A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

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“1-2-3-4…”

“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?”

They hadn’t.

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.

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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.

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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.

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We lopped the tops off the cakes and sandwiched them together with the pink speckled frosting.

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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.

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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:

Cake As A Lens

I Vote For Cake

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake for a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

 

 

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Chocolate Cake for a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

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“We started this ‘history through cake series’ at the end of the 18th century.”

They all laughed at me. Then I realized what I’d said.

“No, not literally. The first cake recipe we made in the series was written at the end of the 18th century!”

Darn sticklers.

“We started out with an English-style cake, leavened with yeast, then we baked a couple of cakes that were leavened manually, by beating air into the butter. If we look at the progression of the recipes, it seems like we are moving away from heavy traditional cakes. What are some things that brought about these changes in cake baking?”

We talked about the railroad — new ideas about food spread with travelers, and both ingredients and baking equipment could be shipped across the country.

“You could order a cake pan from the Sears and Roebuck catalog…”

“And three weeks later you could bake a cake!”

Exactly.

What else happened?

Baking powder became commercially available; Worlds Fairs in Philadelphia and Chicago exposed people to new foods, (bananas!), and showcased more modern cookstoves; chocolate manufacturing was a growing industry; and new equipment continued to be introduced.

“So, it was getting much much easier for people to bake. They no longer had to grate their sugar, churn their butter, or make their own chemical leavening agents. Cakes were getting lighter. And because people were spending less time on preparation, cakes were getting fancier.”

We had already made a chocolate cake recipe from 1847.

“But that cake contained just grated chocolate. It took decades for someone to fully incorporate melted chocolate into a cake — the first recipe of that kind was published in 1886. It seems odd considering that chocolate was thought to be somewhat of an energy boosting health food.”

The kids got a kick out of that.

Yet once chocolate became the main ingredient in a cake, the idea took off.

“Bakers mixed in all kinds of spices and odd ingredients like mashed potatoes. Or sauerkraut.”

“Sauerkraut?!”

“It’s a thing! But the most popular all-chocolate cake was devil’s food.”

Perhaps the name devil’s food came about as a reaction to the popularity of angel food cake — it was as dark and rich as angel food was light and airy, or it may have been named after the reddish hue of the baked cake — a result of baking soda, an alkali, reacting with the acidity of the cocoa.

The kids were over talking about it.

We got to baking.

Ingredients were measured.

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They were excited by the idea of using coffee in the batter.

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Dry ingredients were sifted together.

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Creaming the butter and sugar together creates pockets of air that increase in size when baking soda reacts with cocoa powder.

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They took turns adding the eggs.

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Our experienced bowl scraper made sure that there were no bits of unmixed batter stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

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Dry ingredients were added alternately with the liquid.

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Finally, we finished off mixing the batter by hand.

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We divided the batter into the prepared pans and loaded the cakes into the oven.

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“Do you guys want to help me make ganache for frosting the cake?”

“No, we’ve done that before.”

Alrighty then.

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Chocolate cake fresh from the oven is just about one of the best smells ever.

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I explained what one should look for when a cake is fully baked:

“You should be able to press the top lightly, right in the center, and it should spring back. The sides will just begin to pull away from the pan. If you are unsure, you can always test it with a toothpick — at most, there should be moist crumbs clinging to the tester, but the toothpick shouldn’t emerge with batter on it.”

I also showed them how to run a thin spatula around the side of the cake, against the pan, so the the top edge doesn’t stick to the pan as the cake cools.

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Once the cakes were sufficiently cooled  no longer scorching hot, I demonstrated how to remove the very top of each layer with a serrated knife.

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These were promptly eaten.

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We place one cake layer right side up and poured ganache on top of it.

We flipped the second cake layer cut side down and sandwiched it together with the first layer and ganache.

Now we had a nice flat surface to work with.

Ideally the cake would have been completely cool and the ganache would have been room temperature, but that doesn’t always happen.

There were no complaints.

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Especially when the slightly warm and melty chocolate cake was paired with ice cold milk.

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“Should we have made it with sauerkraut?”

“Noooooo!”

It was perfect just as it was.

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Devil’s Food Cake, from David Lebovitz

9 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups cake flour, not self-rising
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup strong coffee
1/2 cup whole milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9″ x 2″ cake pans and line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper.

Sift together the cocoa powder, cake flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a bowl.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, or by hand, beat together the butter and sugar about 5 minutes until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time until fully incorporated. (If using a standing electric mixer, stop the mixer as necessary to scrape down the sides to be sure everything is getting mixed in.)

Mix together the coffee and milk. Stir half of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture, the add the coffee and milk. Finally stir in the other half of the dry ingredients.

