Friday, March 27, 2015

This Old House, er, Cake

by Sheila Connolly

I so hoped that by now it would be time to write about recipes using a few fruits and vegetables from our local markets. Silly me! Boston added another two inches to their all-time snow record just this past weekend, and we may not be done yet. I still can’t see my lawn.

Ah, March in New England!

In the Orchard Mysteries I borrowed a real house, built by one of my ancestors, Stephen Warner, around 1760. Descendants of the builder were living there in the 1880s, and the woman of the house, Olive Barton Warner (my third cousin five times removed), left a day-to-day diary. She went on for quite a few years, although I’ve seen only the first two years (1880 and 1881). The diaries provide a lovely glimpse into farm life at the time. I turned to her entry for March 27, 1880—but there was no report on food (it was a Saturday and the family entertained neighbors in the afternoon). But the day before, on Friday, March 26th, Olive wrote:

I made two large, one small loaf of raised cake, and an apple dumpling for dinner. Eugene peared [sic] the apples the girls helped me make cake. It is pleasant not as weindy as two previous days.

This tells us that the family still had apples left over from the fall harvest, which would have ended in November. Olive didn’t record any recipes, although she did report what the family of four ate for dinner quite often. She was also a prolific baker, often making as many as six pies before breakfast.

I looked for an apple dumpling recipe, and found an 1881 version, from a Connecticut newspaper:

APPLE DUMPLING (1881) ‑ Make crust as follows: Prepare and boil, as for eating, four medium‑sized potatoes. When tender mash fine and to two cupfuls of potatoes add the same quantity of sifted flour. Mix together with a chopping knife so as to keep light. Now add a cupful of butter and chop in with knife. Add salt and mix to a paste with very cold water, doing all with the knife. Have apples chopped. Divide the paste, roll into squares, put in the center of each some of the chopped apples, bring the corners together and pinch the edges. Have ready some small square cloths dipped in water and floured on the inside. Put a dumpling into each, leaving room to swell, tie up and boil an hour; serve at once.

Oh, dear. I doubt that many of you, our faithful readers, are going to boil cloth-wrapped dumplings. I certainly don’t plan to.

So I looked for a cake. I did find, as the snows here fell…and fell…and fell…that I was doing a lot of baking, so I can sympathize with Olive. This is a kind of all-purpose cake, also dating from 1881, that Olive and her daughters might have made regularly.

CHEAP SPONGE CAKE  ‑ Three eggs, two tablespoonfuls of water and a teacupful of sugar mixed together; a teacupful and a half of flour, two teaspoonfuls of baking powder, and a pinch of salt stirred thickly in; season with a teaspoonful of essence of vanilla, or half a lemon; bake in a quick oven. it can be baked in jelly‑cake pans, and have pastry cooks' cream, lemon, icing, or chocolate between.

This is the full recipe as published (same newspaper), and you might notice a few things are missing—like how large a pan to use and whether to grease it, and how long to bake it.  I guess in 1881 most cooks were expected to know these details. So I’m going to wing it! (If you want a typical frosted cake, either split the cake from one recipe in half, or double it for two thicker layers.)

After a trial run, here’s what I recommend: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Use a 9” square pan, and you may want to line it with parchment paper or foil (remember, there is no butter in this recipe, so it’s fairly dry). Bake for 25-30 minutes, but keep an eye on it so it doesn’t dry out.


3 eggs
2 Tblsp water
1 cup sugar
1-1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven (a “quick oven”?).  Generously grease or line a pan.

Mix the eggs, water and sugar together. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Combine the liquid and dry ingredients and mix in the vanilla. (All this can easily be done by hand—no electric mixer required!)

Bake. For how long? Depends on the size of your pan. For general purposes, let’s assume you bake it until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, and the top is golden. Test with a toothpick to make sure the interior is cooked through.

Look! It worked!
Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan onto a rack and continue cooling.

Serve with your favorite topping (icing, cream, fruit—go wild!). Since I happened to have a some dried apple slices (from my own trees!) I decided to honor Olive in spirit and made a quick topping (soak the apples briefly in boiling water, drain, saute with a little butter, some sugar, a dash of cinnamon, and a splash of vanilla), but you can use whatever you like.

The reconstituted apples
My verdict? It’s a very simple cake to make, and it has a pleasant flavor and texture. You can dress it up however you like. I can picture Olive and her daughters in the kitchen, whipping up a couple of these (in case the neighbors drop by!).

Olive's house (but that's not Olive in front)

Privy to the Dead (Museum Mystery #6), coming in June 2015. 

Yes, "privy" means what you think it does. And more.

Available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


  1. Fun to hear about Olive and her family Sheila! I especially wish I could taste those apple rings from your tree...

  2. Those apples held up particularly well. I sliced them and hung them on a string to dry, and they've been in the back of the refrigerator ever since.

    I'm fond of Olive and her family (particularly since I know the kitchen where she cooked). Her two daughters, Lula and Nettie, never married, and lived out their lives in that house (or next door, which was also built by a relative). I know they could cook!

  3. What a fun family "trip".
    Wonder what would happen if you put the fixed up apple rings (lucky you to have yur own!) in the pan before adding the batter?

  4. Looks like the old ways are still with us, Sheila, even when we bake. And thanks, it was nice of you to fill in the blanks the vintage recipe left out.

    ~ Cleo

  5. Thank you! I love glimpses back in time and the cake looks yummy! Glad you have this family history and will keep it documented.

  6. Love family tales! Thanks for sharing. We need some of your moister here!

  7. That is so cool, that you have those diaries! And know the house. Thanks for sharing all that.

  8. I love these trips back in time, Sheila! It's all about the lore, isn't it?



    1. It's fun when you're dealing with a real place. This house is unusual because it has a well in the basement, right under the kitchen sink--so no one would have to go outside to draw water in a New England winter! And in the attic there are still the original large iron hooks for hanging the hams to cure. These are details most of us would never know without seeing them.