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This is the first year in a while we haven’t taken a trip to the coast in March. In March, you say? To not-a-tropical beach? Yes, please. We love the quiet, the ability to throw on an extra layer and walk or bike for miles. We went to Cannon Beach, OR a handful of times, but more recently have fallen in love with Long Beach, WA. We are going this year, but not until summertime; it will be really interesting to see the difference between Quiet March Beach and Busy, Touristy Summer Beach. I’m keeping an open mind.

Long Beach, WA in March

We’ve discovered some real gems on the coast: Starvation Alley cranberry farm, Fort George Brewery, Goose Point Oysters, Clemente’s Cafe (devastated to hear it closed permanently), Adrift Hotel… I could go on. Last year we were there during a kite contest; previously we had the best corned beef dinner ever at a local Australian-themed sports bar. Go figure! Our favorite spot is a little bakery on the main drag in Long Beach called Cottage Bakery. Walking in is like going back in time. The walls are cluttered with memorabilia and the same group (I’m pretty sure) of septuagenarian gentlemen hold court at their center table, sharing the morning paper while they chat and sip coffee. It’s a family-run business and the proprietress we see each time is more than happy to explain what certain pastries are — though she’s not quick to share recipes. (That’s okay. We’re still strangers, after all.) At the Cottage Bakery, we tried apricot Danish, cinnamon buns, crackle cookies, still-warm cheddar bread, raised donuts… Most importantly, we learned about Sailor Jacks. Unassuming, definitely not as pretty as the shiny fruit pastries or sugar-coated donuts, but we were intrigued enough to add one to our box when she told us they were a Northwest coast staple. I wasn’t even sure what it was– chocolate? Date cake? Gingerbread? Looks-wise, it could have been a cake or a muffin, and I still think the category is up for debate. What is not debatable– the flavor. Holy beach vacation, Batman! Sailor Jacks are fantastic.

Sailor Jacks are a dense, moist and highly-spiced cake. (I will call them cakes because they’re sweeter than any muffin I’ve had.) The quantities of spices you see in my recipe are not misprints, and not a mistake. The cakes are studded with raisins and finished with a light but necessary glaze, which has a dual function of offsetting the strong spices and preserving the moistness of the interior. Evidently, they are a favorite of sailors because they keep well, are possible to make in a galley kitchen (or so I’ve read) and are both portable and fortifying. We like them because they’re an intriguing mix of flavors and textures found in both gingerbread and spice cake, yet are completely unique.

Sailor Jacks are like nothing I’ve ever tasted before: the spices are assertive but not overpowering, the crumb is dense but still manages to feel light, the flavor has a hint of tanginess from sour cream and just enough sweetness from the raisins, molasses and glaze. My husband loves them even more than I do and begged me to find a recipe, which proved to be tricky business. Every recipe I found was different: I found some made with sour cream instead of buttermilk, others with molasses instead of brown sugar or vice versa, some with 1 tsp. cloves and others with 2 T. cloves. Knowing that we make this four-hour drive only once a year, I was determined to do some testing and try to figure the recipe out. I cobbled together elements of various recipes* and, after one abject failure and one good-but-not-quite-right batch, I got it. These are the Sailor Jacks we know and love! I think I saw a tear in R’s eye when he tasted the first one. The batch of 12 was gone in 5 days.

So, have you ever had a Sailor Jack? I’d love to hear where and when. If you haven’t, but like gingerbread, spice cake or other warmly spiced sweet treats, try my recipe so you can say you’ve had one– and then please let me know what you think!

Sailor Jack cakes - a Northwest coast classic!

Sailor Jack Cakes (makes 1 dozen in a standard muffin pan)

For the cakes:

  • 1/2 c. canola or grapeseed oil
  • 3/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. sour cream
  • 1/2 c. molasses
  • 1 large egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 T. ground cinnamon
  • 1 T. ground allspice
  • 3/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. ground cloves
  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 c. raisins

For the glaze:

  • 2 c. powdered sugar
  • 1/4 water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12-cup standard muffin tin thoroughly with shortening, canola or grapeseed oil, butter, or baking spray. Make sure each well is greased completely, since you will need to get the cakes out of the tin warm. That’s the trickiest part of the whole recipe! Don’t use paper liners for this recipe; it’s just not the same.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the brown sugar and oil together until smooth. Whisk in the sour cream and molasses, then the slightly beaten egg. Stir in the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves.

In a smaller bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Add the dry ingredients and raisins to your wet ingredients and stir until combined, by hand. A mixer is not necessary and results in a slightly tougher product. As soon as the ingredients are combined, stop mixing.

Scoop the batter into your well-greased muffin pan. Each well will be about 3/4 full; you will have exactly enough batter for 12 cakes. Bake for 20 mins., rotating the pan 180 degrees halfway through the cook time. Use a toothpick to check for doneness. As a moist cake, the toothpick might come out with some wet crumbs attached; do not make the mistake of baking until the cakes are dry. However, the centers should not be liquid, or wobbly when you shake the pan gently. If you think the Sailor Jacks are not quite done, bake for another 3-5 mins., but I wouldn’t go more than that.

While the cakes cook, mix the powdered sugar with 1/4 c. water to form a thin glaze. If it doesn’t appear pourable/spoonable, add more water 1 T. at a time until you like the consistency.

Flip the pan over onto a cooling rack, then hold the rack and pan and invert the cakes onto the rack.

Remove the muffin tin from the oven and cool for 10-15 mins. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each cake to loosen them from the pan. Place a cooling rack upside down on top of the cakes and then carefully flip over the pan, holding onto the cooling rack. Lift up the pan so the cakes release on to the cooling rack, with what we generally think of as the bottom facing up. You guessed it: this is the tricky part I mentioned. Be careful not to burn yourself on the still-hot pan, and cross your fingers that the cakes come out nice and easily. If there are any stragglers, gently pry them out with the knife, a spoon or your fingers.

putting glaze on the Sailor Jacks

Cover the countertop with waxed paper, parchment paper or a large cutting board and place the cooling rack with your cakes on top. Use a spoon to place about 1 tsp. glaze on each cake and allow it to drip down the sides. Repeat until all cakes have glaze. Then, use the spoon or a flexible spatula (or your clean fingers, as I do) to “paint” the sides of each cake with more glaze. The point is not to coat each cake completely, but it is nice to get a good amount on the tops and sides. I’ll even carefully scrape up some glaze that dripped onto the waxed paper beneath my cooling rack and reapply to the cakes.

Sailor Jacks cooling after being glazed.

When you’re out of glaze, let the Sailor Jacks cool completely on the rack and then transfer them to a tightly-covered container for storage. They store better at room temperature. Make sure to try at least a bite of one while they’re still warm!

*Most helpful were recipes from The Fresh Loaf, The Old Hen and Georgia, Plain and Simple. I definitely went in a different direction than any of their instructions, but reading their thoughts and ingredient combinations was important to the way I shaped my final recipe.

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