Cowboy cake: the family secret EVERYONE knows.

flag-mini-American After making several references to "Cowboy cake" in my last post, I figured it's time to share the secret recipe for my family's favorite brown sugar spice cake. We've been enjoying cowboy cake for years, and it's time to go public with it so y'all can enjoy it, too. Yeehaw!

cowgirl cowboy fabric
Cowboy cake couldn't be easier: it stirs up quickly in one bowl with no expensive, rare or fancy ingredients (except for one very special and secret addition--stay tuned) or culinary maneuverings, baked in a regular ol' 9"x13" pan and topped only with a bit of streusel sprinkled over the batter before cooking. Once baked and cooled (if you can wait that long), it is easy to consume square after moist delicious square, especially if you have a glass of cold milk nearby. Put a plateful of humble cowboy cake on the table and my family will plow through it in a flurry of cinnamon-nutmeg flavored crumbs.

Cowboy Cake 1
You probably have all the ingredients on hand for Cowboy Cake.

This is the cake we've always brought to summer picnics and family potlucks, and mom seemed to make it best. She charred many a chocolate chip cookie in her day, but she could have baked a perfect cowboy cake blindfolded. I felt like I'd joined the superspecial Cowboy Cake Club the first time I made one after moving into my own apartment. With that recipe in my then very small recipe box, it seemed I was in possession of a family treasure.

Cowboy Cake 3
Butter is worked into a brown-sugar/flour mixture to create the batter base and crumbly streusel topping.

Then one day a few years ago I couldn't find the precious recipe. PANIC. How would I replace it? had the family secret died with mom? I turned to the internet, hoping I would find some hint of the recipe out there. After "cowboy cake" yielded only some cute
cowboy themed birthday cakes, I hit on "cowboy coffee cake" and got 89,400 results (in 0.36 seconds, thank you Google). I was elated to find the exact recipe! But suddenly I realized ... this isn't a family secret at all. Dagnammit, EVERYONE knows about cowboy cake.

Pioneer woman with cowboy cakes
Can I seriously tell you ... this was a revelation to me. I really really thought cowboy cake was our exclusive family secret -- that NO one out there knew about it but us. This could have shattered me, but some rational part of my brain quickly adjusted and I thought, of course! This easy, tasty spice cake was probably created by smart pioneer women to supply energy for their hard-workin' cowboy sons and husbands.

Keep yer hands off my cowboy cake
Those hard-workin' women could easily and cheaply obtain all the basic ingredients for cowboy cake -- eggs, flour, butter, brown sugar, milk, leavening -- but didn't have time for fussiness like separating yolks from whites, mixing ingredients in five different bowls, and the extravagance of frosting. The finished cake was meant to be wrapped in waxed paper, packed into a rucksack and eaten with hot coffee around a campfire. Hence the name: cowboy coffee cake. It all makes sense now! I couldn't find any history of cowboy coffee cake, but I'm enjoying my wagontrail version of it.

Cowboy Cake 2
With a twinkle in her eye, mom loved revealing the secret ingredient in cowboy cake: vinegar. One tablespoon of red wine vinegar (or whatever you have in the pantry) mixed with a cup of milk sours it in just a few minutes and gives the cake just the slightest hint of tang. I'm sure pioneer women would have preferred straight up buttermilk -- a by-product of butter churning -- but I'm guessing souring milk was faster and a lot easier on the arms.

Cowboy Cake 4
A wooden spoon and a pastry blender (or two knives) are just about all that's required for this cake, although our pioneer sisters might have had some fun playing with a girly pink electric handmixer.

Cowboy Cake 6
A reserved half-cup of the brown-sugar/flour/butter base is sprinkled on the batter -- no frosting required!

Cowboy Cake 7
Cooks up the prettiest golden brown in about 30 minutes. OOPS. I'm drooling.

Cowboy Cake 10
Believe me ... one slice will only whet your appetite for more. Remember to have cold milk, tea, hot coffee or whatever you fancy nearby. (Have I sufficiently played up the importance of cold milk here?) Camp fire and chaps optional. Naturally, I
have to have a dollop of butter to spread on this cake. I'll need all that energy for driving cattle across the plains kids to school.

Git along, little dogies! Cow
girls like it too.

Cowboy Cake (also known as Cowboy Coffee Cake)
2-1/2 cups light brown sugar
2-1/2 cups flour
2/3 cup butter (slightly softened) or margarine (chilled)
1 T. vinegar, preferably red wine vinegar
1 cup milk (I use 2%)

2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 1-1/2 Tablespoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Optional ingredients:  nuts, strong chicory coffee, baked beans, bacon fat, chewin' tobacco.

