Distrust Any Enterprise Requiring New Pans: White Loaf Cake

December 12, 2013 in Outlandish Recipes of the 18th century, Uncategorized by M C

Tis the holiday season.  In the 18th century some households celebrated Christmas with all the tidings of the day, including decorations, gifts, and a holiday feast, while some, of course, did not.

In my household the decorations languish in boxes and the trees stay safely outside.  I’m a proper little pilgrim not by any conviction, but from a lazy disinclination to haul ornaments out of boxes only to have to repack them in a week or two. Besides, the dogs confuse an indoor tree with an outdoor tree with predictable results.

But we do entertain during the holiday season, and entertaining, which requires preparing treats in advance, is, in my opinion, the genesis of the fruitcake.  A rich, dense, confection which, consequent of being soaked in spirits, lasts indefinitely and so is always available to serve to unexpected guests.  If you were living in the 18th century, where “whipping a little something up” required not only collecting or creating costly ingredients, but finding space in the small oven (or brick hearth) to bake the luxury… a cake which could be kept for months and only improved with age and application of spirits is nothing to sneer at, regardless of the fruitcake’s reputation today.

Regardless of the practicality of fruitcake, and its fine spirited qualities, a cook would prefer to be known as a dab hand with a lighter confection. Which, then as now, meant The Cake.

lemon_eggs1In the middle of the 18th century cooks shifted from using yeasts to rise a cake to beaten egg whites.  Whipping the whites into a frenzy of froth they’d incorporate the fluffy whites into the batter, then pour the cake into quite elaborate molds. A cake, then as now, was considered a treat, requiring the very best ingredients… the lightest flour, the freshest eggs.

Likely this long history of exclusivity is why I’ve always found cakes terribly intimidating.  There are special bowls involved, made of copper, which help egg whites rise into stiff peaks.. I don’t own one of these bowls, and, more telling, I didn’t inherit one.  I come from a long line of cake avoiding cooks.  Today cakes even come in pre-packaged mixes, so surely I am not alone in thinking cakes must be terrifically complicated and difficult, right?

Literature is full of cake baking tragedies and warnings, apparently cakes are prone to “falling” or “collapsing” if the oven is jostled, a door slammed, or the cake needs to come out perfectly.  Cakes require, in addition to a copper bowl for beating eggs, specialized pans, round ones or square, neither of which is in my kitchen inventory.  Henry David Thoreau wrote “Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes,” and this seems good advice.  If the recipe requires a trip to William Sonoma, bowls of copper and new baking pans, likely things are not going to end well.

In the 18th century  “cakes” can mean anything from small sweets to monstrous confections.  I tend to clump “the 18th century” into one homogenous lump of time, but the fact is, a century is 100 years.  And during that period cooking techniques and tools were constantly being improved upon.  The 18th century saw an unprecedented distribution of cookbooks, with new flavors being introduced into even moderate income households as trade routes expanded, and the cake went from being a rare celebratory desert to being served, admittedly with some fanfare, in tea houses and private homes.

In short, if the 18th century American housewife could create a cake in her colonial kitchen to serve with her chocolate or tea, then surely such a confection can’t be that complicated, and even I can master it.  So I decided to conquer The White Cake.  Without buying a pan.

Were I in the 18th century I would still have access to cake flour.  It just wouldn’t come in a box.  Cake flour would be acquired by shaking flour through several layers of muslin, allowing the lightest particles of flour to sift out.  This sounds like tedious and dusty work, but like so many skills which have fallen by the wayside in the face of industrialization likely it was a relatively quick process of suspending flour in a fine weave sack over a collecting pot.  Two maids, each with a corner, could make short work of quickly shaking the lighter flour out of their sack, setting aside the coarser flour for bread and other baking,

The leavening agents in this recipe are the egg whites and baking powder.  Prior to the 19th century cooks used egg whites and, at least in New England, small amounts of potash and vinegar, to creating carbon dioxide gas helps to create the rise.  But absent a ready source of potash, unless I wish to start cooking wood ash lye down in a crockpot again (and we all remember that didn’t go well.. releasing a poltergeist of pungent into the house it took several days to fully expel), perhaps I can be excused for making use of baking powder!

White Loaf118th Century White Loaf Tea Cake

2 1/4 cups cake flour, fluffed in the package before measuring, or 2 1/4 C flour sifted through muslin to obtain the very finest flour (authenticity is messy, but fun)
1 tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
4 egg whites
1 tbs vanilla
1 cup whole milk

Whisk together your dry ingredients and combine the milk and vanilla in a measuring cup.

In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry (use the yolks to make lemon curd.. to go with your cake)

Cream the butter into the flour mixture, and add the vanilla milk 1/3 at a time, beating until the batter is smooth.

Gently fold in the egg whites, being careful not to deflate them. As in the 18th century the egg whites provide much of the leavening in these cakes, so fold gently, and don’t worry about fully incorporating the whites into the batter.

Divide the batter evenly between the two greased bread loaf pans and bake in a pre-heated 350 degree (F) oven for 35-40 minutes.  Bake until the tops are golden brown and a knife poked into the center comes out clean.  Let set for a few minutes in the pans before turning out on racks to cool.

To preserve your cake for company grease muslin with butter and sprinkle with sugar. Wrap your cake and place it outside in the freezing cold in a secure container (a nice hooped barrel will work nicely). Remove and defrost before serving. Or.. wrap in plastic and place in your modern freezer. But where’s the fun in that?

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