Friday, October 18, 2013

Apple Cider Cake -- A New Old Recipe

by Sheila Connolly

Yes, it's another apple recipe. I promise this will be the last.  Maybe.  The harvest season in ending, after an incredible year (even for my baby trees).  And I feel positively giddy, because my latest Orchard Mystery, Golden Malicious, was a New York Times Mass Market Bestseller when it came out.  So forgive me if I revel in it, just a bit.

I also visited Old Sturbridge Village for their annual Apple Days, which is a lot of fun.  I tasted heirloom apple varieties (pleased that I had a few of them already in my tiny orchard, and I was so impressed with one I’d never tried  that I came home and ordered one immediately.  My “Mother” tree will arrive in the spring, in time for planting.).  I watched men use an ox to grind apples to make cider (and watched the same ox eat apples straight off a tree).

Ox in the apple tree
And I visited the old farmhouse, where the re-enactors were baking apples goodies.  Of course I came away with a new recipe.  Or rather, an old one, because this one dates from 1827.  The last cider cake recipe I gave you was from the 1880s—this one is half a century older.

The problem with the really old recipes is that whoever recorded them assumed you know the basic stuff, like when to mix and in what order, and what size pan to use, and how long to cook it at what temperature.  To be fair, back in 1827 there probably weren’t a lot of pans to choose from on a farm, and you guessed the (brick) oven temperature by sticking your hand in and waiting until you couldn’t keep it in there any longer. 

So I made some educated guesses to fill in the blanks in this very simple recipe.  And (drumroll) I mixed it all by hand, in the time-honored tradition.  Since the ingredients weight nearly seven pounds, that was no mean feat.  Do not take on a nineteenth-century farm woman in wrestling, for they were strong!

“To make a good Cider Cake” from the December 28, 1827 issue of the New England Farmer

Two pounds of flour, one of sugar, half of butter, one of fruit [raisins or currants], one pint of cider, two teaspoons of pearlash, cloves and spice to your taste.

Uh, that was the whole recipe.  Might be there are just a few gaps?  Here’s my modern version—although I did use a scale to weigh the ingredients (a very modern one!).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2 pounds flour (about 6 cups)
1 pound sugar (about 2 cups)
1 Tblsp baking powder
1-2 tsp of cinnamon
½ tsp of cloves (or more if you like)
½ pound of butter, softened
2 cups cider
One pound of raisins or currants (I usually soak these for a few minutes in
     boiling water to soften them up)

In a LARGE bowl, place the dry ingredients and whisk them together.  Add the soft butter and work it in until it’s evenly distributed (mixture will be crumbly).

Add the cider (I used the last of my home-made batch) and mix until you have a stiff batter.  Add the raisins last and mix again.

Butter and flour a pan (I used a 9” x 13” baking pan).  Spoon the batter into the pan and smooth out the top.  Place in the preheated oven and bake until the top is lightly browned and the edges begin to pull away from the pan—probably around an hour.  Cool in the pan.

This is a hearty, tasty cake with a nice apple flavor.  It should keep well.  If you want to dress it up, you can drizzle it with some of that caramel sauce I write about recently, or add a dollop of whipped cream or some vanilla ice cream.  I picture the farm workers in 1827 slipping a sturdy slice in their pockets for a quick snack after haying or milking or whatever.




  1. Since you didn't comment on the pearlash in the original recipe, I had to go look it up!
    I read it out in my head as "pear lash" but it appears to be "pearl ash" since it is a chemical leavening made from ashes. Check out that web site, Sheila - historic gastronomy is right down your alley (and soon, mine, as well)!

    1. The re-enactor at Sturbridge explained it for me, or sort of--she mentioned that there was ash in it originally. She was the one who explained the "hand in the oven" concept. When she started working with the brick oven, she could keep her hand in for 10 seconds (for a hot oven). Now she's up to 12, and she's had to adjust her planning.

  2. Sheila, that cake looks big enough to feed half of Boston! I can't remember if I already said this, but you are heading toward writing a historical mystery--I'm sure of it!

  3. PS, love love the picture of the ox eating apples

  4. I love spice cake and I bet the cider will kick it up a notch. Thanks for another intriguing recipe, Sheila!

    Old cookbooks are so much fun.


  5. Aww, too bad. I liked the "pear lash." Sounded much more interesting than ash!

    Wonderful cake, Sheila. I bet you're right about the workers taking it along with them. That recipe is priceless!

    Love the ox in the tree, too.

    So what kind of apple impressed you so much that you had to order a tree right away?


  6. Sheila- Would love to take this cake to work tomorrow but too tired tonight, will have to do it next week! The apple crop here in Indiana has also been spectacular. I have been eating fresh apples none stop for the past month. I also canned apples that I cooked with apple cider for naturally sweetened applesauce. Pretty darned good, if I say so myself!

  7. Sheila, I can't even imagine what it took to bake way back when. Stoking the fire. Getting the measurements right. Temp, temp, temp consistency. Fun that you follow all of this. Thanks for sharing. Love the pic of the apples!

    Daryl / Avery