Today is a very special HDM, because I am collaborating with the lovely Susan LaRosa of a Cake Bakes in Brookyln. Susan focuses on early 20thcentury cakes and she plans to make several hundred of them from handwritten recipes reclaimed from flea markets in Ohio.
I love the way Susan brings these recipes to life. Because they are handwritten, each recipe has its own individual character. They seem to speak about the woman who sat down and penned them 75 years ago or more.
Susan and I decided to trade, and bake cakes from each other’s collections. I loaned her a cookbook published in the 1880s which has pages of handwritten cake recipes attached in the back (like “Altogether Cake“). Susan gave me a stack of her own materials to pick from, but I knew right away which one I wanted: Mrs. Osborn’s Cakes of Quality.
The book is brittle and crumbling; the pages within are individually typed and simply bound. The book was sent to housewives across the country who wrote in and requested Mrs. Osborn’s advice. Who was she? We don’t really know. Her writing seems to indicate she was a woman left without means who turned to baking to support herself. Susan calls her the “Patron Saint of Cakes,” and wrote this post about what she knows about Mrs. O and what she’s trying to find out about this mystery woman.
The introduction to Mrs. O’s book declares: “If you follow my directions, you simply cannot fail. You’ll earn the admiration–perhaps the envy, in some cases–of your neighbors. None of them will be able to make cake which will equal yours.” Her writing has an air of letting you in on a great secret–and Mrs. Osborn’s cake making techniques are wildly different. She has you put the cake into a cold oven– a cold oven!! Mrs. Osborn suggests: “Try Puff Cake first. This is a fine cake and very easy to make. This will acquaint you with my system and then you will be ready to make Angel, Klondike, and the others.” Who was I to disagree? Puff Cake it is.
From Mrs. Osborne’s Cakes of Quality, by Mrs. Grace Osborne, 1919.
I have a confession: despite my mother constantly admonishing my sloppy measurements as a child, I’ve grown into a sloppy baker. Baking does take a certain understanding of chemistry, yes; but not until watching Top Chef did I realize outsiders saw it as a secret alchemical art form. I find baking as easy as cooking: it allows for some improvisation and (thankfully) there is some margin for mistakes.
But Mrs. Osborn threatened me to “…Do exactly as I tell you,” and I did. I sifted and sifted and leveled my measuring cup with a knife—a practice I’ve not kept up since leaving the watching eye of my mother. The cake mixed well, but I was nervous about trying Mrs. O’s baking techniques. I have no idea how she monitored her baking temperature so exactly– even using a thermometer. It seems like it would be an hour and a quarter of constant fussing to get the temperature just right. I decided to bump my temperature up at the end of each 15 minutes and see what happened.
I ended up pulling the cake out of the oven fifteen minutes early. After it cooled, I cut it and saw it had gotten a little dark on the bottom–not burned, just browned. My roommate and I tried a slice: “Tastes like cake,” he said. It was exactly what I had been thinking.
The cake was very fluffy from the beaten egg whites and had a butteryness that angel food cakes lack. The browned bottom tasted oddly like a pretzel at first; then, the next day, it tasted downright bitter. The cake will be disposed of.
Although I’ve had a bit of a disaster with Mrs. O’s baking methods, I’m still tempted to try another cake from her book. But at the moment, I’m not inspiring any cake-envy.