American Cake

From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best-Loved Cakes

About the Book

Taste your way through America with more than 125 recipes for our favorite historical cakes and frostings.

Cakes in America aren't just about sugar, flour, and frosting. They have a deep, rich history that developed as our country grew. Cakes, more so than other desserts, are synonymous with celebration and coming together for happy times. They're an icon of American culture, reflecting heritage, region, season, occasion, and era. And they always have been, throughout history.

In American Cake, Anne Byrn, creator of the New York Times bestselling series The Cake Mix Doctor, takes you on a journey through America's past to present with more than 125 authentic recipes for our best-loved and beautiful cakes and frostings. Tracing cakes chronologically from the dark, moist gingerbread of New England to the elegant pound cake, the hardscrabble Appalachian stack cake, war cakes, deep-South caramel, Hawaiian Chantilly, and the modern California cakes of orange and olive oil, Byrn shares recipes, stories, and a behind-the-scenes look into what cakes we were baking back in time. From the well-known Angel Food, Red Velvet, Pineapple Upside-Down, Gooey Butter, and Brownie to the lesser-known Burnt Leather, Wacky Cake, Lazy Daisy, and Cold Oven Pound Cake, this is a cookbook for the cook, the traveler, or anyone who loves a good story. And all recipes have been adapted to the modern kitchen.
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Praise for American Cake

“If you like cakes, you're not alone. For 250 years, Americans have been making whatever cake they could with whatever they could find. Anne Byrn's impressive, big-hearted, historical tribute to the genre is a must-have for its dizzying diversity. (You surely haven't heard of Oregon prune cake, Texas sheath cake or Scripture Cake, have you?) You can trace America's gastronomic evolution and geographic expansion from cornmeal and molasses to Hershey bars and pineapples. Both the cakes and their stories are obscure, unexpected, delightful and worth getting to know, one sweet slice of history at a time.”
— T. Susan Chang, NPR Kitchen Window

“Readers will find decade-defining information, such as the popularity of using baby food fruit purees in baking in the 1970s, and sidebars on prominent baking figures who have made their marks in kitchens across the country, including Betty Crocker and Martha Stewart. These well researched and written pages go far beyond the average baking guide.”
Publisher’s Weekly

“Fascinating, delightfully original, American Cake [is] author Anne Byrn’s can’t-stop-reading history lesson that’s masquerading as a cookbook. One that’s bound to be a prizewinner.”
—Rick Nelson, Star Tribune

“Byrn digs deep into America’s archives, including everyday recipe boxes, to find the history behind some of the country’s most popular cakes.”
—Addie Broyles, Austin American-Statesman
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American Cake


1650 to 1799

Baking Cakes in Early America

FROM THE PURITANS who settled in New England to the Dutch in New York, Quakers in Philadelphia, Germans in much of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and British on down the coastline to Charleston, people came to America to build a new life. Once home kitchens and bake ovens were established, and once a source of sweetener was available--whether it was local honey, maple syrup, molasses, or the more expensive white sugar--cake baking in America began.

The first true cakes baked at home on American soil were sweet, yeasty, breadlike cakes and fruitcakes, British £d cakes, cheesecakes, sponge cakes, and a molasses ginger cake. They were leavened with yeast cultures brought with the settlers from Europe or made from the foamy barm skimmed from fermented beverages like beer. The Moravian Sugar Cake (page 25) and the New Orleans King Cake (page 18), for instance, were both based on yeast. Other cakes were rich with eggs, such as the early cheesecakes and British-style £d cake. A different twist was found in the English and French style of light sponge cakes containing a high ratio of eggs and sugar but no butter. Served with fresh berries, they suited the warmer climates and the plantation lifestyles of Virginia and South Carolina.

The colonists baked gingerbread, too, and their recipes were both English and German in origin. But it was not until the wood ash leavening called potash was produced by burning cleared trees in the Hudson River Valley that American gingerbread benefited from this leavening and became soft and more cake-like in texture. Potash, or pearlash as it was known, was an alkali and a forerunner of baking soda. When combined in a gingerbread batter with sour milk or molasses, which were both acidic, it produced carbon dioxide bubbles that helped raise the cake in the oven.

Cakes in the early colonies were baked for the same reasons they are today-- to celebrate a birthday, a wedding, a houseguest, a holiday. They were baked for everyday meals (gingerbread, sponge cake) as well as important events (Fraunces Tavern Carrot Tea Cake, page 32, for George Washington on British Evacuation Day in New York). Knowing how to bake a cake was a skill passed on from mother to daughter. Recipes, called receipts, were carefully handwritten in journals, and over the generations more recipes, notes, and thoughts were added.

Colonists relied on cookbooks, initially mostly English, and later on American cookbooks written by authors such as Amelia Simmons with her American Cookery. In this first cookbook published in America, in 1796, Simmons adapted well-known British cooking methods to American ingredients.

