This guest post is part of a series written by students from Karen Metheny’s Cookbooks and History course. Jie Liu shares her thoughts on recreating this historical recipe for pound cake, and includes a video of her process.
Recreating a Historical Recipe: American Cookery – Pound Cake
In the Cookbooks and History class, we’ve analyzed many old cookbooks. One of the old cookbooks that I am really interested in is American Cookery from Amelia Simmons, the first American cookbook, which was published in 1796. This book became the first choice for me to choose the recipe to do my “Recreating a Historical Recipe” assignment. Fortunately, Simmons’s recipes are based on very simple ingredients, nothing too exotic. But most of Simmons’s recipes are lack of detailed procedures. Pound Cake is one of the shortest recipes in the book. As you can see in the recipe, it only calls for sugar, butter, flour, eggs, rose water and spices. The pound cake was favored in old time because its ingredients are so simple to remember. The original pound cake, without other ingredient, only contained one pound each of butter, sugar, eggs and flour. But in Simmons’s recipe, she adds rose water and spices to enrich the flavor of the cake.
In American Cookery, the majority of the sweet recipes used rose water, but I’ve never had a bottle of rose water in my kitchen. So, I went to one of the biggest supermarkets near my house and asked two market mangers to help me find rose water. They were both surprised that I was looking for rose water for baking purposes. One of the mangers said, “I’ve never heard of that—using rose water in baking.” It seems rose water is no longer a common ingredient in the American kitchen. Finally, I decided to use vanilla extract instead of rose water. Besides, in Simmons’s pound cake recipe, she doesn’t mention what kind of spice should be used. In my testing, I used allspice, which combines the flavor of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, as a substitution. Additionally, I chose all-purpose flour rather than cake flour, a finely milled flour with a low protein content, which is more commonly used in cakes in modern time.
Due to its large portion, I reduced the recipe by half. To begin with, I measured half pound of sugar, half pound of butter, five eggs, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and a teaspoon of allspice. Although, it seems that you only need to mix everything together, I still have no idea of how to do it. Based on my previous baking experience, I first cut the butter into small cubes and mixed them well with sugar. When I got a relatively smooth mixture, I added eggs one by one until the paste was creamy. I have to admit that it is laborious work, even I reduced the recipe by half. That’s why I used my modern KitchenAid Stand Mixer, rather than mixing by hand. I put the vanilla extract in before adding the dry ingredients, a mixture of flour and allspice, into the paste. After the last step of blending, I got a bowl of thick and dense batter.
Before I put the batter into the oven, I wondered if I would get a perfect result. In Simmons’s recipe, she writes “watch it well, it will bake in a slow oven in 15 minutes.” First of all, she doesn’t mention which pan would be suitable. Moreover, I don’t know what the correct temperature is for a “slow oven.” Third, I’m pretty sure that the “15 minutes” baking time is absolutely impossible. Therefore, I transferred the batter into an aluminum foil loaf pan, a 2-pound standard size bread tin, and put it into a 350°F preheated oven. In the first 30 minutes, the cake barely puffed up and its color was pale white. After the next 30 minutes, the cake developed an even, nice golden color. To make sure the cake was done, I inserted a thin bamboo skewer into the center of the cake, and it came out clean. Then I checked the cake with a digital thermometer which showed the inner temperature was 200°F.
Fortunately, the result was far beyond my expectation. The cake not only looked appealing but was delicious to taste. The cake has a soft, buttery crumb that’s nearly perfect, and the cake was not too dense. While recreating this old pound cake, I was surprised by the generous usage of rose water in the recipe. Simmons’s pound cake calls for one gill of rose water, which equals to 24 teaspoons. Then, I’m so thankful for the modern kitchen equipment for helping me save my time and energy. I highly admire the housewives and the cooks, who used to work in the kitchen, and could only rely on heavy manual work and skilled technique in the past. The cake produced by this recipe notes the vague use of spices and plenty of rose water, but it still turned out well in the modern kitchen. The spicy taste and dense texture evoke a sense of an old, busy American kitchen. The recipe is centuries old, but the pleasure of eating is timeless.
Simmons, Amelia. 1796. American Cookery. Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin.
Pound Cake. Date of Access. 14th Nov. 2019. http://www.poundcake.net/