By Francesca Arniotes
My nine-year- old grandson and his seven-year-old sister were left unsupervised recently. They went into the kitchen and they baked a cake. No recipe. They just threw stuff into a bowl and beat it up with a hand mixer. Their mother returned at the point where they had produced what looked like cake batter and, always up for adventure, she turned on the oven while they prepared a cake pan. Guess what? It turned out to be a cake! It didn’t even sink in the middle. At 7000 feet! What the hey! Isn’t this infuriating to everyone who has struggled to bake at high altitude? And you know what? They did it again the next day, that time adding vanilla, so it actually tasted pretty good. It’s just not fair.
Then I thought about the Little House On The Prairie people and grannies in colonial Philadelphia and Baby Doe Tabor up in Leadville all with their open hearths or big old wood stoves and no stand mixers and well, they must have made a cake for somebody’s birthday, right?
So maybe we overthink it?
I went to my cookbook library and decided to ask Mrs. Abby Fisher and Miss Eliza Leslie what they thought about cake baking.
Miss Leslie was a Philadelphia-born, London-raised author of books for women on etiquette and domestic management. I have Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery from 1837. Her baking chapter opens with “General Observations”. She begins: “Unless you are provided with proper and convenient utensils and materials, the difficulty of preparing cakes will be great, and in most instances a failure; involving disappointment, waste of time and useless expense.”
Here’s one of her recipes:
Miss Leslie’s Queen Cake
“Sift fourteen ounces of the finest flour. Prepare a table-spoonful of beaten cinnamon, a tea-spoonful of mace and two beaten nutmegs and mix together. Mix in a tumbler half a glass of white wine, half a glass of brandy, and half a glass of rose water. Powder a pound of loaf sugar and sift it into a deep pan; cut up in it a pound of butter, warm them by the fire and stir them to a cream. Add gradually the spice and liquor. Beat ten eggs very light and stir them into the mixture in turn with the flour. Stir in the juice of two lemons and beat the whole very hard. Butter some little tins and half fill them with the mixture and set in a brisk oven and bake them for a quarter of an hour. When done they will shrink from the sides of the tins. After you turn them out, spread them on a sieve to cool.
Make an icing flavoured with lemon juice or extract of roses and spread two coats of it on the queen cakes. Set them to dry in a warm place but not near enough the fire to discolour the icing and cause it to crack.”
Mrs. Fisher was a freed slave who moved to SanFrancisco and at the urging of friends, dictated her book “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking”, published in 1881, hoping it would “be found a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.”
Here is the recipe for her Gold Cake:
“Take one dozen eggs and separate the yelks from the whites, and beat the yelks very light; one pound of butter, one pound of flour and one pound of powdered sugar; rub the butter and sugar together until creamed very light, then add the beaten yelks of the eggs to the creamed butter and sugar and beat again until light. Take two teaspoonfuls of the best yeast powder and sift with the one pound of flour, then add this flour to the butter and eggs with a half teacupful of sweet milk and stir the whole hard and fast till light, then grate the peel of one lemon and squeeze the juice in the cake and stir well.” Her general baking advice is to “have a moderately hot stove so the cake bakes gradually and adjust the damper to send the heat to the bottom of the cake first.”
Well, come on. If they could do it, we can do it! Shouldn’t our modern, detailed recipes and our calibrated ovens make baking… um… a piece of cake?
Let us, like the grandchildren, bake fearlessly!
But lest Miss Leslie’s discouraging words creep in, have the benefit of a little kitchen science: To avoid the most common problem, which is sinking in the middle, understand that a cake’s structure comes from properly sized and properly distributed air bubbles that expand, not too quickly and not too slowly, with the gasses created by your baking powder in the oven. The bubbles are made when we cream the butter and sugar, so take your time with that step. When adding the eggs and flour, do that more gently and for a more limited time so you don’t make giant, weak bubbles that won’t hold. Fill pans ⅔ full. I bake at 9000 feet, so I cut down leavening by about a third and sugar by 2-3 tablespoons per cup. I increase liquid by 1-2 tablespoons per cup, letting the batter show me if it needs more or not. It should form a lovely ribbon when falling from the spoon. Finally, I increase oven temperature by 25 degrees.
Give your favorite cake recipe a tweak and proceed with confidence. Send us a note and let us know how it turned out.