Recently, in an early 20th century Australian newspaper I came across mention of a pastry with the intriguing name of Desdemonas, and naturally was inspired to look further. So far I have not looked at English-language resources in other countries, so my research on these little cakes is hardly begun, but perhaps your interest may be piqued also. If you know more, or find more, please do let us know.
The earliest mention of Desdemonas that I have found so far is in Christmas: A lecture by Rev. Charles Chark, which appeared in Melbourne Punch (Vic.) on 26 December 1872:
Pomona was the goddess of fruit and cakes. A temple to her honour has been erected in Bourke-street, and daily sacrifices of strawberries and cream, 6d., triangular tarts, very spotty ditto, known as Desdemonas,and dusty jellies are offered up by clerks in the civil, and every other service.
So, a Desdemona was a spotty tart? They are no tarts among the many, quite varied, recipes I have found so far.
The earliest recipe for Desdemonas I have found to date is from The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.) 15 May 1886.
Desdemonas, to Make.
Rub 6oz.of butter into 1 lb. of flour, add a pinch of salt and three tablespoonfuls of sugar, and a little powdered cinnamon. Work the mixture into a paste with four well-beaten eggs; roll it into balls the size of a walnut, brush these over with beaten egg, and sprinkle upon them chopped almonds which have been shaken in a small portion of the white of one egg mixed with pounded sugar. Bake the cakes in a slow, steady oven, and when they are lightly coloured they are done enough. When cool a spoonful of whipped cream is introduced into the centre. A little sugar frosting is placed on top of the cakes when the cream has been inserted.
It was not long before Othellos appeared on the scene:
Othellos and Desdemonas.
Make a good sponge, bake it in little round tins; when done open with a knife and insert a filling of good thick custard flavored to taste. Close the aperture and cover with chocolate icing. To make the sponge, follow any good recipe for same. To make the filling, beat the yolks only of 6 eggs 20 minutes, add half a pint of cream and stir it into half a pint of milk hot, but not boiling. Remove it before it boils, flavor and set to cool. Shred some chocolate and add it to plain icing to make the covering, then sprinkle dry icing sugar or thousands and millions over them. Some are covered with white icing only.
South Australian Chronicle (Adelaide, SA) 5 August 1893.
The ‘thousands and millions’ (which we now call ‘hundreds and thousands’) would account for the 1872 allegation of spottiness, perhaps.
A number of variations on the theme were developed over the following decades:
A good recipe for Desdemonas and Othellos runs thus:-
Take the weight of five eggs in sugar, half their weight in flour, essence and salt to taste. Beat the whites and yolks of the eggs separately. Add the sugar to the yolks, then add the whites and flour, with which has been mixed as much as half a teaspoonful of baking powder. Mix all together, add the essence and salt, and bake in small, round patty tins for about twenty minutes. When done turn out and allow to cool. Scoop out the middle of the cakes and fill with whipped cream. Place two together, and ice half of the cakes with chocolate icing and the other half with sugar icing.
The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.) 13 April 1895.
Desdemonas and Othellos.
Take 1 lb. of butter, 2 lb. of self-raising flour, ½ lb. of powdered sugar, four eggs, and two small cupfuls of milk. Melt and stir the butter to a cream, put in the sugar, and mix thoroughly for a few minutes,then add your eggs one at a time, stirring well between whiles; then add the flour with the milk, and mix up again. Pour the mixture into small, round, buttered shapes, and bake in a moderate oven for about 25 to 30 minutes. When cold scoop a little out of the middle, and place one on another, with whipped cream in between each. Ice them over half with chocolate icing and half with plain white icing.
The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.) 29 August 1896.
And another recipe that references the spottiness of the 1872 description:
Daily Telegraph (Launceston, Tas.) 29 January 1903.
Three decades later, two completely different interpretations from the same year – 1937. In the first recipe, just in case the metaphor had escaped the reader, the naming of the cakes is explained.
Desdemonas and Othellos
Six eggs, 6 ozs. sugar, 6 ozs. flour, custard, essence, chocolate icing and soft icing. Method: Separate the whites from the yolks of the eggs, beat the yolks and sugar well together, then the whites to a stiff froth. Beat all lightly together. Sift the flour and stir in gently and quickly. Then add any essence preferred. Have ready a baking dish lined with buttered paper and drop the mixture on this with a spoon in little round cakes, taking care they do not touch. Bake 15 or 20 minutes, take quickly off the paper. Scoop out a little of the centre of the flat side of each cake, fill this with custard and press two cakes together. Coat half of them with chocolate icing, dotted with soft white icing, and the other half with white icing
dotted with chocolate. The white cakes are the Desdemonas and the dark Othellos.
The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.) 2 October 1937
Othello and Desdemona Cakes.
¼ [lb.] butter, 6 oz. soft white sugar, 3 eggs, ½ lb. flour, ¼ teaspoon carb.soda, ½ teaspoon c.[cream] tartar, flavoring to taste.
Beat butter to a cream, add sugar, eggs (one by one), flour, with c. soda and c. tartar sifted through it. Run on to a greased tin through a ladies finger tube. Bake in a moderate oven. Put two together with icing, any desired flavoring: ornament top also.
Advocate (Burnie, Tas.) 4 December 1937.
There seems to be a dearth of recipes for Desdemonas and Othellos after the end of the 1930’s. Perhaps political correctness came early to the naming of these little cakes. I will keep looking into their history however, and would be delighted if you can add anything to the story.