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 2. New Cakes & New Directions

1800 to 1869

The election cakes baked after America won her independence helped instill national pride, and the cakes baked in the first half of the 19th century, such as the Washington Cake, continued this patriotic theme. America’s consummate hostess, Dolley Madison, was First Lady in the White House, and she embodied the female initiative: Be strong and manage the home.

In the early 1800s, cakes were made from regional and imported ingredients and were influenced by America’s westward expansion across the continent. The wheat Europeans brought to America and grew in the Hudson River Valley and in Pennsylvania during the Colonial period went west after the War of 1812. Indiana and Illinois became the new breadbasket of the United States. This was greatly influenced by their proximity to rivers with steamboats transporting wheat to market. In the westward frontier life, cooks used Dutch ovens to simmer meals and bake cakes such as the Cowboy Cake, an eggless cake that could be baked over an open fire.

Cooks in the early 1830s welcomed bicarbonate of soda—baking soda—as a better-tasting replacement for pearlash and saleratus to leaven their cakes. Two decades later, baking powder and the gas stove were invented, and this revolutionized cake baking.

These chemical leavenings, baking soda and baking powder, allowed the busy middle class to bake lighter cakes quickly into shortcakes. Washington Irving wrote in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819) of a table set with “sweet cakes and short cakes, ginger cakes and crumbling cruller and the whole family of cakes.” And the nation fell in love with strawberry shortcake, a favorite wherever strawberries grew wild, and they grew wild across much of the eastern part of the country. Other local foods like hickory nuts, black walnuts, blueberries, and cornmeal were folded into pound cakes, layer cakes, and shortcakes. And until railroads shipped food cross country toward the end of the 1800s, regional foods stayed in the region.

Local blackberries made into jam were the key ingredient in the German-inspired jam cake of Pennsylvania and Ohio that came south into Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Alabama, and east to the Carolinas (Granny Kellett’s Jam Cake). It was made with baking soda, blackberry jam you put up over the summer, and lots of spices. These jam cakes were holiday perennials, good keepers, and longtime family favorites.

Away from small-town life and westward expansion, German men baked professionally in the big cities and would begin a legacy of German bakeries that still exists today. Americans dined in grand hotels and restaurants, unlike the taverns and inns of the 18th century. American cooks got inspiration from the chef-created desserts, as well as from cookbooks and magazines. A popular “pie” of the time that more resembled cake was the Boston cream pie. It was baked in pie tins, contained a custard filling, and often was covered with a chocolate glaze. America’s first taste of chocolate with cake was in glazes, fillings, and frostings. At the end of the 19th century, chocolate was folded into the cake batter itself.

Down South where cotton was king, cake baking became a part of the antebellum way of life. Sugar production moved into Louisiana after its statehood in 1812. Both New Orleans and Charleston were busy ports where imports of coconuts, spices, almonds, and chocolate came into the market. Charleston was the strawberry capital of the United States in the 1800s and a food hub with not only availability of ingredients but fine confectioners’ shops to buy candies and cakes. Philadelphia, too, was a food center, not only for exotic imports but also for the Quaker cooking schools that trained future cooks and writers.

African American cooks played an important role in creating the cakes of these shops and at home in the Deep South. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the fine food of the plantations would not have been possible without the creativity, hard work, and skill of enslaved cooks who cracked coconuts, caramelized sugar, sifted flour, ground sugar, and whipped egg whites without the modern conveniences we have today. The country was dividing between the industrialized North and the southern slave states at midcentury.

New American cookbook authors emerged, writing the “housewife” books of Virginia, Kentucky, and South Carolina. They would use classic cooking techniques, incorporate the local foods of their regions, and present it all in a cosmopolitan way. And they were joined by New England household primers offering women advice on managing their homes and lives. This was the birth of women’s magazines, such as Godey’s Lady’s Book, published in Philadelphia, with the largest circulation of any magazine prior to the Civil War. Its editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, preached domesticity as a virtue and exposed American women to new ideas and recipes. And while its articles and recipes were published during the Civil War, the war was not mentioned in its commentary.

Outside of the country, America’s eyes were on England’s Queen Victoria, who wed in white in 1840. This was the beginning of the Victorian age, which would influence fashion, food, and etiquette for the next 60 years. Cakes in America had changed. The new American cake was easier to prepare and lighter in texture, contained more accessible ingredients, and was welcomed by all.





As new American bakers became more proficient at baking cakes, they added flourishes and touches to make their cakes dazzling to the eye. Swirling batters of different hues, called marbling, was a technique used in Europe. It appeared in American cakes in the mid-1800s, most likely a gift from German bakers. The first newspaper advertisements for “Marble Cake” were from bakeries, and it did not take long for home cooks to figure out how to “dye” part of their batter with a little molasses and spices to make it darker. Or they might make 2 cake batters, one light and one dark, and alternate spoonfuls of them in a baking pan. They were already experimenting with alternating dark and light baked layers in the Jenny Lind Cake and the Dolly Varden Cake. This was taking that creativity one step further. Toward the end of the 19th century, chocolate was added to the dark part of the batter, and chocolate marble cakes were born. In this recipe, adapted from Richard Sax’s book Classic Home Desserts, both a molasses and a lemon batter are alternately dolloped and swirled in a tube pan and, when sliced, reveal a stunning marble pattern. The yolks from the 3 eggs are used in the molasses batter, and the whites are used in the lemon batter. For the modern cook, I added a quick lemon glaze to keep the cake moist and accentuate the lemon flavor.


Butter and flour for prepping the pan (see tip)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, firmly packed

3 large egg yolks, at room temperature

¾ cup unsulfured molasses

1⅔ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground mace

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk, at room temperature


6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (from 2 medium lemons)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1⅔ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

¾ cup buttermilk, at room temperature

3 large egg whites, at room temperature

⅛ teaspoon salt


Lemon Glaze, if desired

1.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter and flour a 10" tube pan, and shake out the excess flour. Set the pan aside.

2.For the molasses batter, place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy and lighter in color, about 3 minutes. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, just until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Beat in the molasses on medium speed just until combined.

3.Place the flour, soda, cream of tartar, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, and cloves in a small bowl and sift together. Add to the batter in 3 additions, alternately with the buttermilk in 2 additions. Beat on medium speed, just until each is combined. Scrape the bowl often and set aside.

4.For the lemon batter, place the butter, sugar, and lemon zest in a large mixing bowl, and beat on medium speed until fluffy and lighter in color, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the lemon juice. Beat just until combined.

