The Dynamo

October 27, 2014 in Cakes

Cupcakes tribute to Lyndon Johnson.

Lyndon Johnson is my longstanding presidential crush (not to be mistaken for who I see as the most handsome of the presidents.)

Sometimes I blame this obsession on a cold.  I was home from work convalescing on the couch and I decided to watch LBJ American Experience. As I drifted into and out of shallow sickness sleep, this movie about President Johnson played on. When I woke up, I was intensely interested in LBJ. I’ve been interested in him ever since.

You can tell, based on the titles of LBJ biographies that LBJ was a force. A dynamo? He’s been described as not only a “whirlwind,” or a “tornado” but as, also “a steam engine in pants.” It seemed to be a challenge to avoid being swept up by him, by his energy.

(This is the part where you just have to imagine the noise that I made, either that, or you need to pretend that I never, ever said that.)

Lyndon Johnson believed that the president should be evaluated separately in the categories of domestic policy and on foreign policy. This makes sense. He knew that Vietnam would be the shadow cast over every domestic achievement for which he worked. He understood what motivated people, what made them tick. He also understood how his legacy would play out.

LBJ was portrayed as heartless at times. “Hey, hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today?” He always knew the answer to that question. Each night he woke up to find out the casualty numbers. He knew. He cared. He just couldn’t see a way out.

He did, however, see that the government could help people. He had vision, and secured civil rights advances that shaped the direction of opportunity for years to come. He had seen poverty up close as a boy in Texas Hill Country. He never forgot it, and dug in to make change. He understood the impact that poverty had on people’s lives. He understood how powerful education could be as a force for advancement in someone’s life, and he used the presidency to move forward in those areas.

It’s arguable that a Lyndon Johnson could not have had the successes that he had in his brightest days now. In the age of  continuous documentation of every element of our lives, more so for the famous and the leaders, there are many techniques and characteristics that Lyndon Johnson exhibited that would make him very unpopular today. A man, though, can not be erased from his times. 

He can, however, be remembered for his energy.

Whiskey scented cupcake with pie filling center in tribute to President Lyndon Johnson.

The cake:

This cupcake features pecans because Johnson’s native state, Texas, is one of the biggest pecan producers in the United States. This cupcake features pecans both in the filling, which is pecan pie filling, and in the frosting in the form of chopped nuts. The cupcake itself is more basic. It is a whiskey-scented cupcake. The buttercream frosting, too, is kissed with whiskey, though not Cutty Sark, LBJ’s favorite. Finally, because this is a cupcake that is celebrating the power, the strength of LBJ’s personality, the flavors needed to be over-the-top, too. That is why this richly filled cupcake is drizzled with chocolate.


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The Camelot

October 2, 2014 in Cakes

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Everybody has something trite to say about our 35th President, John F. Kennedy. My trite thing to say about JFK is that an unexpected death can do wonders for one’s image.

I told you it was trite.

JFK, though, was a master of image. He understood the power of a good story, the power of a well-placed joke. He knew how to be photographed. He knew how to be a star.

His wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, also understood stardom. She understood the language of imagery. She also faced the reality of her slain husband with specific attention to his legacy.

The Kennedy presidency is sometimes remembered as the Camelot era. In 1960, Camelot was popular as a Broadway musical. Shortly after the Kennedy assassination, Mrs. Kennedy gave an interview where she told the reporter that she and her late husband had enjoyed listening to the music of Camelot in their time together. Then, she quoted a line from the musical, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

Her understanding of media gave birth to the Camelot association that remains, to this day, with the Kennedy presidency.

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The Cake:

Kennedy’s cupcake is inspired by both the tragedy of his assassination and the attention to image that surrounded him. During the tour of Texas which would be his last trip, Jacqueline Kennedy was often presented with yellow roses. Here,the lemon buttercream frosting nods toward those yellow roses. The rose theme is repeated in the cupcake itself which is rose flavored. Raspberry puree was swirled into the cupcake batter in order to tie the rose and lemon flavors together.

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The Five Star

September 15, 2014 in Cakes

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Dwight D. Eisenhower was the last army general to become President of the United States.

