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Rachael Walker

In this special series, children's literacy consultant Rachael Walker and many of the authors, parents, and educators she’s met and worked with talk about how books have changed their lives, how to bring books to life for young readers, and how to enrich kids’ lives with good books. (Also visit Rachael at her blog, Belle of the Book.)

Bubble Burst: The Truth About Vanity Cakes

September 23, 2015

Our little journey last summer brought many of the experiences of the Ingalls family to life for us. From sweeping out a dugout to making a corncob doll, we felt like we had walked in Laura’s shoes. But we hadn’t eaten at her table. While Breece and Avery enjoyed a stick of old fashioned candy at nearly every stop, there was very little authentic pioneer flavor to our food experiences along the Laura Ingalls Wilder Highway.

Not that we expected to find blackbird pie or fried salt pork, but we thought that some enterprising restaurateur could have at least put pancake men or heart shaped cakes on the menu. It would have been lovely to try some of the treats Laura rhapsodized about — especially those light, crispy honey-brown bubbles of dough she called vanity cakes.

But nowhere we visited had so much as a package of donut holes labeled “Vanity Cakes” for the tourist trade.

Though we’d left Plum Creek and the prairie far behind, our taste for Laura-related adventures hadn’t subsided. With Janet and Avery back in Boise, Idaho, and Breece and Rachael home in northern Virginia, we decided we’d each try to make Ma’s simple fried treats and share the results.

Vanity Cakes by Rachael, Breece and friends

Laura and Mary had never been to a party and did not quite know what it would be like. Ma said it was a pleasant time that friends had together.

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Since Laura and Mary’s “country party” was how we all got introduced to vanity cakes in the first place, Breece and I thought it would be most appropriate to fry our dough with friends. We have a lot of friends who appreciate fried dough. But to really appreciate vanity cakes and all they represent, we needed Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Shang — both extraordinary authors of children’s books and real bonnetheads.

Wendy, determined that we achieve THE BUBBLE in our vanity cakes, did some reading up on the success and failures of other makers of vanity cakes and found a positive reference to the Indian bread poori (or puri). I consulted my friend Rita, who makes poori and golgappa and all kinds of other delights. We decided that Rita’s advice about making a moist dough that is rolled flat before frying made good sense.

But we also decided that we had to try to fry as described in On the Banks of Plum Creek. Or as close as we could get. Barbara Walker’s The Little House Cookbook has a recipe along with this interesting tidbit of information: Laura Ingalls Wilder never learned to make vanity cakes herself. That didn’t bode well.

Armed with a new deep fat fryer, we assembled our cooking crew at Wendy’s house. For the first time Breece had some male companionship on a Laura Ingalls Wilder adventure — Wendy’s boys Matthew and Jason and Madelyn’s son Graham. Plus we had the enthusiastic Karina and Kate, who even got out their sunbonnets.

Bonnets didn’t get worn for long though and everybody donned aprons. With the fryer plugged in and heating up, we started mixing up dough, with Wendy following The Little House Cookbook recipe while I worked up a variation on the poori using Cream of Wheat.

There was much anticipation as the first vanity cake was dropped in the fryer.

There was much anticipation as the first vanity cake was dropped in the fryer

But then, disappointment and frustration.

Disappointment and frustration with the first cakes

Disappointment and frustration with the first cakes

No puffy, airy, crispy delight! We had dough bombs. Time to modify the recipe. Next up in the fryer was our poori vanity cake.

Poori vanity cake

Not a beautiful bubble, but it was hollow! And crunchy. It also was made without egg. Could it be the egg that made our first cake bomb? Or was it because we rolled and flattened the poori cake? We decided to try different techniques and adjust the recipe.

Poori vanity cake trial and error

Our trial and error continued to yield a lot of errors. The kids were wandering away. We started thinking Laura’s enthusiasm for vanity cakes was a misplaced childhood memory. Which led to Madelyn’s fond thoughts for funnel cake and how, in her imagination, funnel cake was vanity cake.

That sounded good to the kids and to us, though we were all still hoping for bubble shaped treats. So we found a no-yeast beignet recipe.

Beignets

Bubble!

We fried up a whole batch and covered them with powdered sugar. We covered the vanity cakes with powdered sugar too and there wasn’t a crumb left.

All the cooks

After the sugar buzz wore off and the kids were playing Wii (no creek nearby), we talked about what Wilder might really have been remembering when she described, “The cakes were not sweet, but they were rich and crisp, and hollow inside. Each one was like a great bubble. The crisp bits of it melted on the tongue.” Maybe the memory of fun with friends is what made her vanity cakes so rich and delicious. I know that’s how I’ll remember ours.


Vanity Cakes by Janet, Avery, Grandpa and Wren

Aunt Rachael told us that she and Breece made vanity cakes and that we should make them too. While Nama (Janet) got the recipe, Grandpa cleaned up the kitchen for us just so we could mess it up again. My little sister Wren got Nama’s camera to take pictures and I got out an apron.

In the book, vanity cakes are treats for a party, but we are making them just for fun. And to eat!

Mixing the dough

Aunt Rachael said that the only vanity cakes they made that bubbled up was one that was rolled flat first. So that is what we tried. We rolled all the dough out into a thin layer then cut it into four circles.

Flattening the dough

We cooked them one at a time in hot oil until they were brown on both sides. Then we sprinkled on powdered sugar. Lots and lots of powdered sugar.

Powdered vanity cakes

No bubble!

Powdered vanity cakes close up

But still delicious! We ate them all and made some more.

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"The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can't." — Mark Twain