Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Making Little Cakes With Martha Washington

There are very few pages in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery that fail to yield something utterly delightful. Take, for example, recipe 196, which tantalizingly promises to show the reader how “To Keepe Neats Tongues & Dry Them.” Neats’ tongues are now known — far more dully — as beef tongues, but their 18th-century name, as well as the ambiguity of the word “keep,” conjures (for me at least) the mental image of a beleaguered Virginia woman straining to prevent a host of rambunctious tongues from escaping a pickle barrel. Cannonfire sounds in nearby Chesapeake. Once she deals with the tongues, the woman decides, she will spoil herself a little, war be damned. She will make the most restorative decoction she knows of, which is, of course, number 285: “Cock Water.” The recipe calls for the hapless cook to “Take A red cock & pull it alive, and whip it till it be dead allmoste. then cut him in 4 quarters while he is alive, & drayn him well from bloud with A cloth.” On second thought, maybe she will content herself with “Little Cakes.”

It’s a pet belief of mine that the best way to learn about a culture or a historical period is by wearing its fashions and eating its foods. The same can be said of fictional characters: I can’t think about Little Women without thinking about pickled limes and what they actually are, and then that I should make them, and then about Little Women in general and how Professor Bhaer may have been all Gabriel-Byrne-let-me-kiss-you-at-the-opera in the movie, but how based on his description in the book he probably more closely resembled Žižek, and then I get distracted and don’t make pickled limes. Would the taste of a pickled lime help us understand why Laurie ended up with Amy? Doesn’t something have to?

In any case, a historical period’s foods are usually easier and cheaper to get your hands on than its fashions — even if they tend toward the overambitious. In fact, the more ambitious the better: You never sympathize more with an 18th-century woman than when you find yourself elbow-deep in viscera — or at least, you probably don’t. I’ve been elbow-deep in viscera more than once, but in my attempt to understand the women who read — and cooked from — Martha Washington’s book, I settled for being wrist-deep in Little Cakes, because what they lack in ambition they make up for with their delightful name. Just say it: “Little Cakes.”

“What are you making?”

“Little Cakes.” (Capitalization is imperative.) 

Or, even better:

My Dear George, I do hope this letter finds you well. Enclos’d are 2 doz. Little Cakes, meant to remind you of our happy home. Please do not give any to Gen. Henry Knox as he is already quite stout. Signed, your dearest puddin’ pop, Martha.

So — Little Cakes it is. And this is how you make them:

Take A pound of wheat flower twice sifted, a pound of currans, A quarter of a pound of sugar, A little nutmeg grated, A little saffron, ye whites of 14 eggs beaten, A little salt, some rose water. mingle ye flower with a little sweet & thick cream, & put it into ye saffron, eggs, & sugar finely beaten. when ye paste is made, beat it well with a rouling pin, & roule out part of it thin. then take your currans, nutmeg, & rosewater, & lay them on your paste, & strow on them a little fine sugar. then roule out ye other pieces of paste thin, & lay it on the top. then close it together, & cut ye superfluous paste with a Jagg. thus you may make yr paste all into one, or into severall little cakes, according to yr pleasure. when they are baked, you may Ice them over with A little sugar & rosewater wash’d over on ye top, & ye white of an egg beaten with it, & after set them a little into ye oven againe. & soe you may Ice your great Cakes.

What could be simpler — especially when you’re able to appreciate how lucky you are not to be torturing a chicken? What’s more, all of these ingredients are easy to secure, with the exception of rosewater, which proved surprisingly perplexing to all the clerks at the downtown Portland Whole Foods. Two people pointed me straight toward rosewater face wash, whose label boasted, inexplicably, that it was recommended by the teachings of Edgar Cayce. This led me to phone a friend and ask whether it made sense to use face wash in a recipe, since the label didn’t explicitly say that it wasn’t edible, right? Ultimately, however, I found the specifically edible kind of rosewater in the ethnic food aisle, since it’s now used in far more Lebanese recipes than it is in Little Cakes. I also bought the Edgar Cayce face wash, reasoning that I was already using Dr. Bronner’s magic soap, and adding psychic expertise to my beauty regimen could only make me all the more sexily clairvoyant.

