We had my birthday brunch at The Ranch House in Meiners Oaks (right next to Ojai) last Sunday. This is a restaurant that was founded by Alan and Helen Hooker in the 1950s. My parents took me there to celebrate a good report card or something like that when I was a junior or senior in high school. I can remember the dress I wore, but everything else is a little fuzzy. I never thought about it much until Saveur magazine ran a Ranch House article in Issue No. 26 from April 1998. (You can still find the excellent recipes and the text from that article here.) It was like rediscovering the restaurant in the pages of that magazine brought back this idealized memory of my youth, my parents, and the Southern California I grew up in all rolled into one. I’ve wanted to go back ever since.
Seeing the restaurant in person again didn’t help to make my memory much clearer. It was smaller than I remembered. It really is set in a little ranch house, though I suggest you sit in the gardens surrounding the house like we did (both times). Boy, was it hot! The heat kind of spoiled my appetite, but I did have a lovely meal that included a champagne cocktail, fruit salad, and crab cakes.
The one memory that eating there again brought back for me was of their bread. I was a bit of a health nut when I was a teenager, so I can see why my mom chose this restaurant as a treat for me. The breads were wonderful, mostly whole grains. We had a whole grain rye, no seeds and very thinly sliced that was out of this world. I was hoping Alan Hooker’s bread recipes would be in the cookbook that I purchased at the restaurant; the book is called California Herb Cookery. The rye wasn’t in it, but it did indicate which book did have it (Alan Hooker wrote at least three books), so I’ve ordered that one too. I’m so glad I bought the herb cookery book though. It’s illustrated by Beatrice Wood, an artist and friend of the Hooker’s who led quite an interesting life and lived to 105. The bio I’ve linked to even points out that her last twenty-five years were her most productive.
I made my birthday cake from the book the day after we got back from our trip. It was a yellow cake with a mint buttercream frosting. I really liked the cake and will definitely make it again. I was excited about the frosting too because it was flavored with a mint-infused simple syrup. The last time I was at IKEA, they were offering a cupcake with an elderflower frosting in their cafe. It’s the same idea, really. I could have used the elderflower syrup I purchased from IKEA or a maple syrup (A.H. recommends this cake with a maple frosting too), or have experimented with other herbs or fruits or what have you. The thing is, if you are using both a syrup and powdered sugar in your frosting, it can become very sweet. Maybe I should have stopped at two tablespoons of the mint syrup. Here are the recipes for both the cake and the frosting as they appear in the book.
Gold Layer Cake
Put into electric mixing bowl:
- 9 ounces (2 1/4 cups sifted) pastry flour
- 11 ounces (1 1/2 cups and 1 tablespoon) white sugar
- 4 1/2 teaspoons Calumet baking powder
- 5 1/2 ounces (1/2 cup) shortening such as Spry or Crisco (I used unsalted butter.)
Beat in half of the following liquid (scraping down bowl), for 2 minutes:
- 6 ounces refrigerated whole milk
- 2 ounces very hot water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
Add remaining liquid and beat for 1 minute, scraping bowl at least once.
Beat until thick and lemon colored:
- 7 egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon salt
Fold into mixture together with:
- 5 tablespoons cold water
- Put into 3 9-inch greased and floured cake pans and bake for 25 minutes at 350°.
Butter cream mint icing or maple icing goes well with this cake.
Butter Cream Mint Icing
Whip in electric mixing bowl:
- 1/2 cup butter (at room temperature)
- 1/3 cup sour cream
- 4 tablespoons creme de menthe or mint sauce (made by boiling 2 tablespoons water, 3 tablespoons sugar, 1/3 cup mint leaves, and 3 drops green coloring)
Whip until light, then add powdered sugar to desired consistency.
I’m pretty sure this plaque on the restroom door is the work of Beatrice Wood.