|Scan from The Henry Ford Museum website.|
As you can see from the recipe, it's a bit vague. Notice the author doesn't even mention the baking temperature? Back when receipts were written like this, there were certain "givens" to cooking and baking. Young women were taught what to do by the older women before them, and therefore, it wasn't necessary to put that information in the receipt because it was already known. Plus, there was the added complication of having a variety of baking methods available, from a hearth fireplace bake-oven to a cast-iron wood-burning cookstove oven. The cook/baker would have a good idea of how to bake in their specific oven, so adding a baking temperature to the instructions might have caused more harm than good when writing out the receipt.
Also, what is saleratus?? After a quick Internet search, I found that it was a fancy term for sodium bicarbonate (or sometimes potassium bicarbonate). That means either baking soda or baking powder. To the pantry!
When I compared the components of my box of baking soda and my container of baking powder, baking soda lists sodium bicarbonate as the only ingredient, but the baking powder has sodium bicarbonate listed as third on the list of ingredients, so for this recipe, I'll be using baking soda. Is it just me, or does two teaspoons of baking soda seem like a large amount?
As I have never eaten this cake before, I'm making it as it's written above; however, I'm making a half recipe because, hey, ingredients ain't cheap. Here is the full-recipe conversion to modern-day measurements:
1 1/2 C granulated sugar (12 oz by weight)
2 sticks (1 C) butter, unsalted, at room temperature
2 tsp. baking soda dissolved in 6 TBSP water
1 C apple cider
6 C white whole-wheat flour (for a more authentic texture)
1 whole grated nutmeg
So, a step-by-step breakdown of the directions:
"Rub together three quarters of a pound of sugar, and half a pound of butter."
Rub together? What an odd step. Granted, they didn't have KitchenAid mixers back then, so maybe this was their method for creaming the butter and sugar. I put my room-temp butter in a bowl with the sugar, and mashed it all together with a fork. I smooshed and mashed until the butter and sugar were all combined.
Then, "Dissolve two teaspoonsful of saleratus in half a teacup of water, turn it into the cake, together with half a pint of cider, stir in two pounds of flour and a grated nutmeg."
I don't keep tea cups in the house. We have coffee mugs, but that's really a different size, so to be authentic to the recipe, I got out one of my china teacups from my grandmother's set. It's about a hundred years younger than this recipe, but that's okay--it worked great!
Two pounds of flour ends up being six cups. Six cups! There wasn't enough liquid in the recipe to absorb that amount of dry goods. My arms got a really good workout. After everything was worked together, I pressed it into a pan--there was no pouring this batter like today's cake. It was really more of a stiff cookie-type dough.
"Bake it about a half an hour."
I had preheated my oven to 350. I wasn't sure that this should be in the oven for a full half-hour, since I had halved the recipe. I put it in for 12 minutes to start. However, it needed probably another ten minutes or so, but this "cake" showed little signs of going from a dough to a baked good, so after 17 minutes total, I pulled it out to cool.
You can tell a difference in the unbaked and baked cake, of course. There really wasn't any browning, and the toothpick test showed no batter. However, I think it would have come out clean if I stuck a toothpick in the batter before I baked it!
"This cake should be eaten in the course of two or three days after it is made, as it gets dry very quickly."
Um, yep, I can see that happening.
This cake would have been so dry if I had baked it completely. As it was, the outer edges were pretty dried out. It is possible that a 325 oven would have been better, but honestly, this is just not the type of cake in the sense that we know it to be today.
I had an idea of what this cake might be like, based on previous experience with other baked goods. I have to say, though, that this was one bland cake! I could really taste the nutmeg, but there wasn't much else to the flavor. There wasn't an overwhelming butter taste, or sweetness, or anything. Just, kind of bland. The texture was strange--my husband, whose facial reaction to the cake when I offered him a bite was priceless, described it as "like cornbread with nutmeg in it"--it was very mealy. There just wasn't enough liquid to cause any sort of rise. I also think that eggs could have greatly improved the texture of this cake.
Overall, not a great cake recipe by today's standards. Food was just very different back then. Families were often restricted by finances when it came to food and pantry items, and sugar was a pricier item, so women tried to make due with what they could afford. Definitely not a cake recipe to take with me to our living history program on Sunday! I found a modern recipe that I believe was based on this recipe on Cooks.com, and I'll be making that instead. You can see that recipe here and compare the two!