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.
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.
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.) Continue reading →
I knew that “pound cake” referred to cakes made with a pound of butter, but I didn’t realize until researching 18th-century cakes that this term once referred to the cake’s other ingredients as well — a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, and even a pound of eggs. Here’s Hannah Glasse’s recipe for pound cake from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747):
Take a pound of butter, beat it in an earthen pan with your hand one way, till it is like a fine thick cream: then have ready twelve eggs, but half the whites; beat them well, and beat them up with the butter, a pound of flour beat in it, a pound of sugar, and a few carraways. Beat it all well together for an hour with your hand, or a great wooden spoon, butter a pan and put it in, and then bake it an hour in a quick oven.
Two things about this recipe really struck me: first, that Glasse recommended beating the butter with one’s hand; second, that she beat the batter for an entire hour! Continue reading →
As my daughter’s spring break approached recently, I wondered whether I would get any blogging done, when inspiration struck: We would have an 18th-century tea party for her dolls, one of which is Felicity, American Girl’s so-called “spunky colonial girl.” We even had doll-size blue willow china, a nice gift from friends.
Katie is not a girly girl — she’s more likely to make her dolls challenge each other to a duel than have tea — but she liked my idea well enough and got Felicity and Ivy suitably attired in colonial clothing. (Ivy is a Chinese-American girl from the 1970s, but let’s not quibble.) Continue reading →
When I read about Martha Washington’s Great Cake, I wondered whether it was called that because it was really good or really large. I think the name was meant to describe its size — to give you an idea of just how big it was, here is Martha’s recipe:
Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth. Then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream and put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work’d. Then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner then put in the Yolks of eggs and 5 pounds of flour and 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it. Add to it half an ounce of mace and nutmeg half a pint of wine and some fresh brandy. Continue reading →