Easy-to-find ingredients aside, however, this recipe does present some problems, even when you divide it in half (which is what I did). How much, for example, is “a little saffron”? What exactly does “mingling” involve, when you’re baking something instead of hanging out awkwardly at one of those parties where they serve cocktails in surprisingly breakable plastic cups? I’m relatively secure in terms of “strowing,” but what about referring to the dough as “paste”? And how exactly do you beat something “well”? A lot? A little? Just the right amount?

This is the kind of vagueness we’ve gotten used to avoiding in modern cookbooks, where we always know whether we’re supposed to be mincing, dicing, chopping, or julienning, what temperature we should preheat our ovens to, and how many strands of saffron we’re meant to use. If we were all in our 18th-century kitchens, though, we would probably have a pretty good idea of what “beat it well” or “a little saffron” meant — the normal amount of saffron, the amount we’d used in every other recipe, so obvious that it doesn’t need to be written down, God. Meanwhile, in my mother’s 21st-century kitchen, I did what I always do when I wasn’t sure of how much to use: I used a lot.

This worked fine with the saffron (even I know that a lot of saffron is, at most, about five strands), but defining what “a little sweet & thick cream” meant was harder. In order to really get in the historical swing of things, I bought the high-end, organic cream I always find myself leering at (the little glass bottles!) but never buy. After tasting it I decided that “a little” meant “as much as I could reasonably convince myself was called for,” which was something of a mistake. After adding about a cup and a half of cream, I realized what I had was less a rollable substance than a big, wet, sticky, creamy mass, so I panicked and started adding a lot of extra flour. This may or may not have led to the central tragedy of the Little Cakes Experience, namely that the dough turned out to be as tough as stale Play-Doh. For this, I offer two hypotheses:

  1. Too much flour.
  2. Too little beating. Each recipe in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery comes with an explanatory note by its wonderful editor, the late, great culinary historian Karen Hess. Hess calls the Little Cake “a ‘currant newton,’ if you will,” and writes that, when it comes to cutting the Little Cakes, “diamond-shapes are easy and can be justified historically.” Most helpfully, however, she writes that “the beating of the dough is for tenderness, exactly as for our Southern beaten biscuit.”

In other words: spare the rod, spoil the cake. Did I follow this advice? Well, of course not. As much as I had committed myself to being historical, I wasn’t really able to believe that I was supposed to abuse my dough quite so energetically. I stirred it vigorously, broke a spoon in the process (which really should have been my first clue), and left it at that. Which is how I learned the first great lesson of this endeavor: never think you’re smarter than Karen Hess.

After that, all that remained was “strowing” (which we really need to bring back into common cookbook parlance) and cutting. I went with circles, and one historically unjustifiable dinosaur (sorry, Karen). Hess also provides a recipe for a rosewater-egg-white wash, which I’m glad I actually did listen to her about. A rosewater wash is a perfect addition to any baked good, as far as my mother and I are concerned. However, we may be the only ones. Other verdicts went as follows:

My friend Mary Jo: “I’m gonna save the rest of this for later.”

My friend Daniel: “I just don’t like rosewater-flavored desserts since I went undercover in that cult that put rosewater in everything.” (Note: this is in fact a true story. Those of us who can’t join cults make cakes instead.)

My early American literature professor: “The first bite was like eating perfume, and then I kind of got into it. It didn't go well with coffee, though! I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland, expecting my body to morph in some way.”

My verdict: the dough was horribly tough (my fault), but Martha and Karen held up their ends of the bargain. I learned not just that I have a hard time committing to beating dough but that I love rosewater, especially when it’s added to the “strown” currants, which get sort of melty and caramelized, and mingle with the fresh, fleshy rosewater in a pretty wonderful way. (See how much I’ve learned about mingling?)

More to the point, the combination of flavors in the Little Cakes is completely different from any of the desserts we’re used to tasting. All the sweetness in them comes from currants, the tiny bit of sugar in the wash and the filling, and the “sweet & thick cream” (especially when you use a lot of it). In 2008, the average American consumed 136 pounds of sugar per year. In 1750, the average American consumed four pounds. The Washingtons probably consumed quite a bit more than that — they could afford all the sugar they wanted, in addition to saffron and an incredible number of eggs — but their idea of what a dessert constitutes is still pretty dissimilar to ours.

