Notes on collections at the RIHS
I am an avid watcher of The Great British Bake Off on PBS. My sister reads a few British newspapers daily and knows the winner of the season airing on PBS now, as it has already aired in the UK, and keeps threatening to tell me. It turns out that Our Cooking (from) the Books project at RIHS is just a home version of the Bake Off ‘Technical Bake’. You pick a recipe, you make it not really knowing what it is going to come out like and knowing that your co-workers, friends and RIHS patrons will be judging you.
The upcoming Fourth of July holiday always makes me think of strawberry shortcake. My family would often have sponge cake or angle food cake instead of shortcakes or biscuits with our strawberries. My best laid weekend plans with a 1-year-old child are often not achieved as planned. This is even more true when said child is teething. My plan to go strawberry picking with my husband and daughter this weekend and make sponge cake with strawberry jelly from the cookbook I picked out from our collection was derailed by weather, teething, napping and/or the lack thereof, an out of town visitor and a very inviting kid pool in the back yard that actually fits a grown up laying down in a foot of water.
Sans strawberries, I did make the sponge cake ‘One Hundred Receipts, Cake, Pastry and Preserves’ By a Lady of Providence, 1841…or did I?
This small unassuming, well loved booklet has a brief single page of General Directions and then recipes of one or two sentences. There is an assumption by ‘A Lady of Providence’ that one already knows how to make basic things like cakes therefor she leaves out all kinds of pertinent information we expect in our recipes today. Not unlike the Bake Off technical challenge recipes, which are basically a list of ingredients.
Here is the sponge cake receipt I chose:
Sponge Cake.-Twelve eggs, ten ounces of flour, dried, one pound of loaf sugar, twelve drops essence lemon, one nutmeg, one teaspoonful of mixed mace and cinnamon. Sponge cake should be baked as quick as possible without burning.
That is the whole recipe. That’s it. Nothing more. The next receipt is for Apees (which I thought was a cookie and not a cake so I didn’t make that one) and has even less instruction.
There was additional information to be had in the General Directions on page 2:
In making cakes and pastry, it is particularly necessary that the eggs should be well beaten. They are not sufficiently light until they look smooth and level upon the surface, and become of the consistency of boiled custard.
Whites of eggs should always be beaten till it becomes a heap of stiff froth, and will hang from the fork without dropping.
Butter and sugar should be stirred till it looks like cream, and will stand up in the pan. It should be kept cool.
Before you ice a cake, dredge it all over with flour, and then wipe it off.
If large cakes are baked in tin pans, the bottom and sides must be covered with sheets of white paper, well buttered.
Sponge and almond cakes should be baking in pans that are as thin as possible.
Eggs should be beaten after all the other ingredients are all ready.
Flour should be weighted or measured before it is sifted.
Where families are not provided with scales and weights, the following table may be used:
Wheat flour, – one quart is – one pound.
Indian meal, – one quart is – one pound, two oz.
Loaf sugar, – one quart is – one pound.
Beet, brown do. – one quart is – one pound, two oz.
Butter, soft – one quart is – one pound, one oz.
Eggs, – ten are – one pound.
So armed with this information I had to make a couple decisions about the recipe:
I measured, grated, whipped, sifted, folded eggs into dry ingredients, then and then with my husbands help to hold my biggest bowl, poured the mixture into the angel food cake pan. Into the 400 degree oven it went for 20 minutes.
Was any of that correct?
Did it come out golden brown and delicious?
Can you hear Paul Hollywood saying ‘such a shame its raw inside’?
I immediately started analyzing the bake – temperature too high? too much or too little sugar? it kept it’s rise but didn’t cook inside…needed more flour? should I have toasted the flour in the oven to have ‘flour, dried’? should I have put it in a sheet pan or three?…
So, what does a Rhode Island mother/experimental historical baker do when her sponge is not a sponge?
After a moment of total cake devastation, I poured the very hot raw insides into yet another bowl, whisked it up, poured it into two round cake tins, and whacked it back in the oven at 300 for 15 minutes. That was a whole dozen eggs in that sponge, we had to eat it somehow.
And voila! A sponge that is not a sponge but a flat, moist, spiced, Blondie/gingerbread with no ginger.
My mom’s mother used to give us gingerbread with cream poured over, so I sliced up the ‘not a sponge’ into bowls and poured 1/2 and 1/2 (no heavy cream in the icebox) over and we ate them in the shade by the very distracting kid pool. They were delicious! One nutmeg was just enough.
~ Dana Munroe, Registrar