In the past, when I have posted a recipe originating from before the mid-nineteenth century for ‘cake’, I have often gotten a query from a reader who is confused either about the use of the word ‘cake’ for what appears in fact to be a yeast-risen sweet bread, or about the nature of ‘saleratus’ or ‘pearl ash.’ I hereby give you a very brief summary of the history of ‘cake’ as we know it.
I understand that the word ‘cake’ comes to us from the Vikings – an ancient and allegedly tough and manly race who we would hardly associate with something fluffy like Angel Food Cake. To the ancient Vikings, and to many generations of their descendants, a ‘cake’ was a slab of bread, baked hard, and by extension came to refer to a hard slab of anything – such as a ‘cake’ of soap.
How did this dense, hard bread develop into the lightest of light sponge cakes? The dough had to be lightened somehow, and the first method was with the use of yeast. Yeast has been used since the time of the ancient Egyptians, who probably discovered it by accident when some dough was accidentally left aside and became contaminated with local wild varieties. The yeast cells produce carbon dioxide as a by-product, and it is this gas that ‘rises’ the dough.
As time progressed, the basic bread dough was enriched with eggs, butter, spices and fruit, and sweetened with sugar for special occasions such as feast days. For many centuries this sweet yeast dough was the only sort of ‘cake’. Here is an example from a cookbook published in 1596 – which specifies the use of ‘Gods good’ (an obsolete word for yeast).
To make fine Cakes
Take fine flowre and good Damaske water you must have no other liqueur but that, then take sweet butter, two or three yolkes of egges and a good quantity of Suger, and a few cloves, and mace, as your Cookes mouth shall serve him, and a lyttle saffron, and a little Gods good about a sponfull if you put in too much they shall arise, cutte them in squares lyke unto trenchers, and pricke them well, and let your oven be well swept and lay them uppon papers and so set them into the oven. Do not burne them if they be three or foure days old they bee the better.
A soft dough can also be ‘risen’ with eggs. The protein from the egg encloses bubbles of air produced by the beating process – which was very arduous in the days before food processors. This recipe from the famous Mrs. Raffald required well over an hour of hand-beating of the mixture.
To make Queen Cakes.
Take a pound of loaf sugar, beat and sift it, a pound of flour well dried, a pound of butter, eight eggs, half a pound of currants washed and picked, grate a nutmeg, the same quantity of mace and cinnamon. Work your butter to a cream, then put in your sugar, beat the whites of your eggs near half an hour, mix them with your sugar and butter. Then beat your yolks near half an hour and put them to your butter, beat them exceedingly well together. Then put in your flour, spices, and currants. When it is read for the oven, bake them in tins and dust a little sugar over them.
The Experienced English Housekeeper. Elizabeth Raffald. 1769
Sometime near the end of the eighteenth century, in America, baking soda and powders were developed. Sodium and potassium bicarbonates (baking soda, ‘saleratus’, and pearl-ash or potash) had been known about for a long time - they were used in soap-making, in curing hams, for softening the tough skins of beans, and for preserving the colour of green leafy vegetables. These alkaline agents produce carbon dioxide gas when they are mixed with an acid (such as in buttermilk) – and someone obviously got the idea that the gas might lighten a cake mixture. Here is a nice example:
Shelah, or Quick Loaf Cake.
Melt half a pound of butter - when cool, work it into a pound and a half of raised dough. Beat four eggs with three-quarters of a pound of rolled sugar, mix it with the dough, together with a wine glass of wine, or brandy, a tea-spoonful of cinnamon, and a grated nutmeg. Dissolve a tea-spoonfu1 of saleratus in a small tea-cup of milk, strain it on to the dough, work the whole well together for a quarter of an hour, then add a pound of seeded raisins, and put it into cake pans. Let them remain twenty minutes before setting them in the oven.
The American Housewife … An Experienced Lady, 1841
Baking powder came about when someone thought to pre-add the acidic component to the soda, in a form that was released in contact with the ‘wet’ ingredients. It was a good advance, but the mixture had to be got into the oven quickly before the gas-production ceased. Finally, in 1889 double-acting baking powder was invented, with a slower-acting acid which hardly worked at all at normal temperatures, but was much quicker in the higher temperature of the oven.
Of course, the several methods of leavening remained in use simultaneously – and the yeast from the manufacture of ale was always popular. Here is an early nineteenth century recipe that uses ale-yeast as well as eggs.
Flour dried, and currants washed and picked, four pounds; sugar pounded and sifted, one pound and a half; six orange, lemon, and citron peels, cut in slices; mix these.
Beat ten eggs, yolks and whites separately; then melt a pound and a half of butter in a pint of cream; when lukewarm, put it to half a pint of ale-yeast, near half a pint of sweet wine, and the eggs; then strain the liquid to the dry ingredients, beat them well, and add of cloves, mace, cinnamon, and nutmeg, half an ounce each. Butter
the pan, and put it into a quick oven. Three hours will bake it.
A New System of Domestic Cookery … By A Lady. New York, 1814
The final recipe I give you today uses another type of baking powder that I have not mentioned: bakers ammonia, also called sal volatile, or sal ammonia – the main ingredient in smelling salts. I leave you with the knowledge that in really old times, sal volatile used to be made from stale urine.
Take one pound of flour toasted, one pound of grated loaf sugar, and one pound of butter beat to a cream ; separate one dozen of eggs, the yolks from the whites, beat up the yolks with one half of the sugar, the other half with butter ; then put them together
and beat well, you cannot beat it too much ; put in the fourth part of a tea-spoonful of sal volatile; have the whites beat to a snow upon two dinner plates ; they should be as thick as to carry the fork; sift in the flour amongst the yolks and sugar, with a little of the whites ; mix it lightly, do not stir it much, and when the flour is all in, add the whites, and an ounce of carraway seeds ; have your pan or hoop buttered and ready. It will take one hour and three quarters in a moderate oven.
Practice of Cookery and Pastry,... Mrs I Williamson. Edinburgh. 1854
Quotation for the Day.
Life may not be the party we hoped for, but while we're here we should dance.
Very informative, there is so much about cake I didn't know. Thanks!
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