Divide the batter into the two prepared cake pans and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Let cakes cool in the pans for about ten minutes before turning them out onto a rack and removing the parchment. Flip right side up.

Cool completely before frosting.

Chocolate Ganache

I used 70% bittersweet chocolate for this recipe. If you choose to use chocolate with a lower percentage of chocolate liquor (cocoa bean solids), you can use slightly more chocolate and less cream. For example, if there is no percentage marked on a standard bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, or anything marked 50 – 60% use 1 cup of cream for 8 oz of chocolate. For 61 – 66%, use 1 1/4 cups for 8 oz of chocolate.

7 oz bittersweet chocolate, (70%), chopped into small pieces

1 cup heavy cream

Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring the cream to a simmer and pour it over the chopped chocolate. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir until the chocolate is smooth. Let the ganache cool at room temperature, without stirring, until it looks thick enough to spread. If it firms up too much before you can use it, set the bowl in a pan of barely simmering water until the ganache is partially melted, then stir gently to the desired consistency.

To assemble the cake:

Again, it is much much easier to cut and work with a cold cake. Pop them in the freezer if you have time. Otherwise forge ahead, a little crumbs won’t hurt you.

Slice the very top off of each layer.

Place the first layer, cut side up, on a plate. Spread room temperature ganache on top of the layer.

Place the second layer, cut side down, on top of the ganache.

Spread more ganache on the top and sides of the cake as decoratively as you like.

Cake is best served the day it is baked, but can be kept for another day, covered, at room temperature.
For more in this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

 

Fit For Angels

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“That’s a lot of eggs.”

My son watched as I cracked open a dozen and separated the whites from the yolks.

“Well, if we were having this conversation in a kitchen during the 19th century instead of in this kitchen today, we’d have a lot of chickens. Lots of chickens means…”

“Lots of eggs.”

I can’t say I was surprised when none of the kids could definitively say that they’d eaten angel food — even though it’s a classic cake, its popularity seems to have waned. They only recognized it after I showed them a photo.

“Why do they call it angel food?”

I explained that this simple cake made of only six ingredients, baked up so light, white, and fluffy that people claimed that it was “fit for angels.”

It’s harder to pin down the origins of the cake. Perhaps it is a variation of one of the already existing egg white cakes: the Lady Cake, Silver Cake, Sno-Drift, or even a version of a white sponge. Angel food differs from those in that it is made without a trace of butter or oil; the cake is completely fat-free.

“So it’s healthy!” I joked. The kids knew better.

Another theory is that prudent members of the Pennsylvania Dutch community, unwilling to see perfectly good food go to waste, created the cake to use up the leftover egg whites on noodle making days. Scans of early 1800’s newspaper ads from southeastern Pennsylvania show offers for the tube pans used in baking angel food cake.

“If the Pennsylvania Dutch had been baking a version of this cake since the early 1800’s, why didn’t it become widely popular until the second half of the century? The first published recipe for Angel Food Cake is from 1878.”

The 1856 patent of a simple yet ingenious invention probably had a lot to do with it.

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Prior to the 1850’s, bakers would have had to whip their eggs by hand with a fork, a slotted spoon, or even a tree branch, (the Shakers thought that a branch from a peach tree imparted a peach flavor to the cake). The rotary eggbeater made whipping a dozen egg whites so much easier!

We took a look at an amazing collection of these mechanical devices.

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Now I know I am partial to vintage kitchen stuff, but some of the old beaters were downright beautiful in design.

One more contribution by the world of industry popularized angel food cake — the mass production of baking pans. Swan’s Down (1894) even offered tube pans to customers as a gift with a purchase of cake flour.

Now there was no reason not to bake an angel food cake!

Because the mixing of this cake proceeds quickly, it is best to have all the ingredients scaled out before beginning to whip the egg whites.

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Using superfine sugar and sifting the dry ingredients a couple of times ensures that the cake will be nice and light.

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We reviewed the rules for success when whipping egg whites:

There should be no trace of egg yolks in the whites.

The beaters, bowl, and/or whisk should be squeaky clean — any grease or fat will keep the whites from whipping.

Room temperature whites will whip to a greater volume than cold whites — you can gently warm them over hot water or a low flame.

Add sugar gradually to avoid collapsing the foam.

Avoid over whipping the egg whites and sugar — look for a soft serve ice cream-style curve to the peak rather than a pointy and stiff peak.

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Once we had a smooth and billowy meringue, we scooped it into a large bowl so that we would have enough room to fold in the dry ingredients.

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Down through the center, up the side…”

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Angel food batter needs to cling to the sides of the baking pan, so there was no need for the usual greasing and flouring. This is also why non-stick pans are not suitable for angel food cakes.

