“Like the Feist song!”
My son, who had just asked me about the recipe for that day, reeallly likes the singer Feist.
“It’s a 1-2-3-4 Cake.”
Blink, blink, blink.
“I’ll tell you more when everyone gets here.”
Once we were all assembled around the table, I explained that the numbers referred to the amounts, measured in cups, of the ingredients in a basic yellow cake: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs.
“This was a simple cake recipe that you learned to make while at your mother’s knee. You didn’t even need to be able to read. The baker would just use whatever cup they had–big or small–just as long as they used that same cup to measure all of their ingredients.”
The origin of the recipe is uncertain–it seems to be just one of those things that turned up, handwritten, in the margins of cookbooks or jotted down on scraps of paper, though published versions of the recipe date to the late 1800’s. At the end of that century however, American cooking entered the age of science.
“Have you guys ever heard of home economics?”
The home economics movement gained steam when American families began to consume more goods and services than they produced. People were eager to buy items that they had previously grown, made, or processed at home. Proponents of the field saw a need to train women to be more efficient household managers and to guide them in their new roles as purchasers.
“So things like cooking schools became popular.”
The first of these was the Boston Cooking School, founded in 1879 by the Women’s Educational Association of Boston. Mary Johnson Lincoln became the principal of the school and eventually authored six cookbooks. She was self-taught, having started cooking in earnest at age 7 when, after her father’s death, she helped supplement the household income. Later, when her own husband fell ill, she was again forced to join the workforce.
This information prompted a whole slew of “whys?”: Why were only the women expected to cook? Why couldn’t they do some other kind of work? You get the idea.
Mrs. Lincoln lamented women’s lack of scientific knowledge in the kitchen, and in her Boston Cook Book: What To Do and What Not To Do in Cooking, sought to provide not only recipes, but “all the chemical and physiological knowledge that is necessary for a clear understanding of the laws of health, so far as they are involved in the science of cookery.”
Before Lincoln’s cookbook, American recipes called for amounts like butter “the size of an egg,” a “teacup” of milk, or a “soup spoon” of cream. She was the first to use standardized measurements and to list the ingredients in their order of use.
Mary Lincoln wrote her recipes so that they “explained, illustrated, and reiterated for the inexperienced and the careless,” and afforded a “word of caution for those who seem always to have the knack of doing the wrong thing.” In other words, she endeavored to eliminate the chance of failure in cooking by also furnishing a practical and scientific “reason for every step taken.”
We were reminded of Malinda Russell’s instruction-free Sour Cream Cake recipe: “We could have used a few more details on that one.”
Following in Mrs. Lincoln’s footsteps was Fannie Farmer. At age 16, Miss Farmer had had a paralytic stroke that left her bedridden and therefore unable to attend college. She enrolled in the Boston Cooking School at age 31, became a top student and eventually the school’s director.
The Boston Cooking School Book (aka The Fannie Farmer cookbook), published in 1896, is possibly the most well-known and most influential of all American cookbooks. Like her predecessor, Farmer focused on nutrition and the science of cooking. While Fannie Farmer is generally considered the mother of level, standardized measurement, Mary Johnson Lincoln definitely paved the way.
“So what does all of this have to do with the 1-2-3-4 cake? Well, before standardization, you and your neighbor could bake the same cake recipe, but get different results–you might use this regular-sized coffee cup, while your neighbor used this much larger one.”
The kids all said they would go to their neighbor’s.
It was time to use these much talked about cups.
We quickly reviewed the basics for making a butter cake, then got to work.
I pointed out that the 1-2-3-4 recipe was almost identical to the Choose Your Own Adventure cake we had designed, just doubled. Ratios. Pretty neat.
They were far more interested in testing the batter.
While the cakes cooled, I whipped up some strawberry Swiss meringue buttercream. The kids had made this once before, so they allowed me to forge ahead on my own.
We lopped the tops off the cakes and sandwiched them together with the pink speckled frosting.
After a quick finish with the remaining buttercream, we sat down with our sunny looking slices. And unsurprisingly, those plates were clean before you could say 1-2-3-4.
1-2-3-4 Cake, makes 2, 9″ round layers
The basic 1, 2, 3, 4 produces something more like a cookie; cooks knew from experience that they would need to add liquid to achieve a more cake-like texture. The earliest recipes called for sour milk and baking soda for leavening; baking powder was included once it was available.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
3 cups cake flour, (fluff it up with a spoon before measuring)
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and butter the pans. Place a round of parchment in the bottom and dust the inside of the pans with flour.
Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Cream the two together until light and fluffy, 2 – 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well until each is incorporated. Scrape down the sides and the bottom of the mixing bowl.
Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium-size bowl. Add a third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix on low until just incorporated. Add half of the milk, blend just until absorbed, then scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Repeat the process with the rest of the ingredients, ending with the flour.
Divide the batter between the pans and smooth the tops with a spatula. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the cakes spring back when lightly pressed in the center. They should be just pulling away from the sides of the pan and will be lightly browned.
Cool the pans on racks for 10 minutes, then run a thin knife or spatula around the edge of the pan to help release the cakes. Turn them out of the pans and place right side up on a rack to cool completely.
To frost and finish:
I used a half-batch of this standard Swiss meringue buttercream recipe. Your butter should be cool room temperature before adding it to the completely cooled meringue. It might seem like the frosting is not coming together, but have patience, it will.
I’ve found that the easiest way to get a pronounced strawberry flavor is to use frozen berries, thawed overnight so that they are soft enough to mush into a puree. I used a 10 ounce bag for the above amount of buttercream. Reduce the puree over low heat until it resembles ketchup, (see the photo above). Stir occasionally so that it doesn’t scorch. You can add sugar to taste, but I generally don’t. Push the puree through a sieve and let cool completely before adding it to the buttercream. A squeeze of lemon juice will further enhance the berry flavor.
For more in this historical cake series: