We're a superstitious newsroom at the Journal. We knock wood in unison at the mention of any good news. Because digital editor Kimberly Wear once went through a massive electrical blackout at the Times-Standard years ago after uttering the phrase, "Hold down the ..." — you know what, we just don't say it and I'm not even going to type it.
A year like this one hasn't done much to assuage the creeping feeling that the Evil Eye is upon us, waiting for us to relax into foolish optimism before it throws another banana peel in our paths. It can make one hesitant about celebration. After the election, I saw joyful cakes all over my Instagram feed; to my superstitious mind, the shadow of a jinx hung over every one.
The world abounds with lucky foods to start the year, from black-eyed peas to grapes to pomegranates. Every New Year's Eve, my own family eats soba noodles after midnight for long life and to break (as buckwheat noodles break) from the old year. But this moment calls for a new approach, not so much for luck as to ward off bad luck. And so I invite you to join me in the new tradition I'm calling the jinx cake to commemorate our crossing from one objectively terrible year into another unpredictable one with cautious hope.
Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Japan, has one upside down pillar, a purposeful imperfection to ward off evil spirits, jealous gods and the destruction that always seems to befall perfect things. That's the energy I'm looking for but in a cake.
It feels crazy to purposely screw up a cake, when all the measuring, weighing and timing of ingredients aim toward perfection. But maybe the way to wish ourselves well is to get the bad out of the way, to embrace inevitable mistakes and misfortunes with a spoonful of sugar, like the Jordan almonds eaten at Greek and Italian weddings to symbolize the sweetness and bitterness of life.
So I propose a simple cake with a few things thrown in as one might do for a King's Day cake or a Christmas pudding: a bitter coffee bean or walnut, a sour fresh cranberry or 1-inch piece of lemon peel, and a small tea spoon or cocktail fork, the last being symbolic of general F-ups. And I propose the person who gets each of these items in their slice be granted an extra layer of resilience against — not immunity or freedom from, because that's just not possible — whatever bitterness, sourness and ridiculous human error may come.
If you are isolated due to the pandemic, you have full clearance to eat the entire thing and claim all prizes because that is hard as hell and you deserve extra cake for your vigilance in keeping us all safer.
You needn't bake the old 1-2-3-4 cake below (1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour and 4 eggs), though its lighter-than-pound-cake flavor and crumb offer some comforting predictability and there's plenty of batter in which to hide things. The ingredients are basic, it's easy to make and there's the option to customize it with pinches of cinnamon and nutmeg, some lemon zest or a little ground cardamom. But your go-to bundt or single-layer cake will do just as well.
As for the final glaze, you have myriad options to make it your own. Whip up a lemon, orange or pomegranate glaze with a couple tablespoons of juice mixed with a tablespoon of cream and 2 cups of powdered sugar. Melt 6 ounces of chocolate — chips or a fancy bar — with ¾ cup of cream in a saucepan over medium heat for a quick ganache to pour over once it cools to just warm. Spread on your aunt's recipe for cream cheese frosting, spike it with your favorite rum cake syrup, cover it in a blizzard of powdered sugar or decorate it with a bonus intentional misspelling — whatever you like.
If you try it, I'd like to hear (and see) how yours turns out and what personalized non-choking-hazard talismans or toppings you come up with. (Keep it in the realm of edible items or things you can't possibly miss — the English tradition of a thimble in a pudding always sounded to me like emergency dentistry waiting to happen.) However you make your jinx cake, I knock wood it works and that we'll be sharing next year's in person with people we love. Until then, I'll be crossing my fingers for the spoon.
1-2-3-4 Jinx Cake
If you don't have buttermilk on hand, add a teaspoon of lemon juice to regular milk and let it sit 5 minutes or just use milk. But don't make a special trip to the store in a pandemic.
1 cup (two sticks) butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or Bourbon
1 coffee bean or walnut
1 raw cranberry or 1-inch piece of lemon peel
1 small metal spoon or fork
Grease and lightly flour a 12-cup bundt pan. Heat the oven to 350 F.
Using a mixer on high speed or a strong arm, wooden spoon and large bowl, beat one pat of butter at a time for a minute each until all of it is pale and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until thoroughly creamed. Beat in the eggs one at a time at medium speed for about 30 seconds each.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Gently combine 1/3 of this mixture into the sugar, butter and egg mixture, alternating with the buttermilk and vanilla or Bourbon in two parts. Scrape down the bowl and give it a couple more good stirs.
Pour the batte r into the bundt pan and bang it on the counter a couple times to get the larger air bubbles out and, let's say, to shake off bad vibes. Now push your coffee bean, cranberry and spoon down into the center of the batter in random spots, smooth the batter over with a spatula and try to forget where you put everything.
Place the pan on the center rack of the oven and bake for 25 minutes before quickly rotating it and baking another 20 to 25 minutes, until it's golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. This is where I'd normally warn you not to make a racket in your kitchen so the cake doesn't fall, but even if it does, we'll just call that a little extra mojo.
Let the cake sit in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before flipping it over and removing the pan. Allow the cake to cool completely before adding glaze or powdered sugar. Cross your fingers and serve.