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Fluffy mystery at center of perfect sugar cakes

When I set out to reproduce my mother’s sugar cakes, I thought it would be a simple matter. She had several recipes, but one had a handwritten note — best recipe — so I chose that one. I made a run to Perrydell to get the whole milk buttermilk that I like, and proceded to bake.

Five dozen sugar cakes later, I knew these were not the sugar cakes of my youth. Although still tasty, the sugar cakes resembled pancakes rather that the soft, sugary pillows I remembered.

I followed the recipe almost exactly, so I began a forensic investigation. Was my oven temperature off? Was my baking powder old? Was the flour too damp? Days later it dawned on me. Seeking baking purity, I had substituted butter for the shortening that was called for in every recipe in my mother’s files.

The culprit: A visit to the King Arthur Flour website confirmed my suspicion. Because butter has a lower melting point, cookies tend to spread out rather than rise during baking. This is fine if you want a flat, crisp cookie. Butter is also 20 percent water, so steam is produced in baking, creating gluten and a less tender cookie.

Shortening, on the other hand, has a higher melting point and contains no water. It produces a higher and lighter cookie. The term shortening came about because it coats each protein molecule of flour, thus preventing long strands of gluten from developing. In effect, the gluten strands are shortened, producing a lighter-textured product.

My second try at the sugar cakes was a success. Using my experience from the first batch, I found a 11/2 tablespoon cookie scoop was the fastest way to get them on the sheets. It also produced plump sugar cakes of a uniform size. The recipe below makes about five dozen medium-size sugar cakes.

Sugar Cakes

1 cup vegetable shortening (Crisco)

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

11/2 cups buttermilk

1 teaspoon baking soda

5 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

Sugar for dusting the tops

In a large bowl, cream the shortening with the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and vanilla.

In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the baking soda to the buttermilk and stir to mix well.

Add the dry ingredients to the sugar/shortening mixture, alternating with the buttermilk. Using a large spatula, mix well to combine.

Drop large spoonfuls on a greased baking sheet (12 to a sheet) and sprinkle with sugar. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 13 minutes or until the sugar cakes are slightly brown around the edges.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section. Reach her with questions and comments at