Seventy years ago, when Arlene McCardle was 19 on the verge of turning 20, she took part in what would later be known as the Pillsbury Bake-Off, making the contest deadline right at time.
She became Wisconsin’s only junior finalist thanks to her recipe. McCardle baked his Venetian Coconut Cake during the December 1952 competition at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel – a four-layer sponge cake with alternating layers of vanilla and chocolate pudding-like fillings , topped with toasted coconut. (Coconut was an older variant of coconut still in use mid-century.)
Pillsbury published the junior winner’s recipe the following year in a booklet touting the “100 Winning Recipes” of Pillsbury’s Fourth Great National Recipe and Baking Competition (Bake-Off proved to be a more catchy competition name, decided Pillsbury later).
Pillsbury also decided that the cake would be called Venetian Cream-Filled Layers in the booklet.
The booklet costs consumers 25 cents; sold nationwide, it brought McCardle some national fame. Milwaukee-area newspapers had previously written about his trip to New York; the yellowed clippings are framed and hung in her far north Milwaukee kitchen, in the house where she has lived with her family since 1965.
She never baked the cake again, she said.
That is, until recently. She baked the legendary cake for the first time with her daughters, who traveled from California and Nevada to mark her 90th birthday. McCardle, a mother of six, turned 90 on July 24. Her husband, Michael McCardle, a Milwaukee police detective, was killed in a car crash when their youngest was just nine days old.
Daughters Kristine McCardle, the youngest, and Marybeth McCardle got to work while their mother chatted with a reporter. But soon, she couldn’t help herself, and Arlene McCardle was in the thick of it, asking to add sugar to egg whites – but not on the beaters.
When it came time to transfer the batter into the cake pans, Arlene McCardle said, “Let me scrape it off, I’ll do it quick.” She cleaned the bowl of dough in a flash. “You don’t waste a drop of it,” she said.
“I come from a German family,” said Arlene McCardle. “We always had dessert.” She grew up on a farm in West Bend where she and her brother milked cows.
And, she said, “We didn’t throw anything away.”
Kristine and Marybeth McCardle freely admit that they are not bakers, having never learned to cook at home. “It was, ‘Get out of my kitchen.’ She likes to work alone,” Marybeth said. The sisters practiced making the cake a day early and, well, let’s just say it was a learning experience.
“You taught me to fold yesterday” when it came time to gently add the flour to the egg mixture, Kristine told her mother. “I had no idea what crease meant.”
After the practice cake layers turned out to be flat, the sisters compared the booklet recipe with their mother’s original recipe cards; Pillsbury had omitted the baking powder. American sponge cake uses baking powder, unlike European sponge cake. The company also made other changes to the recipe.
Marybeth said she once tried baking cookies from her mother’s recipe. She thought the abbreviations “b. soda” and “c. syrup” were simply club soda, like the drink, and maple syrup, rather than baking soda and corn syrup. “They didn’t go well,” she said.
Their mother took care of the baking while they were growing up, and Marybeth said: “One of my fondest memories is coming home (from school) and smelling banana muffins. You could smell them halfway.” His mother also made cream puffs and other treats.
Although the sisters didn’t learn to cook from their mother, they and their siblings learned something even more valuable.
“It was such a mind-blowing factor for us to grow up knowing she had done that,” Marybeth said, and it gave the siblings confidence that they could do anything. “It gave us the courage not to be afraid.”
Arlene McCardle had been married to her high school sweetheart, a new mother and 19 for a few weeks when she entered her recipe in the Pillsbury competition. Because she was a junior finalist, a tutor had to accompany her on her all-expenses-paid trip to New York for the pageant. Her husband accompanied her.
Besides the trip to New York, McCardle won a Mixmaster, an electric stove that she didn’t keep because her kitchen was equipped with a gas stove and a dining set. She still has the table and chair from this set in her laundry room.
And she always cooks with Pillsbury flour.
Arlene McCardle’s original recipe card calls the Venetian Cocoanut Cake (an alternative spelling for coconut used in the mid-century) as well as “My Pillsbury Winner”. Pillsbury dubbed it Layers Filled with Venetian Cream. Like modern “naked” cakes, it is not frosted on the sides in the 1953 booklet photo. The recipe makes a particularly tender sponge cake; the filling is like silky buttercream.
Venetian Coconut Cake, aka Venetian Cream Filled Layers
Makes an 8 or 9 inch cake
¾ cup flour
¼ cup cornstarch
2 teaspoons of yeast
5 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
Venetian filling (recipe follows)
½ cup shredded coconut, sweetened, toasted
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two 8- or 9-inch cake pans by lightly greasing the bottom and lining them with parchment or waxed paper. Do not grease the sides, to help the sponge rise to its full height and stay there.
Sift the flour into a small bowl, measure it again then sift the flour again with the cornstarch and baking powder.
Beat egg whites until fluffy in large bowl; continue beating, on high speed, while gradually adding ½ cup sugar, until egg whites form stiff, glossy peaks.
In another large bowl, beat egg yolks until clear. Gradually add remaining ½ cup sugar while beating on high speed, until yolks are thick and pale yellow, at least 2 minutes. Beat vanilla and salt.
Stir a spoonful of the whites into the yolks to thin them out, then carefully but carefully fold the yolks mixture into the whites, being careful not to deflate them.
Sift the flour mixture one-third at a time over the egg mixture and carefully fold it in after each addition.
Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and bake, 25 to 30 minutes, until a tester comes out clean from the center. Cool completely in pans on wire rack.
Meanwhile, prepare the garnish.
When the cake is completely cooled, run a thin knife blade between the cake and the pan to loosen, flip and remove the paper. Divide the cooled layers horizontally.
Alternately spread vanilla and chocolate fillings between layers, starting with vanilla for the first layer and ending with chocolate on top. Garnish with toasted coconut.
To note: To toast the coconut, place it in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Stir frequently when it begins to toast, until the coconut is golden brown. Depending on the thickness of the pan, this may only take a few minutes.
⅓ cup granulated sugar
⅓ cup plus 1 tbsp sifted flour
2 cups of milk
½ cup butter (1 stick), softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
Combine the granulated sugar, flour and milk in the top of the double boiler. Cook without touching simmering water, constantly stirring the mixture until it thickens. Cover and cook for five minutes. Leave to cool off the heat. Cream the butter with the vanilla in a medium bowl, then cream with the powdered sugar. Gradually add cooled milk mixture to butter mixture, mixing well after each addition.
Spoon half the filling into small bowl; add the melted chocolate and mix well.
To note: Using a stand mixer with paddle attachment, if available, on medium to high speed will smooth out the curdling of the too cold butter, as the filling heats up. If the filling is too hot and runny, cool it down a bit and whisk the filling again.