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Because the cake has no fat, I usually like to balance it out with a richer topping. Also, I had twelve egg yolks in the fridge.

A sabayon is always easy, impressive, and delicious. We chose to make use of the red grapefruit and cara cara oranges we had in the fruit bin.

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Second French word of the day: bain marie, also known as a double boiler. The kids took turns whisking the egg yolks, sugar, and citrus juice together over the simmering water until the sauce was thick.

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We knew it was ready to come off the heat when we could make a ribbon with the mixture.

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Whisking the sabayon until it is completely cool will keep it from deflating or separating. I added a little bit of whipped cream to the sabayon because I like it that way. Did I mention that there is no fat in the cake? It’s all about balance.

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Angel food cake should be left to cool, upside down, to set the structure. Our pan had feet for this purpose; the whole thing looked a little like a UFO.

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I don’t know if our cake was fit for angels, but it was definitely fit for an angel of a birthday boy.

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Angel Food Cake, one 10″ tube pan, serves 12 – 16

1 cup Unbleached Cake Flour
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar (alternately, you can buzz some regular granulated sugar in a food processor.)
12 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Don’t grease or flour your angel food cake pan.

Place the flour and 3/4 cup of the sugar together in a sifter set over a bowl or a piece of parchment. Sift a couple of times and return the mixture to the sifter. Set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer or a large mixing bowl, combine the egg whites, salt, and extract. Whip until the mixture is just frothy, then sprinkle the cream of tartar on top and continue beating until the mixture forms soft peaks.

Gradually add the remaining sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, and continue beating to just shy of stiff, glossy peaks. There should be a little curl to the tip, like a soft serve ice cream cone. Sift 1/3 of the flour mixture over the meringue and fold the two together until the flour just starts to disappear, then repeat the process two more times.

Spoon the batter into the pan. Run a skewer or thin knife through the mixture to break up any large bubbles. Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until it’s golden brown and the top springs back when lightly touched.

Remove the cake from the oven, and set it upside down on the pan’s feet or with a bottle through its center cone. Let the cake cool for 1 1/2 hours for as long as possible around four eager kids.

Loosen the edges of the cake with a knife, and remove it from the pan.

Use a serrated knife to cut into slices.

 

Citrus Sabayon

6 egg yolks

1 cup of sweet citrus juice, (any combination of grapefruit, tangerine, orange, etc.)

1/3 cup of sugar, (more or less to taste depending on the sweetness of the juice)

1/2 cup of heavy cream, optional

Whisk to blend the yolks, juice, and sugar in a stainless-steel bowl. Rest the bowl in a saucepan over hot water. Whisk constantly for 4 to 5 minutes or until it has the consistency of lightly whipped cream. Clear the bottom of the bowl constantly with the whisk so that the eggs do not scramble, and adjust the heat as needed. When thick, foamy, and tripled in volume, remove from heat. Over an ice bath, continue whisking until cool. Whip cream and fold into sabayon.

 

For more in this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Chocolate Cake for a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

 

 

 

 

Best Laid Plans

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This is one reason I publish my Cook Book, hoping to receive enough from the sale of it to be able to return home. I know my book will sell well where I have cooked, and am sure that those using my receipts will be well satisfied.

— Malinda Russell, A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, 1866

“Everything we know about Malinda Russell is in this book — the first cookbook ever written by an African American.”

The kids leaned in for a better look at the iPad.

“And this is the only remaining copy.”

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“She published her book in 1866. What do we know about that time?”

“Was it the time of the Civil War?”

“Yep. Remember, the war began in 1861 and lasted for four years. This book came out just after that.”

We talked a bit about what life in America might have been like during those years, and the challenges a woman of color like Malinda Russell would have faced. Then I gave them a very abridged version of the already condensed version of a biography that Ms. Russell had included in her book:

“She writes, ‘My mother being born free after the emancipation of my grandmother, her children are by law free,’ and that her family was one of the first families released from slavery by a Mr. Noddie of Virginia. At 19 she attempted to emigrate to Liberia but was robbed by a traveling companion. Forced to abandon her plans, she ended up staying in Lynchburg where she worked as a cook. She married and had a son who she describes as crippled. Then, just a few years later, she became a widow. So aside from everything going on in America at the time, she had her own personal challenges.”

The kids nodded in empathy.

I went on to describe how Ms. Russell moved to Tennessee and ran a boarding house and pastry shop, and “by hard labor and economy, saved a considerable sum of money” for the support of herself and her son.