5.Place the flour, soda, and cream of tartar in a small bowl and sift together. Add to the batter in 3 additions, alternately with the buttermilk in 2 additions, beating on medium speed just until each is combined. Scrape the bowl often and set aside.

6.Beat the egg whites and salt in a clean medium-size bowl with clean beaters on high speed until soft peaks form, 3 to 4 minutes. With the spatula, gently fold about a quarter of the whites into the lemon batter, just until combined. Fold in the remaining whites, just until combined.

7.Dollop the batters into the bottom of the prepared pan, alternating each flavor 3 times. Gently rap the pan once against the countertop to settle the batters. With a butter knife, swirl the batter together a couple of times, but don’t overdo it. Place the pan in the oven.

8.Bake until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted near the center emerges clean, 50 to 55 minutes.

9.Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes. Run the tip of the knife around the cake to loosen it from the sides and tube; invert once and then again so the cake is right side up on the rack. Cool completely, 1 hour. If desired, serve with the modern Lemon Glaze. Slice and serve.

TIP: If you want to use a Bundt pan, the baking time will be 42 to 47 minutes.

LEMON GLAZE: Whisk together 1½ cups confectioners’ sugar and 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice until smooth. Poke holes in the top of the cooled cake with a fork, and spoon the glaze over the top of the cake.

Marble Cakes and American Government

If you study American government, talk will turn to cake. The terms “layer cake” and “marble cake” have been used to describe two different ways of governing our country. The layer cake, or dual federalism, was set up by the founders of this country, who feared a strong central government and instead promoted states’ rights. It is much like a layer cake, with state government on one level and the federal government on another. However, after the Great Depression, the federal government had to establish more control to bring about a national recovery. Marble cake federalism, or cooperative federalism, is the sharing of authority between states and the federal government. Like the decorative swirls in the cake, the state and federal government authority overlap.


Dazzled by the celebrity of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, Americans would name a cake for her in the 1850s. It was a three-layer cake with the bottom and top layers either white or yellow but the center layer darker and filled with dried fruit and spice. Americans had not been introduced to chocolate cake yet, but they were fascinated by the contrast of light and dark when stacking cakes. Jenny Lind was something of an idol, called the “Swedish nightingale” because of her sweet soprano voice. Across Europe, crowds packed the streets when Jenny Lind was in town, and when she toured America in the 1850s, she became a household name. America, as we know, has always loved celebrities. This same cake would also be known as the Dolly Varden Cake, after a Charles Dickens character and a colorful women’s fashion style of the 1870s.





As America expanded west of the Mississippi River with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, “make-do” cakes that could be baked on the move suited those challenging times. One such cake was the Cowboy Cake, similar to a boiled raisin cake baked during the Civil War and World War I. It was made by simmering raisins in water; adding shortening, baking soda, sugar, spices, and flour; and baking the batter in a Dutch oven. The big plus was that pioneers traveling west or prospectors hoping to strike it rich in the 1849 gold rush didn’t need to add eggs, butter, or milk to this cake. This crowd-pleasing recipe comes from Luann Sewell Waters of Wynnewood, Oklahoma, who teaches Dutch oven cooking today and has researched the old recipes of the West.

1 cup raisins (see Cake Note)

3 cups water

1 tablespoon vegetable shortening

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Pinch of salt

2 cups all-purpose flour


Reserved raisin cooking liquid

1 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon vegetable shortening

1.Place the raisins and water in a 10" Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Let the water come to a simmer, then reduce the heat and let the raisins simmer uncovered until they turn a caramel-brown color and soften, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the raisins and set aside, reserving all the cooking liquid. Measure out 1 cup of the reserved liquid and place this in the Dutch oven.

2.Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. To the 1 cup warm liquid, add the shortening and stir to melt. Let this cool. Stir in the baking soda, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and flour until smooth. Stir in the reserved raisins. Set aside.

3.For the topping, place the remaining cooking liquid in a medium-size pan with the sugar and shortening over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens and is syrupy, 10 to 15 minutes. If you have a candy thermometer, bring the mixture to 220°F. Stir well and pour carefully onto the top of the cake batter. Cover the Dutch oven, and place the pan in the oven.

4.Bake the cake until it springs back when lightly pressed in the center, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve warm.

CAKE NOTE: Instead of raisins, you can use chopped dried peaches or apricots.

Mock Whipped Cream

Canned evaporated milk was an easy stand-in for real cream in frontier kitchens. Cooks would get it as cold as possible and then whip and sweeten. It didn’t have the stability of real whipped cream, but it was a soft, creamy topping to Dutch oven cakes.





With its thick custard filling and simple butter cake, the Boston cream pie is an iconic American dessert with a much-discussed past. The most famous story of its origin was that a pastry chef named Sanzian invented this dessert for Boston’s Parker House Hotel opening in October 1856, and he called his dessert the “Chocolate Cream Pie.” The words “pie” and “cake” were briefly interchangeable because they were baked in the same-size pan. But historians say the dessert was simply a popular “custard cake” fashioned after a jelly-filled Washington Pie (Cake). As early as 1864 in a short story called “The Gulf Between Them,” by Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, the luncheon tray contained cold sliced chicken, apricot jelly, and “custard-cake.” In 1866 Godey’s Lady’s Book shares a recipe for Almond Custard Cake, and in 1869 a Tennessee newspaper recipe for a “Very Nice Custard Cake” resembles the Boston cream pie, but without the chocolate glaze. The late historian Gil Marks researched the Boston cream pie and found no mention of it being served at the Parker House Hotel opening; instead the first reference to it was in the 1872 Methodist Almanac. By then custard cakes, cream pies, and chocolate cream pies were all cakes filled with custard. Baking chocolate was making its appearance in glazes and frostings about this time, so cooks would have created a simple chocolate coating for the custard cake. If the Parker House pastry chef had prepared the dessert, it was no doubt a popular choice on the menu. He added a little rum to the filling and pressed toasted sliced almonds onto the sides of the cake, both nice touches. Today Boston cream pie is the state cake of Massachusetts. This cake recipe is adapted from The American Heritage Cookbook, and the filling and glaze recipes are adapted from Yankee magazine. For all the disagreement about its origin, you cannot dispute that Boston cream pie is one of the most universally loved and recognized American cakes.