Like Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant before him, his military performance begat his political popularity.  His military history, after all, was a long one. He served in the army from 1915-1953. He didn’t see combat in the first World War. These days they say “haters gon’ hate,” and that was as true in Eisenhower’s day as it is now. When World War II came along, the haters liked to remind folks that Eisenhower hadn’t fought in the first World War. When they were saying this, they didn’t also point out that he had established a camp completely equipped for thousands of troops, and that he had developed a full combat training schedule.

Ahem.

Eisenhower served under a number of prominent generals including Fox Connor, John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, and George Marshall. In 1935, Eisenhower worked with MacArthur in the Philippines. Differences in perspective resulted in an enduring antipathy between them. Between World War I and World War II, Eisenhower’s work was focused on planning the next war. From there his responsibility increased.

Whether or not you like Ike, his military perspective has likely touched your life if you live in the United States. He believed that large cities were likely to be targets in a Cold War-related attack. In such an event, evacuation and military maneuvers would be important. This led to the interstate highway system that we now know and use daily.

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The Cake:

The Five Star cupcake includes 5 different treatments of chocolate. The cupcake itself has a swirl of two chocolate cakes, one darker and one lighter. The cupcake is filled with chocolate ganache. The cupcake has a chocolate malt buttercream frosting and is garnished with a chocolate star. What better way to celebrate such a long stretch of public service?

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The Old Fashioned

July 24, 2014 in Cakes

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Harry Truman helped me through some difficult times. 

Yes, I know; that’s weird.

In a period that was stressful for a number of reasons that are happily in the past, I tackled David McCullough’s Truman. It took forever to read this 1120 page book. After all, those more difficult moments usually aren’t the ones that leave you with tons of energy at the end of the day. McCullough doesn’t weave fairy tales nor deal in hagiography, but each Truman story left me stronger than it found me. 

I know; that’s weird.

They called him “Give Em Hell Harry” because he during a speech a supporter called out, “Give em hell, Harry,” as Truman attacked his political opponents. In response he said, “I don’t give them hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it’s hell,” during the 1948 presidential campaign. “Give Em Hell Harry” became a lifelong slogan among Truman supporters. It was also the name of a biographical play and a movie about the president. In Roger Ebert’s review of the movie, he make’s reference to “Harry Truman’s unique ability to say what he thought in any way he damn well pleased.” This play was anchored around a series of events in Truman’s life, capturing the various roles he performed throughout his life of service.

While Truman objects to the charge that he gave anyone hell, it seems less likely that he’d argue that he wasn’t the recipient of his fair share. A big portion of that was at the hands of Douglas MacArthur.

Give Em Hell Harry vs. Dugout Doug sounds like it should be a stop-motion claymation brawl.

I know; that’s weird.

In this brawl, Dugout Doug violated the established terms between them by making statements that were contrary to the US official position in Korea, and more specifically contrary to Truman’s position. His rogue activities crippled US aims. Harry had to act, and dismissed MacArthur.

At this point, MacArthur was a bit of a public darling and Truman couldn’t compete in the popularity contest. In fact, Truman’s approval rating dipped down to 22% in February 1952, the lowest Gallup poll rating of any sitting United States President.

Truman faced combat in World War I, succeeded to the presidency during World War II, survived a 1950 assassination attempt, and then this! No wonder he liked to have a shot of bourbon in the morning and a cocktail in the evening.

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The cake: The cocktail that Truman often enjoyed was the Old Fashioned. This cupcake is based on these flavors. The cupcake itself is flavored with bitters. It is filled with maraschino cherry juice flavored whipped cream. The frosting is whiskey buttercream and the cupcake is garnished with a cherry.

I liked this cupcake, but I could have been more liberal with the bitters. Like Truman, I should have gone with the flow of what I meant.

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The Fireside

July 12, 2014 in Cakes

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Franklin D. Roosevelt is one of the first presidents that I remember learning about in school. Well, the Roosevelts were more of a unit to me at the time. Now I can’t imagine being unable to distinguish between my Roosevelts.

