Mailman Mike (via Amazon) delivered my very own copy of The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker today. Both the library and I are very happy, as I can now return the long-overdue copy that I couldn't bear to part with.
I flipped through and immediately stopped when I got to Vanity Cakes. Remember in By the Banks of Plum Creek when Laura had a birthday party and Ma made these, and then Laura chased Nellie into the water with the leeches in it?
"She made them with beaten eggs and white flour. She dropped them into a kettle of sizzling fat. Each one came up bobbing, and floated till it turned itself over, lifting up its honey-brown, puffy bottom. Then it swelled underneath till it was round, and Ma lifted it out with a fork. She put every one of those cakes in the cupboard. They were for the party."
-Excerpt from By the Banks of Plum Creek
The cookbook mentions a time when Laura was interviewed about vanity cakes, and here's what she said: "Were crunchy, not sweetened, and were so light, really a bubble that they seemed almost nothing in one's mouth. They were a golden color when fried. They simply puffed up when fried until they were nothing but a bubble." The cookbook also mentions the difference between balloons and bombs being dependent on the cook's deep-frying expertise, which I'm proud to say I do not have.
Lard, 1 to 2 pounds (I used Canola oil)
Egg, 1 large
Salt, a pinch
White flour, 1/2 cup all-purpose
Powdered sugar for dusting
Pour oil in a pot to a depth of 3 inches. Heat it to 350 degrees. In the bowl, beat the egg and salt for a full minute. Beat in thoroughly 1/4 cup of flour. Add more flour, one Tbsp. at at a time, until the batter is too stiff for beating but too soft to roll out.
Cover a dinner plate with flour. With a teaspoon, spoon the batter onto the plate in six separate portions. With a knife turn each spoonful of dough over to flour it, then drop it into the hot oil.
Cook each cake for at least 3 1/2 minutes, during which time it may need help in turning. If it darkens quickly, the fat is too hot. Drain cakes on brown paper and dust with powdered sugar.
Janet's Notes: First off, I used a tiny pot because a 3" depth is a heck of a lot of oil. And while I normally don't worry too much about the minor details, I did use a candy thermometer because I wanted balloons, not bombs--turned out it didn't help. Finally, keeping the oil at 350 degrees was difficult. My oil temp soared up to 400 pretty quickly and turning down the flame didn't bring it back down fast enough, so the Vanity Cakes cooked faster than 3 1/2 minutes. I doubt that made the difference though. You put a big lump of dough in the fryer and it all of a sudden magically disappears and turns into a big bubble? I don't buy it.
My guess is that Laura didn't have a lot of delicious food on Plum Creek (they lived in a dugout underground, after all) and this was a treat worthy of a birthday party for her. Another opportunity to let my kids know how spoiled they are, and isn't that what motherhood is all about?
Janet: They taste like a fried cream puff but without anything delicious inside.
Vince and Sean: No thank you.
Elise: (See photo caption above.)
Max: Can I have a popsicle instead?