1½ cups whole milk, divided use

⅓ cup granulated sugar

½ heaping teaspoon unflavored gelatin

Dash of salt

2 large egg yolks

1½ tablespoons cornstarch

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (see Cake Notes)


Butter and flour for prepping the pans

1½ cups sifted cake flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

⅓ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

½ cup whole milk, at room temperature


¾ cup chopped semisweet chocolate

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

½ teaspoon vanilla extract (see Cake Notes)

1.For the filling, place 1¼ cups of the milk and the sugar, gelatin, and salt in a large saucepan over medium heat. Whisk and bring barely to a simmer, whisking to dissolve the sugar and gelatin completely, 2 to 3 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium-size bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, cornstarch, and the remaining ¼ cup of milk. Off the heat, pour 1 cup of the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture and whisk to combine, then strain this mixture back into the saucepan with the remaining hot milk. Over medium heat, whisk the mixture continuously until it is thickened and bubbling in the center, 4 to 5 minutes.

2.Remove the pan from the heat and strain the mixture again into a medium-size bowl. Stir in the butter and vanilla. Whisk until smooth, then cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the surface. Chill the filling for at least 5 hours, preferably overnight.

3.For the cake, place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease and flour the bottoms of two 8" cake pans.

4.Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium-size bowl. Set aside.

5.Place the butter and vanilla in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on low speed until combined, 1 minute. Slowly add the sugar, beating well on medium-high speed until the mixture is creamy and light, 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the eggs, beating in one at a time. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again. Alternately add the flour mixture and the milk to the butter and sugar mixture, beginning and ending with the flour. Beat until smooth. Divide the batter between the 2 pans. Place the pans in the oven.

6.Bake the cakes until they are lightly golden brown and begin to pull away from the sides of the pan, 18 to 22 minutes. Place the pans on wire racks to cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the cakes, give them a gentle shake, then invert onto the racks to cool completely, right side up, about 45 minutes.

7.To assemble the cake, place 1 cake layer on a cake plate. Spoon the filling onto the center of the cake and spread until it barely reaches the edge of the cake. Place the second layer on top of the filling. Place the filled cake in the refrigerator while you make the glaze.

8.For the glaze, place the chocolate, cream, and corn syrup in a medium-size saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk until smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. When the chocolate has melted, pull the pan from the heat, add the vanilla, and stir until smooth. Remove the cake from the refrigerator and spoon the glaze over the top of the cake and let it drip down the sides. Let the cake stand for 10 minutes before slicing. If not serving the cake immediately, chill it until time to serve.

CAKE NOTES: For the flavor of the Parker House version of Boston cream pie, use ½ teaspoon vanilla extract and 1 tablespoon rum in the filling. Press toasted sliced almonds onto the sides of the cake after spooning over the chocolate glaze.


Before housewives were the stars of modern television, they were the target audience for early 1800s cookbooks that instructed them how to cook and entertain well. Here are three of the most famous of those cookbooks.

The Virginia House-wife, by Mary Randolph, 1824

Born into privilege with family ties to both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Mary Randolph was the consummate Virginia hostess. Her husband, David, was appointed US Marshall of Virginia. They were an early power couple, and dinner at their elegant Richmond home was a coveted invitation. But her husband’s Federalist views conflicted with those of President Jefferson, and Jefferson fired David Randolph. To make ends meet, the Randolphs sold their home and tobacco plantations, and Mary opened a Richmond boardinghouse. For the next 11 years, she prepared fine food with local ingredients and elevated Virginia cooking to an art form. Broiling shad, frying strawberry fritters, baking pound cake, making vanilla ice cream: These were some of her skills and delicacies. An inventive and resourceful woman, she designed one of the first refrigerators to keep food cold in summer heat. On better financial footing than they had been a decade earlier, the Randolphs moved to Washington, DC, to live with their son, and here Mary wrote her famous cookbook. It is a collection of sage advice mingled with down-home and sophisticated recipes. The Virginia House-wife might not have been the first American cookbook, but historians believe it was the most important cookbook of the 19th century. Mary’s rule of running a household still works today: “Let everything be done at the proper time, keep everything in its proper place, and put everything to its proper use.”

The Kentucky Housewife, by Lettice Bryan, 1839

Little is known about Lettice Bryan other than she lived in Kentucky, her ancestors came from Virginia, and she was the wife of a Louisville physician. Her book, which instructs how to supervise people and get food to the table, speaks to the plantation mistress who managed slaves. Her tone is friendly and precise, advising anyone baking a cake to prepare the fruits and seasonings the day before—to first dust raisins with flour before folding them into a cake batter, to rinse butter twice in cold water because it was heavily salted. Bryan was clearly influenced by Mary Randolph, whose book had been published 15 years earlier. In addition to making your own French mustard, she advises you to soak cucumbers in vinegar, toss strawberries with sugar and pile them with whipped cream into “a pyramidic heap,” and cook local foods like pokeweed. But her 1,300 recipes are clearly all over the place, from West India gumbo—stewed okra (ochra) with butter—to pear ice cream, Dutch doughnuts, Italian creams, and cupcakes. She experiments with early food colorings, too, dyeing foods green with the puree of spinach. Kentucky was a slave state, but it did not secede from the Union. After the Civil War, enslaved women and men who worked in the kitchens of the large farms left. Bryan’s recipes using hearth cooking and slave labor reflected a prewar style of cooking, and it fell out of favor once woodstoves became popular.

The Carolina Housewife, by Sarah Rutledge, 1847

Like Mary Randolph, Sarah Rutledge came from a prestigious family. Her father, Edward Rutledge, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Her book, which she wrote under the name “Lady of Charleston,” featured the cuisine of the Low Country—Charleston and the surrounding coastal area. Until her book, few outside the region had prepared the unique foods of the Low Country, and Rutledge fashioned the foods she knew into their own regional cuisine. From the plentiful oyster and rice recipes to the tea cakes of sponge, pound, and ginger, this book is a celebration and a tutorial on how to cook food from the coast. It shares mullet recipes and turtle soup and describes how to make a French omelet as well as a cheesecake in which you fold groundnuts (peanuts). Breads and cakes are quick to prepare, reflecting the warmer climate of South Carolina.

It also has nuances of the city of brotherly love because Rutledge had taken cooking classes with the esteemed Elizabeth Goodfellow in Philadelphia. Rutledge shares one of the first mentions of the “composition cake,” a spinoff of the pound cake containing sour milk and pearlash.