But yet again, her plans were derailed:

“In 1864, a ‘guerilla party’ robbed Ms. Russell of her money and she was ‘compelled to leave the South on account of (her) Union principles.’ She moved to Michigan with hopes that she could return to Tennessee when ‘peace was restored’.”

The kids were speechless at first, but since we had just finished a unit on the Civil War, they were well aware of the ugliness that took place.

We turned our attention back to the cookbook and the recipe we would be making.

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“That’s it?”

“Yeah, all of her recipes are like that. She lists the ingredients and the amounts, but no method or instructions on what size pan to use.”

We talked about how to mix this particular cake. We could see that it had the usual ingredients: sugar, flour, eggs, and baking soda for leavening.

They remembered that the baking soda needed an acid to react with.

“That would be the sour cream.”

I pointed out that there was no butter in this recipe. Usually one would either cream the butter and sugar together to create pockets of air in the batter, or whip the eggs with the sugar to aerate it. But it didn’t seem like the recipe called for enough eggs to whip with that amount of sugar.

“While planning this lesson, I remembered a similar cake recipe that uses whipped cream instead of butter. The problem is, commercial sour cream doesn’t have the same butterfat content as cream, so you can’t whip it. But then I realized that the sour cream in Malinda Russell’s day would have been cream that had been left out to sour naturally. That you could whip.”

So we would substitute my homemade crème fraîche for sour cream.

“It’ll be an experiment.”

“We know it won’t taste bad.”

I love these kids.

So they got to work preparing cake pans and measuring and mixing ingredients.

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We would flavor the cake with meyer lemons.

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While the cakes were in the oven, I filled the kids in on the equally fascinating story of how Malinda Russell’s 39-page pamphlet of recipes came to be known.

“It was found in the collection of a famous food writer named Helen Evans Brown. Only after Jan Longone, the curator of American Culinary History for the University of Michigan, purchased it from Ms. Brown’s estate, did she realize how historically significant it was.”

Jan Longone’s discovery and her subsequent quest to uncover more information about Malinda Russell has been written about at length. Ms. Longone and her husband even planned their 48th wedding anniversary to include driving around the southern United States in search of trail back to Ms. Russell, but to no avail.

Stymied by a lack of dependable records, Father Time, and a fire, Ms. Longone’s plans for finding Malinda Russell were consistently and heartbreakingly denied.

Our cakes were done.

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They were very lofty when they came out of the oven, but they sank down as they cooled. Curious. And I thought I had come up with such a good plan.

But! As the kids predicted, the cake did not taste bad. In fact, everyone deemed it quite delicious.

My thoughts went back to Malinda Russell. I’d like to talk to her, not about the lack of instructions in her book, but about her plan of writing it “with the intention of benefitting the public as well as myself.”

Did she benefit? I hope she did. Her book prompted a new review and revision of beliefs regarding African American culinary history. Did she realize just how much the public benefitted from her perseverance and skill? It’s a shame we can’t have that conversation with her. I hope she eventually learned a little about her contribution.

Then maybe I’d ask her about the cake.

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Malinda Russell’s Cream Cake

This is the way we made it. I would probably do it differently next time — maybe I would whip the eggs with the sugar. Or maybe just whip half of the crème fraîche? If anyone experiments with it, let me know!

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour two 9×4″ loaf pans.

1 1/2 c sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 t salt

Zest and juice of 1 Meyer lemon

2 c all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking soda

2 cups crème fraîche

Whisk flour and baking soda together and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, salt, and lemon juice and zest; whisk well. Whip crème fraîche until it mounds softly. Fold dry ingredients into the egg mixture, then fold in the whipped crème fraîche.
Place batter in the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake until the cakes spring back when pressed, and when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool cakes for ten minutes before removing from pans to a wire rack.

 

For more in this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

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Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready fourteen ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon–mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,–a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

— Eliza Leslie, The Lady’s Receipt-Book, 1847

“This is the first chocolate cake recipe ever published in America.”

I don’t know if the kids were more intrigued by the novelty of the recipe or by the main ingredient, but I did notice that at least one of them recognized Miss Leslie’s name from our last baking project.

They also knew, from a previous session, that by 1847, chocolate had been around for a very long time.

“I wonder why it took them so long to work it into a cake?”

It turns out that the method of chocolate consumption hadn’t changed much from the 16th century, when the Spaniards brought it from Mesoamerica to Spain and, by extension, to the rest of Europe.

