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L. Frank Baum: Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce

More than leaving home or getting that first job, the defining moment of my adulthood was the realization that I could eat whatever I wanted, no longer restrained by the contents of my family’s pantry or my (nonexistent) allowance. “Growing up” meant learning to make your own menu, in a city of unlimited culinary options. And if you decided dinner will be a bag of discounted Snickers bars bought in a post-Halloween binge … that’s when you learned sometimes adults make bad decisions too.

This freedom, though, is temporary; it ends when you open your kitchen to others—a partner, a spouse, a family—and suddenly your meals are influenced by their presence. Someone else starts writing your menu. In the case of L. Frank Baum, that person was his wife, Maud.

Ten years after the stunning success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum made the down payment on a grand Hollywood estate, which he and Maud dubbed Ozcot. Visiting the Baum household was like entering the Emerald City itself: the elegance, the parties, the three-oven range. Baum was known to order 100 pounds of cheese for a single soiree. Maud’s niece Matilda later remarked that those evenings “represented to me something that I knew nothing about, I was thrilled with the things they did, their food … everything.”

But while Baum chaired the party-planning committee, Maud ran the family kitchen with the efficiency of a train conductor. According to L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, the Baums ate three square meals a day, starting with breakfast at 8 a.m. (fruit, eggs, potatoes, “four to five cups of strong coffee with sugar and heavy cream”) and ending with a hearty dinner (“typically a thick cream soup, roast meat with gravy, potatoes and vegetables, and a rich dessert”).

Such regular mealtimes can sound like paradise to anyone who’s ever stared at the fridge, too tired to whip something up after work. But with it came a mandate: Don’t question Maud’s kitchen authority. Baum learned the hard way when he bought a box of jelly doughnuts for breakfast one morning. As punishment for meddling in the menu planning, Maud served the leftover doughnuts every morning for the next week, until they were so stale that Baum tried to bury them in the yard rather than face them again.

Thinking about Baum hiding the offending doughnuts in his napkin, it’s easy to see him as a grown-up child, living in a world where dinner is always served on time, where appetites are never spoiled. It’s a world that is startlingly like Oz, where (in Ozma of Oz) even the King has to be cautioned “not to eat too much cake late at night, or he would be ill.”

Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce Recipe

When looking for one of Maud Baum’s recipes, I contacted Sally Roesch Wagner, director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation—named for Maud’s mother, a noted crusader for women’s rights. Wagner had spent weeks with Gage going through decades of the Baums’ history, but wound up stumbling upon their culinary legacy as well: Gage’s family recipe book, with dishes going all the way back to Frank’s mother, Cynthia Stanton Baum.

Cynthia’s recipe for ginger cakes, barely altered here, has never been previously published. With the gooey texture of sticky toffee pudding but more than a hint of gingerbread, the cakes are a treat you can imagine a young Frank drizzling with copious amounts of butterscotch sauce, measured out by the spoonful—a child playing at being an adult, cultivating his own personal taste.

Grandma Baum’s Ginger Drop Cakes
(courtesy of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation)

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup molasses
1 egg
1 tablespoon melted butter, plus extra for greasing ramekins

1. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cinnamon, ginger and baking soda.

2. In a large bowl with a wooden spoon, mix sour cream, brown sugar, molasses, egg and melted butter until smooth. Add dry ingredients, stirring until well combined.

3. Grease eight 4-ounce ramekins—or line a muffin tin with paper wrappers—and fill cups 2/3 of the way. Bake at 350°F for 20 to 30 minutes, until tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.

4. Cool 5 minutes, then drizzle with butterscotch sauce and serve.

Butterscotch Sauce
(barely adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
Sea salt, to taste

1. Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add sugar and cream and whisk until well blended. Bring to a gentle boil and cook 5 minutes, whisking occasionally.

2. Remove from heat and add salt to taste. Serve warm. Keeps 2 weeks in the fridge.