The Ladies' Tea Guild

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Historic Cooking: Halloween Fruit Cake from 1920

Halloween Fruit Cakes.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
I realized, as I was going through my past food history posts, that while I have made various recipes from the 1920s (like cheese straws and Club sandwiches), I had never written them up or taken photos.  While I will have to re-create the cheese straws and Club sandwiches at another time, I recently discovered a cookbook on Mrs. Wilson's Cook Book published in 1920.  It has a lot of interesting recipes, but none, as far as I can discover, that contain alcohol any stronger than cider; this is a recipe book for the frugal, teatotal household, not one headed by a "flapper".  It does, however, contain recipes named after various holidays, and since Halloween just happened, I couldn't resist making the recipe called Halloween Fruit Cake.

The Redone Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge: Celebratory Foods (from 2015) 

Halloween Fruit Cake ingredients.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
The Recipe: 

Halloween Fruit Cake 
2 1/2 cups syrup
1 cup shortening
8 cups flour
4 level tablespoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cocoa
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon allspice
2 eggs
2 cups finely chopped peanuts

Place syrup and shortening in a mixing bowl.  Cream well and add the rest of the ingredients.  Beat to mix thoroughly.  Grease and flour a baking pan and turn in the batter.  Place the raisins one at a time on the top of the batter and gently press them into the dough.  Bake for fifty minutes in a slow oven.  Cool and then ice and decorate with Halloween figures and then cut into blocks.
-- Mrs. Wilson's Cook Book: Numerous New Recipes Based on Present Economic Conditions, by Mary A. Wilson, 1920. 

The Date/Year and Region: Philadelphia, PA, 1920. 

Mrs. Wilson owned a cooking school in Philadelphia, and the introduction in this book claims that she cooked for Queen Victoria, as well as taught domestic science at the University of Virginia Summer School in Charlottesville, and taught cooking for the U.S. Navy.

How Did You Make It: 

Taking a look at the recipe, I could see that 8 cups of flour would make a pretty big cake.  I decided to cut the recipe in half.  A "slow oven" could be anywhere from 250 to 350 degrees, and Mrs. Wilson doesn't state any temperature equivalents in Fahrenheit.  The recipe also doesn't specify how strong the syrup is supposed to be, or what kind to use (corn? maple?), it doesn't say what kind of pan to bake the cake in, and it doesn't say how many raisins to use at the end.  Lots of guesswork!  I looked through the rest of the cookbook and found a recipe (in the Preserves section) that called for a syrup that was 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, so I went with that ratio for the syrup.  I decided to bake the cake in standard loaf pans, and start the baking at 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Since I'm allergic to peanuts, I had to substitute something else for those: I chose candied orange peel.  Here is the adjusted recipe I used:

Mixing the candied orange peel into the batter.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
1 1/4 cup syrup (made with 3/4 cup water and 1 1/4 cup brown sugar, more or less -- I ended up with extra syrup)
1/2 cup Crisco shortening
3 cups flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup cocoa
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. allspice
1 egg, beaten
1 cup chopped candied orange peel

I tried to follow the recipe as written: really, I did!  I heated the water and added the sugar to make the syrup, and unfortunately didn't wait long enough for it to cool, before adding it to the shortening.  Trying to cream shortening, by hand, with a water-based ingredient like too-warm sugar syrup doesn't really work!  The syrup melted the shortening a little bit, but the shortening floated on top of the syrup as I stirred it together.  I decided to start adding the flour, cup by cup, and mix thoroughly, in order to get the shortening completely mixed into the batter, and it sort of worked, although I think there were still small lumps of shortening in the batter at the end.  As I was adding the flour and other ingredients, I noticed that the batter was getting very thick.  I decided to stop adding flour after 3 cups, rather than adding the final cup (which would have been half the original amount in the recipe), because the batter was getting too stiff to stir.

Cake batter, with raisins on top, in the pans.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
I stirred in the candied orange peel, greased and floured my 2 loaf pans, and poured the batter in.  Then I sprinkled about 1/2 cup of raisins over the cakes, and sort of dunked them under the surface of the batter, before smoothing the tops of the cakes and putting them in the oven.  I started the oven at 275 degrees, but after about 10 minutes it didn't look like anything was happening to the cakes (no rising or anything), so I turned the heat up to 300 degrees for the rest of the baking time.  I realized, after mixing the batter and putting the cakes in the oven, that I had added baking soda instead of baking powder to the batter, but decided to continue to bake anyway and see what happened!  After 50 minutes the cakes were still liquid in the middle, but they had risen nicely!  I put them back in the oven, still at 300, for another 10 to 12 minutes, and tested one of the cakes for doneness.  No batter stuck to my table knife blade, so I took both cakes out of the oven; then I tested the other cake, and it was still a bit gummy in the middle!  It was getting late, so I set both cakes closely together on the counter and covered them with a clean towel to help them cool down slowly, and hopefully, help the second cake to finish cooking.

Time to Complete: 10 minutes mixing and measuring; 62 minutes baking. 

Total Cost: everything was in my pantry.

How Successful Was It?: Well, considering that I used the wrong leavening in the batter, the cakes rose much more than I thought they would!  I was skeptical that there would be any chocolate flavor in the cakes, given the tiny amount of cocoa powder, but I was surprised that the cakes smelled a bit chocolatey as they were baking; mostly they smelled like spice cake.  I think the oven temperature was too low; the cakes would have taken at least 5 more minutes to bake, at 300 degrees, which is considerably more than the 50 minutes claimed in the recipe.  I think the oven should have been at 350 degrees, or at least 325, to bring the baking time down closer to 50 minutes.  Currently the cakes are cooling on the counter under their tea towel, but one will be taken to my Victorian Christmas Caroling choir rehearsal tomorrow evening, and the other one will be kept at home for my housemates.  I intend to ice them with powdered sugar and orange juice, and sprinkle Halloween sprinkles on top.  The final report on the flavor is forthcoming; stay tuned!

Edited to add: they taste delicious!  The cakes are soft and fairly moist, with only a touch of cocoa flavor, and a soft spice flavor.  You can taste the orange peel, which goes really well with the cocoa and the spices.  One of my housemates said I "played a dirty trick" with the cakes because what she thought were chocolate chips were actually raisins, but once she got over her shock she said she liked the taste.  Another housemate said she can't stop taking a piece of cake every time she walks past the pan (I left it covered, in the middle of the kitchen table).  My friends in the Victorian Carolers liked the cake, too, even though I never got around to icing it and putting sprinkles on top.

How Accurate Is It?: As you can see above, I made quite a few modifications to the recipe.  I suspect the baking time would be shorter had I used the full 4 cups of flour for the half recipe, but I also suspect that because I misread the recipe and used baking soda instead of baking powder, the cakes might not have risen as much, and would have ended up much heavier.  We have a gas oven, and gas ovens were available in the 1920s so, while I wasn't using a period model stove/oven, I think that the baking method was accurate enough to what it would have been in 1920.  I mixed the batter by hand (my sore shoulder testifies to that!).  I think I can claim 75% historical accuracy. 

No comments:

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)