Baking Cakes in Early America - American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best-Loved Cakes - Anne Byrn

American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best-Loved Cakes - Anne Byrn (2016)

Chapter 1. Baking Cakes in Early America

1650 to 1799

From the Puritans who settled in New England to the Dutch in New York, Quakers in Philadelphia, Germans in much of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and British on down the coastline to Charleston, people came to America to build a new life. Once home kitchens and bake ovens were established, and once a source of sweetener was available—whether it was local honey, maple syrup, molasses, or the more expensive white sugar—cake baking in America began.

The first true cakes baked at home on American soil were sweet, yeasty, breadlike cakes and fruitcakes, British pound cakes, cheesecakes, sponge cakes, and a molasses ginger cake. They were leavened with yeast cultures brought with the settlers from Europe or made from the foamy barm skimmed from fermented beverages like beer. The Moravian Sugar Cake and the New Orleans King Cake, for instance, were both based on yeast. Other cakes were rich with eggs, such as the early cheesecakes and British-style pound cake. A different twist was found in the English and French style of light sponge cakes containing a high ratio of eggs and sugar but no butter. Served with fresh berries, they suited the warmer climates and the plantation lifestyles of Virginia and South Carolina.

The colonists baked gingerbread, too, and their recipes were both English and German in origin. But it was not until the wood ash leavening called potash was produced by burning cleared trees in the Hudson River Valley that American gingerbread benefited from this leavening and became soft and more cake-like in texture. Potash, or pearlash as it was known, was an alkali and a forerunner of baking soda. When combined in a gingerbread batter with sour milk or molasses, which were both acidic, it produced carbon dioxide bubbles that helped raise the cake in the oven.

Cakes in the early colonies were baked for the same reasons they are today—to celebrate a birthday, a wedding, a houseguest, a holiday. They were baked for everyday meals (gingerbread, sponge cake) as well as important events (Fraunces Tavern Carrot Tea Cake, for George Washington on British Evacuation Day in New York). Knowing how to bake a cake was a skill passed on from mother to daughter. Recipes, called receipts, were carefully handwritten in journals, and over the generations more recipes, notes, and thoughts were added.

Colonists relied on cookbooks, initially mostly English, and later on American cookbooks written by authors such as Amelia Simmons with her American Cookery. In this first cookbook published in America, in 1796, Simmons adapted well-known British cooking methods to American ingredients.

But clearly, cakes were baked by the wealthy, who could afford the ingredients. Compared with pies, cakes were more expensive to bake and required more skill and time to pull off. If you want to understand cakes in the colonies, says Virginia historian and author Leni Sorensen, just look at the ingredients. White sugar was imported and expensive.

“The ability to make cake separated the haves from the have-nots,” says Sorensen. “The poor didn’t eat sweets. They wanted fat meat like pork for sustenance. They made do with field peas. And they couldn’t afford sugar, currants, brandy, and spices.”

In the Northeast, the Puritans of the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony baked cakes as soon as they were able, says Sorensen. The cakes they prepared were often sweetened with molasses instead of white sugar. At the turn of the 19th century, when African slaves were crucial to white sugar production in the West Indies, abolitionists in New England avoided white sugar because they viewed it as slave sugar.

By contrast, where the weather wasn’t as severe as in the North and where affluent plantation life influenced the cooking, cooks prepared British loaf cakes with ingredients at hand as well as with their supply of imported foods. There was no need to embellish recipes as there might have been in England, according to Katharine Harbury in her Colonial Virginia’s Cooking Dynasty cookbook. Virginia cooks needed to do little to local apples, fresh butter, and abundant wild fruit to make a cake delicious. Plus, the tobacco farmers of Virginia loved to entertain and took great effort to serve the best food to their guests. Food needed to be “memorable enough to spark admiration,” says Harbury.

Leni Sorensen adds that cake baking in Virginia increased after the influx of young, marriageable Englishwomen. They bought the white sugar needed to bake pound cakes, sponge cakes, and fruitcakes.

In the 18th century, while American men were founding the new republic, American women were in the kitchen not only baking or supervising the baking of cakes but educating children and instilling a respect for the country. Historians call this the “republican motherhood,” which laid the groundwork for the future of America. And after the Revolution, women’s role in the kitchen remained important but expanded outside the home.

All cakes didn’t look the same in early America. They were small or grand, studded with dried fruit or as plain and simple as a sponge cake. They were dense and breadlike, sweet and yeasty, baked atop pastry, sweetened with cooked carrots or local honey, or baked with the most expensive refined white sugar money could buy. They were different and yet they were similar, using American ingredients, an American cookbook, and American ingenuity to adapt the new to the old to bake an American cake.





Amelia Simmons wrote the first American cookbook in 1796. It wasn’t well edited and later would be plagiarized by authors who followed her, but American Cookery contained recipes for simple fare—roasts, soups, breads, and desserts such as gingerbread. Simmons included 7 versions of gingerbread in her book. Her cakey Gingerbread No. 2 contained white sugar, butter, and eggs, a departure from the stiff, traditional gingerbread dough rolled and cut into cookies. If you bake any of these old recipes verbatim today, you will not have much success. So the following recipe is an adaptation of several of her recipes to create a uniquely American gingerbread recipe that works today.

Butter for prepping the pan, at room temperature

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup boiling water

1 cup molasses

2 large eggs

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup granulated sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

1.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375°F. Brush an 8" or a 9" square baking pan with a little soft butter. In a small bowl, stir the baking soda into the boiling water until the soda is dissolved. Set aside.

2.Place the molasses and eggs in a large bowl, and stir with a wooden spoon to combine and break up the egg yolks. Add the ½ cup butter, sugar, flour, ginger, cinnamon, and allspice, and stir well until the mixture is smooth, 40 strokes. Stir the baking soda and water mixture into the batter until it is smooth, 1 minute.

3.Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and place the pan in the oven. Bake until the gingerbread rises and the top springs back when lightly pressed with a finger, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven. Let the gingerbread rest in the pan for 20 minutes before slicing. Serve warm with a pour of cream.

Gingerbread was a stomach settler in the 17th century. In Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, he writes of buying gingerbread before a long sea voyage. Stephen Schmidt, New York food historian, says bakers would set up shop along the wharves and docks to sell gingerbread to sailors. At the time, people assumed it was the treacle, or molasses, in the gingerbread that made them feel less queasy onboard, but it may have been the ginger. Long thought to aid digestion, ginger was first a medicine, said the late historian Karen Hess, before it was used as a baking ingredient.

Long before colonists landed on American soil, gingerbread was baked across Europe. Evan Jones wrote in his book American Food that early settlers from Moravia, Switzerland, and parts of the old Austro-Hungarian regions inherited the knack of cooking with spices from generations past. Essentially a honey cake with fragrant spices, gingerbread was easily adapted to less expensive molasses in America and was often called “molasses gingerbread.” It was soft and more cakelike in consistency than the hard, crisp gingerbread rolled and cut into shapes. Gingerbread would turn out to be the perennial favorite in early American kitchens. Its heavy spices overrode the bitter aftertaste of crude leavening agents.





Once sold for 10 cents a copy and now a priceless artifact, this gingerbread recipe has had several names. One was Lafayette Gingerbread, because Mary Ball Washington, mother of George Washington and his sister Betty Washington Lewis, would serve the aromatic cake to guests, including the Marquis de Lafayette during a visit to their home in the late 1780s. Betty would continue her mother’s legacy by baking the cake at her home, now known as Kenmore Plantation, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. But time marched on, and the family gingerbread recipe was forgotten—that is until 1922, when Kenmore was deteriorating and the Kenmore Association and Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) had to find $30,000 for its repairs and restoration. While sorting through boxes in the attic, Emily Fleming and her daughter Annie Smith found a handwritten diary that contained Mary Washington’s gingerbread recipe. They typed and sold copies of the Kenmore Gingerbread recipe to visitors for 10 cents each and negotiated a sweeter deal by selling the recipe to the Hills Brothers Company of New York for $100. Hills Brothers packaged the ingredients as Dromedary Gingerbread Mix, selling it in US supermarkets and providing it at a discount to DAR chapters that sold it to benefit Kenmore. To taste the cake that saved the house, here is the recipe. It is also referred to as Mary Ball Washington Gingerbread, after its creator.

Butter for prepping the pan

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

⅛ teaspoon ground mace

1 large orange

½ cup (1 stick) lightly salted butter, at room temperature

½ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

1 cup molasses

½ cup warm milk

1 wineglass (2 ounces) brandy or coffee

3 large eggs, beaten

1 cup seedless golden raisins

1.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 13" × 9" metal baking pan with butter and set it aside.

2.Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the ginger, cream of tartar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace, and set the bowl aside.

3.Grate the orange zest and set aside. Cut the orange in half and squeeze the juice to yield 4 tablespoons. Add it to the zest in a small bowl.

4.Place the butter in a large bowl, and beat with a wooden spoon until creamy. Add the brown sugar and molasses, and beat until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Fold in the flour mixture along with the milk, brandy, eggs, and the reserved orange juice and zest. Beat until smooth, 2 minutes. Fold in the raisins.

5.Turn the batter into the prepared pan, and place the pan in the oven. Bake until the top springs back when lightly pressed with a finger, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven. Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then slice and serve with Vanilla Sauce, if desired.

FOR A MODERN VANILLA SAUCE: Place 1 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons cornstarch in a small saucepan. Stir in 2 cups boiling water, and place over medium heat. Stir and let lightly boil until thickened, 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 4 tablespoons butter and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract. Serve warm over gingerbread.





When most of us think of Colonial America, we think of the 13 colonies along the East Coast. But down on the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River, colonization of a different sort was going on in what would become the city of New Orleans. French, Spanish, Basque, and Haitian food traditions fused in a wonderful way, forming the legacy of today’s Creole and Cajun cuisines. The cake most associated with New Orleans is the King Cake, enjoyed throughout the Mardi Gras carnival season but originally baked just for Epiphany, the 12th night after Christmas. It is different from the more modern French King Cake, which uses puff pastry dough. According to Liz Williams, food authority and director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, the first King Cake in town was a cinnamon-swirled, brioche-style cake brought to New Orleans by the Basque settlers in 1718. Here is this cake, based on a recipe from the Times-Picayune in Cooking Up a Storm, edited by Judy Walker and Marcelle Bienvenu. It is a beautiful ring-shaped coffee cake in which you can place a toy baby, or fève, once it is baked; or garnish it with the festive purple, yellow, and green sprinkles or icing now associated with Mardi Gras; or do as the early settlers did and simply bake it and serve it warm with good coffee on Epiphany, Mardi Gras, or most any holiday of the year.


¼ cup warm water (105° to 115°F)

1 package (¼ ounce) active dry yeast

¼ cup warm whole milk (105° to 115°F)

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

3 cups bread flour, plus 2 tablespoons for kneading the dough

2 large eggs, lightly beaten


6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1.For the dough, pour the warm water into a large, warmed bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast and stir until it dissolves. Stir in the warm milk, butter, sugar, nutmeg, and salt. Add 1 cup of the flour and blend well. Stir in the eggs and the remaining 2 cups flour to make a soft dough. At the end of the blending, you may need to use your hands to work in all of the flour.

2.Lightly flour a work surface and turn out the dough. Knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Add a little more flour if needed if the dough sticks. Place the dough in a large bowl lightly rubbed with soft butter. Turn the dough to grease the top of the dough. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap and put in a warm place until the dough doubles in size, about 1 hour.

3.For the filling, punch down the dough with your hands. Transfer it to a lightly floured work surface and, with a floured rolling pin, roll the dough to a 26" × 9" rectangle. Brush with the melted butter. Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and sprinkle this mixture evenly over the butter to within ½" of the edges.

4.Beginning at the long end, roll the dough up tightly, as for a jelly roll. Lightly blot the seam with water so that the dough edges stick together, and pinch them together well. Carefully pick up the rolled dough and place it, seam side down, on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bring together the 2 ends to make a 12" circle, seal the ends with a little water, and pinch the ends together. If desired, use a sharp knife to slice open the middle of the circle all the way around, cutting through the layers and almost to the bottom of the dough. Cover the dough with a kitchen towel and put in a warm place to rise and double in size, about 40 minutes.

5.Preheat the oven to 350˚F. When preheated, uncover the dough and place the pan in the oven. Bake the cake until it is lightly browned all over, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the baking sheet with a metal spatula to cool for 15 minutes on a wire rack. (If you want to insert “la fève” or a plastic baby figurine, push it into the underside of the cake now.)

6.Slice and serve.

CAKE NOTES: Adapt this wonderful coffee cake to flavors you love. Roll up raisins or cranberries, chopped pecans or sliced almonds, even orange or lemon zest along with the cinnamon and sugar. This cake needs no glaze at all, but if you want to gild the lily, add a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar or the modern glaze.

The King Cake tradition includes placing something in the cake to represent the baby Jesus. It used to be a porcelain collectible trinket called “la fève,” the French word for broad bean. A dried bean itself was often used. The fève was inserted in the cake before baking. Nowadays people insert “la fève” after the cake has baked, and it might be a plastic baby, a porcelain figurine, or simply a pecan half. The person who finds “la fève” in his or her slice makes next year’s King Cake.


1½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

2 to 3 tablespoons whole milk

¼ teaspoon almond extract

Purple, green, and yellow food coloring to tint the glaze

Place the sugar in a medium bowl, and whisk in enough milk to make a smooth glaze. Add the extract. Divide the glaze into thirds and tint each third either purple, green, or yellow. Spoon each color over a third of the cooled cake and allow 20 minutes for the glaze to set before serving.





It might come as a surprise that one of America’s oldest desserts is the cheesecake. Cheesecake is an “ancient” recipe, according to food historian Jan Longone. Made by the Romans and Greeks (although they didn’t call it cheesecake), this dessert is adaptable to different soft cheeses, flavorings, and baking methods. When the early American colonists baked cheesecake, they made it with fresh cheese curds similar to our cottage or ricotta cheese. Philadelphia was something of a cheesecake hub, according to historian William Woys Weaver. The first inn serving cheesecake was situated in a cherry orchard, so it is very possible that the first cheesecake was a cherry cheesecake. Soon interest for cheesecake spread outside Philadelphia. In 1758 the Sun Inn, run by Moravians in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, placed cheesecake on the menu. Nowadays there are myriad cheesecake possibilities, but if we step back in time and envision what the Pilgrims might have baked in Plymouth Colony, it would be a cheesecake with those fresh curds. Today, Plimoth Plantation is a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that researches the history of the colony and reenacts daily life for visitors. Their historians discovered this recipe and updated it for modern use. Ricotta cheese is the most similar to the early cheese curds.


⅔ cup unbleached flour, plus 3 tablespoons for rolling the crust

⅔ cup whole wheat flour

¼ teaspoon salt

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled

1 large egg white

¼ to ⅓ cup very cold water


¼ cup whole almonds, finely ground (to yield ⅓ cup)

¼ cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature

¼ cup granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon salt

1 large egg yolk

1 pound ricotta cheese

½ cup heavy cream

½ cup currants

1.For the crust, place the flours and salt in a large bowl and stir to combine. Cut the butter into tablespoon-size pieces and distribute on top of the flours. With a pastry blender or two sharp paring knives, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture is the size of small peas. Add the egg white and the ¼ cup cold water, and stir with a fork until the dough comes together. Add more water if needed. The dough will be wet. Wrap the dough in parchment paper and chill for 30 minutes.

2.Meanwhile, make the filling. Place the almonds on a large cutting board, and with a large, heavy knife, chop the nuts into tiny pieces until they resemble fine meal. Set aside.

3.Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and cream with a wooden spoon for 60 strokes. Work in the nutmeg, salt, egg yolk, ricotta, and cream, and blend until smooth. Fold in the ground almonds and currants. Set aside.

4.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Set aside an ungreased 9" springform pan or deep pie plate.

5.Scatter the 3 tablespoons flour over a work surface and rolling pin, and remove the dough from the refrigerator. Roll out the dough to about ¼" thickness in a 12" circle. Slide a thin metal spatula under the dough and wrap it onto the rolling pin, using the rolling pin to transfer the dough to the prepared pan. Press the dough into the pan and up the edges about 1½". Pour the filling into the crust, and spread to smooth the top. Place the pan in the oven.

6.Bake the cake until the filling is just set but a little jiggly in the center, 1 hour 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven to a wire rack to cool 1 hour. Unfasten the collar of the springform pan, if using, and transfer the cake to a serving plate. Or, if using a pie pan, slice the cake from the pan while still a little warm.

A NOTE TO THE MODERN COOK: The crust and filling can be made in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Place the flours and salt in the processor and pulse. Cut the cold butter into tablespoons and distribute around the processor. Process until the mixture is the size of small peas, 10 to 15 seconds. Add the egg white and ¼ cup cold water. Pulse until the dough holds together. Add more water if needed. The dough will be wet. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes. The filling can be made in the same food processor. Wipe it out, add the almonds, and pulse until the nuts are well ground, like fine meal, about 45 seconds. Turn the almonds into a large bowl and set aside. Place the butter, sugar, nutmeg, salt, egg yolk, ricotta, and cream in the processor and blend until smooth. Fold in the almonds and currants to finish the filling and proceed with step 4 of the recipe. Flavor the filling with ½ teaspoon vanilla extract, if desired.

The creamy texture of cheesecake is universally loved. That texture is what the colonists came to know as “cheese,” and they gave that name to desserts that might not contain cheese at all—such as a lemon “cheese” cake, also called jelly cake, of Virginia that contained no cheese but had a lemon curd filling between the sponge cake layers.


The early American cook had at her fingertips plenty of English cookbooks, but they didn’t speak to the new American culture. She might have relied on her own handwritten collection of family recipes, too. But as 18th-century American cooking evolved, there was no cookbook written using distinctly American ingredients until 1796, when Amelia Simmons had her simple, down-to-earth recipes published in a modest, 47-page, paperbound book called American Cookery.

“It was a noteworthy event,” said Mary Tolford Wilson in her 1958 essay explaining the significance of Simmons’s work. Simmons was the first to use the word “shortening”—meaning a mixture of lard and butter—in a recipe book. She also shared the first Election Cake recipe. Most important, this cookbook was the first to document the initial step on the road to baking powder. American cooks had been using potash, which they called “pearlash,” to launder clothes. Amelia Simmons included four recipes calling for pearlash, and the rest is history.

Simmons was an orphan, and some historians believe she was illiterate. But they do not discount her cooking skills. Her book was reprinted and much plagiarized over the years. Her greatest legacy was being the first to recognize and document what was uniquely American in the kitchen and turning it into a book “written by an American, for Americans,” said the late historian Karen Hess. And that made her the mother of American cookbooks.





One of the earliest American coffee cakes was literally passed along from mother to daughter. Moravian brides in the 1700s baked a rich potato cake with a starter yeast given to them by their mothers or neighbors. From this starter, they made their own yeast by reserving a bit of the dough to be the starter for the next round of baking. What makes a Moravian Sugar Cake distinctive is not only the mashed potatoes in the dough but also the dimples or “puddles” on top, which collect brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon as the cake bakes. This cake has been served on Easter morning following sunrise church service for generations. Moravians settled in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina in 1753, and today at Old Salem, a living history village, you can taste the cake like it used to be prepared—pulled from the wood-fired oven at Winkler Bakery. This recipe is adapted from one shared by North Carolina food writer Sheri Castle. It originally belonged to Beth Tartan, who was the food editor of the Winston-Salem Journal for many years. The early Moravians would not have used vegetable shortening. They would have baked with a mixture of butter and lard.

1 medium-size baking potato, peeled and cut into 1" pieces

1 package (¼ ounce) active dry yeast

½ teaspoon plus 1 cup granulated sugar

¼ cup + 2 tablespoons warm potato water (100° to 110°F)

½ cup vegetable shortening

¼ cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, beaten, at room temperature

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus up to ½ cup flour for kneading

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into ⅛" slices

1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1.Place the potato in a small saucepan, cover with water to a depth of 1", and simmer, covered, until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain well, reserving the cooking water. Force the potato through a ricer into a small bowl or mash as smooth as possible with a fork. Measure out 1 cup of gently packed potatoes into a small bowl, and stir in 2 tablespoons of the reserved cooking water. Cover and keep warm.

2.In a glass measuring cup, dissolve the yeast and ½ teaspoon of the sugar in ¼ cup of the reserved potato water. Let stand until the mixture bubbles up, 5 minutes.

3.Combine the potatoes, the remaining 1 cup sugar, the shortening, ¼ cup butter, and salt in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until the shortening melts, 2 minutes. Stir in the yeast mixture and beat on low speed for 30 seconds. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place (80° to 85°F), free from drafts, until spongy, 1½ hours.

4.Stir in the eggs and flour to make a soft dough. Shape the dough into a ball. Place in a greased bowl, turning to grease the top. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, for 2 hours. The dough will increase in size by one half.

5.Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic, 5 minutes. Pat the dough evenly into a greased 13" × 9" baking pan. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, 45 minutes to an hour.

6.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375°F. With your thumb or the end of a wooden spoon, deeply dimple the dough. Tuck the slices of butter into the dimples and over the top of the dough. Place the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and stir to combine; sprinkle this evenly over the dough and down into the dimples.

7.Place the pan in the oven, and bake until the cake is well browned and cooked through, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool for 30 minutes in the pan before serving.

The Moravians

Thought to be one of the oldest Protestant denominations, the Moravian Church was founded in what is now the Czech Republic. Refugees fled to Germany in 1722 for religious freedom, and they first attempted settlement in the American colony of Georgia with General James Oglethorpe in 1735. That attempt was unsuccessful, but what followed on Christmas Eve in 1740 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, would not only be a success but would establish the rich Moravian culture in America. A people dedicated to their church, community, schools, and trades, the Moravians were well-known for their baking. They staged “love feasts” in church, passing warm yeast buns and sweetened coffee around the congregation.


We can thank the British for the fruitcake, pound cake, and sponge cake legacy in America, but we need to recognize the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania for the culinary contributions they provided. Called the Pennsylvania Dutch, this large group of people first sailed for America from Germany and Switzerland in 1683 and landed in Philadelphia. Farmers, they followed the rivers until they found the fertile areas where black walnut trees grew.

They were Lutheran, Reformed, Brethren, Mennonite, Moravian, Amish, and more and had left their homeland to find religious freedom in America. They were not Dutch, but the early English settlers took their German “Deutsch” to be “Dutch.” And because they settled in Pennsylvania, they became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch.

These hardworking people brought with them the German love of cake baking, if they could afford it. If not, they baked pie. With large families and growing communities, their lifestyle centered around faith and family and allowed many occasions where cakes might be served.

The great American cakes that undoubtedly came from Pennsylvania Dutch kitchens are the applesauce cake, crumb coffee cake, molasses coffee cake (Shoofly Pie), Moravian Sugar Cake, chocolate cakes, angel food cake, and black walnut cake.





Think how hot it must have been in the kitchen making pound cake on humid summer days in early Virginia. However, pound cake is one of the most cherished American cakes, brought to the United States from England. The earliest written mention of pound cake in America is a recipe dated 1754 from Wicomico Church, Virginia. In the colonies, pound cake was baked everywhere but became synonymous with Virginia and the gentrified tobacco plantation owners who lived there. Mary Randolph in The Virginia House-wife, written in 1824, first washes the salt from the butter and rubs the butter with a wooden paddle until “it is soft as cream.” She adds “powdered” sugar, which would have been sugar finely ground with a mortar and pestle, and she beats her eggs first to a “froth” before adding them to the batter. Through the decades, pound cake has gotten easier to prepare thanks to the electric mixer. Simple, unadulterated, without frosting or fuss, the classic pound cake is made from just what its name suggests—a pound each of sugar, butter, eggs, and flour. It is oddly similar to the French quatre quarts (four quarters).

Butter and flour for prepping the pan

2 cups (4 sticks; 1 pound) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2¼ cups (1 pound) granulated sugar

6 large eggs, at room temperature

4 cups sifted all-purpose flour (see Cake Notes)

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, almond extract, or vanilla extract, if desired

1.Place an oven rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly grease and flour a 10" tube pan and set aside.

2.Place the butter in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on low speed until the butter is lightly creamed, 30 seconds. With the mixer running on low, gradually add the sugar, beating until the mixture is well creamed and fluffy, 2 minutes. Turn off the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

3.Add the eggs to the sugar and butter mixture, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a separate bowl, combine the flour and the salt, then add to the creamed mixture in thirds, beating on low during each addition. Fold in the lemon zest, almond extract, or vanilla, if desired.

4.Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and place the pan in the oven. Bake until the top of the cake is golden brown and firm to the touch, 1 hour 20 to 25 minutes.

5.Remove the pan from the oven, and place on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan, and invert the cake once and then again so it rests right side up. Let cool on the rack completely, 1 hour, before slicing.

CAKE NOTES: Many purists insist on using unbleached flour in pound cake. It would be more similar to the flour available to the early American colonists. Pound cakes are good keepers. When cooled and wrapped in aluminum foil, they improve in flavor and texture the day after baking, and they stay fresh on the kitchen counter for up to a week. Well wrapped, they freeze for up to 6 months.

Don’t Be Sad

Should your pound cake develop what is known as a sad streak—that circular dip around the top center of the cake—don’t fret. It is likely caused by slight underbaking, although some people will say you overmixed the batter and still others say the recipe contains too many eggs. It is considered good luck in the South.

Indian Pound Cake

If there was one cake of the early 1800s that placed American baking on the map, it was Indian Pound Cake. Most associated with Eliza Leslie, the cookbook author who was the first to publish the recipe in 1828, it is really the creation of Elizabeth Goodfellow, the Philadelphia Quaker cooking school teacher who taught Leslie to cook. This cake was a part of Mrs. Good-fellow’s recipe collection and contained cornmeal, which back then was known as “Indian meal.” At the time, it was a way to incorporate the most American ingredient into a classic British recipe. In 1846 Leslie includes the recipe in another book, The Indian Meal Book, published in London about the time of Ireland’s potato famine. She wrote the book to introduce cornmeal to the Irish and English, who were searching for baking alternatives to expensive wheat flour.


The venerable pound cake is old, stodgy, and simply wonderful. With its tight, dense crumb and crusty top, it is a cake that needs no frosting, no refrigeration, no fuss. Constructed of 1 pound each of a handful of ingredients—flour, sugar, butter, eggs—the pound cake is a timeless English recipe that now has an American flavor all its own.

In her book American Cookery in 1796, author Amelia Simmons shares the first pound cake recipe printed in America, a pound cake with rosewater. Mary Randolph in her 1824 The Virginia House-wife cookbook bakes a pound cake that calls for “some grated lemon peel, a nutmeg, and a gill of brandy.”

In the days before electric mixers, when the careful creaming of butter and sugar ensured the pound cake would rise, blending with a slotted wooden spoon or paddle was hard work. The ingredients were heavy. The kitchen was hot from the wood-fueled stove. If the ingredients were not creamed properly, the cake would not rise. Ingredients would be wasted. Knowing how to bake a pound cake was a skill passed along from one cook to another.

Pound cake batter could be a blueprint for bigger and flashier cakes, too. Adding currants, candied citrus peel, citron, almonds, and sherry, Mary Harris Frazer in her Kentucky Receipt Book of 1903 turned the simple pound cake into a near fruitcake worthy of a special occasion.

As cooks experimented with the basic pound cake recipe, veering from the easy-to-remember formula, they found that deviations were often successful. The addition of liquids made a more tender crumb, and acidic liquids like sour cream and buttermilk tenderized the cake. Heavy cream is an old and popular addition, whether the cream was just poured in or whipped first and folded into the batter before baking.

Once baking powder was found in American kitchen cupboards, the pound cake would change even more, becoming what is called a “composition cake” and not a true pound cake, says cookbook author and baking expert Greg Patent. It was lighter in texture but lost the characteristic dense, firm texture of real pound cake.

Pound cake variations in more recent years have included add-ins such as brown sugar, cocoa, candy bars, cake mixes, 7Up, coconut, Meyer lemon, and lavender.

When making pound cakes and all cakes containing butter, be sure the butter is soft but not too soft before you begin beating it. Patent says the optimum temperature is 70°F. You can stick a thermometer in the butter or guess that the butter is ready when it is able to bend but not melt.

Beat the butter with an electric mixer until it is creamy in texture—thus the verb “to cream” the butter. Then beat the sugar gradually into the butter until the mixture is pale yellow in color. This aerates the batter, whipping in pockets of air that will expand during baking and lighten the cake.

Eggs need to be at room temperature for a pound cake. Take them out of the refrigerator about 20 minutes before you plan to bake, or place them in a bowl of warm water for 5 minutes. Add them one at a time to the batter to ensure that each egg has been well incorporated. Most pound cake recipes call for 6 to 8 eggs. Old recipes call for 12 eggs because eggs were smaller than they are today. If in doubt, weigh your eggs. A true pound cake needs 16 ounces of eggs, and large eggs are about 2 ounces each in the shell.

The type of flour you use is personal taste. Some purists such as the late Edna Lewis call for unbleached flour. Patent recommends cake flour. Weigh out 1 pound of flour and then sift it for a lighter cake. Sifting is an age-old process to remove impurities in flour, but cooks have found through time that it improves the crumb of the cake.





Harriott Pinckney Horry of South Carolina managed a large rice plantation during the Revolutionary War and again during widowhood. She did what most well-to-do women of that period did—she wrote down her “receipts” in a book. Much can be learned about her tastes, social status, and life events by reading her diary, which she began in 1770, some 26 years before the publication of the first American cookbook. According to Richard J. Hooker, who translated the diary into the book A Colonial Plantation Cookbook in 1984, Harriott was the daughter of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, a strong woman herself who pioneered indigo cultivation in South Carolina. Harriott housed Revolutionary War refugees when the British occupied nearby Charleston. After the war, she entertained General Washington at her home and traveled, writing about her journeys, meals, and discoveries, such as learning of refrigeration at Mary Randolph’s boardinghouse in Virginia. This is Harriott’s recipe for an early American sponge cake called a “water cake.” Sugar from the West Indies was sold by the loaf to plantations. Cooks would break off a chunk and grind it into granules for cooking, or they might do as this recipe suggests and dissolve the loaf sugar in water first.