Grease and flour the bottom of a 9"x13" pan.  Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a large bowl stir together flour and brown sugar until thoroughly blended.  With pastry blender, two knives or your fingers, work butter into the mixture until it is the texture of bread crumbs.  Set aside 1/2 cup of crumbly mixture.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, add vinegar to milk, stir gently and let stand until sour, 2-3 minutes.

Stir baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices into to crumbly mixture and mix well; add beaten eggs and soured milk to mixture, stirring just until mixed (better will be loose and lumpy).  Pour into prepared pan.  Sprinkle reserved 1/2 cup of crumbly mixture over the top.

Bake 15-25 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean; cake will spring back when touched lightly.  Slice and eat when cooled, if you can wait that long.  Enjoy!  

Improves with age (if it lasts long enough to age) and is
amazing spread with butter. You may just find yourself standing over the pan eating slice after slice until half the cake is gone. Ain't my fault!

As always, feel free to leave a comment.

Springtime = mom.

When pretty blue scylla spring out of the ground and forsythia bushes burst with yellow blooms, I think of my mom. In the weeks before Mother's Day, when trees start to bud and get “fuzzy” as she described it, I think of her too. And while I clean my garden, happy to see pink peony shoots poking through the soil, Mom is there -- even though it’s been four years since I last saw her, before she passed away two days shy of her mid March birthday, just as winter was fading away.

Patsy and sisters 1936 Little Patsy Reed with her big sisters Mary and Martha, Port Washington, 1936ish.

That last trip to see her started out like all the others -- packing and re-packing too much stuff into the suitcase, too much food in the cooler, fretting over the care of the cats, leaving later than we planned, and our traditional stops at Starbucks and the Skyway McDonald's. Then up Up UP over the Skyway and onto the familiar toll roads to Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The difference this time was that Mom was gravely ill and last rites had been administered. The ominous impact of those words "last rites," delivered in an e-mail from one of my brothers, had sent me into hysterics. The only light note was Dad following up with, "If mom had been more energetic, she would have told the priest to hit the road." I'd spent the rest of the day in an anxious fog as I arranged to take off work and pull my son out of school, wondering whether this would really be the last time we saw Mom.

We usually visit Mom and Dad at Christmas time, when the skies tend to be gray and bleak. I've grown accustomed to a leafless, snowless December landscape from Chicago to Cleveland. This time, though, the miles of flat farm country were covered in a light layer of late winter snow, the skies had cleared, and the morning sun shone brightly. Trees and fences were traced in a fine white filigree. I noticed for the first time apple orchards and vineyards, their rows of dry twisted branches artfully frosted, giving a depth to this open country that I’d never seen before. Groves of tidy, uniform firs -- Christmas tree farms, we guessed -- added their green silhouettes to the scenery. Above, fluffy clouds trailed across the gloriously blue sky, and occasionally pairs of hawks drifted in wide circles over the turnpike. The midwest never looked so pretty, I thought, and I would tell Mom about it. With my son settled next to me and a Harry Potter audiobook in the CD player, I felt at peace despite the circumstances of the trip. I squinted into the miles of oncoming highway until my laugh lines ached.

Pat lovely young ladyWhat a beauty!

Mom's pretty blue eyes brightened as we approached her bedside at the Cleveland Clinic later that afternoon. A clear plastic oxygen mask was strapped around her delicate ears, and a tube in her arm led to a tower of machinery quietly dispensing doses of saline and morphine. The papery skin on her arm was bruised from too many needle sticks. She smiled weakly but warmly, the familiar smile of motherly love I’d known for so many years. We held hands and conversed as best we could, her voice ranging from a whisper to a hoarse croak and slightly muffled by the mask. Despite the difficulty, and without a single hint of frustration, she asked me about school, and how was my fiance Kenny, and had we found a house yet? She called her grandson over and talked to him about his girlfriend, his band, school, and his favorite class -- metal working. A talented and classically trained artist born and raised in Port Washington, New York, Mom delighted whenever one of her children or grandchildren pursued the creative arts. She asked him to make her a sculpture, and he promised he would.

