Old-fashioned Feather Cake

square piece of feather cake

A recipe in a hundred-year-old cookbook for Feather Cake piqued my interest. Was the cake really as light as a feather?

The short answer: No. The longer answer: This cake might not be as light as a feather, but it’s still delightful.

Feather Cake is a spice cake with nuanced tones of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It has a lovely texture – though it was not a particularly light cake. The cake was easy to make, and the recipe made a small 8 -inch square cake that is perfect for a small family.

Here’s the original recipe:

recipe for feather cake
Source: The Old Reliable Farm and Home Cook Book (1919)

Baking powder is a combination of baking soda and cream of tartar. This recipe calls for both baking soda and cream of tartar (rather than just using baking powder) – which suggests that even though this recipe appeared in a 1919 cookbook that its origins might be much earlier.

And, here’s the recipe updated for modern cooks:

Feather Cake

  • Servings: 7 - 9
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon butter, softened

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 cup raisins (optional) (I didn’t use raisins when I made this recipe.)

Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease and flour an 8-inch square baking pan. Put all ingredients (except for the raisins) in a mixing bowl. Beat until well blended. If desired, stir in the raisins. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Frost if desired.

39 thoughts on “Old-fashioned Feather Cake

    1. Not sure – I’m guessing that they thought that it was “as light as a feather” – though that seems like an exaggeration to me.

  1. This recipe looks remarkably like one my grandmother called ‘half-pound cake.’ She (or someone) gave it that name because it was less dense and heavy than pound cake. Maybe that’s where the name came from: “light as a feather.” It was a cake that often showed up in our lunch boxes: with raisins, but without frosting. It was sweet enough to serve as dessert, but without frosting it was easy to pack.

    1. You might be right that this cake got its name because it is lighter than a pound cake – and therefore “as light as a feather.” When I read the original recipe, I thought that when it said, “this makes a nice plain cake” that it meant that it was a basic, easy-to-make cake. Your comment makes we wonder if a “plain cake” really meant a cake without icing.

    1. So do I! I love the term slab cakes. It is so descriptive – though I don’t think that I’ve ever previously heard them called that. Your comment made me think about the terminology I use when I make cakes. I think that I call a cake made in a rectangular or square pan, just a cake; and that I call cakes that have frosting between layers, a layer cake.

      1. Ahhh, Sheryl, unless it is a Victoria sandwich of which my mum used to make the best one and on holiday it not only had jam but cream as well…Terminology around the world is fascinating 🙂

        1. I agree- differences in food terminology around the world is fascinating. I just googled Victoria sandwich, and they look incredible.

            1. It’s interesting that traditional Victoria Sandwich recipes don’t call for baking powder. Many of the Victoria Sandwich recipes posted online list baking powder as an ingredient.

            2. Yes I have noticed that, Sheryl it seems to be a modern trait my mum could spot at a hundred paces if a scone had baking powder in it…haha…No electric either ..elbow grease…I can remeber helping to cream the butter and sugar..A hard task master my mum no slacking it had to be pure white before anything went in the mixture 🙂

            3. I think you would like my mum, Sheryl she is the loveliest person with the sweetest nature and can certainly makes great pastry and cakes 🙂

  2. Great to see this old recipe, Sheryl. “Sweet milk” was an interesting ingredient, and I appreciated your explanation of the baking powder. Seems the frosting would make it tastier, but then, I always love the frosting.

    1. I believe that sweet milk just refers to fresh milk. In the days before pasteurization, milk quickly soured (and was called sour milk) – though it will was considered just fine for use when baking. I’ve seen numerous hundred-year-old recipes that call for sour milk, and I think that the recipe author was trying to make it clear that sour milk should not be used in this recipe.

      1. I also read somewhere that the term “sweet” milk was used to distinguish it from buttermilk. Buttermilk was a common drink in those days.

  3. If it’s as good as the photo looks, then it’s a wonderful cake! Buttercream icing sounds great too! I put cream cheese icing on the spice cake that I make, maybe I should try buttercream!

    1. It’s very tasty. I think that cream cheese icing would be really good with this cake. Buttercream icing tends to be my “go-to” icing, but your comment makes me want to try it with cream cheese icing.

    1. You might be right. As you noted, this cake calls for very little fat compared to most cake recipes – though I never missed it. The cake is yummy.

  4. Sheryl often when I visit your blog I am transported to my Grandmother’s kitchen and that is indeed the case today. I don’t recall that she called her recipe by the same name but the ingredients seem very similar. My mouth is watering at the memory.

      1. I was thinking that the yellow raisins might look nicer with the lighter colored cake. But on second thought regular raisins might be a nice contrast. 💕

  5. hmm….well, traditionally a pound cake called for a pound of butter. This one must have seemed like a “featherweight” if it just had 1 TBSP. So your ideas about it being related in name to pound cakes sound about right. And I wasn’t aware that Europeans used baking powder in their traditional recipes. They mix their own fresh, I was told.

    1. You may be right that this cake is a featherweight when compared to a pound cake. I’m not sure whether Europeans used baking powder in recipes in the early 1900s, but I do know that most cake recipes in the U.S. cookbooks that were published in the 1910s called for baking powder.

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