But clearly, cakes were baked by the wealthy, who could afford the ingredients. Compared with pies, cakes were more expensive to bake and required more skill and time to pull off. If you want to understand cakes in the colonies, says Virginia historian and author Leni Sorensen, just look at the ingredients. White sugar was imported and expensive.

"The ability to make cake separated the haves from the have-nots," says Sorensen. "The poor didn't eat sweets. They wanted fat meat like pork for sustenance. They made do with field peas. And they couldn't afford sugar, currants, brandy, and spices."

In the Northeast, the Puritans of the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony baked cakes as soon as they were able, says Sorensen. The cakes they prepared were often sweetened with molasses instead of white sugar. At the turn of the 19th century, when African slaves were crucial to white sugar production in the West Indies, abolitionists in New England avoided white sugar because they viewed it as slave sugar.

By contrast, where the weather wasn't as severe as in the North and where affluent plantation life influenced the cooking, cooks prepared British loaf cakes with ingredients at hand as well as with their supply of imported foods. There was no need to embellish recipes as there might have been in England, according to Katharine Harbury in her Colonial Virginia's Cooking Dynasty cookbook. Virginia cooks needed to do little to local apples, fresh butter, and abundant wild fruit to make a cake delicious. Plus, the tobacco farmers of Virginia loved to entertain and took great effort to serve the best food to their guests. Food needed to be "memorable enough to spark admiration," says Harbury.

Leni Sorensen adds that cake baking in Virginia increased after the influx of young, marriageable Englishwomen. They bought the white sugar needed to bake £d cakes, sponge cakes, and fruitcakes.

In the 18th century, while American men were founding the new republic, American women were in the kitchen not only baking or supervising the baking of cakes but educating children and instilling a respect for the country. Historians call this the "republican motherhood," which laid the groundwork for the future of America. And after the Revolution, women's role in the kitchen remained important but expanded outside the home.

All cakes didn't look the same in early America. They were small or grand, studded with dried fruit or as plain and simple as a sponge cake. They were dense and breadlike, sweet and yeasty, baked atop pastry, sweetened with cooked carrots or local honey, or baked with the most expensive refined white sugar money could buy. They were different and yet they were similar, using American ingredients, an American cookbook, and American ingenuity to adapt the new to the old to bake an American cake.





Amelia Simmons wrote the first American cookbook in 1796. It wasn't well edited and later would be plagiarized by authors who followed her, but American Cookery contained recipes for simple fare--roasts, soups, breads, and desserts such as gingerbread. Simmons included 7 versions of gingerbread in her book. Her cakey Gingerbread No. 2 contained white sugar, butter, and eggs, a departure from the stiff, traditional gingerbread dough rolled and cut into cookies. If you bake any of these old recipes verbatim today, you will not have much success. So the following recipe is an adaptation of several of her recipes to create a uniquely American gingerbread recipe that works today.

Butter for prepping the pan, at room temperature
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup boiling water
1 cup molasses
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375°F. Brush an 8" or a 9" square baking pan with a little soft butter. In a small bowl, stir the baking soda into the boiling water until the soda is dissolved. Set aside.

2. Place the molasses and eggs in a large bowl, and stir with a wooden spoon to combine and break up the egg yolks. Add the 1/2 cup butter, sugar, flour, ginger, cinnamon, and allspice, and stir well until the mixture is smooth, 40 strokes. Stir the baking soda and water mixture into the batter until it is smooth, 1 minute.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and place the pan in the oven. Bake until the gingerbread rises and the top springs back when lightly pressed with a finger, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven. Let the gingerbread rest in the pan for 20 minutes before slicing. Serve warm with a pour of cream.

Gingerbread was a stomach settler in the 17th century. In Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, he writes of buying gingerbread before a long sea voyage. Stephen Schmidt, New York food historian, says bakers would set up shop along the wharves and docks to sell gingerbread to sailors. At the time, people assumed it was the treacle, or molasses, in the gingerbread that made them feel less queasy onboard, but it may have been the ginger. Long thought to aid digestion, ginger was first a medicine, said the late historian Karen Hess, before it was used as a baking ingredient.

Long before colonists landed on American soil, gingerbread was baked across Europe. Evan Jones wrote in his book American Food that early settlers from Moravia, Switzerland, and parts of the old Austro-Hungarian regions inherited the knack of cooking with spices from generations past. Essentially a honey cake with fragrant spices, gingerbread was easily adapted to less expensive molasses in America and was often called "molasses gingerbread." It was soft and more cakelike in consistency than the hard, crisp gingerbread rolled and cut into shapes. Gingerbread would turn out to be the perennial favorite in early American kitchens. Its heavy spices overrode the bitter aftertaste of crude leavening agents.





