I wanted to make Eliza Leslie’s Indian pound cake partly because it sounded so good — the ingredients include cornmeal, eggs, butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, and brandy — but also because its creator seemed so interesting.
Born in 1787, Leslie was one of five children of a Philadelphia watchmaker. Her father, who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, died heavily in debt when she was sixteen, and she and her mother ran a boardinghouse to support their family. According to culinary archivist Jan Longone, Leslie set out to become a writer of novels and stories but wrote a cookbook, Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats (1828), because her friends kept asking her for recipes. (She had been a pupil at Mrs. Goodfellow’s cooking school in Philadelphia.)
Seventy-five Receipts was extremely successful. Leslie still thought of herself as a literary writer, but she continued to author cookbooks, including one on French cookery, as well as works on housekeeping and manners. Her most successful book was Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1837), which went through 60 editions and was probably the most popular cookbook in 19th-century America. Here is a copper engraving based on an oil portrait of Leslie by Thomas Sully:
Leslie also authored The Indian Meal Book (Philadelphia, 1847). According to Longone, this book was actually first published in London, its goal being “to introduce and teach the Irish how to use cornmeal as a staple to survive the great potato famine.” From what I’ve read the Irish did not much like cornmeal, but it was widely consumed in North America, where settlers had been taught how to cook the grain by Native Americans (thus the term “Indian” in this and many other cornmeal recipes).
An early version of Indian pound cake appeared in Seventy-five Receipts, but Directions for Cookery has a more detailed recipe:
Sift a pint of fine yellow Indian meal, and half a pint of wheat flour, and mix them well together. Prepare a nutmeg beaten, and mixed with a table-spoonful of powdered cinnamon. Stir together till very light, half a pound of powdered white sugar; and half a pound of fresh butter; adding the spice, with a glass of white wine, and a glass of brandy. Having beaten eight eggs as light as possible, stir them into the butter and sugar, a little at a time, in turn with the meal. Give the whole a hard stirring at the last; put it into a well-buttered tin pan, and bake it about two hours.
Leslie’s recipes were notable for their detail — she used “tablespoons” instead of “spoonfuls,” for example, and gave more directions than was customary at the time, although I don’t understand what “prepare a nutmeg beaten” means. I could probably have muddled through her recipe, however, but decided to go with Richard Sax’s version from Classic Home Desserts, since he did such a wonderful updating, fairly true to the original.
Sax added a little baking powder to improve the texture, and he increased the proportion of white flour to cornmeal. Perhaps he was trying to avoid what Leslie herself warned about: “This cake (like everything else in which Indian meal is an ingredient) should be eaten quite fresh; it is then very nice. When stale (even a day old), it becomes dry and rough as if made with saw-dust.” Yikes! I love Leslie’s straightforwardness, though.
Sax’s pound cake is also best the first day, but it’s good the next as well. Slightly sweet and spicy and with a little crunch from the cornmeal, it tastes delicious on its own or with butter or jam.
Eliza Leslie’s Indian Pound Cake
Slightly adapted from Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts
1½ cups stone-ground cornmeal (Sax likes Rhode Island johnnycake meal*)
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
½ cup sugar
grated zest of 1 lemon
8 large eggs
½ cup whole milk
3 tablespoons brandy
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour two 9″ X 5″-inch loaf pans. Sift the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt into a bowl and set aside.
2. Using an electric mixer (or beating by hand), beat the butter on medium-high speed until light. Add the brown and white sugars and lemon zest and beat until very light. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Then add the milk and brandy and blend. With the mixer at low speed, beat in the dry ingredients just until combined.
3. Divide the batter between the two pans. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then remove from pans. Serve at room temperature.