Lost Foods of New York City: Butter cakes from Childs Restaurant

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The butter cake, recreated today. ()
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Leah Koenig

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Lost Foods of New York City is a column that will, from time to time, celebrate the food and drink that once fed the city, but have disappeared.

Before there was Chipotle or Applebee’s, and before Starbucks and McDonald’s came to populate every other New York City street corner, there was Childs.

When brothers William and Samuel Childs opened the first restaurant on Cortlandt Street in 1889, they catered to downtown Manhattan’s bustling lunchtime crowd. The brothers’ model of delivering high-quality America-style fare at reasonable prices (which at the time was quite novel) proved popular. Just a decade after that first restaurant (originally called Childs’ Lunchrooms), Childs boasted a total of nine locations across the city, and was well on its way to becoming one of the first national restaurant chains.

In addition to filling the city’s growing need for high-volume lunch joints (as more people began to travel to the city for work, and could not return home for lunch), Childs tapped into a larger zeitgeist: Hygiene. New Yorkers, like the country as a whole, were newly familiar with the concept of germs, and influenced by 19th-century health reformers like Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg who espoused the values of wholesome, virtuous eating. The Childs brothers, raised on a New Jersey farm, were happy to oblige the turn. As Arthur Schwartz writes in his seminal book, New York City Food, they “covered the floors and walls with white tile and topped tables with white marble”- a look familiar to us now, but at the time a radical interior design more reminiscent of a hospital ward than a restaurant. Meanwhile, with New York’s infamous swill milk scandal (which poisoned and killed thousands) still fresh in the city’s collective memory, it is hardly surprising that Childs’ menus advertised their milk as arriving “fresh from [the Childs’] dairy each morning.” According to Jan Whitaker, historian and founder of the blog Restaurant-ing Through History, the Childs’ family creamery in New Jersey was, for many years, the fast-expanding restaurant chain’s sole dairy supplier. (A Childs menu from 1900 gives a sense of what was on offer, and what people deemed healthy in that day.)

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At the turn of the century, Childs’ customers could order a lunch of corned beef hash or creamed oysters on toast for 15 cents, try the 10-cent bean soup or Graham cracker and milk combo, or order a glass of thick, cool buttermilk for a nickel. And then there were the butter cakes. The phrase butter cake may conjure up images of dense, sunshine-colored loaves worthy of a Paula Deen cookbook. But Childs’ take on the butter cake was decidedly humbler—thick rounds of griddled yeast dough that fell somewhere between a biscuit and an English muffin on the baked goods spectrum. The name is something of a mystery, considering butter cake dough contains just a small amount of its namesake fat. One hint comes from another downtown eatery, Butter-cake Dick’s, which predated Childs’ by several years. There, according to the late and great Michael Batterberry and Ariane Ruskin Batterberry’s On the Town in New York, “an army of sharp-faced adolescents gathered every midnight, hoarse from news-hawking, to consume a butter cake, ‘a peculiar sort of biscuit with a lump of butter in its belly…’” It would seem, then, that “butter cake” stems from its requisite topping, rather than the cake itself.

Childs’ butter cakes were a hit across New York City—from the chain’s bustling, commuter-friendly location in Grand Central to its beachfront hub on the Coney Island boardwalk. Throughout the day, cooks dressed in crisply pressed uniforms stood at a long griddle set in the restaurant’s front window, flipping an endless supply of the cakes. These public window performances, which invited onlookers to gawk-before-buying, “immediately entered New York mythology,” writes William Grimes in Appetite City. For five cents, customers, after watching the impromptu show, could enjoy one of the freshly cooked cakes topped with melting pats of rich, grassy butter (healthfully made at the Childs’ own dairy, remember) and drizzles of maple syrup. Maybe not what we would call a dietetic object-lesson, but in its day carrying all the marks of robust wholesomeness.

Along with Childs’ fluffy “wheat cakes” (pancakes), their butter cakes were the delight of New York businessmen and women, tourists, children, and the city’s artist class, who convened there after-hours for a late-night fix. Not so much “breakfast for dinner,” the cakes were simply a 24-hour treat. Celebrated New York gastronome James Beard was also a devoted fan. In his 1964 classic Delights and Prejudices, in which he detailed his favorite tastes from throughout his culinary life, he wrote, “One cannot have lived in New York … of the twenties and thirties without knowing Childs … who could forget their butter cakes, which were made in the window on a long griddle?”

At its peak in the late 1920s, the Childs’ chain served nearly a million customers a day and operated more than 100 restaurants across 33 cities in the United States and Canada – from Boston, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City to St. Louis and Denver. But the impact of changing tastes (by the 1950s, Fortune magazine deemed Childs “quaint and forlorn,” writes Grimes), coupled with a series of faulty business decisions—including William’s failed attempt to turn the restaurants vegetarian (New Yorkers weren’t read to get quite so healthful yet)—ultimately led to the company’s demise. Schwartz writes that the last Childs’ location, in Times Square, finally closed in the late 1950s—taking the beloved, griddled butter cakes along with it. Today, a toasted English muffin with butter melting into its pockmarked surface is our closest contemporary link to those old butter cakes. But the recipe, thankfully, isn’t lost to history, and to truly tap into the spectacle of eating at Childs’ original Cortlandt Street lunchroom, fire up the griddle pan and make them yourself.

CHILDS BUTTER CAKES

I adapted this recipe from one written by former Childs cook Edna Sypher Kane, and retrieved from her recipe collection by her grandson, Glen Marshall. See the original handwritten recipe on The Leaven. Makes 12-14 cakes

4 1/2 teaspoons (two 1/4-oz packets) dry yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

1 1/4 cups warm water (110-115 degrees)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 teaspoons salt

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided

1. Stir together yeast and sugar in a medium bowl. Add water, mix gently, and let sit until mixture is frothy, about 5 minutes. Add butter, salt, and 1 cup of flour, mixing well until combined.

2. Add the remaining 2 1/2 cups of flour, stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture begins to come away from the sides of the bowl. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it turns supple and silky, 5-7 minutes. Return dough to the bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place until it doubles in size, about 1 hour.

3. Gently deflate dough. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and roll it out until it is 3/4-inch thick. Use a 3-inch round cookie cutter to cut circles from the dough. Cover rounds with a towel and let rest until puffed, about 15 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, heat a seasoned griddle pan over medium-low heat. Transfer the rounds to the griddle and cook until golden brown and cooked through, turning once, 2-3 minutes per side. Like with pancakes, you may have to adjust the heat during cooking to avoid burning.

5. Transfer butter cakes to a wire rack to cool. To serve: slice in half, toast if desired, and serve with butter and maple syrup. Extra cakes can be stored in an airtight container the fridge or in plastic bags in the freezer. Reheat before serving.

Have a long lost favorite you would love to see resurrected? Suggest a dish for Lost Foods of New York City at LEAHLOSTFOODS@GMAIL.COM