Edna Lewis’ Busy-Day Cake. With a Little Rhubarb Compote.

Cake, Desserts, Southern / Thursday, May 14th, 2009


A little over a year ago, I read Molly Wizenberg’s lovely post about one of her favorite rituals: reading from Edna Lewis’ “The Taste of Country Cooking”at the start of each season. Since then, it has become my ritual, too.

It’s easy to get swept away in the way Miss Lewis (eulogized as “the South’s answer to Julia Child”) writes about her childhood in Freetown, Va., a tiny farming community founded by freed slaves, including her grandparents. Memories and menus organized by season. The sounds of farm animals kept in the kitchen during winter snows. The pleasure of following the plow and walking barefoot in the warm, freshly turned soil. The joy of welcoming the cows home in the fall after they’d grazed in the community pasture all summer. Snapshots of the best memories of country life in the 1920s and 30s.

And then there are the menus, like An Early Summer Lunch of the Season’s Delicacies, Morning-After-Hog-Butchering Breakfast and A Dinner Celebrating the Last of the Barnyard Fowl. Each meal celebrates the abundance of the season with meats the family has raised or hunted, homegrown vegetables and fruits, and homemade breads and desserts. After a meal like the Late Spring Dinner (skillet spring chicken with watercress, buttered Jerusalem artichokes, garden green peas in cream, biscuits and butter, pear preserves, rhubarb pie and coffee), Miss Lewis writes, “… We removed our shoes for the season … with a feeling of freedom and an awareness of the fullness of spring, and a delicious meal inside us.”

If ever there were a love letter celebrating the joys of family meals, farm life and the abundance of the seasons, this is it.

My first recipe from the book was the same one Wizenberg chose: Edna Lewis’ Busy-Day Cake. It’s a simple butter cake (moist, dense, crumbly and not too sweet) that you could mix in about five minutes in a stand mixer, but if you have the time, I highly recommend grabbing a big wooden spoon and mixing this one together by hand, just because it feels good and it’s nice to slow things down and enjoy the process every once in a while.

I love Miss Lewis’ description of how Busy-Day Cake was made:

The preparation of a meal on a busy summer day, of which there were many, began before breakfast. The salad greens, vegetables, and berries were gathered while the dew was still on them … A busy-day cake, or sweet bread, as it was really called, was regular cake batter, measured out and stirred in a hurry while the vegetables cooked on one end of the old wood stove and canning was carried out on the firebox end. The batter would be poured into a large biscuit pan and set into the oven to bake.

She adds that this cake was never iced. It was meant to be cut into squares and eaten warm and plain, maybe with fruit left over from canning, and a big glass of “cold morning’s milk.” I didn’t have any leftover fruit, but I did have two handfuls of rhubarb – too little for a pie but the perfect amount for a tangy springtime compote.

However, I think my favorite way to eat this cake is in passing, breaking off a bite or two here and there through the course of the day, as God and Miss Lewis intended.

If you’d like to learn more about Edna Lewis or try some of her other recipes, here are a few links:

“Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie,” a documentary on her life (Gourmet)

Edna Lewis recipes featured in Gourmet (January 2008)

“A Southern Thanksgiving” menu and story on Lewis’ friendship with Chef Scott Peacock (Food & Wine)

Edna Lewis’ Coffee (Saveur)

Fresh Apple Cake with Caramel Glaze (Leite’s Culinaria)

Oven Brisket (Serious Eats)

Busy-Day Cake or Sweet Bread

Adapted from Edna Lewis’ “The Taste of Country Cooking”

Serves 4 to 5 (with leftovers)

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups sifted flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 light grating of nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup whole milk, at room temperature
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter and flour a 10-inch square and 2-inch deep cake pan. (If you don’t have a pan this size, a 9-inch springform pan will work.)
  2. In a large bowl, blend the butter and sugar by hand until it is light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one by one, beating the batter with a wooden spoon after each addition. Stir in the vanilla.
  3. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg.
  4. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the milk, starting with 1/2 cup of flour and 1/3 of the milk, and ending with the remaining flour. Stir well after each addition.
  5. Spoon the batter into the cake pan, and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake about 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. Serve warm with fresh-cooked fruit and a glass of cold milk.

Rhubarb Compote

Adapted from Gale Gand (“Sweet Dreams,” Food Network)

  • 2 cups fresh rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons frozen orange juice concentrate
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch

Place all of the ingredients in a small saucepan on medium heat. Cook until the fruit falls apart and the mixture thickens.


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24 thoughts on “Edna Lewis’ Busy-Day Cake. With a Little Rhubarb Compote.

  1. I read Susan Hill's 'The Magic Apple Tree' at the start of each season! (English country life, with recipes)…now I'm going to look for this book. I love the idea of having such a simple but good cake recipe to hand. Thanks for sharing. Is the house clean yet?

  2. Thanks thanks thanks for the links. I'm not at all familiar with Edna but may have to add that book to my amazon list.

    Also- how great is the idea of removing one's shoes for the season?


  3. What a wonderful post and a tasty looking cake! I recently went on an Edna Lewis book binge and I'm looking forward to trying as many of her recipes as possible this summer.

  4. A beautifully written post – I enjoy your blog very much and this is certainly one of your best – you make me homesick for the farm, and even the lifestyle. Our secret though, OK? I must read Edna Lewis' book and of course make a busy day cake. Thank you so much – you made my day!

  5. Thanks for all the info! I was wondering who Edna Lewis was as I saw this cake on another blog but they didn't provide a link.

    The cake sounds wonderful. Perfect for my house where both my days and evenings are packed with must do's for everyone else.

  6. Mmm, this cake looks so fabulous. I was just thinking about how ridiculous it is that I've never had rhubarb! I simply must rectify that fact. Sorry I've been away from blogging/commenting for so long. I just finished up with my exams and am finally getting around to my google reader :) Everything looks delicious!

  7. Hmmm… I wonder what the "Morning After Hog Butchering" recipe is like… sounds… meaty! Hahha! No, in all seriousness, thanks for this post. She sounds like an amazing person and I will definitely check out those recipes! I just cooked with rhubarb for the first time last night (and just only tasted it for the first time this past weekend) and now understand why everyone loves it!

  8. this was a great post. i absolutely love recipes like this with the most basic ingredients and a fresh fruit component. :)

  9. I love books about cooking and Southern heritage. This one sounds so sweet and perfect! Thanks for posting the recipe. :D

  10. Beautiful cake and that rhubarb sauce looks fantastic. What a spectacular description she gives for this cake. I have not read her writing before, but I will now. Thank you.

  11. I made the cake and the rhubarb compote for supper tonight – it was great! I baked mine in a 9×13 pan (25 minutes), and added a bit of almond flavoring with the vanilla – everybody had a big piece, and the kids are taking the leftovers to work tomorrow for lunch. Thanks for a wonderful recipe!

  12. Good lord! Rhubarb has totally taken over my kitchen! Last week it was rhubarb syrup and this will definitely be on the dockett for this week! I can't wait to try it!

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