Every Friday evening during my childhood days in The Coal Region, my parents and I loaded up into the Buick and headed to “the next town over” to get “the store order” (do the grocery shopping) for the coming week.
The main street of town was lined with parking meters and, if we were lucky, we got a spot right in front of the store. I hoped out to put the nickle in the meter while Mom and Pop headed to the front entrance of the local A & P.
Now, in those days, the grocery store seemed like an endless wonderland to a coalcracker kid, but it pales in comparison in size and stock to the markets of today. But looking back, it provided just about everything we needed during life in the 60’s and 70’s in small-town Pennsylvania.
There are a few things that still stand out in my mind decades later about that A & P. Walking in the doors, the smell of freshly ground coffee beans emanating from the grinders that sat at the end of the checkout counters made you perk up immediately.
Dad and I would hunt down the bulk Brach’s candy display, put some pocket change in the box, and enjoy a piece or two of our favorite sweet treats from the choices available.
Pop used to love to joke and kid with the butcher at the store and I can see the two of them sharing a laugh while Mom looked over the roasts with an eye out for Sunday’s dinner.
But among the many memories I have of that A & P is one of the signature items the chain offered and we got on a regular basis — The Spanish Bar Cake.
Usually found on an end cap in my local store, this baby was a favorite of my Pop. He loved to have a big slice of this cake with a cup of coffee as an evening snack.
Looking back, I distinctly remember the cake, the packaging, and the fact we had more of them that I can count, but I do not exactly remember the flavor – sadly it has been far too long since the cake and my taste buds partied together. However, it would seem a lot of people fondly remember this snack cake and many bakers have attempted to duplicate the recipe.
Curiosity got the best of me and I started doing some research on this store bakery favorite and discovered that creating a true clone of the famous A & P version at home was likely impossible due to one particular fact — former A & P bakery workers claim that the bakeries who produced the Spanish Bar Cakes would trim their other cakes to make them flat for decorating. The bakeries would then take these white, yellow, and chocolate cake trimmings and mash them up into a heavy paste, then add it to the Spanish Bar cake batter, to make it heavy and moist.
Another thing that appears from my research is that there was no standard recipe across the chain; regional and individual store variations were the norm as well as how you may have seen the cake labeled. Some areas knew it as the Jane Parker Bakery Spanish Bar cake, others as A & P Spanish Bar. (Jane Parker was an A & P in-house brand.)
The Great American Tea Company, founded in 1859 in New York City, later changed their name to A&P and became an innovator in the grocery industry. Prior to that era, people bought items from individual shop: bread from a baker, meat from a butcher, flour from a mill. A * P introduced the concept of “one-stop-shopping” with a wide variety of items available under one roof.
By the 1930’s, there were over 16,000 A&P stores across the US. The chain eventually lost ground in the industry to more modern stores; from 1972 to 1974, 800 stores were closed. Finally, in 1979 A&P was sold.
Another famous A & P bakery item was the perennial seasonal favorite Jane Parker Fruitcake which became synonymous with Christmas for so many families and children of the era of A & P’s reign in the industry.
The fruitcake was revived when the recipe was purchased a few years back and can be found on-line at Jane Parker.com. Alas, the purchase of that recipe did not include the original famous Spanish Bar Cake.
An important note
Now, let me be crystal clear; I make NO claims that my recipe is “just like the famous A & P Spanish Bar Cake”. As mentioned earlier, it is unlikely that cake can ever be duplicated at home because of the way the bakeries created them for A & P. BUT this is very reminiscent in my mind of the famous version and I experimented with it multiple times while developing my recipe. It is close enough to make me and my family happy. As always, your mileage may vary as we all remember things differently.
I divide the batter evenly and bake it in two 9 x 5 inch loaf pans lined with parchment to make removing the cakes from the pans a breeze. I thoroughly cool the cakes on a rack then roll each loaf over on its side and slice long-ways through it using a serrated knife.
There is no harm in having some crumbs in the middle layer of frosting so feel free to skip this step and either live with some crumbs or just frost the top of the loaf without cutting it — there is no need to have special supplies! Just enjoy making the cakes and the memories they bring and forget about the details!
For an authentic look, I lightly drag the tines of a meat fork down the top layer of frosting. The frosting is a buttercream style and will set and form a light crust making the cake easy to wrap and store. Although the original A & P version did not have nuts, these loaves look pretty with a sprinkling of chopped walnuts on top.
Spanish Bar CakeCourse: DessertCuisine: GeneralDifficulty: Intermediate
Reminiscent of the beloved and famous Jane Parker (A & P) Spanish Bar Cake, these loaves are studded with chopped raisins and filled with fragrant spices.
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 egg, room temperature
3/4 cup baking molasses
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (spoon and swipe method – stir flour with a spoon, lightly add to measuring cup, then level with straight edge)
1 1/2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup dark raisins (chop roughly after plumping and draining)
1/4 cup softened butter
2 Tablespoons vegetable shortening
approximately 3 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons milk or cream
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
- Boil the 1 cup water and add the raisins; remove from heat and set aside. Let plump until water is lukewarm. Drain, reserve water, roughly chop raisins. Set aside.
- Preheat oven to 325F degrees. Line two 9 x 5 loaf pans with parchment.
- Cream together shortening and sugar, then beat in egg.
- Blend in molasses, applesauce, vanilla and raisin water.
- Sift together remaining dry ingredients and stir into batter until well blended. Stir in raisins.
- Bake in loaf pans about 38 to 40 minutes or until tested done. Do not over-bake!
- Cool 15 minutes on rack in pans. Remove cakes from pans. Cool on wire rack completely. Remove parchment.
- Cut loaves in half lengthwise and frost as a two-layer cake, if desired. Otherwise, just frost the top of each layer.
- Place butter and shortening in a bowl; mix with mixer until light and fluffy.
- Gradually add 1 cup of the powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat until blended.
- Add the remaining powdered sugar then enough milk or cream to beat to a smooth, spreadable frosting. Use to frost loaves.