Two hundred years later, people still drank their chocolate — hot, with milk and sugar. It was considered healthful and they drank it as often as possible despite it being very labor intensive:

A portion of one of the cakes must be scraped fine, added to a sufficient quantity of water, and simmered for a quarter of an hour; but milling is necessary to make it completely smooth. For this purposes [chocolate pots have] a circular wheel of wood or metal within, fixed to a stem that passes through the lid, and which, being whirled about rapidly by the palms of the hand, bruises and mixes the chocolate with the water. The chocolate must be milled off the fire, then put on again to simmer some time, then milled again until it is quite smooth. From the fineness there should be no sediment, and the whole should be drunk; cream is generally used with it … Sugar may be put in with the scraped chocolate, or added afterward.

— Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy, 1845

We checked out some pictures of these special chocolate pots and mills.

“They had to use the stirring rods in order to keep the chocolate from separating. Cocoa beans are 53% cocoa butter, so that fat will want to rise to the surface unless you keep mixing it. Otherwise, you’d have a bit of an oil slick on top of your hot cocoa.”

The kids remembered trying cocoa nibs and happily dug right in.

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“People could buy ‘prepared cocoa’ which meant cocoa nibs that had been ground into a powder, or they could purchase chocolate in tablets, where the nibs had been ground into a paste and let harden. Even Ben Franklin sold chocolate tablets in his print shop.”

I explained that the process of manufacturing chocolate was even more labor intensive than the lengthy preparation of hot cocoa — many chocolate makers still ground their beans by hand, though some used rudimentary machines or even grist mills.

“Like the Indian corn?”

“Yeah, just like that. Then, factories started popping up. The first was Hannon’s Best Chocolate in Massachusetts in 1765.”

None of the kids had heard of Baker’s Chocolate, so my story of how Hannon’s became Baker’s, which is still in business to this very day (!), was met with blank stares.

Moving on.

“So all this industrialization made chocolate that much more available and affordable.”

A Dutch chocolate maker’s patent of a press that removed the cocoa butter from ground cocoa nibs was the next major development in the chocolate world. Casparus van Houten’s hydraulic press removed the cocoa butter from the ground chocolate mass to create a “cake” that could then be pulverized into what we now call cocoa powder.

Then, van Houten’s son, Coenraad Johannes, developed a process  in which cocoa is treated with alkaline salts to reduce its natural acidity. This “dutch process” results in a product that is much darker than natural cocoa due to the chemical reaction of the salts and the cocoa.

“So when you bake with cocoa you need to pay attention to the recipe and whether it calls for dutched or natural cocoa — that tells you which leavening to use: baking soda for the acidic natural cocoa, or baking powder for alkalized cocoa.”

They examined the two powders, smelling and sampling each.

“Yuck.”

I promised that, once we got our cake mixed and in the oven, I would make sweetened pastes with both kinds of cocoa so they could have a more pleasant tasting experience.

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While Miss Leslie’s original recipe called for either prepared cocoa or “scraped” chocolate, the updated recipe we were using called for grinding unsweetened chocolate in a food processor — because now we have electricity and modern appliances, and for that I am thankful.

“Can we taste the chocolate?”

Sour faces.

I warned them it wasn’t sweetened!

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“So, Miss Leslie would have grated her chocolate by hand. She would have also mixed this cake by hand. Notice there is no chemical leavening in the recipe.”

We discussed how a cake of this kind gets its loftiness, and how much muscle would have gone into mixing it without a machine: first beating the butter and the sugar, then whipping the yolks, and finally, whipping the egg whites. Whew.

“I bet you’d have one arm a lot bigger than the other!”

Ah, but we did have a machine. And we were more than happy to use it.

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The kids took turns gradually adding sugar to the creamed butter and chocolate mixture.

“We are trying to create as many air bubbles in the butter as possible. The edges of those sugar crystals rubbing against the butter will do that.”

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Once all the sugar was added, we continued beating the mixture for several more minutes to aerate it even further.

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Then, they added the eggs.

“That’s a lot of eggs!”

I explained that the original recipe called for even more eggs because, when whipped, they act as additional leavening; since our electric mixer had the ability to incorporate a lot more air into the batter than mixing by hand, we could use fewer eggs.

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And finally, they added the flour.

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We popped the cake into the oven and the kids made short work of the mixing bowl.

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While the cake was baking, I kept my promise to provide the crew with a better taste comparison of the two cocoas by mixing up a bit of each with sugar and hot water.

They were unanimous in their preference for the natural cocoa.

“It tastes more chocolatey!”

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And we were all unanimous in our approval of Miss Leslie’s cake.

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Whatever it was that prompted Eliza Leslie to incorporate chocolate into a pound cake recipe, we approved wholeheartedly.

