“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
We divided the batter between two pans and used a knife to make sure that they were equally full.
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!”
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.
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?”
It was unanimous. It wasn’t sad, and neither were any of us.
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: