Cake

The Story of American Cake in 12 Recipes

July  7, 2016

If I asked you to close your eyes and think of a cake, you might picture multiple layers covered in billowy frosting or a grocery store sheet cake with tongue-coating icing tinted an unnatural blue. Perhaps, if you grew up like me, the image that comes to mind could be a birthday cake made from boxed yellow mix and frosted with chocolate fudge from a small plastic tub (if it didn’t get spooned directly into my mouth first).

Regardless of what type waxes nostalgic for you, cake holds a special place of honor in the United States. There is rarely a celebration, however large or small, that does not include one in some form or another.

That cake accompanies celebrations is nothing new; prior to the mid-nineteenth century, they were made for crowded events such as weddings and community gatherings, but rarely, if ever, for everyday dessert. This is partially because cake-baking was labor intensive—an all-day affair—and also because many of the ingredients involved, particularly spices and sugar, were prohibitively expensive for the general public.

What is new is how often we eat cake—and the cakes themselves. Historians trace cake-like edibles back to the Roman Era when they were essentially honey-sweetened oatcakes. Starting in the fifteenth century, we begin to see gingerbreads and fruit cakes. Pound cakes and sponge-type cakes follow, but we don’t encounter anything resembling (or tasting like) our beloved layer cakes or sheet cakes until well into the nineteenth century.

The knowledge that we use to bake our modern cakes began with techniques and recipes brought to our country by colonists, immigrants, and soldiers. Immediately following the Revolutionary War, British cookery books still reigned supreme—the most popular cookbook in the United States in 1776 was by an English cookery writer named Hannah Glasse—but as you will see, that would all change within a few decades.

Following are twelve cakes that rate a notch on the timeline of American cake history. I tried to choose cakes with varying flavors that highlight advancements, ingredients, or fads throughout the years and showcase something perhaps even more important than the cakes themselves: the bakers. That said, this is by no means a complete history—think of it as the icing on the cake. Cake-related idioms, that’s another story.

  1. Election Cake
  2. Indian Pound Cake
  3. Chocolate Cake
  4. Gold Cake with Boiled Icing
  5. Angel Food Cake
  6. Devil's Food Cake
  7. 1,2,3,4 Cake
  8. Tomato Soup Cake
  9. Orange Chiffon Cake with Hawaiian Fluff Topping
  10. Wacky Cake
  11. Tunnel of Fudge
  12. American Flag Layer Cake

Note:

Palates have changed over the last few centuries, and the recipes below have not been adapted for modern taste buds or diet fads. Instead, I tried to keep them as close to the original as possible so that you can really get a taste of history. Some may find the eighteenth century cakes a little unusual, so maybe don’t use one of the earlier recipes for your niece’s birthday cake—unless she's into that sort of thing.

Election Cake (Late Eighteenth Century)

The very first cookbook authored by an American was published in 1796 in Hartford, Connecticut. Little is known about the book’s author, Amelia Simmons, who called herself an “American Orphan” on the book’s title page, but the work she created went on to be re-printed—and plagiarized—for decades.

The second edition of Amelia’s book, published in 1800, contained a recipe not found in the original: Election Cake. Like all cakes of the time, it was meant to feed dozens of people and called for, among other things, 14 pounds of sugar, 3 dozen eggs, 10 pounds of butter, and 30 quarts of flour. This type of cake went by many names back then, including Great Cake, Loaf Cake, and Pretty Cake, and was typically leavened with the liquid substance that remains after beer-brewing (called ale barm or emptins). Flavors such as rosewater and brandy, as well as spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and mace, were common, as were additions like nuts and dried fruits.

As for the name of this confection, some claim that the recipe originated in Hartford, Connecticut, a center for political action in early American; another popular theory is that it was simply an update of Muster Cake, slices of which were served to soldiers who ventured to large towns for military training days. What all historians agree on is that the cake was baked and served to the men who traveled into town center in order to participate in an election. Because of that, it holds the distinction of being the first American food to be associated with politics.

Election Cake fell out of popular favor in the early-mid-nineteenth century, which is a shame, as it’s rather lovely, keeps well, and is splendid toasted and smeared with salty butter.