But America didn’t have the only “housewife” books. English housewife books were published as early as 1596—The Good Housewife’s Jewel. Then there was The British Housewife (1756) by Mrs. Martha Bradley and The Frugal Housewife by Susannah Carter in 1803. Carter’s books were published in America and contained American recipes like Indian pudding and buckwheat cakes.





When hickory trees populated America, people would rush to gather the sweet, buttery nuts in the fall before the animals did. Carol Meeks of Indianapolis said that in 1838 her great-great-grandparents purchased Indiana farmland with an abundance of shagbark hickory trees. Gathering the nuts became a generations-old tradition, and the nuts were laid under beds in the old farmhouse to dry, before cracking, shelling, and folding the nut meat into cakes and cookies for the holidays. Smooth, ivory-colored hickory nuts are one of the few indigenous American nuts, and Native Americans ate them raw. They are a lot like the pecan, only smaller, harder to obtain, and more labor intensive to shell. Hickory wood is known for its strength and durability, used for tool handles and fence posts in addition to firewood. This pound cake with chopped hickory nuts folded into the batter was popular during the 1800s and is adapted from The First Ladies Cook Book by Margaret Brown Klapthor. It was a favorite recipe of Sarah Polk, wife of former U.S. president James K. Polk.

Butter and flour for prepping the pan

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

2 cups granulated sugar

4 large eggs, separated

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 cup whole milk or half-and-half

1 cup chopped hickory nuts (see Cake Note)

½ teaspoon pure almond extract, if desired

½ teaspoon vanilla extract, if desired (see Cake Note)

1.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter and flour a 10" tube pan, and shake out the excess flour. Set the pan aside.

2.Place the butter in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until creamy, 1 minute. Add the sugar, a couple of tablespoons at a time, beating on medium until light and creamy, 2 minutes. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating until combined. Set aside.

3.Place the flour, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl and sift to combine. Set aside. Place the egg whites in a large mixing bowl and, with clean beaters, beat on high speed until stiff peaks form, about 4 minutes. Set aside. Stir the lemon juice into the milk. Alternately add the flour mixture and milk to the butter mixture in 3 additions, beating on low speed just to combine. Beat in the hickory nuts and extracts, if desired, on low speed until combined. By hand, fold the beaten egg whites into the batter, just until combined. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and place the pan in the oven.

4.Bake the cake until it is golden brown and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, 55 to 60 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, and place the pan on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan, give the pan a gentle shake, then invert the cake onto the rack to cool, right side up, for 30 minutes. Slice and serve.

CAKE NOTE: Although vanilla extract was available after 1847, it still might have been a rare ingredient for the home baker. And almond extract would have been extravagant. Therefore, this cake would have been baked without them in the mid- to late 1800s. Extracts are a nice addition today, however, as just a little almond extract brings out the nuttiness in the hickory nuts. Do not use more than ½ teaspoon or it will overpower the delicacy of the rare hickory nuts, which can be purchased online or at farmers’ markets.


Nuts and baking just seem to go together. Whether walnut, pecan, hickory, hazelnut, almond, pistachio, or peanut, they pick up the flavor of a cookie, bread, or cake. They fold into the batter, adding moistness and texture, and they sprinkle easily on top, adding crunch.

Resourceful American bakers in the early 1800s baked with the nuts harvested nearby. We call it foraging today, but in those early times it was second nature to pick up and use the foods nature offered. Across America, wild hickory, black walnut, and pecan trees thrived and offered an edible nut perfect for baking. In the South, peanuts, a legume, were grown from Virginia south and west to Texas.

BLACK WALNUTS are native to America and have grown prolifically in limestone-rich soil across the eastern United States. Their nuts are messy to harvest, even tougher to crack, but have a sweet-bitter flavor that melds well with chocolate.

ENGLISH WALNUTS, on the other hand, named after English merchants who brought them to Europe from what is now Iran, have been grown in California since the 1770s. They were first planted in missions by Franciscan monks.

HICKORY NUTS, still found wild across the eastern United States, come from a number of different varieties of hickory trees. The most common is shagbark, distinguished by the long pieces of bark that hang from the tree, shaggy in appearance. They are harvested in the fall and also tough to crack. You peel off the outer husk, boil the inside nuts, and crack the nut to expose the nut meat used in cooking. Unless you harvest hickory nuts from your land, you might be able to find them during the fall at a local farmers’ market if the trees grow in the area. You can also buy them online.

The buttery rich and sweet flavor of hickory nuts is similar to that of PECANS, their distant cousin. Pecans grow across much of the Southeast and are native to North America. The first wild pecan trees were noticed along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas. Based on Native American research, pecans have been consumed here for more than 6,000 years. Native Americans not only ate them out of the shell but pounded them into a paste and used this as a thickener in cooking. During the American Revolution, the French in Louisiana added pecans to their praline candies. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s in Texas that cooks started baking with pecans. By the late 1800s, pecans were being grown commercially.

PEANUTS, called groundnuts by locals in the early Carolinas and Georgia, have a mild flavor like peas when they are raw. But once the peanuts are roasted, they become deeper in color and flavor and develop that “peanut” taste. Sarah Rutledge, author of The Carolina Housewife (1847), shared one of the first recipes with peanuts—a peanut soup—in her book. Street vendors in Charleston, South Carolina, sold what they called “groundnut cakes,” an early peanut candy. But George Washington Carver of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama brought the peanut to the forefront when he researched peanuts after the turn of the 20th century and found 300 uses for them. After the boll weevil destroyed the cotton crop, Southern farmers turned to growing peanuts.

Here are three other nuts, not native to America but grown commercially and a part of the American cake story.

HAZELNUTS, OR FILBERTS—Grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, these nuts were introduced from Europe around 1847 when European farmers came to the West in hopes of striking it rich from the gold rush. Although one species of hazelnuts is native to the Pacific Northwest, it is not the species grown commercially today.

ALMONDS—An old nut beloved in Europe when ground into marzipan, it is believed to have originated in southwest Asia. Almonds came to California in 1853, but they were not the commercial crop they are today until the mid-20th century, when ramped-up marketing efforts increased demand for them.

PISTACHIOS—Also an old nut, pistachios came later, in the 1930s, to the American West, where they grow today in the dry climates of California, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The nut story isn’t over. Before the blight of 1904, American CHESTNUT trees grew from Maine south to the Gulf of Mexico. The trees yielded kernels that were sweeter and smaller than the European chestnuts. They were most often roasted, cooked into puddings, or ground into flour.





