spoon the batter on top of the pineapple, being careful not to nudge the sweet chunks about.  Smooth the top with an offset spatula and set the cake on top of the half-sheet pan before putting the lot in the oven. 

Bake at 325° for 10 minutes, then increase the heat to 350° and bake for an additional 40–45 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center (but not all the way down to the fruity bottom) comes back clean. 

Remove from the oven and set the cake pan only on a rack to cool. After 10 minutes, run an offset spatula around the edge of the pan to loosen the sides, then turn out the cake to cool completely. 


Sweet Cream Lime Curd Ice Cream

I used THIS recipe for the ice cream (sans vanilla) and THIS for the lime curd. I follow the genius Jeni's way of adding goodness to ice cream: alternate layers of ice cream with layers of curd in whatever container you plan to freeze it in. 


Episode Three Notebook: Shelley Miller



Where to find Shelley:


The Cake of the Episode!


For this Cake of the Episode, I decided to create a conceptual cake based off of Shelley's work. Taking inspiration for her POWER graffiti as well as her sugar tile murals, I baked up a 2" round, four layer chocolate cake using basil olive oil, basil an herb of wealth and prosperity in magical thinking.

Filled—and somewhat spackled rather than coated—in a basic shortening-based, American "Buttercream," a beetroot-colored confectioners sugar glaze envelopes the top and sides some, a not-so-subtle hint at the blood of lives lost during the heyday of the sugar trade. Tinted frosting accents ring the bottom of the cake as well as a handmade sugar plate painted in a blue similar to that which Shelley uses on her murals. 


If you're curious, the cake and frosting recipes can be found in THE BAKER'S APPENDIX. The chocolate cake a half-recipe of the variation on Snacking Cake (pgs 64-65) with basil olive oil as the fat, the frosting the American Buttercream (p 74) using shortening, and the Confectioners Sugar Glaze (p 80) with 1t beetroot powder added for color and flavor. Feel free to reach out if you would like me to email you the recipes. 

Ridiculously easy Sugar Plate instructions can be found here

Episode Two Notebook: Jessie Sheehan

 Photo via

Photo via

Where to find Jessie and her books:

The Cake of the Episode!

 Silver Cake with Pink Frosting from   The Vintage Baker  . Photograph by  Alice Gao . 

Silver Cake with Pink Frosting from The Vintage Baker. Photograph by Alice Gao

Recipe HERE

 Cartoon mentioned at the beginning of the episode.

Cartoon mentioned at the beginning of the episode.

 A few booklets from my collection.

A few booklets from my collection.


“Collecting: Vintage Baking Pamphlets.” Martha Stewart Living, August 2011

New Party Cakes for All Occasions. (1931). General Mills Inc

Cake Secrets. (1953). General Foods Corp.

This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. —O. Wilde


Episode One of The Cake Historian Podcast is now live, and available via your favorite podcast directory (or at least, all the ones I know of)! It ended up being a rambling last minute thing due, frankly, to crippling anxiety and fear, but, like pulling off a band-aid, sometimes you just have to do it.  And I'm doing it right here:

studio shot.jpg

I got so, so lucky (thank you Angie) with the immensely talented composer Alejandro Pinto-Hernández (website forthcoming) who kindly supplied original music at the last minute, and sent me files that I could use here. He and I will be working closely on the episodes to come, so expect more of his lovely, moody sounds. 

Speaking of moody, here's a shot of the "Cake of the Episode," a Lemon Raspberry Upsidedown:


The plan is to have one "Cake of the Episode" with each show, some by me, some by others. 


Here's the recipe:

Lemon Raspberry Upsidedown Cake
Oven: 350°
Pan: 9" round cake pan


11 TBS (155 g) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/3 c (267 g) granulated sugar
12 oz (350 g) raspberries, fresh or frozen (if frozen, do not defrost)
1 2/3 c (168 g) cake flour, sifted
1 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1 T lemon zest
2 large eggs
1/2 c (120 g) sour cream
1 t lemon extract

Preheat the oven, then prep the pan by smearing 3 T (42 g) of the softened butter onto the bottom and sides of a 9" round cake pan. Go ahead and use it all, even if you leave some clumps. Over the butter, sprinkle 1/3 c (67 g) of the sugar, creating a thin layer, then spread the raspberries over that. NOTE: I used frozen and waited until the batter was ready before doing this, but it's up to you.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt, and set aside.

Put the remaining 1 c (200 g) of sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer, and rub in the 1 T of lemon zest. Add the remaining 8 T (113 g) butter and cream on medium-high speed until lighter in color and fluffy, about three minutes.

Add in the eggs, one at a time, mixing well for 30 seconds between each egg. Don't forget to scrape the sides of the bowl!

Add the lemon extract and sour cream, and beat until all traces of sour cream have been incorporated. 

Stop the mixer and fold in the dry ingredients gently, but thoroughly, until no streaks of dry are apparent. 

Spread the batter on top of the prepared pan and slide into the oven.

Bake for 45–50 minutes, until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, the top springs back lightly when touched, and a toothpick inserted into the center (but not all the way down to the fruit) comes out clean. 

Remove pan to a rack and let cool 10 minutes, then turn the cake out to cool completely.

Gorgeous on its own, the cake keeps well, and gets a bit better with age, for a few days. Luster fades around day three. 

Thank you to Jes Baker for her wonderful book Landwhale, from which I adapted a quote used in the episode. I originally learned of her via Instagram and, her handle being @themilitantbaker, naturally thought that it was about baking. But when I started following I discovered how amazing she is, even with no cake pictures. You can learn more about her via her website, her aforementioned Instagram, and, of course, through the book:

Landwhale memoir Jes Baker the Militant Baker.png

Finally, here is an outtake from the Podcast image shoot. It encompasses how I feel about cake and how I am approaching my work as The Cake Historian. Have a cake story to share? Don't hesitate to reach out!


Until we bake again.

New site, new podcast, still cake

Welcome to the new home of The Cake Historian, aka, me, Jess Reed. Today marks the launch of this website as well as officially announcing the companion podcast (!!!) aptly (or lazily) named, The Cake Historian. 

This will not be your usual food/baking/sweets blog and podcast. Yes, there will be recipes and yes, there will be interviews with bakers and food writers, but there will also be interviews with artists, writers, strippers, homemakers, anyone and everyone who has a story to tell that involves cake. There will be tales of innovation and invention, love and loss, birthdays made and weddings spoiled. And—perhaps the area I am most excited about—I'll go into the darker side of sweet with stories of ghosts, misunderstood witches, and even murder. 

Have an idea for an episode or a story to tell? Please don't hesitate to email me at

I can't wait to hear what you've got.