Indian Pound Cake (1827)

This recipe highlights the use of an ingredient indigenous to the Americas: cornmeal. A staple of the diets of those native to the continent, cornmeal had long found its place on the plates of new arrivals by the time of the recipe’s publication in 1827. It appears in Seventy-Five Reciepts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, the first baking and dessert book ever published in the United States.

The book’s author, Eliza Leslie, was a writer at heart. Her great love was for penning novels and children’s books, but fame came via recipe books. Seventy-Five Reciepts was written after Eliza had been sent to a popular cookery school in Philadelphia as training for helping with the cooking at the family boardinghouse. The school was run by Elizabeth Goodfellow, a very well-regarded teacher, and most (if not all) of the recipes in Eliza’s book come from what she learned at the school.

Eliza went on to write sixteen more books, both fiction and nonfiction, before her death in 1858. Her 1837 book, Directions for Cookery, was the most popular cookbook of the nineteenth century and she even wrote an entire cookbook dedicated to cornmeal, The Indian Meal Book, published in 1847.

This cake is very sweet—like the sweetest corn bread you’ve ever tasted—and redolent with nutmeg. Sugar was once available only to the wealthy, but by the late eighteenth century, its production had taken firm hold in the Americas, thereby reducing the cost tremendously, and spices were less hard to come by, too. Now people from all walks of life could indulge—and indulge they did. I tested the recipe six times (!) and can attest that it is much better on the second (even third) day, as the resting time gives it a chance to mellow in both sweetness and “egg-nog-ness.”

Don’t be dissuaded by the long baking time—the modern baker in me balked at adding minutes, but the lengthy time in the oven really is necessary to cook it all the way through.

Chocolate Cake (1847)

This, friends, is the earliest-yet-found printed recipe for chocolate cake. “Wait, really?” you may be thinking… but it’s true! Older recipes that mention chocolate and cake were actually referring to cakes meant for serving with chocolate, usually of the hot and drinkable variety. Though cakes possibly containing chocolate as an ingredient date back further—the Marquis de Sade mentions one in a 1779 letter sent to his wife from prison—we have found no written recipe until Eliza Leslies’s 1847 book, The Ladies Reciept Book (see, here she is again: she was a big deal!).

Eliza’s recipe calls for using grated chocolate or “prepared cocoa.” Powdered chocolate was developed in 1828 by a Dutch chemist (hence, Dutch cocoa), followed by the modern chocolate bar in 1847. Conveniently, this is the same year Eliza’s book was published, so I chose to go with grated chocolate in the recipe. As with the Indian Meal Cake, Eliza used an entire nutmeg, and that’s not so unusual: In fact, you rarely see an early nineteenth century recipe that does not call for nutmeg. They were crazy for the stuff and it was as common in baking recipes as cinnamon and vanilla extract are today.

The highlight of this cake, for me at least, is the icing. The word “icing” comes from the appearance of this thick mixture of egg whites and sugar; for ages, bakers would pour it over a hot cake, then return it to the oven until it was dry and, well, ice-like in its smoothness. Eventually, bakers stopped icing the hot cake, and, like in the recipe below, would instead pour the mixture over the cooled cake, then set it aside to dry for a few hours (the precursor to Royal Icing).

As an aside, Eliza calls for lemon oil, rose extract, or vanilla extract to flavor the icing. Until the early nineteenth century, vanilla was used as a perfume by the well-off rather than for cooking or baking purposes due to the high cost of production (second only to saffron).

Gold Cake with Boiled Icing (1866)

This is a serious pound cake (20 egg yolks!) and, with brandy and rosewater (still popular flavorings) and cooked icings (becoming more and more common), typical of the time. (Also typical of the time is the recipe in the book for Magic Oil, which includes laudanum, chloroform, and hemlock amongst the ingredients. But that’s another article.)

Not much is known about Malinda Russell, for whom we can credit with this recipe, beyond what she said in her own words that open A Domestic Cookbook, the earliest known cookbook by an African American. I would quote verbatim, but instead I’ll just summarize with this: Her mother was the daughter of an emancipated slave, “one of the first families set free by Mr. Noodle of Virginia,” so by law, Malinda was born free. As an adult, she was twice robbed of her life savings made, at differing times, by working as a laundress, running a boarding house, and managing a pastry shop. Married for four years before the death of her husband and the single mother of “one child, a son, who is crippled,” she made her way from Tennessee to Virginia, back to Tennessee, and then onto Michigan during the Civil War.

It was in Michigan where Malinda wrote and published A Domestic Cookbook. “Hearing that Michigan was the Garden of the West, I resolved to make that my home, at least for the present, until peace is restored, when I think of returning to Greenville, Tennessee, to try and recover at least part of my property.” It is not yet known if she ever made it back; research into her story has only just begun.

Angel Food Cake (Late Nineteenth Century)

Some food historians believe this cake was brought to us from the Pennsylvania Dutch, but my favorite story about the origin comes from nineteenth-century food writer Jessup Whitehead, author of The American Pastry Cook. Whitehead claims the cake originated in the St. Louis kitchen of a man named S. Sides who, after his pastry triumph, lost his mind and was locked away in an insane asylum. I’ve never read another account of Sides and Angel Food Cake, so I just take it as a good story. The Pennsylvania Dutch connection is certainly possible, but perhaps of greater significance are the nineteenth-century advancements in manufacturing and food production that really explain how this light-as-air cake came to be.

Commercial baking powder arrived on the scene in the late 1850s, around the same time that mass production of baking pans began. Both of these developments made it easier to create what the cake advertisements of the day proclaimed was “fit for angels, so light, white, and fluffy.” The development of cake flour in 1894 (Swan’s Down was the first) also aided bakers in achieving the perfect Angel Food Cake.

Recipes for a cake called Angel Food begin showing up in cookbooks in the later part of the nineteenth century, though there are earlier recipes for similar sponge cakes dating back much further.

Devil’s Food Cake with “Piquant” Boiled Icing (Late Nineteenth Century)

Considered a “reaction to Angel Food,” recipes for this popular chocolate cake start to appear early in the twentieth century, though it seems to have been enjoyed for a few decade prior. In Victorian Cakes, the 1946 memoir about her childhood in 1880s Chicago, Caroline B. King (née Campion) writes that the “dark and sinful” cake made its appearance on their Sunday evening tea table sometime in the later part of the 1880s.

Credit for its introduction to the Campion household belongs to Maud, one of Caroline’s four sisters. Considered the “socially inclined” one, Maud made frequent visits from house to house, gathering gossip, trends, and recipes. It was from one such visit, specifically to The Waterman Family, that she returned with the recipe for Devil’s Food.

The finished cake, three layers tall and covered in billowy white icing, was a hit with the Campions, even their selective father. His reaction to another Waterman recipe had been “enough to bring tears of disappointment and mortification to Maud.” That cake: Angel Cake. As for Devil’s Food, says Caroline, “Secretly, I have always thought its name appealed to him.”

The icing is the same boiled icing as in Malinda Russell’s Gold Cake, with the addition of citric acid (I haven’t seen another recipe that calls for this ingredient, so I can only assume it was a homebaker quirk of the time). “The Waterman’s receipt called for a thick boiled icing made pleasantly piquant with a few drops of citric acid. But citric acid sounded dangerous to Maud... so [she] used lemon juice, sparingly and judiciously, and the result was perfect.” I happened to have citric acid so I went with that, but feel free to substitute lemon juice (1 teaspoon). That said, I enjoyed the addition of the citric acid (though unusual), as the tartness cut the sweetness without adding additional flavor.

1, 2, 3, 4 Cake (Late Eighteenth/Early Nineteenth Century)

Before recipe books—and literacy itself—were common, naming baked goods with recipe shortcuts was standard. Every girl who needed to (that is, all of those outside of the extremely wealthy) learned to cook and bake at a mother's or grandmother’s knee. Once they had the basics down, cooking and baking could (hopefully) be done well and from memory.

The pound cake is one example of an aptly-named recipe (1 pound each butter, sugar, flour, and eggs) and reflects the fact that measuring by weight was more commonplace than measuring by volume at the time. A later adaptation of the pound cake is the 1, 2, 3, 4 Cake, which calls for 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour, and 4 eggs as the base. The cup itself was usually a large mug, employed strictly for measurement, and could vary household to household.

This all changed with Fannie Farmer, “the mother of level measurement.” Though college-bound, Fannie suffered from a stroke when she was sixteen and was unable to complete her formal education. She took up cooking and, in 1889, enrolled at the Boston Cooking School, one of the most esteemed in the country. Home Economics was coming into its heyday, and Fannie hit it at just the right time. In 1896, she published a revised edition of Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book by Mary Lincoln, the first principle of the Boston Cooking School. Now called The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, it was the first to use standardized measuring cups and spoons as well as level measurement.

With the heyday of the Home Economics movement, there was a shift from women learning how to cook at home to learning how to cook in school (if at all). Baking was no longer a passed-down, intuitive skill; literacy rates were higher; and recipes that could be understood by everyone and baked using commercially-available tools became commonplace. Along with the development of standards of measure, this trend meant that naming recipes with memory aids fell out of favor. That said, the 1, 2, 3, 4 Cake, which is a lovely, simple yellow cake, remains popular to this day. And it is still an easy recipe to remember.

Note: Bakers of yore, having been taught from a young age, just knew to do certain things to recipes. The basic 1, 2, 3, 4 produces something more cookie- than cake-like, so the addition of a liquid and a leavener were automatically added, but unnecessary to the naming of the recipe.

Tomato Soup Cake (1932)

Also called Mystery Cake, this unusual spice cake (with no discernable tomato flavor) came to be in the 1930s. Cookbook author Jim Fobel dates Mystery Cake to 1932, when, during an especially difficult period of the Great Depression, recipes that called for no eggs and very little (to no) butter, were crucial, but people still desired sweet treats. The addition of the soup added moisture and helped keep the texture palatable.

The earliest recipe found thus far is one published in the November 28, 1932 edition of the Los Angeles Times by Marion Manners (a pseudonym shared by a variety of food writers, editors, and instructors at the time), though the most famous Tomato Soup Cake recipe is included in MFK Fisher’s 1942 book, How to Cook a Wolf. Written to bolster morale during wartime rationing and shortages, her recipe uses only 3 tablespoons of butter. Interestingly enough, one year later, in 1943, canned goods were rationed.

Orange Chiffon Cake with Hawaiian Fluff Topping (1940s)

In 1923 an insurance salesman named Harry Baker (!) arrived in Los Angeles from Ohio and started experimenting. At the time, there were only two types of cakes: butter-based and sponge. Harry wanted to bake a different kind of cake, an Angel Food-type cake, but one with the moistness and flavor of a butter cake. Three-hundred-something cakes later, when he replaced the butter in a butter cake with salad oil, the Chiffon was born.

In 1927, he approached the Brown Derby restaurant with his creation. The restaurant went on to make the Chiffon Cake, which for a time, was the only dessert they served. The cake grew in popularity and Harry continued to bake the cakes individually using twelve tin hot plate ovens (picture a hot plate with a metal enclosure) he’d set up in a spare room. Finally, he sold the recipe for an “undisclosed amount” to General Mills, timing it with the lifting of wartime restrictions in 1947.

The company revealed this “First new cake in 100 years” to the public in the May 1948 issue of Better Homes and Gardens and shortly thereafter, published Betty Crocker Chiffon Cake Recipes and Secrets, from which the following recipe comes.

But there’s more to the story of Harry Baker than his invention. In a 2007 article for the online magazine The Rake, writer Joseph Hart revealed that Harry fled Ohio after being arrested for performing a homosexual act in a public restroom and bringing “shame” to the family. He left behind a wife and two children and, as Hart learned from interviews with family members, Baker became a dark family secret. The article, "When Harry Met Betty", is a must-read for learning more about this fascinating man and his contribution to the history of cake.

As for the topping, that is all Betty Crocker—and very 1950s. Anything tropical or the least bit exotic (islands! sea!), was very popular, so adapting the already famous ambrosia dessert into a pineapple-heavy topping fit perfectly with the likings of the time.

Cockeyed Cake (a.k.a. Wacky Cake, Crazy Cake, and Dump Cake) (1950s)

One of the greatest cookbooks ever (in my humble opinion) is The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken. Published in 1960, the only cake recipe in the book is Cockeyed Cake. A treat of many names, what this easy chocolate cake has in common no matter what you call it is the lack of butter or eggs; the inclusion of vinegar; and a mixing method that requires little more than a bowl and a whisk. An example of a “make-do” cake commonly seen beginning in the early twentieth century, its appeal is not only in its ease, but also that it is one-step-up from a boxed mix.

The first boxed cake mix to appear was the Duff brand gingerbread mix in 1931. Many others followed, but sales languished until the mid-1950s, when manufacturers thought to remove the powdered eggs from the mix, thereby giving women the job of adding fresh eggs because, as Peg notes sarcastically, “they miss the creative kick they would otherwise get from baking that cake.” She goes on to write, “We don’t get our creative kicks from adding an egg, we get them from painting pictures or bathrooms, or potting geraniums or babies, or writing stories or amendments, or, possibly, engaging in some interesting type of psycho-neurochemical research like seeing if, perhaps, we can replace colloids with sulphates. And we simply love ready-mixes.”

This mix of seriousness and sarcasm was common throughout Peg’s work, which also included books on etiquette and housekeeping. In the era of The Joy of Cooking, Betty Crocker, and Julia Child, Peg wrote for those women who, at the cusp of the modern liberation movement, needed to laugh at bit in the face of what was expected of them.

Note: Many recipes for this type of cake call for mixing directly in the pan. As that method never fails to leave my baked cake with pockets of flour, I always mix in a bowl. That said, the following recipe can be mixed and baked in the same pan. Just add the ingredients in the order they are given and mix well.

Tunnel of Fudge (1966)

This is the story of a cake and the story of the Bundt pan, which was invented in 1950 by H. David Dalquist (co-owner of the fledgling Nordic Ware company in Minneapolis, Minnesota) at the request of two local women looking for a lightweight alternative to the cast-iron Bundkuchen (a German word that means cake for a gathering of people). Dalquist called it the Bundt pan after its inspiration and put a few out on the market.

Sales were modest at best until Ella Helfrich took second place in the 1966 Pillsbury Bake Off with her cake recipe, Tunnel of Fudge. The recipe was such a smash hit that demand for the pan kept employees working around the clock to keep up. There are now an estimated 60 million Bundt pans in kitchens (and attics and basements) throughout the United States.

The cake itself proved just as popular until Pillsbury discontinued the crucial ingredient to the cake’s success, Double Dutch Frosting Mix, sometime in the 70s or 80s. Angry fans of the cake deluged the company with complaints, prompting Pillsbury to adapt the recipe, replacing the frosting mix with cocoa powder and confectioners’ sugar.

I have made that recipe, and it is quite good, but when I came across blogger Ruth Clark’s adaptation at midcenturymenu.com using a different frosting mix, I knew I had to try it. If you can get your hands on boxes of Jiffy Chocolate Fudge Frosting Mix (I had to order it online, as it’s not available anywhere in NYC), it’s worth it; if not, check out the mix-less recipe on the Pillsbury website.

Note: Don’t skimp on the nuts and be careful not to over-bake. If you want the cake to come out perfectly, make sure that your oven is running at the correct temperature with an oven thermometer check and leave it in no more than 60 minutes!

American Flag Cake

These days, it’s common to see cakes that do not look like cakes at all; rather they look like people or purses or buildings or pets or high-heeled shoes, albeit edible versions.

Aside from the obvious America! of this cake, it is a perfect example of American cake, the kind that we now enjoy thanks to a few centuries'-worth of innovation, hard work, and creativity.