We talked about the weather (too much snow in Cleveland over the winter, not enough in Chicago), and what I would plant in my garden that spring. Dad sat quietly reading a book, relieved, no doubt, to finally have family take over during these wearying, worrisome hospital visits he’d been making daily for weeks. Sometimes Mom closed her eyes for a while and appeared to doze, then she would open them again, smile, and find something new to talk about. I had expected a more sickly version of her, that proverbial shadow-of-the-former-self we expect when someone is on their last. She was a little bony, and her hair was thinner from a few chemo treatments for her recently diagnosed cancer. But her skin was warm, rosy and vital. She doesn’t look so bad, I thought. She’s not

Pat at Indiana DunesGathering freckles in the sun with Dad.

While Mom rested, I left briefly to find the kitchen for patients and families where Dad said I could find crackers and bottles of water. As I made my way through the hospital halls I looked up and for the first time saw the name of the unit where Mom’s room was located:
Palliative Care, where they relieve the symptoms of terminal illness without attempting a cure, where the dying are made comfortable until they pass away. I still didn’t quite believe it. Mom seemed so lucid, if a bit weary. I still wasn’t convinced I was here to say goodbye to her. But at that moment it didn’t matter; I had come to spend time with Mom and Dad, and with some of my nine siblings who were scheduled to arrive the next day. Until it was time for me to leave, I was determined to be present in each moment with my family, and not prematurely mourn my mother’s apparently imminent death.

Scylla on lawnI hope my springtime lawn is covered with scylla someday.

The next day two brothers and three sisters arrived literally by planes, trains and automobiles. By mid-afternoon, six of the ten children my parents raised on a shoestring were gathered in Mom’s room, each sharing their recent news, holding her hand, and retreating red-eyed to the seats by the window. At night we bunked down all around the house, on couches and in guest rooms, and more over at our brother-in-law Charlie's house. Charlie was married to our sister, Mary Jane, whose passing from breast cancer brought us all to Cleveland Heights on New Year’s weekend two years prior. For so long we'd felt ourselves lucky as a large family not to have been touched by death -- then breast cancer and now the maladies of old age had crept in.

Mom and MJ in '58
Mom and Mary Jane, 1958ish.

During family meetings with the medical team and hospice staff, I stayed behind to hold Mom's hands, stroke her hair, tell her whatever story popped into my head, or read aloud. Mom's hands were warm and soft. Occasionally I would check in with her, ask if I should continue, or if she needed anything, and she would smile and nod, or croak a barely audible “yes” or “no.” Then everyone returned from the meeting and the room was filled with energy and conversation again. I often looked around the room at my many siblings, and at the two people responsible for creating us, raising us, piling us into the car for trips to the beach, for feeding us Eggs Denver and chipped beef and Cowboy Cake, for arguing with us about loud music, homework, sex and cigarettes, and eventually seeing us leave home one by one, year after year. There were storms during those growing up years, but a generation later there in that hospital room there was love and sadness and waiting.

My son and I returned home the following Saturday, to get his life back to friends, school and normal. I felt I'd said and done enough for Mom. I could leave, but I couldn't say goodbye, not in that final way. I kissed Mom on the forehead, told her I loved her, and said, "I'll see you again soon, Mom." The Harry Potter tale unfolded on the long drive back, and when we finally arrived that evening, we were grateful to see our own rooms and our kitties. But the house felt lonely and I wanted to be back with the rest of my family, and Mom.

Pat and Stu in ClevesDad and Mom in the Land of Cleves.

The next day was warm and sunny, unusually so for early March. In the afternoon we got the call from Cleveland saying that after she’d had the chance to see or speak with all of her children, Mom's last moments were peaceful. Later, Dad told me everyone who was there gathered around Mom while a hospice worker said a touching prayer, the most beautiful he'd ever heard. I told my son and Kenny, and called my closest friends. Then I went outside to soak up the sunshine and let it dry my tears.

Scylla and peony budsMy peonies survived the winter!

We celebrated Mom's 81st birthday two days later with angel food cake and strawberries, one of her favorite desserts. Kenny said he could imagine Mom eating angel food cake with the angels, while my son noted that for angels it would just be called "food cake." We agreed that Mom can have all the angel food cake she wants now. It was good to be silly and light and think of her so sweetly.

ForsythiaOur crazy arching forsythia bush.

Dear Mom, if you ever had any questions about where you go when your time on earth was done, I can tell you. You’re blooming in blue scylla and the buds on the fuzzy trees and the yellow branches of forsythia. And you’re here with me as I till the soil in my garden at the house Kenny and I finally bought. And when I bake Cowboy Cake and pick violets and ride my bike along Lake Michigan, you’re there too.

