October 25, 2017
“Aloha Mr. Van Sant.”
So began a 2003 email from Simon Rusconi, the Hotel Manager of the Sheraton Moana Surfrider Resort on Oahu.
Mr. Van Sant, Jim to the rest of us, had complimented the resort on its guava cake and Mr. Rusconi was writing to share the recipe.
Jim printed out the email and affixed it to an index card and put it in his recipe box. Late in 2016, the subject of the guava cake came up somehow at a dinner party at Jim and Bill’s house. Jim offered to share the recipe with me if I was interested.
I was, and I said that I’d make it for him. Shortly thereafter, the original recipe arrived in the mail still affixed to the index card. Not wanting to keep his original, I scanned it into my recipe database and returned the hardcopy.
Since Jim and Bill rent a home in Palm Springs just steps from our house, and since baking cakes at nearly 8000 feet where I live in New Mexico is an iffy proposition, at best, I said I’d bake the cake in Palm Springs. Every winter they rent the Oscar Mayer House. Yes, that Oscar Mayer!
We had a delightful luncheon at tables set up around their pool with guava cake for dessert.
But that’s jumping ahead.
Receiving the recipe from Jim was merely the beginning. I became fascinated by guava cake without having even made one. Almost any recipe with the degree of cultural significance that guava cake seemed to garner grabs my attention. I did internet searches and combed through my Hawaiian cookbooks (of which I have a goodly number).
It appears that there are basically three variations of guava cake in Hawaii: Guava Chiffon Cake, Guava Spice Cake, and (plain old) Guava Cake. Recipes for the last often start with a box of cake mix and use Cool Whip in the cream cheese frosting.
From what my research has revealed, the original was a Guava Chiffon Cake invented by Herbert Matsuba, owner of the Dee Lite Bakery, in the early 1960s.
The popularity of the cake no doubt led to multiple copycat recipes, including those using a box of cake mix and Cool Whip aimed at the home cook.
The recipe from the Moana Surfrider was a Guava Spice Cake. I followed the recipe closely the first time except that I needed to find a substitute for frozen concentrated guava nectar which I was unable to find after scouring 10 grocery stores in Palm Springs and nearby desert towns.
I ultimately was able to source pure guava puree at a market catering to Hispanic shoppers. It had no sweeteners so I thought I might need to add sugar to the batter in a subsequent trial but for the first round I used the guava puree as a direct substitute for concentrated guava nectar.
The cake was good but everyone who tasted it failed to taste any guava. It really just tasted like a spice cake. Certainly it was not worth hours of searching for guava concentrate only to have the flavor masked by spices.
Other than guava chiffon cake, which was definitely not the same genre as the cake that Jim had at the Moana Surfrider, I could not find a recipe for plain guava cake that did not start with a box of cake mix. I decided to make the original recipe without the spices.
That did it! The guava flavor came through but something told me that Herbert, a professional baker, might have used something to amp up the guava flavor.
That started me on a search for natural guava extract. I found a wonderful extract made by Amoretti.
The next time I made the cake, I added a tiny bit of guava extract to the batter. I believe it enhanced the flavor but if one is not going to make a lot of guava cakes I would consider omitting the guava extract as it is expensive and very concentrated so a little bottle will last a long, long time.
For an everyday cake, I suggest baking it in a 9” x 13” x 2” rectangular pan. For a more special presentation, make a layer cake by dividing the batter between two 9” round pans. If you are doing the latter, make a double batch of cream cheese frosting. You’ll have a little left over but a single batch will not be enough. You could always whip up half a batch of batter and make guava cupcakes to use the extra frosting!
In honor of Oscar Mayer, in whose house we all came together over Jim’s Hawaiian Guava Cake, I recommend the following tribute. Who knew there were so many variations on the Oscar Mayer Wiener theme?
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