12 ounces (about 1½ cups) granulated sugar

4 ounces (½ cup) water

5 whole large eggs

2 large egg yolks

6 ounces (1½ cups) unbleached flour

1.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line the bottom of a 10" springform pan with parchment paper. Set aside.

2.Place the sugar and water in a medium-size saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir and cook until the sugar has dissolved, 5 to 6 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the sugar syrup rest until it is cool to the touch.

3.Place the whole eggs and egg yolks in a large mixing bowl, and whisk by hand until combined. Gradually pour in the sugar syrup and whisk until the egg and sugar mixture has doubled in volume and is frothy, 3 to 4 minutes. Sift the flour over the top of the egg and sugar mixture and fold it in with a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Place the pan in the oven.

4.Bake until the cake is golden brown on top and springs back when lightly pressed in the center, 28 to 32 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and let it cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan, and unfasten the collar of the springform pan. Let the cake cool completely, 1 hour. To serve, run a serrated knife under the cake to free it from the bottom of the pan. Serve with fresh berries.

Sponge Cake Pan Prep

Sponge cakes are like angel food cakes in that they should be baked in ungreased pans. This allows the cake to cling to the sides of the pan as it bakes. Angel food cakes benefit from cooling upside down in the pan so that the fragile foam of eggs that has set during baking will not be disturbed as the cake cools. But sponge cakes can be cooled in the pan right side up.





This recipe may be one of the earliest carrot cake recipes in America. Throughout Europe, cooked mashed carrots had been added to puddings and confections since medieval times because cooked carrots were an inexpensive sweetener to use instead of costly sugar. The early Americans did the same. Without the vegetable graters we have today, they cooked carrots first, then mashed and strained them through a sieve to make them fine enough to fold into desserts. This cake, a cousin of the pound cake, was on the dessert menu at the Fraunces Tavern in New York on November 25, 1783. That was British Evacuation Day, when the British finally left New York and General George Washington rode his horse triumphantly down Broadway to the tavern, where a great feast was staged in his honor. Washington would give a symbolic 13 toasts at that meal, with the last one being “May the remembrance of this day be a lesson to princes.” This carrot cake recipe has been shared by other authors but in a modern form, incorporating vegetable oil and baking soda, two ingredients that would not have been available to the tavern proprietor and cook Fraunces. So I am sharing a closer idea of what could have been baked that day. The butter and sugar would have been creamed by hand, and the oven was wood fired. The cake was served for dessert. You may top it with sweetened whipped cream or a more modern topping—ice cream or confectioners’ sugar. Interestingly, Fraunces would go on to be Washington’s steward at the first presidential residence in New York and travel with him to Philadelphia when Washington set up residence there. Fraunces was reported to be a fine cook, but Washington dismissed him twice for spending too much money on ingredients for meals.

4 medium carrots, trimmed and peeled

Butter and flour for prepping the pan

¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 cups granulated sugar

4 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

Whipped cream for serving

1.Place the peeled carrots in a saucepan with 1" of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and, when boiling, reduce the heat to medium and let the carrots simmer until they begin to soften, 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and drain off the water. Let the carrots cool in the pan.

2.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 10" springform pan, shake out the excess flour, and set the pan aside.

3.Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and beat until creamy, about 1 minute. Add the eggs, one at a time, until they are smooth and satiny, 4 to 5 minutes of beating in total. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt, and fold into the batter with a wooden spoon. Set aside.

4.Grate the cooled carrots to yield 2 cups. Fold the carrots into the batter. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, and place the pan in the oven.

5.Bake the cake until it is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven to a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan, and unfasten the collar of the springform pan. Run a knife underneath the cake to free it from the bottom of the pan, and place it on a serving platter. Slice and serve warm with the whipped cream.

CAKE NOTE: You can cook the carrots until soft and then mash and strain them of juice as would have been done in the old days. Or you can cook the carrots until they just begin to soften, let them cool, and grate them using a cheese grater to get streaks of carrot throughout the cake.


One of the grand cakes of early America, the fruitcake was packed with imported dried fruit and nuts, redolent with spices, soaked in brandy, and leavened with yeast. It was a majestic cake—something to celebrate. It was baked to commemorate occasions—weddings, birthdays, homecomings, and elections. Large, grand, and showy, it is no wonder fruitcakes were called “great cakes.”

Early fruitcakes were pound cakes with the addition of dried fruit, spices, and alcohol. Often they contained a yeast called barm, the foam from fermented alcoholic beverages. These cakes were extravagant not only because the ingredients were expensive and had to be shipped in from around the world but also because they were so large. You had to have the oven and a sizable mold in which to bake them. And you had to be wealthy enough to afford the Wiesbaden candied cherries, the candied citron and pineapple, the best blanched almonds, Malaga raisins … the list could go on. Only the wealthy could buy the makings for a fruitcake.