Chemists brought us baking powder and food coloring; millers further refined and developed cake flour, allowing our baked goods to be lighter in texture than ever before; trade expanded with the railroad and easier international travel, making the procurement of spices such as vanilla and other exotic ingredients cheaper; sugar and its harvesting in the Americas brought accessibility and less monetary cost—but at an overwhelming moral and physical price (and far too complex and heavy to get into much detail here); temperature-controlled ovens meant that baking need-not be a once-a-week, all-day affair; the harnessing of electricity used to power refrigerators made keeping ingredients fresh much easier and electric mixers made baking much less labor-intensive; and finally, experimentation by home bakers led to refinement in taste, sweetness, and spice, as well as creativity in appearance (there’s a flag inside that cake).

The frosting used, American Buttercream, only started showing up in recipe books in the early twentieth century. There’s no specific story or person to credit for this now-ubiquitous topping, but it’s been suggested that, like a few of the cakes discussed prior, this buttercream came about as a reaction to shortages during hard times (as it does not call for the use of eggs).

More: Why flag cake is a dessert more controversial than you think.


There’s something amazing in those creations, but I will admit great happiness at seeing the humble layer cake, Bundt cakes, pound cakes, and tea cakes making a coming back with bakeries—and home bakers—embracing the cakes of the past. And that’s where things get really exciting.

Because of the truly global world we now live in, we can take the best from what we have learned and use what we now have access to to bake cakes not unlike any we’ve seen before, but, rather unlike anything we’ve tasted before.

Is there one cake that's been most important in your own history? Share it with us in the comments!

11 Comments

Ra September 19, 2018
Great read! The United States has a rich food history. What about Mayonnaise cake? My grandmother made Mayonnaise cakes for all holidays and special occasions. They are a rich, moist chocolate cake with fluffy white frosting. I believe The recipe came from Kraft during the early years of WW2 rationing. It wasnt until I was 14 that I realized there was more than one chocolate cake recipe. I know there's still folks around that haven't had joy of eating a slice of a Mayonnaise cake. Unfortunately, my grandmother's recipe books disappeared. I remember seeing the Mayonnaise cake recipe she had cut from a magazine. I have spent some time trying to find the original recipe. Tested other recipes, they are not quite the same as the one Grandma made. If anyone comes across this recipe I would appreciate it being posted. Thanks again for your wonderful blog!
 
Nancy T. August 10, 2016
Lovely article! The Wacky cake brought back such fond memories of my Mother. I would sit on the kitchen counter and help her stir it in the pan. <br />Later she had a recipe called " inside-out cake" a one pan cake that " had the icing on the inside "<br />I will have to track down the recipe now.<br />Thanks for such a nice history.
 
Laura P. August 10, 2016
So well-researched and written. I wish you would develop it into a book, since there are other avenues and side-trails of American cakes to explore: the Lady Baltimore cake, for instance.
 
Sarah N. July 29, 2016
I almost never leave comments in blogs. ..infact I almost never read them, but this had to be one of the best reads on the internet! Keep these coming girl! I'm an instant fan! And I agree with the commenter above. ..your next one should be pies
 
TryItSheSaid July 17, 2016
This was an amazing read! Great work! Thanks also for including the sidebar on the inventor of the chiffon cake. Wow!
 
Database July 14, 2016
Now do Pie! <br />I demand the "Story of American Pie..."!
 
Brunettebaker July 9, 2016
Two recipes come to mind, one for cupcakes and one layer cake. The cupcakes are Magnolia Bakery's Vanilla Cupcake Recipe. That has been my go to for vanilla cake or cupcakes and frosting for 17 years. The other is Food Network's 4 layer chocolate layer cake. That chocolate cake is ridiculously popular and I make it for everyone's birthday.
 
Mary I. July 8, 2016
Not only recipes I want to try (all of them!), but a well-researched & well-written, entertaining article. I want to read more of your writing, Jessica Reed, and I want to share with my family & friends. Thank you; you made my day!
 
SoupLady July 7, 2016
Great story, best on Food52 this year! The history of American food is fascinating and definitely through cake. I am definitely reminded of the Fannie Farmer Baking Book with its share of historical cake recipes. Wonderful work, Ms. Reed and thanks!
 
Jynne July 7, 2016
The most fascinating food article I've read all year! I love all the incredible details and personal stories in this piece.
 
sarah July 8, 2016
I have to agree, a most fascinating read. Thank you