From 1900: Simple Lemon Cake

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It was the year 1900. William McKinley was elected to serve his second term as President of a country with forty-five states. The average income was $438 per year, and the average American home cost about $5,000. Women wore long dresses, and puffed or layered sleeves were most fashionable. Men wore suits, vests, jackets, and ties even in the hottest weather. Everyone wore hats. Kodak released its $1 “Brownie” cameras, which introduced the public to the snapshot. There were no televisions or radios, so people read a lot. And, when they needed to get somewhere, they took steam engines, ships, bicycles, or horses and buggies. In major cities, electric lightbulbs lit the streets, but for the most part, gas lamps were the only source of light after dark.

So, this is a blog about history. But, it’s also about food. Historical food. And, since it’s about food, we should talk about kitchens. 117 years ago, kitchens weren’t unrecognizable, but they were simple. They were really only workrooms, so they were very small. They typically only had a sink in them (with running water), counter space, and a fire pit or an oven. The ovens that existed were made of cast iron, and they had chambers in them for coal or wood. Some very lucky households were able to cook with gas by 1900, which became the norm as time went on. No one had a refrigerator, though. Some people had ice boxes, but most just stored canned and preserved food in a pantry. Perishable foods like milk, butter, and meat? Many sealed them up and submerged them in cool water or lowered them down into wells!

So, what are we cooking? Lemon cake from the White House Cook Book published in 1900. And, let me just say that these old recipes aren’t anything like present-day recipes. So, I’m kind of like a translator here!

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What the heck is a teacupful? Sweet milk? How hot should the oven be? How long does this bake? Yes, I read this and had a lot of questions. But, the best part about being a historian is that you’re also kind of a detective (and, let’s be honest, you’re probably also pretty smart, so you probably have common sense… theoretically). So, common sense told me that a teacupful probably meant a cup (8 oz). And, having done a bit of baking, I assumed 350 degrees was a good oven temperature. Finally, a little bit of research (in this case, googling it) told me that sweet milk is simply whole milk. In 1900, people differentiated between sweet milk (regular) and sour milk (buttermilk). I love learning.

So, let’s go! Into the kitchen to make history!

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Here are our ingredients: Softened butter (I use salted), sugar, eggs, whole milk, baking soda, flour, and a lemon (not pictured: salt).

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Step 1: Get out a mixing bowl and add the butter and the sugar. You may notice there’s only one stick of butter here, while above there are two. Reason: I’m only making half of the original recipe. The full amount of ingredients are pictured, and I’ll write out the full recipe, but I’m only making half! I really shouldn’t make a whole cake for just two people… or should I…

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Step 2: Cream the butter and sugar together. That means mix them until they’re combined. I cheated and used an electric hand mixer. I imagine whoever wrote this recipe would have, too, had they had the option!

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Step 3: Add the eggs. I know you’re supposed to add them one at a time. And, I know some people even crack them into a bowl before they add them to the mix. I just go for it. I learn by doing, and I haven’t encountered a situation that’s made me change my ways yet!

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Step 4: Mix the baking soda into the milk. Add the milk mixture to the mixing bowl. No witticisms with this step – just pure focus!

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Step 5: Mix in the flour one cup at a time. Spoiler: I give up the electric mixer from here on out.

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Step 6: Add in the lemon zest and the lemon juice. I actually tasted the batter at this point (I love raw batter and nothing anyone says will make me change my ways! It’s got to be that whole “learning by doing” thing again…) and decided to add a second lemon’s worth of zest. And, I added 1/4 tsp. of the un-pictured salt to balance out the sweetness. Try things out and go with your own tastes!

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Step 7: Butter/grease a baking dish, and pour in the thick, luscious batter you’ve created. Again, I made half of the recipe, so I used an 8×8″ dish. If you’re making the full recipe, use a 13×9″ pan. Or two 8×8″ pans. Or two round pans. The sky’s the limit! Well, you probably don’t have that many options…

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Step 8: Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes, or until golden brown. That means waiting. Wait, wait, wait. Did I do it? Is it food? Will it work? It did? YES! Note: My cake baked in 60 minutes, but ovens are not all created equal! Check your cake often. Do the toothpick check. You want it to be perfect!

Now, when it comes to frosting the cake, I tried a second recipe from the the 1900 edition of the White House Cook Book:

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It was pretty much a disaster. I should have known. I had reservations from the beginning. I didn’t start out knowing what “the old way” was, for starters, and I didn’t know that anyone would want an icing that “dries.” Ultimately, the icing turned into a gooey, sickeningly sweet royal icing that once it dried (I now know that that means), it turned into a hard, yet surprisingly powdery shell.

But, in any case, you”ll notice that my pictured cake has a glaze on it. After I stopped panicking about the powdery shell I created (to soften the blow of my failure, I keep reminding myself I’m a historian, not a chef!), I decided to just create a simple glaze from lemon juice and powdered sugar. So, I squeezed a lemon into a bowl, and I added powdered sugar until it got to the consistency I liked.

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It looked like this, and really, a tart, lemony glaze was actually the perfect match for a rich, sweet cake. So, even though my original plan didn’t quite work out, I learned and I made something even better. This definitely got a thumbs up from me!

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Final step: So, if you choose to make the same glaze I did, spoon it over your cake. Or, whip up (or buy) some of your favorite frosting and spread it on thick. Either way, marvel at what you’ve created!  Seriously, it’s possible that this recipe hasn’t been looked at in over 100 years. It’s possible that the last person to make this cake was wearing an apron over a long dress, keeping up the oven temperature with wood or coal, and hoping to finish before having to light the gas lamps for dinner. We’ve given new life to something long forgotten. And, if you’re wondering, it’s a delicious new life, too!

I hope you’ll continue to follow me on my new adventure, and I hope you enjoy the recipes I find. History is so important, and with this blog, I hope to question it, learn from it, and encourage you to appreciate it, too. We all have a history – just like we all eat and enjoy food. Ask questions, learn, explore, tell me about your memories in the kitchen, make new memories in and out of the kitchen, and EAT! Turns out you can learn a lot from your food!

From 1900: Simple Lemon Cake

  • Servings: Two 8x8 cakes or one 13x9 cake
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1 cup salted butter, softened
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 4 cups flour
  • Zest of two lemons, or to taste
  • Juice of one lemon, or to taste
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 cups powdered sugar (for optional glaze)
  • Juice of two lemons (for optional glaze)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cream together butter and sugar, then mix in the eggs one at a time.
  3. Stir together the milk and the baking soda, then add it to the bowl.
  4. Mix in the flour one cup at a time.
  5. Add in the lemon zest, the lemon juice, and the salt. Mix thoroughly.
  6. Pour the batter into a greased 13×9″ cake pan, or two 8×8″ pans.
  7. Bake 50-60 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool.
  8. For optional glaze, mix together juice of two lemons and two cups powdered sugar. Add sugar to reach preferred thickness.
  9. Spoon glaze over cake and eat immediately.

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