Election Day used to be a lot more fun. In late 18th and early 19th century America, it was a festive holiday, featuring parades, dancing, and lots of food and drink. The culinary highlight was a sweetened, fruit-filled yeast bread called election cake.
This cake seems to have originated in Hartford, Connecticut, although it is really a descendant of the English “great cakes” made for grand occasions. It was a bread-like cake made from a dough sponge, which was usually left to rise overnight and mixed with butter, molasses or sugar, eggs, raisins, spices, and brandy. Continue reading →
“My brain can’t decide whether to freeze or melt,” said my daughter while eating Baked Alaska the other night. Her words echoed a stodgier observation by 19th-century British journalist George Sala: “The transition from the hot outside envelope to the frozen inside is painfully sudden, and not likely to be attended with beneficial effect.”
Unlike Sala, my child liked this warm-cold sensation, and she loves Baked Alaska, a sponge cake topped with ice cream and encased in meringue, which is then baked quickly at a high temperature. The ice cream does not melt because the air-filled meringue is a poor conductor of heat and so acts as insulation. So does the cake, to a lesser extent. Continue reading →
Weary Willie cake is named after a type of hobo who used to wander the American countryside. Weary Willies would more accurately be called tramps, because unlike hoboes, who prided themselves on their work ethic, the Willies were known for slacking off and looking for handouts.
The term was originally used for worn-out Civil War veterans, some of them deserters, who became drifters. (I learned this from a 1970 episode of “Bonanza,” of all things, starring Richard Thomas as one of a group of Willies who turn up at the Ponderosa Ranch!) The name Weary Willie was later used for a comic-strip tramp in the early 1900s, and decades after that by circus performer Emmett Kelly for his sad-clown character. Continue reading →
George Washington wrote that of all fruits, “none pleases my taste as do’s the pine.” He had acquired a taste for pineapple in Barbados, and later bought it whenever possible, asking sea captains who traded his goods to bring pineapples back from the West Indies. But he was one of the lucky few to enjoy this fruit. It was so costly at the time, some hostesses would actually rent the fruit from bakers to display as a centerpiece, then return it uneaten. The pineapple would be rented out again and again, sometimes until it rotted!
There were occasional recipes for pineapple in 18th- and 19th-century British and American cookbooks. But most were just instructions for cutting and serving the fruit raw, or preserving it. As the 19th century progressed, pineapples were imported in larger numbers from Florida, the Caribbean, and Central America, and recipes for using them increased. Most of these were for preserves, compotes, and cold dishes like pineapple salad, ice cream, and Bavarian cream.
The origins of the brownie are somewhat mysterious and controversial. Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel, cookbook author Fannie Farmer, and an unknown housewife in Bangor, Maine, all have some claim on its creation.
I’ll start with the Palmer House story, which is that its kitchen invented little chocolate cake bars glazed with apricot preserves and decorated with nuts for the 1893 Columbian exposition, and named these treats brownies. They were made to put in boxed lunches for ladies attending the exposition. According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, this legend may be true, and the hotel served brownies like these later on — and still does — but there is unfortunately no documentation for the 1893 date.
Fannie Farmer was the first to actually publish a recipe for brownies, in 1896. Her creation was different from the modern brownie (and Palmer House’s), as it had no chocolate and wasn’t cut into bars. But the texture was brownie-like, and she followed it up a decade later with a recipe more like the brownie as we know it today.
I became interested in cottage pudding largely because of its name. Why was it called a pudding, since it seemed to be a cake, and why a cottage pudding?
“Pudding” was once a general term for dessert (and still is in Great Britain), but there were plenty of recipes in old cookbooks for “cake,” so why wasn’t this one of them? The answer seems to be that although it was a cake, this dish was served with a sauce that was poured over the top, resulting in a slightly mushy, pudding-like dessert. The cake itself was also very moist.
As for the term “cottage,” it probably identified this dish as simple and affordable — suitable for farmers or laborers who lived in modest cottages. (It is similar in that sense to cottage pie, an early name for shepherd’s pie.) Continue reading →
I had read somewhere that Emily Dickinson was a baker, but I somehow pictured the reclusive poet making only loaves of spartan bread. When I began reading about her cooking, however, I realized that my image of her was all wrong. She was a prolific and joyful baker, and she delighted in making not just bread (and very good bread) but also puddings, cakes, gingerbread, and candies. Continue reading →
I’ve always been a fan of old-fashioned chocolate cake, but when I went searching for early American chocolate cake recipes in 19th century cookbooks, I found very few of them. It turns out that chocolate cake really only got its start toward the end of that century.
The first “chocolate” cakes, made in the early 19th century, were actually not chocolate cakes at all, but white or yellow cakes served with hot chocolate (sort of like “coffee cake” with coffee). Hot chocolate, made from ground cacao beans, was a common beverage in colonial times, but chocolate desserts were rare. Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten’s invention of the cocoa press, in 1828, launched the age of chocolate by improving the taste of chocolate and making it cheaper to produce. Other improvements in chocolate manufacturing followed, and by the 1890s, chocolate desserts were common.