Friday, September 12, 2014

Mrs. Donahey's Peach Shortcake

by Sheila Connolly

I should not be allowed out of the house, because I keep coming back with books. And I can’t seem to clear any space for the new ones. I’ve got four large boxes of books I'm planning to take to the library, and there’s still no room. Therefore I buy more, to soothe the pain of loss.

Last week I went to the Brimfield Antiques Fair, which is huge. It’s halfway across the state from where I live—but it takes only a bit over an hour to get there, in part along the Massachusetts Turnpike. A few years ago, the rest stops on the Mass Pike decided to allow farmers to sell their wares on their sites. While it’s a bit late for most crops this year, I did come upon one orchard vendor, offering the last of the summer peaches and the first of the fall apples. No surprise, I bought both.

And then I went on my way to Brimfield, where I acquired…more books. (And a delightful antique apple peeler, but I’ll save that for another day.) One of my finds was The Calorie Cook Book by Mary Dickerson Donahey, with a copyright date of 1923. Who knew they were worried about calorie counting then?

The charming Mrs. Donahey opens her book with a chapter titled “Remarks—Pertinent and Impertinent” and says, “This book has been made for the use of those people who wish to eat properly and really don’t know how.” Think things have improved since 1923?

I’ll admit that many of her points make sense, even from today’s perspective, and at least she doesn’t pretend to be a scientist or a food expert. Things fall apart just a wee bit when she starts providing “Reducing Menus” for each day of the week, by season. The portions are tiny, especially the breakfasts. I mean, “5 dates or 15 raisins, 2 soda crackers, and clear coffee?” Another breakfast is made up of “a full glass of whole milk.” That’s all.

I think the lovely lady really gave herself away when she included a substantial section on desserts. Thirty-three pages worth, in fact.

Clearly my peaches were clamoring to be used first (although I’ll miss the wonderful aroma that perfumed my kitchen). Mrs. Donahey kindly provides a recipe for Peach Short Cake (1580 calories—and she doesn’t say how many people this may serve. Uh-huh.)

Mrs. Donahey’s Peach Short Cake (updated for modern conveniences)

1-1/2 cups flour
1 Tblsp baking powder
2 tsp sugar
Pinch of salt
1-1/2 tsp shortening
1/2 cup milk
7 medium-sized peaches (make sure they’re nice and ripe)
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 Tblsp butter

Peel the peaches, remove the pits, and slice. [Note: mine were delicious! Just the right stage of ripeness, and very sweet.] Sprinkle with the powdered sugar as soon as they are cut. [Mrs. Donahey notes that the peaches may discolor if they sit too long, so you might want to add a little lemon juice to prevent this.]

Sift the dry ingredients together and rub in the shortening with the finger tips (substitute: food processor). Add the milk (if the mixture is not moist enough, add a little more).

Roll out the dough and bake as a single round cake or individual small ones.
Mrs. Donahey didn’t give a temperature, but she admitted using the Boston Cooking School Cookbook (aka Fannie Farmer) as one of her references, so I checked my aged copy: 450 degrees for 12 minutes.

Mrs. Donahey told us to split the cake(s) carefully and butter each half. I decided to try the Fannie Farmer strategy: melt the butter, brush the top of one cake with it, then put a second cake on top. It worked! And this method ensured that the shortcakes don’t dry out too much in baking.

Split your cakes, put one half in the bottom of a bowl, add a layer of peaches, lay the other half on top and add more peaches. (Being self-indulgent, I added sweetened whipped cream.)

The same recipe will work well for strawberries, raspberries or huckleberries.

Taking a quick look at the lady’s spectrum of “reducing” recipes, for most days she allows between 1200 and 1300 calories, total. I suppose that means you may have a very small serving of shortcake, like a tablespoon. I had a wee bit more.

To quote Mrs. Donahey, “Self control! That is the base of it all.”

Coming October 7th! Just in time for the apple harvest, which has already begun in Massachusetts (and will go on until November).

Available for preorder now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble


  1. Ooo, fresh, ripe peaches. Heaven.
    This looks delicious. I have a question, though. Perhaps my brain is not totally in gear yet, but you say:
    "Mrs. Donahey told us to split the cake(s) carefully and butter each half. I decided to try the Fannie Farmer strategy: melt the butter, brush the top of one cake with it, then put a second cake on top. It worked! And this method ensured that the shortcakes don’t dry out too much in baking."
    Is this before or after baking them? If before, how does one split them? If after, why the reference to this keeping them from drying out while baking?

    1. My problem has always been that I roll out my shortcake dough, make the circles, bake them, and they come out kind of dry. Maybe I've been rolling them too thin, because they're hard to split.

      But along comes Fannie Farmer who says, add butter and put two together! It keeps them more moist because together they're thicker.

  2. Must be a nationwide disease, not being able to leave the house without getting more books. Mine are double shelved now but the library donation pile always seems smaller than the incoming stacks.

    Mrs. Donahey's breakfast menu sounds like it came from my trainer at the gym. Well, kidding, mostly. I love the old cookbooks and the way they are written. I have a couple from the 1920's and they are fun to read. And sometimes contain some delicious recipes, like the peach shortcake.

    (sorry if two versions of this comment post, computer got weird)

  3. Oh, yum, Sheila. Love shortcake. I'll bet I can do this gluten-free. Very pretty. Love the 15 raisins diet. You could definitely lose weight on that, until your body screamed "Hold onto the fat! You'll need it." LOL

    Daryl / Avery

  4. That tip from Fannie Farmer is fabulous. Hmm, wonder what happened to my copy of that cookbook? Oh dear, it's contagious. I feel a cookbook shopping expedition coming on!

  5. It looks delicious. So colorful. I wonder if anyone has bottled a peach perfume?

  6. Sorry I was late in responding--off at another conference with little internet.

    I have to say these were among the best peaches I've ever had, and I just happened to stumble on them. They smelled and tasted wonderful and were very juicy. I was sorry to see them go. Now on to the apples! (Paula Red, which ripen early around here.)