Many people know Roosevelt for saying, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” In our time, Roosevelt is known for his struggle with polio. We know him for his leadership through the Great Depression, for the New Deal, and the alphabet soup organizations that came out of it. We also know him as the president who led the United States through the majority of World War II.

Despite all of this, the thing that springs to my mind first when I think of President Roosevelt is the Fireside Chat. The Fireside Chats were a series of radio addresses from President Roosevelt to the country. It is an interesting exercise to think about the impact of these chats in their historical context. In the age of connecting with people through things like Twitter, it’s difficult to imagine (for some of us) to imagine the impact hearing the president address you directly.

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The cake:

The cake here is chocolate cake, a reference to the dark times of The Great Depression. The cupcake is filled with cherry compote, which can be interpreted as a reference to all of the blood spilled during World War II. If you find that gross or otherwise unpalatable, forget you ever read that. The topping is a marshmallow frosting. It is toasted, a reference to the fireside element of Roosevelt’s chats.

This was a dangerous, dangerous cupcake. I could have eaten far more of them than anyone ever should. 

The Humanitarian

July 5, 2014 in Cakes

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I have a soft spot for Herbert Hoover.

My first Herbert Hoover memory (I understand that it’s not normal to begin a sentence like that) comes from a book about the presidents that occupied a number of my childhood hours. His entry listed his full name Herbert Clark Hoover. The owner of an associative mind, I then thought of Clark Kent.  Despite Herbert Hoover’s superhero-like name, many of us, thinking only of the Great Depression and his inability to turn things around, don’t know just how appropriate it is that Hoover’s name is somewhat suggestive of heroism.

Any good super hero story begins with tragedy.  Hoover fulfilled that prerequisite at the age of nine when he became an orphan. He graduated on to defying odds, becoming a self-made millionaire by the time he was forty. But it was his work bringing aid to those in need that made Hoover’s name a household one. During World War I, he led an effort to provide food to people in Belgium. Germany had occupied the country and as a result, the people there were starving. Belgium depended on imports for food for the people. However, Britain blockaded Belgian ports. Things quickly became dire.

Hoover used his skills and diplomacy to establish large-scale aid to Belgium, literally saving thousand of lives. 

Hoover’s skills were also put to use following the Great Flood of 1927, though this effort doesn’t come across as flawless as his work during the Great War.

Hoover even put his organizational skills to use during the Boxer Rebellion in China. He and his wife had taken a trip to China when the rebellion began. As a result of this activity, a number of foreigners found themselves trapped in China. Here he led the relief effort for these foreigners, also helping to organize their effort to build barricades around the places where they resided.

Despite his record during his presidency, Herbert Hoover the humanitarian was an effective man of action.

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The cake:

Herbert Hoover and his wife were fluent in mandarin Chinese. They spoke it together when they didn’t want anyone to know what they were talking about. Since Mrs. Hoover was also dedicated to humanitarian causes, it seemed right to play with this fact to create Hoover’s cupcake.

The cake itself is flavored with chinese five spice. It is filled with mandarin orange whipped cream. It is topped with cream cheese frosting.

I liked this cupcake, but want to re-work it. The spiciness of the cupcake overshadowed the orange filling. I was going for a more pronounced orange surprise. Also, I over-baked this cupcake just a tad, but that’s nothing that a little less multitasking and a little more diligence can’t solve.hoover1  

The Silent

April 6, 2014 in Cakes

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If people know that you’re into presidents, that it is your thing, you get to hear a lot of people tell you their favorite presidential anecdotes. One of the stories I hear most often is the one about a woman betting that she could get Calvin Coolidge to say more than two words to her. According to the story, she approaches Coolidge and tells him about the bet. His response: “You lose.”

You might also hear that Calvin Coolidge was the one U. S. President to be born on Independence Day. 

Someone who really wants to give you a run for your money when it comes to presidential trivia might ask you if you knew that he was sworn into office by his own father who was a justice of the peace.

Oh, and he was a redhead. Like Jefferson, Jackson, and Van Buren before him and Kennedy after him.