Amanda (Granny) Kellett was known for her jam cake. Amanda baked it after the Civil War, when wild blackberries were easy to find, just as they still are in many rural parts of America. Amanda’s great-granddaughter, Marion Hurley of Nashville, still makes Granny’s Jam Cake and has all her life. “We would go out as children with a bucket and pick enough berries for jam,” she says. “They were delicious, wild, and wonderful.” Marion says the story of Granny Kellett’s jam cake is retold each time her family makes the treasured cake. The story goes that Joe Kellett was wounded badly in the Civil War but was able to crawl away from battle and hide in the brush. When the battle quieted, Joe crawled to a nearby farm, and the family took him in and treated his wounds. Joe fell in love with the family’s daughter—Amanda—and after the war, he finished school and came back for Amanda’s hand in marriage. They would marry, raise seven children together, and run a boardinghouse where Amanda was known for her jam cake. The family continues to bake this cake on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Sundays, and birthdays—as often as possible. Marion remembers her mother’s jam cakes being stored in the china cabinet. “As a child I would open up that cabinet and it smelled so good.” The Kellett family bakes their cake in a tube pan for about 1 hour at 350°F. I love this cake baked in layers with a traditional caramel frosting, as they prepare it in Kentucky and Tennessee. The Caramel Frosting recipe is from Kentucky, adapted from a cookbook called LaRue County Kitchens of Kentucky.


Flour and butter for greasing the pans

1 cup finely chopped pecans, walnuts, or black walnuts (see Cake Notes)

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

2 cups granulated sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup blackberry jam (see Cake Notes)

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup raisins


½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1½ cups light brown sugar, firmly packed

⅓ cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

1½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

1.For the cake, place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 9" round cake pans with vegetable shortening or soft butter and dust with flour. Shake out the excess flour, and set the pans aside.

2.While the oven preheats, place the nuts on a baking sheet in the oven, and let the nuts toast until just beginning to brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and let the nuts cool.

3.Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on high speed until creamy, 3 minutes. Turn off the mixer, and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well on medium speed until each egg is combined. Add the jam, and blend on low until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

4.Remove 1 tablespoon of the flour and set aside. In a separate medium-size bowl, sift together the remaining flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and salt. Set aside. In a small bowl, stir the baking soda into the buttermilk until dissolved. Add a third of the flour mixture to the egg batter, and blend on low until just incorporated. Pour in half of the buttermilk, and blend until incorporated. Repeat with the second third of the flour, the rest of the buttermilk, and the last of the flour mixture. Place the toasted nuts, raisins, and the remaining 1 tablespoon flour in a large bowl and toss to coat the nuts and raisins with flour. Fold these into the batter with the rubber spatula. Divide the batter between the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Place the pans in the oven.

5.Bake the cakes until they just begin to pull back from the edges of the pan and the top springs back when lightly pressed, 38 to 42 minutes. Remove the pans to wire racks to cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges, give the pans a gentle shake, and invert the layers once and then again so they cool right side up on the racks. Let cool completely, 30 to 40 minutes, before frosting.

6.For the frosting, place the butter, brown sugar, cream, vanilla, and salt in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat, and cook, stirring, until the mixture boils, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the confectioners’ sugar until smooth. Use at once.

7.To assemble the cake, place 1 cake layer on a cake stand or serving plate. Spoon about a third of the warm caramel frosting over the top, and spread to smooth out. Place the second layer on top, and spoon the remaining frosting over the top and let it trickle down the sides of the cake. Let the cake rest for at least 20 minutes, then slice and serve.

CAKE NOTES: Use what blackberry jam you have on hand. If you are buying the jam, look for a 10-ounce jar. If you don’t like blackberry seeds, buy seedless jam. You can substitute black raspberry, strawberry, or plum jam in this cake. Instead of toasted pecans, you can use untoasted black walnuts.

Jam Cake

The words “Kentucky jam cake” seem to roll off the tongue as easily as other Bluegrass State terms—like “bourbon” and “the Derby.” Blackberries are the official state fruit of Kentucky and have been since 2004. And yet, adding blackberry jam to cake batter isn’t unique to one state. Jam cakes existed in Europe and came to America with German immigrants who would put up jam from local berries and use this jam in spice cakes at holiday times. The cake traveled as people relocated into Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and the Carolinas. Across the country in Oregon, a state where huckleberries, blackberries, and blueberries grow, berries have long been turned into jam cake. Food historian Betty Fussell writes of early jam cakes in her book I Hear America Cooking. The Gitxsan Indians of Canada would dry berries to concentrate their natural sugars and thus preserve them. As early as 1913, the Portland Woman’s Exchange Cook Book included berry jam in the spice cake batter and also in the buttercream frosting, which turned pink from the jam. But, in Kentucky, the cake is revered. The Heitzman Bakery of Louisville has been baking jam cakes and placing them in signature pink boxes since 1891.

Jam Cake Ingredients

A proper jam cake is moist and dense and is best made with homemade blackberry jam. An old wives’ tale goes something like this: If you don’t use homemade jam in your jam cake, the jam will fall to the bottom of the cake. When jam cake originated in the 1800s, you couldn’t go out and buy a jar of jam to put in it. The cake made use of your own homemade jam, put up from the summer crop of blackberries. The jam was measured by the teacup into the cake batter, and making aromatic jam cake cleaned out the spice cabinet. Leavened by soda and often containing buttermilk, jam cake features the nuts of the region. Black walnuts, pecans, and English walnuts all work well in jam cake. Dredge the nuts and raisins, if using, with a little flour before folding them into the recipe.





Stacked high with fluffy white frosting and mounds of grated coconut, the coconut cake has no equal. It isn’t just another pound cake, it is a coconut cake, by golly. And a bite brings back history and good memories, whether it was the cake your grandmother baked or the cake always served at Christmas. Coconut cakes have long been associated with the South, and they were baked in New Orleans and Charleston in the early 1800s. But they were also baked wherever Caribbean “cocoa nuts” arrived, for coconuts were just days away from ports such as Philadelphia and others along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Coconuts were good travelers because they were hard to break. Coconut was first used in candy making by French and Dutch confectioners in the 18th century before it was piled atop cake. Old Charleston records show that a pastry chef by the name of Catherine Joor had 400 pounds of coconut in her possession at her death in 1773. Coconut was a key ingredient in sponge cake (Mrs. Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839) and the Sally White fruitcake, a white fruitcake popular in North Carolina in the mid-1800s. Toward the end of the 19th century, coconut would be found in all sorts of cakes—sponge cakes, silver cakes made with egg whites, and a New Orleans Creole coconut pound cake with the freshly shelled coconut dried in the skillet before grating. Once baking powder was on hand in the American kitchen, and once cakes transitioned out of the tube pan and into layers, coconut cake became more of the cake we think of today.