Pat's blue sky sculpture
The Sculpture, dedicated to Grandma Pat.

Your grandson made you a sculpture and painted it blue, like the water near Port Washington, like Lake Michigan, like scylla and your eyes. He attached a tall swirling spiral that reaches up Up UP, to help your spirit soar into the sky.

Chocolate Malted Milk Cake.

Patsy and Stu
I love malted milk, and especially chocolate malted milkshakes. I assume I inherited my taste for malts from Dear Old Dad, who is also a malt lover. My husband shares this love of malts, and in the summer we occasionally walk to Hartigan’s Ice Cream for malts. My parents often tell of one blissful pre-marital summer when they drank so many malts they each gained 10 pounds. I dunno, those vintage love birds are looking pretty svelte to me! Oddly, my son does not like malts, which puzzles me to no end. What’s not to like?

Chocolate Malted Cake 1
Malted milk is made from
malted barley, wheat flour and whole milk, evaporated into a powder form. When you stop gagging, seriously -- it’s quite delicious whipped into a shake. Malted milk is an unusual flavor if you’re used to regular ol’ powdered chocolate milk mix and chocolate milkshakes (nothing wrong with’em). I imagine on some tastebuds that unique malty taste doesn’t blend well with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. I’ve often wondered what that malted flavor really is. If I had to describe it, I wouldn’t know what adjectives to use. “Malt” is a word generally used in conjunction with beer and whiskey. Malted milk, thankfully, does not taste like beer or whiskey.

Chocolate Malted Cake 2
Malted milk was invented by the English-born
Horlick brothers -- William and James -- as a nutritional aid for infants and “invalids.” The Horlicks emigrated from England to Chicago, and ultimately settled in Racine, Wisconsin where they began manufacturing their milk-based product “Diastoid.” Mmmm, can I have a thick, frosty Diastoid shake to go with my burger, please?

Chocolate Malted Cake 3
Eventually they trademarked the more appetizing and descriptive name “malted milk,” which became popular not only with mothers of infants and teenagers at aptly named malt shops, but also with Arctic explorers, who appreciated the nutritious and non-perishable qualities of the milk powder. Back then it was mixed with water, making it tremendously convenient for Arctic travel.

Chocolate Malted Cake 4
Recently I had malted milk in a truly delicious
Chocolate Malted Milk Cake I discovered at Lost Recipes Found. Created by Leona Kroupa of Cedar, Michigan, the cake won a prize at the Pillsbury 5th Grand National Bake Off in 1954 -- and well deserved, too!

Chocolate Malted Cake 5
Even with 1-1/2 cups of Ovaltine Malted Milk powder, this cake doesn’t taste so much like a chocolate malted as it does like a really REALLY good chocolate cake. It has just a handful of ingredients all mixed together in the same bowl. The only modification I made in the batter was to substitute light sour cream for the full fat version.

Chocolate Malted Cake 6
The Honey Nougat Frosting is to absolutely
dreamy -- like fluffy honeyed ambrosia made toasty and crunchy with roasted almond slivers. I used only 1 tablespoon of honey (whisky spiked Heather Honey!) instead of 2, and I admit I forgot to add the 1/2 tsp. of vanilla, but it was still one of the tastiest and surprisingly not over-sweet frostings I’ve ever made.

Chocolate Malted Cake 7
Don’t be intimidated by the double boiler method for making this light marshmallow-like frosting -- it’s easy and so satisfying to watch the ingredients slowly froth up. I mixed the toasted slivered almonds into the frosting, but you could sprinkle them on top as well. Or omit them if you're not a nut lover. The recipe makes a nice manageable 8x8 (or 9x9) cake.

Chocolate Malted Cake 8
Horlick's malt powder used to be easy to find in stores around here, but no more so I buy regular flavor Carnation and chocolate flavored Ovaltine -- just like
Little Orphan Annie. Vermont Country Store carries the Horlick's malted milk tablets, but holymackerelandy! They cost $19 PLUS shipping (which ain't cheap at VCS) for 27 tablets. YIKES. Back in the day we bought jars of those tablets at the drug store, and even if one allows for inflation there's no way they were that expensive.

Chocolate Malted Cake 10
You'll need glasses of cold milk with this scrumptious chocolatey fluffy-topped cake. And before bed have a mug full of milk mixed with some leftover Ovaltine.

Little Orphan Annie knew what she was talking about!

Want to make this nummy cake? Go here for the recipe.

As always, please feel free to leave a comment.