Which leads me to my final conclusion, equally applicable to those who love rosewater and those who don’t: We’re always searching for new flavors, but the best direction to head might just be our past. We’re out of South American mystery fruit (or at least, dear God, I hope we are). Let’s take a look at what out long-suffering ancestors were eating, instead.

Previously: Your 2013 Baby Name Guide, Puritan Edition

Sarah Marshall is currently attempting to read biographies of all the Presidents, in order. She is currently as far as the first 30 pages of David McCullough’s John Adams, and would be delighted at the prospect of further distracting herself by attempting to make pickled limes.

52 Comments / Post A Comment


Martha Washington has been completely overshadowed by Mary Todd Lincoln, who probably didn't bake a cake in her life, which is to say I completely approve of this activity.

fondue with cheddar

@thisisunclear It's just as well—I don't think it's a good idea for a laudanum addict to be anywhere near a stove.


"The Laudanum Addict's Cookbook." Step 1: God It's Hot. Steps 1 to 13: [indecipherable scrawl] Step 14: Just reheat some poppy tea.

fondue with cheddar


fondue with cheddar

The Rambunctious Tongues will be the name of my new punk band.

fondue with cheddar

Also, why does she call them cakes when they are clearly pies?


Beautiful and Talented !@y


The whipped egg whites reminds me of the book I just finished, "Consider the Fork" by Bee Wilson. She talks quite a bit about how whipped egg whites were basically rich people showing off that they had the servants available to whip egg whites for them because it's so strenuous/time consuming. Also CTF is a pretty great book and you should totally read it.


@cupcakecore@twitter *added to the list*


I might have this same cookbook? Does yours have a drawing/schematic of the Washingtons' garden?

Also, OK, I am a really really good cook but reading that recipe I did not anticipate little hand-pie/turnover things would be the result. High fives for attempting it.

Terror of the 416

I always find it so frustrating to work with baking recipes that call for "a little" or "a handful" of whatever. I do respond well to Coolio's instructions to add "a dime bag" of seasoning in his seminal cookbook Cookin' With Coolio, however.


@Terror of the 416

God, I saw that on the shelf at B&N one time and nearly lost it. Is it as good as it appears?


@Terror of the 416
Just going to leave this here...


@Terror of the 416 I don't but this is basically how I bake/make pancakes anyway.

Terror of the 416

@frigwiggin It is far, far better. Required reading.

regina dentata

Love this! And I want that cookbook. In most baked goods, over-handling or over-mixing the dough leads to toughness. So maybe that's it? Or perhaps the ratios were off. Such ambiguous measurements!

Lily Rowan

@regina dentata Yeah, now I need someone to explain Southern Beaten Biscuits to me. When I make biscuits, I try to mix them as little as possible.


@regina dentata That's what I was thinking - the more you handle the dough, the more the gluten develops. Good for breads and such, not good for desserts.


@Lily Rowan It's all about the flour. Only use a low-gluten/high-protein flour and then you can manhandle biscuits to your heart's desire.


@Lily Rowan On the other hand, I do support minimal contact for pie crusts, because I contain multitudes.

Lily Rowan

@adorable-eggplant Ohhhh! I've never gotten into all your different kinds of fancy flour.


1. Dinosaur cake!

2. Can we hear some more about Daniel and the rosewater cult? I laughed really really hard, and then the thirst for knowledge set in.


@Canard A thirst for knowledge that can only be quenched with more rosewater-tinged stories.

Ellen Hodgkin@twitter

@Canard Daniel and the Rosewater Cult is either my new band, or my first Gothic-horror YA novel.


I'm so incredibly jealous that you get to do dorky historical activities that a fellow history nerd like me would do anyway, and then actually write about said activities and presumably get paid for it. Where did I go so wrong in life that I have to be a history nerd by myself, with no viable career options resulting from it?


@LucyPepys You can always start a history-themed recipe blog (like this ancient roman one)!


"roule out ye other pieces of paste thin, & lay it on the top. then close it together, & cut ye superfluous paste with a Jagg" and then pop ye morsels of superfluous paste into ye mouth, lest the cat run off with them.

Lumpy Space Princess

I roll my eyes every time I have to think about Amy & Laurie together. Ugh! On the other hand: Bhaer! :D

lucy snowe

"...how Professor Bhaer may have been all Gabriel-Byrne-let-me-kiss-you-at-the-opera in the movie, but how based on his description in the book he probably more closely resembled Žižek . .."