Butter and flour for prepping the pans

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

2 cups granulated sugar

5 large eggs, separated

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

Seven-Minute Frosting

2 to 3 cups grated fresh or packaged unsweetened coconut

1.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and set one rack above it if needed for the third pan. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease three 8" or 9" round cake pans with butter, then dust with flour, and shake out the excess flour. Set the pans aside.

2.Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and with an electric mixer on medium speed, cream until light, 1 minute. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, and beat each until just combined. Add the vanilla.

3.Sift together the flour and baking soda in a medium-size bowl, and add this in thirds to the egg mixture, alternately with the buttermilk. Blend on medium-low until smooth.

4.Place the egg whites in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on high speed until stiff peaks form, 4 minutes. Fold the whites into the batter with a rubber spatula until the whites are just combined. Divide the batter between the 3 pans. Place the pans in the oven, with 2 pans on the center rack and 1 pan on the rack above.

5.Bake the cake layers until they are golden brown and just pull away from the pan, 22 to 25 minutes for 9" pans, and slightly more for 8" pans. Let the cakes cool in the pans set on wire racks for 10 minutes. Then run a knife around the edges, give them a gentle shake to loosen from the pans, and invert them once and then again to cool right side up on the racks for at least 30 minutes before frosting.

6.While the cake is baking, make the frosting.

7.To assemble the cake, place 1 layer on a serving plate or platter. Cover with a large ladle of frosting and spread until smooth. Sprinkle on ½ cup of coconut. Add a second cake layer, cover with a ladle of frosting, then sprinkle on ½ cup of coconut. Place the final layer on top. Spread the top and sides of the cake generously with the remaining frosting. Pack 1 cup of coconut onto the sides of the cake using clean hands. If desired, sprinkle another 1 cup of coconut on the top of the cake. Decorate the top and sides with pieces of dried coconut, if desired. Slice and serve.

A Coconut Ambrosia Cake

Ambrosia is a fruit dessert of fresh oranges and coconut served in a giant punchbowl in the South. The successful combination of those flavors is used in baking cakes, too. To impart the fresh flavor of orange in coconut cake, William Deas, a famous Charleston cook and butler in the early 1900s, would squeeze fresh orange juice over baked cake layers and then cover them with whipped cream and sprinkle on coconut.

Baking with Fresh Coconut

Fresh coconut not only yields a bit of coconut milk, which you add to this cake filling, but the meat is more flavorful. If you want to use fresh coconut in this cake and other cakes, you will love the flavor. But be prepared for a little work.

1.Preheat the oven to 375°F. Hammer a nail into the three “eyes” of the coconut. Remove the nail to create three holes. Pour the coconut milk into a small bowl, straining it to remove any bits of husk. Set aside.

2.Place the coconut on a baking pan in the oven, and bake until it cracks, 15 to 20 minutes. It may not split all the way open. Remove the pan and coconut from the oven, and with pot holders or oven mitts, take the coconut to a hard surface, such as a cement porch or your driveway. Give it a hard whack with a rolling pin or hammer and crack the coconut open completely. Take the pieces back to the kitchen and let them cool completely.

3.Using a sharp knife, pry the meat away from the hard shell, and with a smaller paring knife, peel away the thin, dark skin. Rinse the coconut of husk and allow to dry.

4.Drop similar-size pieces into a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse until it is finely grated, 1½ to 2 minutes. Repeat until all the coconut has been grated.

Flour-for-Coconuts Swap

In 1895 Philadelphia’s Franklin Baker, a miller, received a shipload of coconuts as payment for flour Baker had shipped to Cuba. Baker was unable to sell the coconut, so he invested in a factory to crack, shred, and dry the coconut meat. Baker left the flour business and devoted his career to coconut, devising canned shredded coconut by 1917 and setting up a plant in the Philippines in the 1920s. In the early 1900s, coconut was the flavor of the moment, not only in coconut cake but also coconut cream pie and coconut cookies.





Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general of the Civil War, is said to have proposed to his wife, Mary Custis, while Mary served him a slice of cake. Historians have no idea if the cake was this well-known orange and lemon cake recipe. But this recipe is the one Mary Custis Lee passed along to her daughter in a family recipe collection discovered in Virginia in the 1950s. It has been called the Lee Cake and the Lemon Jelly Cake, and it is a flavorful lemon sponge cake with a little baking powder, a novel ingredient in the 1850s. Filled with lemon curd—called “lemon jelly” at the time—and frosted with an orange and lemon icing, this cake is served today at the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. If the icing sounds too sweet, frost it with lightly sweetened whipped cream flavored with lemon and orange zest.


½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

2 large lemons (to yield ½ cup lemon juice and 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest)

6 large egg yolks, at room temperature

2 cups granulated sugar


Butter and flour for prepping the pans

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

Dash of salt

8 large eggs, separated, at room temperature

2 cups granulated sugar

1 large lemon (to yield 1 heaping teaspoon grated lemon zest and scant ¼ cup lemon juice)

½ teaspoon cream of tartar


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

1 large pasteurized egg yolk (see Cake Note)

6 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

1 medium lemon (to yield 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 1 heaping teaspoon grated lemon zest)

1 large orange (to yield 4 tablespoons orange juice and 1 heaping tablespoon grated orange zest)

Thin lemon and orange slices for garnish, if desired

1.For the filling, whisk together the melted butter, lemon juice, zest, egg yolks, and sugar in a medium-size bowl until smooth and combined. Pour this mixture into the top pan of a double boiler, and set it over a saucepan of simmering water. Cook the mixture, stirring, until it is thick and smooth, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and continue to stir the filling for 2 more minutes so it has a chance to cool down. Pour the filling into a heatproof glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

2.For the cake, place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly grease and flour four 9" round pans. Set aside. (If you don’t have 4 pans, you can stagger the baking, baking 2 at a time and cooling the pans between baking, or you can bake two 9" layers and, once cooled, split them in half horizontally to make 4 layers.)

3.Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium-size bowl, and set the bowl aside.

4.Place the egg yolks in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until combined, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, and beat until the mixture is smooth and pale yellow in color. Add the lemon zest and juice, and beat on low speed until combined. Set aside.

5.Place the egg whites and cream of tartar in a large mixing bowl, and beat with clean beaters on high speed until stiff peaks form, about 5 minutes. Alternately fold the flour mixture and the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk mixture until just combined and smooth. Divide the cake between the cake pans, and smooth the tops. Place the pans in the oven.

6.Bake the layers until the cake is lightly golden and just begins to pull away from the edges, 18 to 22 minutes if baking 4 layers, 25 to 30 minutes if baking 2 large layers. Place the pans on wire racks to cool for 5 minutes. Run a sharp knife around the edges of the pans, give the pans a gentle shake to release the cakes, and invert them once and then again on the racks to cool completely, 30 minutes.

7.To assemble the cake, remove the filling from the refrigerator. Place 1 layer on a cake plate and spread a third of the chilled filling over the top, almost to the sides. Repeat with the remaining cake layers, leaving the top of the cake bare. Place the cake with filling in the refrigerator to set while you make the icing.

8.For the icing, place the butter in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until creamy, 1 minute. Add the egg yolk and beat well. Add the confectioners’ sugar in 3 additions, alternating it with the lemon and orange juices and zest, beating well after each addition and until the icing is creamy.

9.To finish, remove the cake from the refrigerator. To support the cake while frosting it, place 3 long toothpicks down into the cake. Spread the top and sides of the cake generously with icing. Garnish the top with the lemon and orange slices, if desired. Remove toothpicks before slicing.

CAKE NOTE: Use pasteurized egg in the icing recipe because the egg is not cooked.

Lemons and Oranges in Early America

Lemons and oranges have been grown along the southern Atlantic coast since the 1750s. The early settlers to South Carolina and Georgia found a sour Seville orange growing when they arrived. It was most likely a product of the early Spanish orange tree plantings in Florida, and Native Americans might have transported the orange trees north from St. Augustine to the unique microclimate of the Georgia barrier islands where citrus flourished, according to David Shields, Low Country historian. The hard freeze of 1835 devastated the coastal orange crops, but work was done in later years to come to replant those groves. Most citrus in the early 1800s was imported unless you lived near growing regions. Citrus has long been a prized ingredient in baking and an upper-class statement of wealth and importance. Citrus has never been as easy to obtain in America as it is today. But many families in all areas of the country recall how citrus was once rare and expensive, reserved for special times, and so it appears in birthday cakes or as a whole orange traditionally added to the Christmas stocking in remembrance of holidays past.

How to Steady a Tall Cake

If you are frosting a three- to four-layer cake that has filling, you need to steady it while frosting or the cake layers may slide. Place three evenly spaced 6" toothpicks down into the top of the cake. Leave ¼" of each toothpick sticking out from the top. Frost the top and sides of the cake, then carefully remove the picks before slicing and serving.





When the first American settlers arrived here, they found wild strawberries. For the strawberry grew across the eastern United States, and if the berries grew near you, then you learned how to put them up into syrups, cordials, jellies, and jams. One of the earliest ways to serve strawberries as a dessert was strawberry shortcake. Malinda Russell shares her recipe in her 1866 book, A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen. Strawberry shortcake recipes appeared before the Civil War and were based on a biscuit dough that at first was unleavened, then leavened with baking soda, a little cream of tartar, and later with baking powder. Shortcakes without strawberries had been baked and were simply called “biscuits” by cookbook authors Harriott Pinckney Horry in 1770 and Amelia Simmons in 1796. When combined with fruit, those biscuits became shortcakes, so named because the butter or lard in the recipe made the dough short, or flaky, and also because they baked quickly. The Weekly Standard in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1839 described shortcake as a “hastily baked” cake that baked in a short amount of time. But Godey’s Lady’s Book of December 1835 warned about its unhealthiness: “Shortcakes, whether hot or cold, should be banished from our tables.” Fortunately they weren’t. By 1857 shortcake “spread with butter and a layer of fresh strawberries and sugar” was considered “a luxury,” according to the Brooklyn Eagle. And by 1870, American Agriculturalist magazine had declared the strawberry shortcake “an American institution” benefiting from the new railroads that shipped the fragile local berries from farm to market. The following easy shortcake recipe is adapted from John Martin Taylor’s book The New Southern Cook. I have made only a few adjustments. As this recipe makes a lot of shortcake, go ahead and bake them all, then wrap them in aluminum foil and reheat uncovered on day 2 with more fresh berries and cream.

6 cups fresh ripe strawberries

⅓ cup granulated sugar, or more to taste

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting the countertop

⅓ cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, a little soft

1 large egg

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons butter for buttering the shortcakes, if desired

1½ cups whipped cream, sweetened with 1 to 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1.An hour before you will serve this dessert, hull the berries and slice all but 8, and save those for garnish, if desired. Toss the halved berries with ⅓ cup sugar (or more to taste) and set aside at room temperature.

2.Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 425°F.

3.Place the flour, ⅓ cup sugar, the baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl and stir until well combined. Cut the ¾ cup butter into tablespoons and distribute over the top of the dry ingredients. With 2 sharp paring knives or a pastry blender, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture looks like uniformly sized peas. Crack the egg into a measuring cup with the cream and stir with a fork to break up the yolk. Pour this into the dough mixture and stir together with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until the liquid is just combined.

4.Scatter flour on a work surface and turn the dough out. With floured hands, pat it to a generous 1" thickness. Flour 2" to 3" round cutters and cut the dough into 8 to 12 rounds. Place these on a baking sheet, and place the pan in the oven.

5.Bake the shortcakes until they are golden brown around the edges, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let the shortcakes cool a few minutes, then split open the shortcakes with a fork and butter lightly with the 2 tablespoons butter, if desired.

6.To serve, place the bottom half of a shortcake in a serving bowl. Spoon sweetened berries and juice on top, then place the top half over the berries, and spoon more berries and juice on top. Spoon whipped cream over the berries and garnish with 1 fresh strawberry, if desired. Repeat with the remaining shortcakes. Drizzle any remaining juice in the bowl over the shortcakes before serving.


Before electricity and refrigeration as we know it, cooks tried anything they could to keep food from spoiling in the summertime. They placed bottles of milk in a cold running stream, and they created their own icehouses. With long saws, farmers would harvest ice from frozen ponds and lakes and then pile it into icehouses. The first domestic iceboxes were just that—boxes. One wooden box was placed inside another wooden box, and in between went some kind of insulation—charcoal, ashes, etc. Ice would last about a day in these boxes. By 1830 ice was being harvested from larger ponds—the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal. It was shipped south and on to the West Indies. The biggest customer was New Orleans and its growing restaurant culture. On the West Coast, to supply the newly rich miners with chilled beverages and cold pats of butter, Alaskan glaciers were leased and chunks of ice were shipped to San Francisco iceboxes. A home icebox would become much needed, or as Godey’s Lady’s Book said in 1850, “a necessity of life.” But consumers had to wait 60 years to get a home refrigerator in 1911 and 20 more years to get one that made ice. Commercial refrigerator production ramped up after World War II.





When antique cookbook collector and historian Jan Longone received a phone call from a West Coast rare book dealer asking if Longone knew anything about a pamphlet called A Domestic Cook Book, the answer was no. And yes. Longone didn’t know the work, but she did know she wanted to purchase what could possibly be an unknown piece of American culinary history from the collection of the late Helen Evans Brown. A Domestic Cook Book is a 39-page, bittersweet first-person story, with recipes, of a free woman of color named Malinda Russell, published in 1866. It is the first cookbook authored by an African American woman, according to Longone, curator of American culinary history at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. “Mrs. Russell” was born and raised in east Tennessee, taught to cook by a Virginia slave named Fanny Steward, and ran both a boardinghouse and pastry shop during her life. In contrast to the “soul food” style of cooking most associated with African American cooks, she developed a distinctive cosmopolitan Southern/European style exhibited in her book. She flavors food with brandy, rosewater, spices, and almonds. This is one of Mrs. Russell’s pound cakes, a cake very English in style that might once have been called a Queen’s Cake, but that after the Revolutionary War was renamed after General George Washington by a patriotic America.

Butter and flour for prepping the pan

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

3 cups granulated sugar

Pinch of salt, if desired

6 large eggs

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup sour milk or buttermilk (see Cake Note)

3 cups unbleached flour

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 small lemon (to yield 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest)

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

2.Place the butter in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on low speed until creamy, 1 minute. While the mixer is running, gradually add the sugar, and beat until light and creamy, 2 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the pinch of salt, if desired, and add the eggs, one at a time, beating on low speed until each egg is incorporated, about 15 seconds each. Turn off the mixer.

3.Stir the baking soda into the cup of sour milk. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl, and stir in the cream of tartar. Alternately add the flour and milk to the egg mixture, beginning and ending with the flour and mixing on low speed until smooth. Fold the lemon juice and zest into the batter. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, and place the pan in the oven.

4.Bake the cake until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 1 hour 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and place the pan on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan, give the pan a gentle shake, then invert the cake once and then again onto the rack to cool completely, 1 hour. Slice and serve.

CAKE NOTE: Sour milk is made by adding 1 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup of milk. Let it rest for about 30 minutes, or until it looks a little curdled. Or you can use buttermilk.

A NOTE TO THE MODERN COOK: Many old cookbooks contain recipe ingredients but no method. Mrs. Russell provided a little method, but she also left much to the imagination. Would the cream of tartar be stirred into the flour or were the eggs separated and the cream of tartar added to the whites and beaten, then folded into the cake before baking? Should the baking soda be stirred into the sour milk? After studying other recipes in Mrs. Russell’s book where she instructs whites to be beaten to a foam, I decided she intended whole eggs to be added to this batter. The recipe produces a tall and light pound cake, best eaten the day it is baked.

Popularity of Washington Cakes

Mark Zanger was researching his book The American History Cookbook and found that of all the cakes named for elected officials, one-third were named for George Washington. Most of these recipes were a pound cake or like the Queen’s Cake, which he guesses was “part of the renaming process that started right after the Revolution in which roads called ‘King’s Highway’ were often renamed ‘Washington Street.’” Washington Cakes are similar in that they are all pound cakes at heart. Most contain lemon and currants. Some contained saleratus, the forerunner to baking soda, and others were made with yeast. They were often flavored with nutmeg and brandy. They were a cake that would continue to be baked throughout the 19th century and served with great festivity on Washington’s birthday in February. In the 1895 Atlanta Exposition Cookbook, the Washington Cake was indeed festive and complicated, containing raisins as well as currants, citron, cinnamon, nutmeg, wine, brandy, and even a caramel filling.


By the 1850s, America’s cooks were moving away from the heavier, expensive cakes toward cakes of thrifty and simple ingredients. These cakes—composition cakes—contained less butter and fewer eggs, a shorter beating time, and the help of chemical leavening. They were the cakes that brought cake baking to the growing middle class.


Many of our modern cakes can be traced to cakes baked by our ancestors.

POUND CAKE. Originally leavened only by eggs, it later became the “combination cakes” that contained some baking powder. Today pound cakes are still baked and may contain sour cream or cream cheese, and are often flavored with chocolate. Recipes may be divided in half for one-loaf half-pound cakes for smaller families.

FRUITCAKE. An old cake originating in 17th-century England, the first fruitcake was leavened with yeast. Dried fruit and alcohol such as rum not only flavored but preserved the cake. Fruitcakes were good keepers, lasting a month or more. But somewhere along the way, commercial fruitcakes and their shortcuts, absence of butter, and cheap candied fruit robbed us of the flavor of real heirloom fruitcake. But it is making a comeback during the holidays in homes. Packed with apricots, peaches, prunes, cherries, and other interesting dried fruit, as well as a generous dousing of bourbon or rum, the fruitcake of today has authentic flavor.

SPICE CAKE. The gingerbread, or the cake that pairs an acid (molasses) with an alkali (baking soda) to produce a light cake with big flavor—this cake opened the door to man-made chemically leavened cakes, such as the baking powder layer cakes still baked today.

SPONGE CAKE. With ties to England and France, the sponge cake is a light cake, based on eggs. The eggs are separated, the yolks are beaten with sugar, and the whites are beaten stiff and folded into the batter. For a French style of genoise, butter is added, or hot water or milk may be added for more texture. The chiffon was an offshoot of the sponge cake and is the cake that changed the way America baked. It uses vegetable oil for moistness and beaten egg whites for volume and lightness. The chiffon is the best of both worlds—light and moist. And that’s fitting for a country that loves to have it all.

ANGEL FOOD CAKE. An old American classic cake with roots in the 1830s, angel food is a sponge cake made without egg yolks, only a lot of beaten egg whites. The angel food cake was loved by cooks who used the egg yolks for mayonnaise or noodle making. And through the years it has had many variations, from chocolate, to crushed pineapple, to orange marbled.