After 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.
What 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
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.
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.