How Old Cake Recipes Differ from Modern Ones

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Saturday, September 14, 1912: I made a cake this afternoon with mater’s assistance. She did the baking and put him together. It got real nice.

black walnut cake

Black Walnut Cake

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

If Grandma’s mother put “him” together and baked him, it sounds like she did most of the work. What did Grandma do?  Maybe she found the recipe . . .

It’s interesting that Grandma gave the cake a gender—I would have referred to the cake as “it”.

When I try to replicate one-hundred-year-old cake recipes, I find that I need to make a lot of adaptations—as compared to candy recipes which haven’t changed much.

A hundred years ago cakes were made in wood or coal stoves with ovens that had difficult to regulate temperatures. Baking powder was a “new-fangled” product and had not yet standardized across brands. And, recipes had not yet been standardized for 9” X 13” cake pans.

You might enjoy some of previous posts about cakes:

Chocolate Cake Recipes a Hundred Years Ago

Comparison of Hundred-Year-Old and Modern Recipes for Devil’s Food Cake

Angel Food Cake with Black Raspberries

Black Walnut Cake Recipe

19 Responses

  1. Many of the cooks that had wood stoves were still using yeast to leaven cakes. I have a couple of these old recipes for yeast cakes. I am going to make a orange tea cake in the next few days that is one layer and made with yeast. The cook had more control over the process then with a single acting powder. Cookies were also made with yeast. I have a few of those recipes too.

  2. Interesting! I wonder if I could bake something the way they did back then? I will have to check out those recipes and next time I go antiquing I will have to check out some of those cookbooks. I remember seeing one that not only told you how to cook a chicken but how to kill it and to pluck it. They are fun to browse through.

  3. Interesting about the gender! I have my grandmother’s Orange-Raisin Cake which I have made a few times. I think the version I received from my aunt may have already been ‘modified’ for our time.

    • It’s really cool how old family recipes are “living” documents that are the result of an inter-generational effort. Children, grandchildren, aunts, and cousins want to continue family traditions and share favorite foods with new generations so they adapt the old recipes so that they still turn out “right” as technology, ingredient availability, and tastes change.

  4. I love the gender-assign too! I wonder if angel food cake would be a “her.” Interesting about baking powder being a newfangled thing–I didn’t know that.

    • I like your way of thinking about this. It makes sense. Maybe an angel food cake was a “she” and a devil’s food cake was a “he”. I think that devil’s food cakes were very popular a hundred years ago.

  5. I think she mixed it up and put it in the pan and her mother kept the oven right and then iced the layers and put them together. I want a piece of cake.

    • Cakes were more difficult to make back then–and a special treat. You’re probably right that they would have made a layer cake. I can’t remember the last time I made a layer cake. I always just make cakes in 9 X13 pans and we eat them right out of the pan. I want a piece of cake, too.

      • I have several cake baking daughters so for ever special occasion and for the continual string of birthdays we usually have a layer cake, on a cake plate. My favorite is the yellow cake with caramel icing.

  6. I second Kristin. Grandma probably mixed the ingredients and poured the batter into two pans. GG-Ma put them in the oven to bake, took them out to cool, then iced and assembled “his” layers. Not clear, more importantly, who licked the spoon??

  7. I enjoy the intersection of family history and food tradition – you can’t really have a good one without the other. I am collecting family recipes and hope to find a few old cookbooks when I go home in a couple weeks. Thanks!

    • You’re so right about the close connection between family history and food traditions. I compiled family recipes into a cookbook several years ago. I had so much fun doing it, that I was ready for another family history project after it was done–and ended up starting this blog.

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