Once sold for 10 cents a copy and now a priceless artifact, this gingerbread recipe has had several names. One was Lafayette Gingerbread, because Mary Ball Washington, mother of George Washington and his sister Betty Washington Lewis, would serve the aromatic cake to guests, including the Marquis de Lafayette during a visit to their home in the late 1780s. Betty would continue her mother's legacy by baking the cake at her home, now known as Kenmore Plantation, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. But time marched on, and the family gingerbread recipe was forgotten--that is until 1922, when Kenmore was deteriorating and the Kenmore Association and Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) had to find $30,000 for its repairs and restoration. While sorting through boxes in the attic, Emily Fleming and her daughter Annie Smith found a handwritten diary that contained Mary Washington's gingerbread recipe. They typed and sold copies of the Kenmore Gingerbread recipe to visitors for 10 cents each and negotiated a sweeter deal by selling the recipe to the Hills Brothers Company of New York for $100. Hills Brothers packaged the ingredients as Dromedary Gingerbread Mix, selling it in US supermarkets and providing it at a discount to DAR chapters that sold it to benefit Kenmore. To taste the cake that saved the house, here is the recipe. It is also referred to as Mary Ball Washington Gingerbread, after its creator.

Butter for prepping the pan
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground mace
1 large orange
1/2 cup (1 stick) lightly salted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 cup molasses
1/2 cup warm milk
1 wineglass (2 ounces) brandy or coffee
3 large eggs, beaten
1 cup seedless golden raisins

FOR A MODERN VANILLA SAUCE: Place 1 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons cornstarch in a small saucepan. Stir in 2 cups boiling water, and place over medium heat. Stir and let lightly boil until thickened, 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 4 tablespoons butter and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract. Serve warm over gingerbread.

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 13" × 9" metal baking pan with butter and set it aside.

2. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the ginger, cream of tartar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace, and set the bowl aside.

3. Grate the orange zest and set aside. Cut the orange in half and squeeze the juice to yield 4 tablespoons. Add it to the zest in a small bowl.

4. Place the butter in a large bowl, and beat with a wooden spoon until creamy. Add the brown sugar and molasses, and beat until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Fold in the flour mixture along with the milk, brandy, eggs, and the reserved orange juice and zest. Beat until smooth, 2 minutes. Fold in the raisins.

5. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, and place the pan in the oven. Bake until the top springs back when lightly pressed with a finger, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven. Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then slice and serve with Vanilla Sauce, if desired.



PREP: 2 1/2 TO 3 HOURS


When most of us think of Colonial America, we think of the 13 colonies along the East Coast. But down on the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River, colonization of a different sort was going on in what would become the city of New Orleans. French, Spanish, Basque, and Haitian food traditions fused in a wonderful way, forming the legacy of today's Creole and Cajun cuisines. The cake most associated with New Orleans is the King Cake, enjoyed throughout the Mardi Gras carnival season but originally baked just for Epiphany, the 12th night after Christmas. It is different from the more modern French King Cake, which uses puff pastry dough. According to Liz Williams, food authority and director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, the first King Cake in town was a cinnamon-swirled, brioche-style cake brought to New Orleans by the Basque settlers in 1718. Here is this cake, based on a recipe from the Times- Picayune in Cooking Up a Storm, edited by Judy Walker and Marcelle Bienvenu. It is a beautiful ring-shaped coffee cake in which you can place a toy baby, or fève, once it is baked; or garnish it with the festive purple, yellow, and green sprinkles or icing now associated with Mardi Gras; or do as the early settlers did and simply bake it and serve it warm with good coffee on Epiphany, Mardi Gras, or most any holiday of the year.

1/4 cup warm water (105° to 115°F)
1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm whole milk (105° to 115°F)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups bread flour, plus 2 tablespoons for kneading the dough
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1. For the dough, pour the warm water into a large, warmed bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast and stir until it dissolves. Stir in the warm milk, butter, sugar, nutmeg, and salt. Add 1 cup of the flour and blend well. Stir in the eggs and the remaining 2 cups flour to make a soft dough. At the end of the blending, you may need to use your hands to work in all of the flour.

2. Lightly flour a work surface and turn out the dough. Knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Add a little more flour if needed if the dough sticks. Place the dough in a large bowl lightly rubbed with soft butter. Turn the dough to grease the top of the dough. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap and put in a warm place until the dough doubles in size, about 1 hour.

3. For the filling, punch down the dough with your hands. Transfer it to a lightly floured work surface and, with a floured rolling pin, roll the dough to a 26" × 9" rectangle. Brush with the melted butter. Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and sprinkle this mixture evenly over the butter to within 1/2" of the edges.

About the Author

Anne Byrn
Anne Byrn is the bestselling author of American Cake and the Cake Mix Doctor and Dinner Doctor cookbook series. Formerly a food editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a graduate of the La Varenne École de Cuisine in Paris, Byrn lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee. More by Anne Byrn
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