When I think of Calvin Coolidge, however,  I like to think about his fake family tree. Don’t even bother Googling that, it’s something that exists only in my mind.

I like to think of Calvin Coolidge as  Barack Obama’s great-grandfather. You see, Calvin Coolidge worked the radio and the power of photography.  He took full advantage of any opportunity to be photographed. Coolidge’s son would be JFK who, in my opinion, brought a certain type of celebrity to the presidency. Hmm, on that note, though, maybe Theodore Roosevelt is on this family tree somewhere. Maybe Andrew Jackson?  Ronald Reagan comes next in this imagined direct line, the actual celebrity elected to the nation’s highest office. Reagan understood how to work the camera, after all, he was an actor. Finally comes Barack Obama who, taking after the other men in his fake family tree, knew how to take advantage of the technology of the time, demonstrating this with his Internet campaign for the presidency.

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The cake:

Coolidge has been photographed in cowboy attire, as a farmer, and wearing a Sioux headdress. With this in mind, it seems like his cupcake should be ornamental. So, the frosting  design on these cupcakes are all a bit different. The cupcake itself is carrot flavored. It isn’t a carrot cake cupcake, instead, the carrot flavor comes from carrot juice. The cupcake also has a strawberry jam filling. The frosting is coconut-flavored buttercream.

I think that I could only detect the carrot in the cupcake because I knew that it was there. If I did this one again, I might add carrot puree to bump up the carrot flavor. This one is close, but with a tweak or two, I think it could be better.

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The Teapot

March 11, 2014 in Cakes

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I cringe a little bit every time I think about Warren G. Harding

You see, in the summer of 1994 there was a song called Regulate that played on the radio all of the time This song was by Nate Dogg and Warren G. Knowing that there were scandals in Warren G. Harding’s presidency and knowing that rappers often make clever allusions, I just assumed that Warren G’s name had something to do with Warren G. Harding. 

You can stop laughing now.

Poor Warren G. Harding. He is one of those presidents that many people don’t take seriously at all. It doesn’t help that he launches one of the pockets of presidents many people don’t know about. Wilson? Yes, heard of him. Harding, Coolidge? Ehhh. Hoover? Hoovervilles, the Great Depression. Where’s Roosevelt? If you type his name into Google, the suggestions are: Warren G. Harding football, Warren G. Harding death, and Warren G. Harding black. That is not a sign of someone history is being kind to.

Speaking of Warren G. Harding’s death, there is speculation that it could have been a murder. His cause of death generally accepted to be congestive heart failure, but some people believe that his wife poisoned him. Harding was one of the presidents with lady trouble. By lady trouble, I mean more than one lady out there. Allegedly, he fathered a child outside of his marriage with a mistress. This, along with his wife’s refusal to allow an autopsy to be performed, is what makes people think that his wife poisoned him.

Collectively, we tend to remember scandals. In this regard, Harding’s administration gave us plenty to remember. There were scandals with the justice department and with the prohibition bureau. There were others, but perhaps the best known, the one consistently covered in history classes is the Teapot Dome Scandal. A scandal with a name like that is perfect for cupcake interpretation.

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The cake:

Though the Teapot Dome scandal was about oil. The Teapot cupcake is about tea. The cake itself is flavored with black tea. I wanted to be able to really taste the tea in the cupcake, so I added it in two ways. I steeped tea bags in the milk that went into this cake, and also finely ground loose tea with a spice grinder. That tea was added directly to the cake batter. The cupcake has a bit of lemon curd filling. Finally, it is frosted with whiskey buttercream frosting. I know, I know, Warren G. Harding was president during prohibition. However, he wasn’t known for being a member of the dry movement.

I liked this cupcake, but it wasn’t the biggest hit. I think that the tea-flecked cupcakes made people think that this cupcake was a whole wheat cupcake. Now, I’m not  hating on whole wheat, but I think that there are some wheat haters out there. This was the first cupcake that someone described by saying, “It’s okay.” Hopefully, I’ll return to normalcy with the next cupcake. President Harding would appreciate that.

