Browse through any Victorian era cookbook and you will be rewarded with pages and pages of luscious cake recipes. Some names are familiar, such as Sponge Cake, Lemon Cake or Pound Cake, but many have long been forgotten – Election Cake, Queen Cake, Composition Cake, Taylor Cake and Black Cake (also known as plum cake). Several cakes were known by more than one name, such as the Lady Cake featured in Anna Maxwell’s diary (also called Silver Cake or White Lady Cake).
Anna’s diary actually includes two recipes for Lady Cake, a rich pound cake flavored with bitter almonds and rosewater, made snowy white by using only egg whites. In order not to waste the leftover egg yolks, “Gold or Golden” Cake was often made at the same time. This rich yellow cake with a sunny hue was a similar cake made with egg yolks. Slices of these two cakes were often alternately placed in a silver cake basket for the tea table, the contrasting colors creating a pretty striped or checkerboard pattern.
According to nineteenth century cookbook writer Eliza Leslie, Lady Cake “must be flavored highly with bitter almonds; without them, sweet almonds have little or no taste, and are useless in lady cake.” Bitter almonds (which are actually poisonous in large amounts) needed to be properly prepared prior to baking – the use of heat would safely extract their strong, bitter taste. This rather tedious process was done by blanching shelled bitter almonds in scalding water, and then placing them in a bowl of very cold water. They were then wiped dry and pounded (one at a time,) to a smooth paste in a clean marble mortar, along with a bit of rose water to improve the flavor and prevent them from becoming oily, heavy and dark. Miss Leslie suggests blanching and pounding the almonds the day before to achieve better flavor and a lighter color, thus enhancing both the taste and whiteness of the cake.
The white color and delicate texture of Lady Cake was considered so exquisite and elegant that it was often used as a wedding cake in the nineteenth century, frosted with pure white icing and decorated with white flowers. As Leslie raved, “this cake is beautifully white, and (if the receipt is strictly followed) will be found delicious. If well made, and quite fresh, there is no cake better liked.” Leslie’s recipe is apparently for a large wedding-type cake since she stipulates using “the whites only of sixteen eggs, three quarters of a pound of sifted flour, half a pound of fresh butter and a pound of powdered white sugar.”
The versions from Anna Maxwell’s diary are smaller-scale, calling for ingredients equal to half that amount. Only one of the recipes lists almond as a flavoring (and this is rather vague – it says to just “flavor with almond”) and neither mentions the use of rosewater. So, to create a present-day Lady Cake, I took bits of Anna’s two recipes along with tips from Eliza Leslie’s recipe as well as those found in Greg Patent’s Baking in America and James Beard’s American Cookery.
I felt the most important thing was imparting the almond flavor. I wasn’t sure how or if I could get bitter almonds, so I decided to blanch some almonds and crush them in the food processor along with some rose water as per Greg Patent’s recipe. However, I thought that even after the almonds were ground/pounded to a paste they might make the cake texture less tender. Since both of Anna’s recipes called for a cup of milk as an ingredient, I decided to steep the crushed almonds in milk and then pour the milk through a sieve before adding to the other ingredients. I also added some almond extract for extra almond flavor. This seemed to work fine. Another modern update I took advantage of was the use of cake flour instead of regular all-purpose flour. The lower protein content produced a finer-grained cake, and one that was whiter in color too, sticking with the pure white theme.
Neither of Anna’s recipes calls for any kind of icing, so I also left my cake un-iced, Instead I gave it a liberal sprinkling of confectioners sugar and paired it with a few raspberries for a pretty pop of color. Some whipped cream would be also be a nice embellishment. An authentic icing could be made using egg white, powdered sugar, and lemon or rose water for flavoring, as per Miss Leslie’s recipe.
The two recipes from Anna’s diary are as follows:
Lady Cake. Houghs
The whites of 8 eggs- 4 cups flour-2 sugar-1 butter-1 milk-1 saluatus* [sic] tea spoonful-flavor with almond-gold cake made same-way by using the yolks.
* The precursor to baking soda, saleratus is sodium bicarbonate, an early chemical leavening agent that produced carbon dioxide gas in dough and made it rise.
One cup of milk Tablespoon of Butter
2 ‘’ ‘’ Sugar one two 2 spoonsfull Baking powder
3 ‘’ ‘’ Flour Whites of 3 eggs
2 sticks butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 cups cake flour (or 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour)
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup unblanched almonds
2 tbsp rose water
1 tsp almond extract
1 cup milk
- Butter a 10-inch Bundt pan, dust the inside with flour and set aside.
- Place the almonds in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for 15 to 20 minutes. When cool enough to handle, slip off the almond skins a few at a time and then pat dry.
- Put the almonds in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to coarsely chop. Add the rose water and pulse 4 or 5 more times. Scrape the bowl and continue pulsing until the mixture is a pasty texture. Add the almond extract and pulse to blend. (Alternatively, the almonds can be crushed with a mortar and pestle – pound 3 to 4 at a time along with a bit of the rose water to form a paste and then mix in the almond extract).
- Place the almonds in the cup of milk to steep.
- Adjust the oven rack to the lower position and preheat to 350F.
- Cream the butter until very fluffy. Slowly add the sugar, about ¼ cup at a time until the mixture is the texture of whipped cream.
- Beat the egg whites until stiff.
- Sift the flour with the dry ingredients. Add a little to the butter mixture, and then add a little milk, making sure you hold a sieve over the mixing bowl to catch the almond paste. Continuing alternating in the way, ending with the flour (if using a mixer, make sure it is set to lowest speed). Scrape the batter down and then gently fold in the egg whites (best done by hand).
- Spoon mixture into Bundt pan and smooth the top. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes and then run a sharp knife around the edges to loosen and invert on a plate to cool completely.
- Sprinkle with confectioners sugar and serve with fresh fruit and/or whipped cream. Or to frost with an egg-white icing as Eliza Leslie used, take 3 oz fresh or pasteurized egg whites at room temperature, 1 pound of sifted confectioners sugar and ½ tsp lemon juice or 1 tablespoon rose water. Lightly whip the egg whites on medium speed until they form soft peaks, about 3 minutes. Lower the speed and gradually add the sugar a cup at a time. Add flavoring and beat on medium speed for 5 to 8 minutes or until the icing forms medium to stiff peaks.
NOTE: This icing should be used within one day. For those leery of using egg whites, you can substitute ¼ meringue powder and ½ cup cold water for the fresh egg whites.
Sources: Baking in America by Greg Patent; American Cookery by James Beard; Seventy-five receipts for pastry, cakes and sweetmeats by Eliza Leslie; Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book by Eliza Leslie; The Well-Decorated Cake by Toba Garrett; Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts by Susan Williams