Eliza Leslie’s Cup Cakes

Eliza Leslie cup cakesAfter spending nearly two years writing mostly about 18th-century food, I’ve decided to expand my blog’s scope to include recipes from the 19th and early 20th centuries as well. I’ve strayed into the 19th century before, and the lure of this period has become irresistible. I’m also going to focus exclusively on baking and desserts.

One appeal of 19th-century recipes is that they are usually easier to follow than colonial ones. We have Eliza Leslie partly to thank for this change. I’ve written about Leslie before (in a post on Indian Pound Cake). Her cookbook Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828) was the first of several bestsellers.

Eliza LeslieWhat made Leslie so popular? Her recipes are elegantly written, her instructions are clear and detailed, and she gives precise measurements.  She also helped introduce the use of cup measurements, which brings me to a recipe for “Cup Cake” from Seventy-Five Receipts. This may be the first cup-cake recipe in history. But it’s unclear whether it’s so called because the cakes are baked in cups, or because the measurements are in cups — or both!

Food historians disagree about this issue, but it seems safe to say that whatever her intent, Leslie contributed to the popularity in this country of both the cup measurement and the cupcake itself, and I thank her for that. (So does my daughter, who expects a cupcake after every violin recital.)

I didn’t actually make Leslie’s first cup-cake recipe, because it sounded absurdly spicy, containing “half a cup of powdered allspice and cloves” and “half a cup of ginger” — yikes! I knew no one in my family would eat this. But a later recipe for “White Cup Cakes,” in Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1837), looked very appealing:

Measure one large coffee cup of cream or rich milk, (which, for this cake, is best when sour,) one cup of fresh butter; two cups of powdered white sugar; and four cups of sifted flour. Stir the butter and sugar together till quite light; then by degrees add the cream, alternately with half the flour. Beat five eggs as light as possible, and stir them into the mixture, alternately with the remainder of the flour. Add a grated nutmeg and a large tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon, with eight drops of oil of lemon. Lastly, stir in a very small tea-spoonful of sal-aratus or pearl-ash, melted in a little vinegar or lukewarm water. Having stirred the whole very hard, put it into little tins; set them in a moderate oven, and bake them about twenty minutes.

The first time I made this recipe, I followed Leslie’s instructions pretty closely, using buttermilk and baking soda, which is similar to saleratus. The result was too dense and spicy. So I tried again, cutting back on the flour and spices, using regular milk, and replacing the baking soda with baking powder. I also switched to the modern practice of beating eggs in first, then alternating the additions of flour and milk. I ended up with something close to a modern-day cupcake, but with 19th-century flavorings: cinnamon, nutmeg, and lemon.

Leslie didn’t suggest icing these cakes, but to please my 21st-century family, I frosted some of them with a boiled icing that was common in the mid-19th century. These cupcakes were fluffy, lightly spiced and lemony, and not too sweet, especially since I went easy on the icing. My daughter argued that they were even suitable for breakfast. Yeah, right.

White Cup Cakes
Adapted from Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1837)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon lemon zest
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup whole milk

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two 12-cup muffin tins with cupcake liners, or butter the tins. (Note: Cupcake liners didn’t exist yet on this side of the Atlantic, but I think Eliza Leslie would have approved.)

2. Beat the butter for about a minute, then gradually add the sugar, about ½ cup at a time, beating well after each addition.

3. Beat the eggs until light, then add to the butter-sugar mixture gradually, beating well. Add lemon zest and blend.

4. Sift the presifted flour, baking powder, salt, and spices together and whisk thoroughly to blend. Add the flour mixture to the batter in three parts, alternating with the milk, blending well after each addition.

5. Scoop or pour batter into prepared cups until about two thirds full.

cup cake scoopingBake for 20-25 minutes, until light golden on top. Cool cup cakes in their pans for several minutes, then transfer to wire racks and cool completely. Frost if desired (see below).

Boiled Icing

1 cup sugar
¼ cup cold water
1 egg white
pinch of cream of tartar

1. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a simmer, then cook until the mixture reaches a temperature of 238-240°F. (A thin thread should form at the end of a coarse thread when the syrup reaches this temperature.)

2. Meanwhile, beat the egg white until stiff peaks form. When the syrup is ready, pour it slowly over the stiff white, beating constantly, for several minutes, until the mixture thickens. Add the pinch of cream of tartar and beat until combined. Ice the cup cakes immediately. These are best eaten within a day or two.

cup cake



12 thoughts on “Eliza Leslie’s Cup Cakes

  1. I love that you are expanding into the 19th century! But only the New World? I wonder if those cup measurements (ginger, etc.) were standarized measurements. In many early modern cookbooks they used the utensils they had to hand. In fact, you often see “handful” and other like terms; our “pinch” is probably a hangover from that sort of practice. I guess the best thing to do is look at proportions in the recipe.

    • I’m going to focus on North American recipes, though of course many have European origins. (Speaking of which, although Leslie is credited with the first cupcake, it does seem related to the English queen cake, but without currants.) I think you’re probably right that Leslie was using a different cup size for her spices. Cup measurements weren’t standardized (and mass produced) until later in the 19th century. The Boston Cooking School and others helped bring about this change (thank you, Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink).

      • I find it interesting how traditional European recipes changed in the New World to meet the differences in available ingredients, and of course changes in culinary fashion. Looking forward to your next!

  2. Karen, That looks like a very yummy cup cake and as you know I am not big in the kitchen but would definitely give them a try! Anke

  3. That’s interesting to me that the other version was so full of spice. A cup total of nothing but spice?! Were people eating much differently back then?
    I also love the ‘oil of lemon’ idea….

    • I think they did like spicier cakes, but it it still seems excessive, right? Strange that she didn’t specify a smaller cup or spoonful, given that she usually gave a fair amount of detail.

  4. Pingback: Mrs. Rorer’s Chocolate Cake | Revolutionary Pie

  5. Pingback: Eliza Leslie’s Bread and Butter Pudding | Revolutionary Pie

  6. I really enjoy the blog. I just made your 12th night cake recipe and love it. Cannot wait to make Miss Eliza’s cupcakes and take them into the field at our next campaign. One thing though, out here in Oklahoma I cannot seem to locate currants at all. Are dried cranberries a reasonable substitute? Thanks for the fun blog and great recipes.

    • Hi Brad, I’m a little confused: do you mean the Martha Washington great cake, or the bread and butter pudding with currants? I think dried cranberries would be fine in the former, and probably good in the latter, though it wouldn’t have that liqueur taste. Glad you’re enjoying the blog. I need to start posting more often again! (New Year’s resolution…)

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