Friday, August 16, 2013

Beating and Whipping Oh My!

by Sheila Connolly

Having road-tested my choppers (and picked my murder weapon), I am now moving on to the second-largest group of items in my recent auction haul: the beaters. [Note: if the history of cookware drives you nuts, just skip ahead to the good part—the recipe.]

Think back to watching your mother (or if you were lucky, your father) make a cake.  Cakes were a big deal in those days, before Betty Crocker et al. took over the universe—I seem to recall the cooks being very concerned that the cake layers would fall while baking, so we children had to tiptoe around the kitchen while they were in the oven, or better yet, go out and play somewhere else.  Maybe the ovens were less dependable in those days, because I don't hear many complaints about fallen cakes nowadays.

Cakes rise while cooking for only a few reasons: one, you include a leavening agent, like baking soda or powder or yeast; or two, you beat a lot of air into the batter, so that when the cake cooks, the air inside the batter expands and voila, the cake swells. Or you combine these techniques.

Now, if you can, think back to a time when there were no electric mixers, either hand or stand. You had to mix things by hand, and that's not easy.

So crafty manufacturers started making hand-operated mixers that took at least some of the work out of it.  No small number of them were made of cast iron, which is why they have survived for over a century (some makers were so proud that they stamped the patent number and the date on the item itself).  And now I have a whole batch of them, in different designs and sizes.  I decided to see what they can do.

 Often these are labeled "egg beaters," some even right on the piece itself, but they were used for mixing a wide range of things.  Cream, logically.  Mixed drinks. Batters. Ice cream. The list goes on.

Being of a scholarly bent, I had to do some research into my wonderful haul,
and to that end I acquired a second-hand copy of Linda Campbell Franklin's book, 300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles (5th ed. 2002), a two-inch-thick tome that includes item descriptions, comments, and even recipes. I have already learned a lot from browsing through it (including the fact that one item in my haul isn't for cooking at all—it's a pot scrubber!).

I wanted to find a recipe of the same era as my new old utensils, to see how well the beaters worked.  Luckily I have a clutch of old cookbooks, so I turned to an older version of the classic Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (aka Fannie Farmer), whose copyright dates range from 1896 to 1951.  What is interesting is that this particular edition straddled the line for mixing:  it offered instruction for both hand-mixing and machine mixing.  In other words, the instruction for using an "electric mixer or beater" were given separately.  I thought I'd play it safe with a simple cake recipe.

Fanny Farmer's Butter Cake

This is a basic and versatile cake. You can add almost anything—chocolate chips, currants or raisins, honey, cinnamon or nuts.

I made this with no modern appliances (unless you count the oven!)

1 3/4 cups cake flour

1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup butter, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup milk
2 egg whites

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Grease your pans (or if you're making cupcakes, you can use paper liners).

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder.

Cream the butter thoroughly. Add the vanilla.  Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy.  Add the egg yolks.

Stir in one-half cup of the flour mixture, then one-quarter cup milk, then add the rest of the flour and milk.

Beat the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry, then fold them into the batter (by hand).

It worked!
Bake cupcakes for 20-30 minutes.  If you're making a cake, bake layers as you would the cupcakes; in a loaf pan, bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes.

Oh, and then there's the whipped cream:

Behold:  whipped cream!  And fast!

My final assessment:

--cooks in 1900 had to work hard!
--they had time to master the
  techniques for using the tools, which I didn't
--some of the tools work better than
  others, but the successful ones may not be the ones you expected
--the cream whipper worked really well!
--there was some real pressure to clean up as you went, because if you let metal tools sit, they rust

It was fun.  Will I do it again?  Maybe.  I still have a few interesting pieces to play with, including a mandoline-like thing that may be for making cole slaw. But it could be hard on unskilled fingers! And a hand-turned rolling pin.  And two butter presses--don't you think butter should be pretty?


  1. The cream whipper looks quite ingenious!
    Glad to see you having fun with your purchases. I look forward to more installments.

  2. I love your cooking utensils. The recipe looks good. I will have to try it.---Rae

  3. Ah yes, fifty shades of cakes! Great collection and photos, Sheila. I love your collection.

  4. Thoroughly enjoying your lessons on our pre-labor-saving-device cooking heritage, Sheila. Wonderful stuff.

    Have a tasty weekend...
    ~ Cleo

  5. I'm really enjoying this look back at how our grandmothers baked. I had a great aunt who traveled around as a wedding planner, and I can just imagine her using these sorts of tools.

    It might be time to bring that cream whipper back in stainless steel. I do get tired of hauling out the big mixer just to beat a little bit of cream.