The Ladies' Tea Guild

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Historical Food Fortnightly: Challenge #10 -- Let Them Eat Cake! with Rice Cakes With Butter

Mrs. Hale's Rice Cakes With Butter, from 1841.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
The Challenge: #10 -- Let Them Eat Cake! October 5 - October 18
"The 16th is the anniversary of the beheading of Marie Antoinette (zut alors!). In honor of Madame Deficit, prepare your best cake from a historic recipe. And then eat it, bien sur."

This challenge came along at a good time, because my brother and I each attended a wedding in the past fortnight, and therefore wedding cake played a small part in our thoughts recently.  My friend, the bride at one wedding, is allergic to wheat, so she had a completely wheat-free wedding brunch menu and had locally-made gourmet ice cream instead of wedding cake.  My brother's friend, the groom at the other wedding, is from the U.K. and he and his bride had two receptions, according to my brother: one with tea and cakes directly after the wedding ceremony and church service, and a dinner later in the evening.  My brother couldn't tell me what kind of cakes there were, only that they were fairy cakes (cupcakes) and brownies.  But a tea-and-cake wedding reception – how fun!  I'm pretty much up for tea and cakes any time, wedding or not.

My friend is a "foodie" and is always looking for good recipes, especially so now that she has been diagnosed with a wheat allergy.  I made her some wheat- and gluten-free Italian cookies for part of her wedding gift, and when I started researching recipes for this challenge, this rice flour cake recipe caught my eye.  Bonus: it doesn't contain any "wierd" ingredients that some modern gluten-free baking recipes have!  Everything apart from the rice flour comes from a normal pantry, and even the rice flour is relatively easy to find in areas with large Asian communities.

ingredients for Mrs. Hale's Rice Cakes With Butter.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
The Recipe: The recipe comes from my copy of Early American Cookery: 'The Good Housekeeper', 1841 by Sarah Josepha Hale, reprinted by Dover Books.

Rice Cakes With Butter.—Beat, till extremely light, the yolks of nine eggs; add half a pound of sifted loaf sugar, and the same quantity of sifted rice flour; melt half a pound of fresh butter, and mix it with the eggs, sugar, and flour, along with a few pounded bitter almonds; half fill small buttered tins, and bake in a quick oven. 

My redaction:

8 egg yolks
½ lb. (2 cups) granulated white sugar
½ lb. (2 cups) white rice flour
½ lb. (2 sticks) butter, melted
heaping teaspoon grated nutmeg

Heat your oven to 425 degrees F., and generously butter 12 to 14 cupcake pan cups.  Place the egg yolks in the work bowl of your mixer and beat on medium-high to high with the whisk attachment, until egg yolks have increased slightly in volume, are fluffy, and you can make a "ribbon" with the eggs dripping from the whisk.  Continue whisking on medium speed and gradually pour in the sugar.  Continue whisking on medium speed and add half the rice flour, then add the melted butter, then add the remaining rice flour.  Add the flavoring and whisk on low speed until combined.  This will make a thick, rich batter.

Batter for Rice Cakes with Butter.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
Fill cupcake cups ½ to ¾ full, and bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned on top, and tops are dry.  Remove from oven, loosen from baking tin with a plastic knife run lightly around each cupcake, and let the cakes sit in the tin for a few minutes to solidify.  They will be very delicate and crumbly.  Carefully remove them from the baking tin while still warm and place them on a cooling rack to cool completely.  Makes about 14 cupcakes. 

The Date/Year and Region:
United States, 1841.

How Did You Make It: 
I buy my rice flour from the Asian section of my local supermarket; there are usually two kinds: Japanese sweet rice flour, and Thai rice flour.  For this recipe I used the Thai rice flour, but I have baked with Japanese sweet rice flour before and didn't notice that the Thai flour was any different.  The Thai and Japanese rice flours come, conveniently, in 1-pound boxes or bags. 

I am lucky in having a mother who has an electric mixer (I don't have one) and a kitchen scale (I don't have one of those either), so I got out the rice flour I have in my pantry for when I bake for my aunt and cousin who are also allergic to wheat, and brought the rice flour and recipe to my mom's house.  In the interest of not using up all my mom's eggs, I only used 8 modern egg yolks instead of the 9 Victorian ones, and I substituted grated nutmeg for the pounded almonds as the flavoring, but I made, otherwise, the recipe exactly as written. 

I didn't have any trouble putting the recipe together; it went together essentially like any other cake batter.  If I had had to beat the eggs by hand, and pound all that loaf sugar, however, it would have taken me a lot longer, plus more time to heat up a brick oven or cast-iron stove oven!  This is one of those recipes where modern appliances make a real difference.

They're out of the oven!  They smell good.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
Time to Complete:
Maybe 45 minutes?  Not long at all, and that includes the cooking time.  I started the oven out at 450 degrees, but my mom reminded me that her oven runs hot, so I turned the heat down. 

Total Cost:
For me, everything came out of my own (or my mom's) pantry, but it would have cost several dollars for the dozen eggs (although I only used 8), pound of butter (although I only used half), pound of sugar (although I only used half), bag of rice flour (although I only used half), and little canister of nutmeg (although I only used a teaspoon or so). 

How Successful Was It?: 
I think it's a very successful recipe, and I will be sending it to my friend and other friends who also can't eat wheat.  The cake is like a very delicate pound cake, lighter and drier in texture, but with a very similar flavor.  The cake crumbles easily, so the recipe's instruction to bake it in "small buttered tins" is a very important one, because if baked in a larger pan, the cake would break apart when trying to remove it, and it wouldn't be very sliceable.  Cupcakes, however, are a good size, because the shape is small enough that you can remove them from the pan easily, they don't need to be sliced into portions, and I think they rose better than they would have if baked in a larger pan, due to the lack of gluten structure in the rice flour. 

I do think that the recipe is a bit too sweet, and I would reduce the sugar a little the next time I make this recipe.  It doesn't need any frosting or icing, and would be much too sweet with it, in my opinion, but it would be wonderful with some plain whipped cream and a cup of tea on the side. 

How Accurate Is It?: 

The usual modern electric mixer and electric oven taken into consideration, I think this recipe is at least 75% accurate.  I did substitute another flavoring for the pounded bitter almonds, but I used one that I've seen in many other period recipes; you could also use a teaspoon or so of cinnamon or ginger, the grated rind of a lemon, or a tablespoon or so of wine or rose water, without changing the texture of the batter and the finished cake.  Just don't use vanilla!  That's too modern!

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)