Friday, June 10, 2011

New England Spider Cake

      I like to think about how recipes got their start.  In this instance I wonder what inspired a cook hundreds of years ago to lean over the fireplace and pour heavy cream over her corn bread to create this incredibly light and layered cake.  Then again, this technique may have evolved from the practice of pouring milk over Indian puddings. 
     A spider is another term for a cast iron skillet.  Historically, spiders were raised on legs to be cooked over the hearth, flat bottomed stove topped versions came later.  Recipes for Spider Cake were first published in the late 1800's, requiring both a pre-heated skillet and sour milk.  I found this version in The Best American Recipes 2005-2006, it was originally printed in an article in the New York Times Magazine by Jonathan Reynolds.  What makes this cake so unique is the sweet layer of custard formed by the cup of heavy cream poured onto the batter right before baking. 
     I first made this cake in my 12 inch dutch oven, as you can see from the photo, the oven was too large for the batter to completely encompass the creamy layer.  The cake ended up with a browned center of custard, it was still delicious but not quite what I had hoped for.  Back to the drawing board.  I tried it again in my 10 inch camp oven with much better results.  You need to preheat your oven by melting the butter over a full spread of coals.  Once the butter is foaming, move the coals to a ring of 10 around the bottom then pour in the batter.  Carefully pour the heavy cream right into the center of the batter. Cover and bake with 18-20 coals on the lid.  After 20 minutes I moved some of the coals from the center of the lid to the outside, keep an eye on it as it browns quickly.   Top off this wonderful cake with a little butter and honey and you will see why this time honored recipe has been handed down through generations of cast iron cooks. 

Spider Cake
2 cups whole milk
4 teaspoons white vinegar
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream

     Lightly oil or spray a 10 inch dutch oven.
     Combine milk and vinegar in a bowl and set aside to sour.
     In another bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking soda and salt. Whisk eggs into the soured milk. Stir into dry ingredients and set batter aside.
     Melt butter in dutch oven over a full compliment of coals.  Once butter is foaming, move coals to a circle around the bottom of the oven.  Pour in the batter.  Pour cream into the center, cover and cook at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes or until cake is golden brown.  Cake should be somewhat soft to the touch when done.  Slice into wedges and serve warm.

Melt butter over a full compliment of coals

Pour batter over butter then carefully top with heavy cream

Cake was brown and soft to the touch after 30 minutes

Warm, sweet custard layer forms between cornbread

Open layer of custard in a 12 inch oven 


  1. Love the history and now I understand better why it's called "spider" cake.

  2. Being a 1 person household I halved this recipe and use my #8 cast iron skillet. It comes out perfectly and anyone that comes to visit is never happy with only one serving. In fact, I suspect some visitors come hoping there will be Spider Cake to go with the coffee. I only use pure maple syrup, to which I sometimes add a small amount of dark bourbon to the bottle as flavoring. Yesterday I was out of cornmeal, so I used some corn grits I had instead. Same deliciousness. I let the cake sit in the pan a bit before baking since the texture of the grits is coarser.