The Hartford Election Cake and the Martha Washington Great Cake were both large fruitcakes intended to feed a crowd. Deep in regional pockets and in recipe boxes of America, you find even more types of fruitcakes designed to feed a family. In Pennsylvania the dark fruitcakes with heavy spice and molasses were called “black cake.” These fruitcakes were made with brown sugar, spices, and dark dried fruit and brandy. On the other hand, white fruitcakes were made as white as possible by using just egg whites and almonds. They went by names like “lady cake” and “bride cake.” One white fruitcake beloved in the Carolinas is the Sally White, made with almonds, coconut, and citron. It was first baked by a bakery in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Alcohol was needed to flavor and preserve fruitcake. The longer the fruitcake was marinated in brandy or rum, the more potent and moist it became. And obviously more delicious! Fruitcakes were in fashion for a long time, and they haven’t gone out of favor in some homes, where the family fruitcake is made for Christmas.





George Washington and his wife, Martha, fed family and visitors at their home, Mount Vernon, situated along the Potomac River south of what is now Washington, DC. In 1797 Washington returned to Mount Vernon after refusing to serve a third term as president. He was just in time for Christmas. Martha arranged for a large fruitcake called a “great cake” to be baked in his honor and served as dessert on the 12 days of Christmas. It was common for wealthy colonists such as the Washingtons to bake great cakes. According to the historians at Mount Vernon, the cake held a vast quantity of dried fruit and spices, was dense, and would have been baked in a large, round mold. It would have looked like an Italian panettone but would have been much heavier and contained more fruit. The following recipe for today’s kitchen is adapted from The Martha Washington Cook Book, by Marie Kimball. While many great cakes included the yeast from barm—the foam that rises to the top of fermented liquor—as an ingredient, this cake needs no yeast. It is baked in a large loaf pan and is flavored with white wine. If you want your cake to be even more like Martha Washington’s cake, use half wine and half brandy. And like all fruitcakes and great cakes, the flavors meld and improve several days after baking.

1 pound currants (about 3 cups)

¾ cup white wine

Butter and flour for prepping the pan

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 large eggs, at room temperature

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground mace

1.Place the currants in a medium-size bowl, and pour the wine over them. Stir to distribute the wine. Cover the bowl and put in a warm place for 2 hours so the currants plump up and absorb some of the wine.

2.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 250°F. Generously grease and flour a 101/2" × 5½" × 3" loaf pan. Shake out the excess flour, and set the pan aside.

3.Drain the currants well, reserving the wine. You should have about 3 ounces of wine. Set it and the currants aside.

4.Place the sugar and butter in a large bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

5.Sift the flour, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace into a medium-size bowl. Alternately add the flour mixture and the wine to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour mixture, beating on low speed until just combined. Fold in the currants until well distributed. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, and place the pan in the oven.

6.Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 2¼ to 2½ hours. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan, gently shake the pan to loosen the cake, and invert the cake once and then again so the cake cools right side up on the rack for at least 30 minutes before slicing. The cake will slice better after it is completely cooled, 2 hours. Store as you would a fruitcake, wrapped in cheesecloth in a tightly sealed tin or wrapped in plastic.


After the Revolutionary War, when American voters cast their ballots in elections, an Election Day celebration was quite an event. It was filled with patriotic pride for the new country, and people celebrated with a festive meal, drink, and cake.

A massive Election Cake, a yeasty great cake filled with spices and dried fruits, was baked to feed the town. Often confectioners sold tickets to the event. On one such Election Day in 1841 in Montpelier, Vermont, the bakery advertised that with a 50-cent ticket you would receive a pound-size serving of cake and the chance of a ring inside.

Historians have disagreed about the antecedents of the Election Cake. Some feel it is unique to America, and others insist this same type of fruitcake was baked in England—it just wasn’t known as Election Cake. The cake has been linked to Hartford, Connecticut, and called the Hartford Election Cake. But the late historian Karen Hess said Election Cakes were baked throughout New England, not just in Hartford. When her book American Cookery was first printed in Hartford in 1796, Amelia Simmons did not share an Election Cake recipe.

No doubt Election Cakes were served from New England down to the South, but nowhere do they have such a rich heritage as in Connecticut. Historian Stephen Schmidt, a Connecticut native who researched the cake, explains that Election Day was a big deal in Connecticut and Rhode Island during Colonial times because people there had the right to elect their own governors, unlike the residents of other colonies. Election Day became a holiday in Connecticut because Puritans selected secular holidays to replace the traditional “red letter days,” or religious holidays. On Election Day, in addition to voting, Connecticut colonists attended a service in the meetinghouse where they heard a sermon, followed by meals at homes and then, at night, Election Day “drinkings” where the cake was served. Women baked the cakes, but they were not allowed to vote.

Over time the election process changed. A national election in the fall took prominence, and local elections didn’t have the fanfare they once did. Election Cake, Hartford Election Cake, Independence Cake, Franklin Gingerbread, and Democratic Tea Cakes—these patriotic cakes became cakes of the past.