Saturday, January 24, 2015

Betsy Challenge 17: Revolutionary Foods

I've been a bit absent lately, due to being under the weather. That all culminated in a diagnosis of a sinus infection this week (ew). But, I had plans for the Historical Food Fortnightly, and I was going to follow through on them!

For this fortnight's challenge, I planned on doing Washington Cake, from Elizabeth Hall's Practical American  Cookery. There was no explanation about the connection between Washington and the cake, but George Washington was the hero of the American Revolution so it hit the challenge nicely. It also called for saleratus, which is the mid-19th century name for potassium bicarbonate, a leavening agent that was new to cooks in the 1850s. It was quickly supplanted by its more effective, less disgusting-tasting cousin, sodium bicarbonate, which we know as baking soda, and I planned to use that as a revolutionary leavener.

Here's the recipe:

If you're like me, you may read it a couple times before realizing something. There's no flour in this cake. Not even a little bit. That should have given me some pause, but I was flying high on recent successes and feeling really confident about following the recipe with a wing a prayer.

Spoiler alert: I failed utterly.

The Challenge: Revolutionary Foods

The Recipe: Washington Cake, from Practical American Cookery and Domestic Economy by Elizabeth M. Hall.

The Date/Year and Region: 1860, United States

How Did You Make It?: First, I followed the directions to the letter (after making a couple small adjustments by cutting the recipe in half and using two eggs instead of three). I beat the eggs until they were very light, added the other ingredients, and wound up with a bowl of goop. It was half congealed butter, half gross liquid. I could tell immediately that it wasn't going to happen.

So I mixed it again. This time, I creamed the sugar and butter together, before adding the liquids, and then folding in the eggs. It was slightly more successful, but still not great, and even before adding the baking soda I was dubious. Still and all, I thought I'd give it a go. I put some of the goop into muffin tins and put it in the oven.

After ten minutes, I had bubbling goup that wasn't getting cooked anywhere fast. It reminded me a great deal of the German puffs - buttery eggy grossness. I didn't even take any pictures. It wasn't worth the effort.

Time To Complete: Half an hour

Total Cost: Too much, for failure. The eggs and butter both weren't super cheap.

How Successful Was It?: Ha. Hahahaha. Hahahahahahahahahahaha.

Seriously though, this may indeed be a case of no one having ever tested the recipe. Somewhere out there, there may be some errata from Elizabeth Hall saying "Whoops, there should be some flour in there." With flour, it's very close to a sponge cake - so it may be worth messing with.

How Accurate Is It?: Modern ingredients, modern stove, modern tools (include an electric mixer for beating the eggs), and I switched out the postassium bicarbonate for sodium bicarbonate.

For all that it failed, I'm still pleased. I've learned so much from doing these challenges, and become so much braver and more willing to try new things - it's just another learning moment!


  1. Sympathy about the sinus infection. I've been sick to varying degrees this past week myself. Part of the sick has been diagnosed as strep throat; I've finally got antibiotics for it.

    Re: your recipe. It sounds more than little like early recipes for pound cake. Pound cake recipes in period usually had a pound of butter and a pound of sugar. Perhaps the Washington Cake recipe writer figured that cooks would know to add a pound of flour to the listed ingredients? May be worth trying.

  2. I think it's a mistake. The other Washington Cakes of the time have flour in them, but isn't this the point of the HFF? :) I often wonder if the same stuff that trips us up tripped people back then.

  3. It sounds like a very sugary omelet without the flour. :-) Very cool that you tried it *just in case* anyway.

  4. The fact that I went, "Eh, let's give it a shot anyway!" says a lot for what this HFF thing has done for me! I never would have dreamed of just going for it, even a year ago. And yes, it did turn out like a very, VERY sugary, buttery omelet, but not one that i would ever, ever eat :)