Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Victorian Birthday Cake

Today we invite you to have a slice of cake with us, in true Victorian fashion, and wish "Many Happy Returns of the Day!" to one of our readers.

Angel food cake
Due to the continuous improvement of kitchen appliances during the 19th century, cakes became affordable desserts, but differentiated cakes assigned to  specific festivities, like birthday cakes, only rose to popularity during the second half of this century. The first explicit mention of the phrase "birthday cake" in an American cookbook dates from 1870. (If you're interested, you can read more about the history of cakes here.)

Birthday cakes were more common for children's party, and were gaily decorated with sprinkles and colored candles. They didn't say "Happy Birthday!", since that phrase only became popular in the 20th century, they said "Manny Happy Returns," or a similar phrase, followed by the person's name. 

These decorations were the only things setting birthday cakes apart from other cakes, for the actual lists of ingredients was the same. Home-baked cakes would sometimes be sent to a specialist to be iced and decorated for this purpose. 

The cake we selected for you today is a variation of the famous Angel food cake, called Silver Cake. It comes from a 1881 book of Southern cooking by a Mrs. Fisher, herself an interesting character, an ex-slave who moved to San Francisco in the late 1870s and was, by her own account, urged to share her knowledge by the ladies there. Since she wasn't able to read or write, she dictated the recipes.
"The whites of one dozen eggs beaten very light, one pound of butter, one pound of powdered sugar; rub the butter and sugar together until creamed very light, then add the beaten whites of the eggs, and beat all together until very light; two teaspoonfuls of the best yeast powder sifted with one pound of flour, then add the flour to the eggs, sugar and butter, also add one-half teacupful of sweet milk; mix quickly, and beat till very light; flavor with two teaspoonfuls of the extract of almond or peach, put in when you beat the cake the last time. Put to bake in any shape pan you like, but grease the pan well before you put the cake batter in it. Have the stove moderately hot, so as the cake will bake gradually, and arrange the damper of stove so as send heat to the bottom of the cake first."
--excerpted from What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc
Well, happy birthday to our reader and my best online friend, and hope you all enjoyed this small glimpse into the Victorian world.

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