Stop the presses! This is the most delicious cake I may have ever made. It’s a moist, decadent, chocolatey spice cake. It tastes like a warm hug, and it smells like Christmas. And, it was the easiest thing in the world to make. I’m not letting you go anywhere until you try it for yourself! Okay, I can’t really do that. But, I can confirm that in 1910, people knew what they were doing with cake!
So, back to our regularly scheduled history talk. 1910. The year of the cake. Okay, I can’t stop thinking about this cake, so how about we talk about that. So, first, cakes start with ingredients. Historically, how did people get those? In 1910, large buy-everything-in-one-place supermarkets didn’t exist. Instead, small mom and pop specialty shops ruled – fruit and veggie stands, butchers, bakeries, etc. People typically went to a number of different shops, bought large quantities of dry ingredients to store in the pantry, and canned and preserved fruits, vegetables, sauces, etc. Then, they would go out and shop for cold ingredients and perishables as they needed them – cold things had to be used right away because homes didn’t have refrigeration. So, to make a cake, I imagine most people would have had most of the ingredients stored up in the pantry – flour, sugar, spices, apples, etc. And, they would have gone out to get the cold ingredients they needed, or they would have just used up any they had leftover from other meals.
So, how would one make a cake in 1910? First, they measured the ingredients. Measuring cups and spoons existed by now, so following a recipe and getting an exact result was easy. They sifted the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl – sifting removed lumps or impurities and produced a fine, smooth powder – and then the spices. Ground spices could be purchased, but they also could be bought whole and ground by hand using a mortar and pestle. Chocolate was shaved from a block, though cocoa powder also existed by 1910. Now, the applesauce was homemade – apples were stewed, sweetened, and then pressed through a sieve. Once all of the ingredients made it into the bowl, they were mixed with a wooden spoon. Then, the batter was poured into a dish (earthenware or metal) and baked. Gas ovens were widely available by 1910. One only had to light a flame and let it heat up. Temperatures were not exact, though, so people used heat ranges. A “moderate oven” translates to 350-375 degrees today!
So, what are we cooking? Applesauce cake from The Federation Cook Book published in 1910.
Now, when I saw the title “Apple Sauce Cake,” I thought it’d be a nice, appley Fourth of July dessert. For some reason, it didn’t register to me that this was a chocolate spice cake. Turns out it’s a chocolate spice cake. So, while it was absolutely delicious, and it made the perfect Fourth of July dessert, it was a little on the unexpected side in my house!
But, it’s the unintended that makes life fun! So, let’s go – into the kitchen to make history!
Here are our ingredients: Flour, sugar, baking soda, unsweetened cocoa powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cornstarch, salted butter, and unsweetened applesauce (not pictured: salt).
Step 1: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and prepare an 8×8″ baking dish. I rubbed mine with a little bit of butter.
Step 2: (Sorry for the darkness – I was having an issue with my kitchen light. But, it kind of makes it look like I’m doing this by candlelight. Though, in 1910 baking by candlelight would have been painfully old-fashioned!) Now, I don’t have a sifter, but that’s ok. I just put all of the dry ingredients – flour, sugar, baking soda, cocoa powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cornstarch – into my mixing bowl, and I whisked them together.
Step 2.1: The mixture looked just like a boxed cake mix when I was done!
Step 3: Make a little well in the middle of your dry ingredients and add in the applesauce.
Step 4: Then, melt your butter and add that in, too!
Step 4.1: Here’s what it looks like when you add in the butter…
Step 5: Then, fold everything together. You don’t have to mix everything until it’s smooth. Cake does better when it’s not too overmixed. Just make sure everything is moist and incorporated. At this point, too, I checked my batter for flavor (hey, at least there aren’t raw eggs in it this time). I added 1/2 tsp. of salt. Salt makes food taste good, trust me. You need salt to balance out the sweetness so your cake is perfect!
Step 6: And, then pour your batter into the prepared baking dish. Wasn’t it smart to have that ready to go?!
Step 7: Bake the cake at 350 for about 55 minutes. You can start doing the toothpick check around 45 minutes or so. The nice thing about this cake is that it doesn’t have any eggs, so if you underbake it a little, it’s not a big deal – it’ll still be delicious, and it’ll be extra moist!
Final step: Let your cake cool, and then add your favorite frosting. I made a simple glaze that I found here by The Spruce. I just whisked up two cups of powdered sugar, a teaspoon and a half of vanilla, 1/4 cup of melted butter, and two tablespoons of milk (I used almond milk because it was what I had). Then, I poured it over the cake and sprinkled some cinnamon sugar on top. Perfect!
So, you want to know the best thing about this cake? It was tasty, yes, but it went a step further. I’m always saying that food and history have so much in common because everyone has a history, and everyone eats. This cake was a great reminder of those two things for me.
While this cake was baking, it made my house smell like Christmas morning. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to everyone, but the smell of Christmas morning I remember is part of my history. My mom always burns candles at Christmas – cinnamon and spice-scented candles. And, I’m from outside of Pittsburgh. So, my favorite memories of Christmas morning are full of the warmth of kerosene heaters and wood burners to combat the cold weather and the smells of cooking food and cinnamon candles. While this cake was baking, I got to tap into those memories, my history. I got to close my eyes and be a kid again with a stack of wrapped presents and the promise of going out sled riding and feeling the cold, icy wind on my face. Does cooking ever take hold of your senses and bring that history, that nostalgia, and those stories out for you? I hope it does.
From 1910: Applesauce Cake
- 2 cups flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 Tbs. unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. cloves
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbs. cornstarch
- 1.5 cups unsweetened, natural applesauce
- 1/2 salted butter, melted
- Preheat oven to 350. Grease 8×8″ baking dish.
- In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt, and cornstarch.
- Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and add the applesauce and the butter.
- Fold ingredients together until moistened and incorporated.
- Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean (or nearly clean if you’re going for an under-baked cake).
- Cool and frost.