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The Professor

January 28, 2014 in Cakes

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One of the memories that I have of high school history from the year before I started to hate it (some teachers will do that to you), was a discussion of World War 1. It’s not the discussion that I remember so well, but one student’s ardent desire for peace and hope for what could have been if the United States had joined the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson’s baby.

Woodrow Wilson’s path to the White House was an interesting one. At his core, he was a teacher, an academic. In fact, he’s the only true academic to become United States President. His first presidency wasn’t that of the United States; Wilson was the president of Princeton University. From there he became the governor of New Jersey. Then, he became president. This path doesn’t mean that he was dragged into, or fell upon politics. He had always been interested in politics and thought that the academy was going to be the best way for him to have a politics-related career.

No matter what writers think about Woodrow Wilson’s presidency or the many controversial positions he held, there is one matter that is typically written about in a heroic way. That is his studies. Wilson wasn’t someone who was practically born reading. In fact, his reading was quite delayed, and he didn’t read well until he was around eleven years old. Reading about him in this area is a story of sheer will and determination. You’ll see that he developed a sort of shorthand to compensate for his difficulty in writing. You’ll learn that he bought a typewriter and learned to use it well, another compensation for his handwriting.

But there is another Woodrow Wilson, no less hardworking that the Wilson described above. That is Woodrow Wilson the lover. He seemed to be one of those men who very much need to have a woman in his life. In fact, when his first wife died, he remarried rather quickly. Scandalously quickly. So quickly that it had the potential to be a political liability for him. His second wife, Edith Boling Galt, was also at Wilson’s side, much to the annoyance of some of the people with whom he worked. Wilson enjoyed having his wife in the Oval Office as he worked. Like John Adams before him, and Harry Truman after him, Wilson was one of the presidents who wrote often to his wives. He wrote thousands of letters to his first wife, and several hundred to his second wife. I think you need to see an example.

 “Are you prepared for the storm of love making with which you will be assailed?” Woodrow Wilson to Ellen Wilson

It looks like that Wilsonian determination paid off for him in multiple arenas.

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The cake:

Woodrow Wilson was born and raised in the South. As a result, I wanted to play with southern flavors. By play with southern flavors, I mean use pecans. The cupcake is brown sugar based with chopped pecans and cinnamon. The frosting is a cream cheese frosting. The cupcake is garnished with buttered pecans.

This cupcake was a success! It made me wonder what other president could be honored with brown sugar.

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The Supreme

January 4, 2014 in Cakes


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William Howard Taft was one of the first presidential biographies that I read when I decided a few years ago to embark upon a project to read a biography of each United States President. There are several things that stood out to me about him then. One of them is that he took dance lessons as a boy, and that his familiarity with dancing served him well later in his career. Under President McKinley’s administration, Taft was appointed Governor General to the Philippines. Dance was an important part of the culture there, and his comfort with dancing served him well diplomatically.

Another memorable episode in his life is his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt. Once the men were very close, then like many who were close, they became estranged. Later as older men they were able to put some of their differences aside. Their story felt a little Adams-Jeffersonian, but only on the surface.

Like many presidents, Taft had an ambitious wife. She had big plans for her husband. He always had a love for law and the bench. She had her eyes on more executive functions. In the end, they both achieved their goals for him. In addition to serving the country as President. William Howard Taft also served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by President Warren Harding. Taft is the only man to have held both offices. 

Finally, Taft is the president who started the tradition of the president throwing out the first ball of the baseball season. Every president, with the exception of Jimmy Carter has participated in this ceremonial throw since at sometime in his presidency.

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The cake: 

Because Taft was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, I wanted to play with the idea of Supreme. This cupcake should be decadent. The cake itself is a dark chocolate cupcake. It is filled with semisweet chocolate ganache. It is topped with a whiskey caramel flavored cream cheese frosting. For garnish, this cupcake has more chocolate ganache as well as homemade Cracker Jack, a nod to Taft’s baseball-related trendsetting. Though chocolate cupcakes aren’t my favorite, these flavors played very well together, and have given me some ideas for future presidential cupcakes.

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