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Eliza Leslie’s Chocolate Cake, 1847

Adapted slightly from Greg Patent’s recipe in Baking in America

Makes one 10-inch bundt cake, about 12 servings

3 cups sifted cake flour

3/4 tsp sea salt

2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

3 oz unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter at cool room temperature, (about 70 degrees)

1 T vanilla extract

8 large eggs at room temperature

2 T whole milk

Adjust the oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and 10-inch (12 cup) bundt pan and flour it, set aside.

Place the cake flour, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl and whisk to combine.

Process the chocolate with 1/4 cup of the sugar in a food processor until the chocolate is chopped into very small granules and set aside.

Beat the butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add the ground chocolate mixture and vanilla and beat for 1 minute on med-high speed. Beat in the remaining 1 3/4 c sugar about 1/4 cup at a time, beating for 20 to 30 seconds after each addition.

When all the sugar has been incorporated, beat for 5 minutes.

Beat in the eggs two at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition; stop to scrape the bowl and beaters occasionally.

On low speed, gradually add half the flour mixture, beating only until incorporated. Beat in the milk, then the remaining flour. Use a rubber spatula to finish folding the mixture together.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and gently shake it to level the top.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the thickest part comes out clean. Cool the cake in its pan for 20 minutes.

Gently loosen the edge of the cake from the pan and cover it with a wire rack. Invert the two and carefully lift the pan from the cake. Let cool.

 

For more on this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

Redemption of a Sad Paste

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

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“We’re baking an Indian pound cake today. Anybody want to guess where the name comes from?”

I love that all four of the kids raise their hands.

“Because the Indians baked it?”

“Because Americans baked it for the Indians?”

“Is it in honor of the Indians?”

There were several more guesses — all good.

“Remember our last session, when I told you that the cookbooks of that time were British? Well, fast forward a bit and we’ve got recipes that are still traditionally British, but now we’ll start to see those same recipes incorporate ingredients native to North America, like maize.”

I explained that while there are now several varieties of corn, they all descend from one kind of grass, called teosinte, that is indigenous to Central and South America.

The kids were interested to learn that corn is grown exclusively by man, that is, no present form is capable of self-propagation.

“Scientists have determined that humans domesticated teosinte approximately 6,000 – 10,000 years ago in southern Mexico.”

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We compared the physical characteristics of both and discussed how artificial selection gave us the corn we eat now.

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Still, it seemed unbelievable to us that anyone would find that hard-shelled plant worthy of replanting for food.

I shared a story detailing how scientists wondering the same, were able to test a theory that made the early farmers’ choices much more understandable.

“After that, maize made its way up to North America where Native Americans continued to cultivate it.”

They all remembered learning about the Spanish colonization of the Americas, so it was easy for them to understand how corn could travel to Spain via Columbus, and from there to the rest of Europe, Africa, Middle East, India, and China.

“So while corn wasn’t completely new to the European settlers, they had never seen it used the way the American Indians were using it. The new Americans referred to it as Indian Corn.”

The colonists and subsequent immigrants from Europe were used to wheat flour.

“You guys know what bread made with wheat flour is like — lofty and chewy due to the development of gluten and its ability to stretch and capture gases released by whatever leavening agent you’re using.”

Cornmeal, which does not form gluten, stubbornly refused to rise for the unknowing bakers.

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I read a quote from a woman named Rebecca Burlend, who emigrated to Pike County, Illinois, in 1848:

As our money was growing scarce, [my husband] bought a bushel of ground Indian corn, which was only one-third the price of wheaten flour…Its taste is not pleasant to persons unaccustomed to it; but as it is wholesome food, it is much used for making bread. We had now some meal, but no yeast, nor an oven; we were therefore obliged to make sad paste, and bake it in our frying pan on some hot ashes. 

— from The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell

But! It was cheap and plentiful and wholesome, and the ever persevering pioneers “made do.” They “made do” so well in fact, that they came to like the Indian corn.

Pray, let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all in all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world; that its green leaves roasted are a delicacy beyond expression; that samp, hominy, succotash, and nokehock, made of it, are so many pleasing varieties; and that johny or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than a Yorkshire muffin.

— Benjamin Franklin, 1766, in response to The London Gazette writer who had argued that Americans could never give up tea because their Indian corn was so indigestible.

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As we began preparing our ingredients for the cake, I gave the kids some background on Eliza Leslie, the author of the cookbook containing the original Indian pound cake recipe that our working recipe was adapted from.

Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats was first printed in 1828, and is the earliest American baking book. Eliza Leslie had wanted to be a fiction writer, but her mother sent her to Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow’s Philadelphia cooking school so that she could help with the family boarding house.”

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The kids continued with the recipe — they had made pound cake before.

Reading Miss Leslie’s book reminds one of just how much effort it took to bake a cake. While cast iron ovens had been introduced, they were expensive, so most people were still cooking their food in brick fireplaces.

