Valuable “windows to the past,” diaries provide fascinating comparisons to life today, offering a slice of someone’s thoughts, activities and other memories from a particular period in time. Since cooking has been an important part of everyday life, recipes (or receipts as they were often called years ago) frequently worked their way into women’s diaries – sometimes as a separate section, sometimes sprinkled though a diary with other commentary.
Anna Maxwell’s diary is a fabulous example. Also known as “The First Lady of the House,” Anna Smith Maxwell (1831-1912) moved into the Mansion with her husband Ebenezer and their family in 1859.

While I could pore through her recipes for hours, one that really intrigued me was “Chocolate Cake” – handwritten on a separate card and slipped into the diary, with “Mrs. Rorer” cited just below the title as the recipe source. . Sarah Tyson Rorer was a well-known Philadelphia cooking instructor from the late 1870s through the early 20th century  – so it is not at all surprising that Anna would have one of her recipes. However, it did make me wonder if Anna had attended her cooking school or maybe even one of her lectures. (After appearing at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Mrs. Rorer became a household name and traveled the country to demonstrate cooking techniques to one packed auditorium after another). She also published books, articles and testimonials to complement her lecture circuit – so perhaps Anna got the recipe from one of these sources. In any case, I am a huge fan of Mrs. Rorer and her work and wanted to try to replicate this version of chocolate cake.


Another reason this recipe jumped out at me is the fact that chocolate cake in America was a Victorian era invention. It wasn’t until the later part of the 19th century when chocolate as a cake flavoring really started appearing in cookbooks. Prior to this, chocolate was consumed mainly as a beverage. In fact, the earliest recipes labeled “chocolate cake” were meant to be eaten with hot chocolate and actually contain no chocolate at all. In the late 1870s improvements in cocoa processing created a much smoother, more delicious tasting chocolate, which better translated to cake baking. So, I knew the recipe in Anna’s diary must have been an “early” version, and really so fitting for the time period.

We can credit another well-known Philadelphian – cookbook writer Eliza Leslie – for publishing the first cake recipe in America truly made with chocolate. It appeared in The Lady’s Receipt Book in 1847. This recipe differs from Mrs. Rorer’s in that it uses finely chopped chocolate, giving the cake a speckled look, whereas Mrs. Rorer used melted baking chocolate. Yet another cooking instructor, Miss (Maria) Parloa, also helped expand the popularity of chocolate cakes by partnering with Baker’s chocolate to publish several pamphlets featuring chocolate dessert recipes using their products. And what about the ever-popular Devil’s Food Cake? Well, ironically, we come full circle to Mrs. Rorer. She was the first to publish a Devil’s Food cake recipe – in Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book in 1902. Basically she just doubles the amount of chocolate and cooks it with the milk until smooth and thick (like a custard) to produce a richer taste. She also specifies pasty flour and warns, “The success of this cake depends on the flour used.”

I decided to make Anna Maxwell’s recipe as a Mother’s Day experiment since I was having both my mother and mother-in-law for dinner. When I told my 12-year-old daughter about the idea, she was eager to help. We were able to duplicate the recipe using modern-day ingredients and it really was delicious. Other bonuses: it was not difficult to make and the ingredients were not hard to find (it calls for just 2 ounces of chocolate and I used Baker’s unsweetened baking chocolate since the recipe has 1 ½ cups sugar). I also noticed that Anna’s version did not list flour as an ingredient (although it does in the recipe directions, just not the amount … very important in a cake!), so I found the original in Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book: A Manual of Home Economics. The flour is listed as 1 ¾ cups and this worked fine for us. I also used modern conveniences such as my microwave to melt the chocolate and my powerful Kitchen Aid stand mixer to beat the eggs, especially since the recipe calls for separating them and beating the whites to a stiff froth before mixing with the rest of the batter.
ChocCakeSince the recipe didn’t have any frosting or topping suggestions we decorated it by placing some doilies on top and then sprinkling some confectioners sugar over them to create a lacy pattern. As a final touch I put some cut strawberries around the edges. It wasn’t a dark and really moist, rich cake (like Devils’ Food) – it was lighter in color and not overly sweet. My daughter absolutely loved it and everyone at the dinner gave it rave reviews.
The only thing I would do differently next time is to make it in a springform pan so it could rise a little more (I had just used a regular round cake pan).
Here’s the recipe with my slight modern-day clarifications – give it a try!:

Mrs. Rorer’s Chocolate Cake
2 ounces of unsweetened baking chocolate (like Baker’s)
½ cup of butter
1 ½ cups sugar
4 eggs, separated
½ cup milk
1 ¾ cups flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 heaping teaspoonful of baking powder
Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe dish and microwave on high for one minute. Take out the dish and give the chocolate a stir. Continue doing this at 30-second intervals until chocolate is melted. Set aside. Beat the butter to a cream, add gradually the sugar, beating all the while; add the yolks, beat again, then the milk, then the melted chocolate and flour. Give the whole a vigorous beating. Now beat the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, and stir them carefully into the mixture; add the vanilla and baking powder. Mix quickly and lightly and pour into a greased and floured springform pan, and bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for 35-45 minutes.
Sources: Baking in America by Greg Patent (2002); The Delectable Past by Esther B. Aresty (1964); and The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink Ed. by Andrew F. Smith (2007)