And I hate to say it, but I think I'd prefer Žižek Bhaer to Byrne Bhaer, even with the nasty teeth and complete inability to stop talking for more than two seconds at a time. I don't know why, but I've always found G.B. really off-putting. His casting in that movie made me mad for Jo.

Miss Maszkerádi

@lucy snowe Blaaaaargh I got all huffy and pissed just by the mere sighting of the name Žižek. I probably should go to philosopher's anger management therapy but ARGH.

lucy snowe

@Countess Maritza Heehee! I guess you should stick with Gabriel Byrne, then! I was trying to think of a third option, but the only person I could think of is that funny guy who does the bubble graphs for TED.

lucy snowe

I bet Dolly Madison's cook had tastier recipes.


Nostalgia! When my three brothers and I were in third grade (at separate times, of course), my mom and grandma would come in, dressed in colonial garb, and read "George Washington's Breakfast" to our class and show us how to make johnny cakes. It was like, an all-afternoon thing! My youngest brother, the lucky bastard, even had my grandpa show up dressed as George Washington himself.


Zizek? Slavoj Zizek? Is that an image all y'all can conjure up at will? I'm impressed! Or should I be thinking of someone else. ?

lucy snowe

@Lu2 Pretty sure that's who she means. The Lacanian who likes to write about 'The Matrix.'


@lucy snowe Wow, I didn't know he wrote about "The Matrix." I really need to crawl out into the sunshine from time to time. :) Thanks.

You'll be sorry Jo March

HISTORICAL COOKING!!! Yaaaaay. Can we have a million more of these, please?

I tried making pickled limes! I was so excited. I did my research, I chose a historical recipe...and they were absolutely not to be borne. Mouth-twistingly sour, nauseatingly salty. Maybe my limes weren't ripe enough? I want to try again. Nothing will keep me from figuring out why 19th century kids liked pickled limes as much as candy. There had to be SOMETHING good about it, right?


@You'll be sorry Jo March This sounds like the preserved lemon (or maybe it was lime) I bought at a Japanese candy store. It was WOW. And not in a good way. Kind of like salty, super-sour Sour Patch Kids, with a chemical aftertaste.


@You'll be sorry Jo March Also, maybe they like it so much because they didn't have many other taste thrills at the time.

Tropical Iceland

Your dough was tough because you mixed it too much, not too little. When you mix dough you develop the gluten, which makes it tough and chewy rather than tender. That's what you want with bread, but not tart dough like you made. The little bit of cream was probably just supposed to be like an ounce, to make sure there weren't lumps of flour when you added the eggs. Never believe anyone who tells you to beat biscuits more than absolutely necessary!


@Tropical Iceland I was going to comment and say just this! Sweet pastry can be sooooo temperamental. I am really intrigued by how this recipe used only egg whites though.


@Tropical Iceland Always with the Alton Brown muffin method--fold it a dozen times and then walk away. Just walk away.

Heather Gleason Holleque@facebook

I hope this turns into a series! I LOVE historical cooking. I also agree it was likely tough from too much stirring than not enough.

My daughter used rose water for a middle eastern dessert for a class project once and pretty much everyone including us hated it.


I would like a whole series of these please and thank you.


Speaking of historical cooking, I was reminded of this last week. My roommate and I were watching TV a while back and came across a show called "Time Machine Chefs." Basically, the chefs "traveled" to different time periods and had to cook with the tools available in that year.

It...was not a great show. However, I was alerted to the existence of the Turnspit Dog, which was a dog bred to run in an oversized hamster wheel to turn the spit over the fire in the 16th century.


Are limes the fashion?

Evidence-based decision-making

Um. Southern beaten biscuits are a thing. You actually beat (fold) the crap out of the dough to get flaky layers. Here is a link http://theriseofthesouthernbiscuit.weebly.com/2/category/biscuit%20brake/1.html and a quote "biscuit brakes were found in affluent Southern homes before the invention of baking powder. Rolling and folding the dough is what created flaky layers and made them rise..just a little. If you didn't have a brake..you had to beat and fold the dough manually for about an hour".

Noah Brooks

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Bentham Science: Forensics - Bentham Science Publishers


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