Very few ingredients were purchased ready-made: butter needed to be churned, sugar was grated from loaves or cones, flour required drying to remove the excess moisture that would make baked goods heavy, leavenings were homemade, even cornstarch was do-it-yourself.

“If the butter and sugar are to be stirred together, always do that before the eggs are beaten…For stirring them, nothing is so convenient as a round hickory stick about a foot and a half long, and somewhat flattened at one end.”

— from Preliminary Remarks in Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry,  Cakes, and Sweetmeats

We skipped the hickory stick and went straight for the electric mixer.

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We divided the batter between two pans and used a knife to make sure that they were equally full.

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Close enough.

We popped them into our non-wood-burning oven.

“Mom got the cornmeal from an island!”

It took me a second to understand what my son was talking about.

“Oh, no honey, I think you mean Rhode Island!”

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I had ordered cornmeal from Gray’s Grist Mill, the oldest continually operating mill in the United States. They mill Narragansett Indian Flint Corn, which is the only true strain of native corn left in New England; only 40 – 60 acres of Rhode Island are planted in white cap corn, while thousands of acres are planted in other types.

While the kids were interested to learn about the workings of the mill and its long history, they were more interested in eating the Indian pound cake.

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I sliced it up while it was still warm, and they devoured it. Then they asked for seconds.

“So, it’s not a sad paste?”

“No!”

It was unanimous. It wasn’t sad, and neither were any of us.

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Eliza Leslie’s Indian Pound Cake, adapted slightly from Richard Sax’s version in Classic Home Desserts

Makes two 9 x 5 inch loaves; each serves 8 to 10

1 1/2 cups sifted cornmeal, fine stoneground is preferable

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

2 tsp ground cinnamon

3/4 tsp fresh-grated nutmeg

3/4 tsp fine sea salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

grated zest of 1 lemon

8 large eggs at room temperature

1/2 cup whole milk at room temperature

3 T brandy

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour, or butter and line with parchment, two loaf pans. Mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, spices and salt together and set aside.

Beat the butter until light. Add the sugars and the lemon zest and continue beating until very light. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well. Add one-third of the dry ingredients and combine on low until just mixed. Add the brandy to the milk and add half of the mixture to the batter. Alternately add the remaining dry ingredients and milk, scraping the bowl and mixing gently after each addition.

When all the ingredients are just combined, divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until the cakes are golden and toothpick inserted near the center emerges clean, about 45-50 minutes.

Cool the cakes in the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Unmold and turn right side up; cool. Serve at room temperature.

 

For more on this historical cake series:

Cake As A Lens

I Vote For Cake

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

I Vote For Cake

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“Do you think more people would vote if they got free cake?”

We’d been talking about Election Cake. It had been an interesting conversation so far — one that meandered from voting requirements to Presidential eligibility to citizenship, and finally, to the Obama birther kerfuffle. So many questions from the kids. Whew. But let me back up…

We were making a cake. Or was it a bread? And what did it have to do with the political process?

I had kicked off our class that day by explaining that all the cookbooks in early America had been wholly British, that is, they contained recipes that employed traditional British cooking techniques using ingredients common to Britain. It wasn’t until 1796 that the first truly American cookbook was printed. Published in Hartford, Connecticut, by Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life, was the original manual for cooking American dishes using foodstuffs indigenous to the young country. It was hugely popular, and public demand kept it in reprints for 35 years. It was in the second edition of the book that there appeared what some food historians consider the first recipe for an Election Cake:

“Thirty quarts of flour, 10 pound butter, 14 pound sugar, 12 pound raisins, 3 doz eggs, one pint wine, one quart brandy, 4 ounces cinnamon, 4 ounces fine coriander seed, 3 ounces ground allspice; wet flour with milk to the consistency of bread over night, adding one quart yeast; the next morning work the butter and sugar together for half an hour, which will render the cake much lighter and whiter; when it has rise light work in every other ingredient except the plumbs, which work in when going into the oven.”

American Cookery, Amelia Simmons, facsimile of the Second Edition, printed in Albany, 1796

I imagine that recipe would have produced enough cake for a whole town! Or perhaps an army?

In fact, the Election Cake is thought to be a variation of a Mustering Cake. Before the Revolutionary War, colonists would gather for military training exercises or “mustering.” The women would bake simple cakes to serve to the crowd of hungry men. After the revolution, mustering was no longer necessary but men still traveled to the town center to vote. Election Day was treated much like a holiday, with an abundance of revelry and celebration, so the Muster Cakes were fancied up a bit and evolved into Election Cakes.

“We need to get going on the sponge.”

“A sponge?!”

I reminded them that we had used the same process for the brioche we had baked in one of our last sessions.

“Oh yeah.”

I also reminded them that in 1796 baking powder would not yet have been introduced, (that happened in 1843). The one chemical leaven that was in use and included in American Cookery was pearl ash, an undependable and bitter-tasting product derived from wood ashes that tended to leave ghoulish green streaks in baked goods. Thus the need for a yeasty sponge leaven.

As commercial yeast would not have been available until the 1860s, the yeast mentioned in the original Election Cake recipe would have meant barm, the foam or scum created when brewing ale.

“Ooh so they used pilsner in their cake?!”

Since we weren’t brewing any ale, we would use commercial yeast for this cake.

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When the kids had finished mixing the sponge, we set it aside to ferment. In the meantime, we gathered the rest of the ingredients together, buttered the baking dishes, and chatted some more about cooking in 18th century America.

“So, this cake is a celebration cake, but it seems pretty plain. Any idea why?”

I let them consider that for a moment before pointing out that baking in those times was kind of a pain.

“Just getting the ingredients together was more difficult. You couldn’t just scoop sugar out of a jar. Some books still included instructions on ‘How to boyle and clarify sugar.’ And in the late 1800s, white sugar was expensive, used sparingly, and had to be scraped from loaves or cones with special shears.”

Then, there was the manner of cooking. In colonial American kitchens, baking was done in small brick ovens built alongside the fireplace. By the 1840s to 1850s, brick-oven baking had been supplanted by the cast-iron wood-burning range, but cooking in one was still labor intensive:

Too much care cannot be given to the preparation of the oven, which is oftener too hot than too cool…A good plan is to fill the stove with hard wood…let it burn until there is a good body of heat, and then turn the damper so as to throw the heat to the bottom of the oven…In this way a steady heat to start with is secured…if the hand can be held in from twenty to thirty-five seconds…it is a “quick” oven, from thirty-five to forty-five seconds is “moderate,” and from forty-five to sixty seconds is “slow”… All systematic housekeepers will hail the day when some enterprising Yankee or Buckeye girl shall invent a stove or range with a thermometer attached to the oven, so that the heat may be regulated accurately…

— The Women of First Congregational Church Marysville, Ohio The Centennial Buckeye Cook Book Minneapolis, 1876

By now, we could see that our sponge had fermented and was well-risen.

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While we added the sponge into a mixture of creamed butter and sugar, we discussed the various sugar products that were available and how they were produced.

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The grating of nutmeg prompted a completely unscientific sniff-test comparing it to mace.

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“It’s important to mix your fruit with flour so it doesn’t all sink to the bottom of your cake.”

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We finished mixing the batter, and set the cakes aside to rise a second time.

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“It looks like banana bread!”

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I was unsure how tasty the cakes would be, but the kids loved them. The recipe says they keep well and are delicious sliced and toasted, but I haven’t tested that because they’ve been gobbled up each time.

If you do make this recipe you might consider making extra — depending on which way you’re leaning this election cycle you could either throw a party on election night or drown your sorrows in cake. Either way, get out and vote.

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Election Cake, adapted only slightly from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax

Makes two 8×4-inch loaves; each serves about 8

For the sponge:

1 package active dry yeast

1/2 c packed light brown sugar

1 1/2 c lukewarm milk

3 cups all-purpose flour

For the cake:

3/4 c (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 c packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 c all-purpose flour

1 1/2 t ground cinnamon

3/4 t fresh-grated nutmeg

1/2 t ground mace

3/4 t fine sea salt

1 c golden raisins

3 T brandy

Dissolve the yeast and 2 T of the brown sugar in 1/4 c of the lukewarm milk; let stand until bubbly, about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1/4 c plus 2 T brown sugar and the remaining 1 1/4 c milk; gradually add the flour and knead in a standing mixer with a dough hook for five minutes. (You could also do this by hand with a wooden spoon). Scoop into a buttered bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in volume, 45-60 minutes.

In a bowl, combine the flour with all of the spices, the salt, and the raisins, tossing them to coat.

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until light. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Punch down the sponge and add to the butter mixture; beat just until partially combined.

Add the flour mixture to the dough, along with the brandy, and beat until well combined; the dough will be very soft.

Generously butter the loaf pans. Divide the dough evenly between the two pans, cover and let rise in a warm place until fully doubled, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Bake until the loaves are golden brown, about 45 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean.

Cool the cakes in the pans on a rack for about 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle invert the cakes onto the rack, unmold and turn right side up. Cool to room temperature. Wrapped well, the cakes will keep several days.

 

More in this series:

Cake As A Lens

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup