Cake Revolution #3: Layers

Layer cakes opened the door to endless possibilities that still fire the imagination of cooks.

Layer cakes opened the door to endless possibilities that still fire the imagination of cooks.

#3 Layers

Okay so this is really a continuation of  #2 but layers are so integral to our imaginings of what a cake should be I felt it deserved its place as an invention in its own right. The Little House Cookbook explains:

You could make enough batter for all your small milk pans, bake all the batches at once and stack up the results in a single, glorious confection. Thus was the American layer cake born.  With the introduction of fine cake flour at the end of the century, its triumph over the pie as dessert favorite was assured.

I could go add on a number of other inventions such as affordable fine milled flour and refined white sugar which led to ever lighter more delicate creations but these three are my favorite. Without the invention of cast iron cook stoves, baking powder and layers cakes would still be something us common people would rarely taste.

As a child I dreamed about layer cakes, usually with some element of chocolate. For example chocolate cake with raspberry jam filling, German chocolate cake sandwiched with chocolate butter cream and iced with its nutty coating, white cake with fresh berries and fluffy butter cream icing. Flat rectangular cakes just dodn’t have the possibilities inherent to layer cakes.

As an adult the perfect homemade layer cake remained a dream until I discovered the…

Victorian Baking Tip of the Week

When making a layer cake do not cut your well risen  beautiful cake into layers, it will only lead to heartache and lopsided-asymmetrical disappointment .  Instead decide how many layers of cake you want and divide the batter between that many pans.

Simple cake layers

My Grandmother’s 1961 edition of the Betty Crocker Cookbook uses this method but only ventures to 2 layers. Trust me you can make as many layers as you want within reason. I wouldn’t try to replicate the Petronis towers or anything.

I recognize the average household today will be short on the requisite number of milk pans but do not let that deter you. Inexpensive round cake pans can be purchased from many stores for a few dollars. The small outlay of cash is well worth it when  you can wow your friends with a beautiful cake of uniform layers.

If you insist on trying to cut your beautiful cake into layers here are the tips from my Betty Crocker Cookbook circ 2000. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This really seems to complicated

This really seems to complicated

So the next time you are ogling that fantastic layered creation on the cover of Women’s Day or are weighing up your options at the bakery stop and think of the Victorian house wives who used the inventions of their day to revolutionize cakes.

Happy Baking!


The Cake Revolution Invention #2: Baking Powder

#2 Baking Powder

Egg Whites Vs Baking Powder

Egg Whites Vs Baking Powder

Prior to commercial production of reliable baking powder (Think: Anne Shirley and Rollings Reliable Baking) there were two ways to achieve lift in baked goods.

First there was yeast or sourdough, commonly used for everyday breads and some cakes. The down side to this method was it required time to allow the batter to rise. Also both yeast and sourdough have a strong flavor.

The second choice was eggs, primarily in the form of beaten egg whites, each of which must be beaten by hand as described in These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

That afternoon the finished black cashmere was carefully pressed, and then Ma made a big, white cake. Laura helped her by beating the egg whites on a platter with a fork, until Ma said they were stiff enough.

“My arm is stiffer,:” Laura ruefully laughed, rubbing her aching right arm.

“This cake must be just right,: Ma insisted if you can’t have a wedding party, at least you shall have a wedding dinner at home, and a wedding cake.”

Have a go:

  • Seperate one egg
  • Place white on a small plate
  • Beat with a fork to stiff peak

Imagine doing this for the requisite 3-10 eggs called for in a cake and you will understand why cakes were reserved for special occasions. Not to mention the scarcity of eggs in many Victorian homes. Even if you had your own chickens you probably wouldn’t choose to squander them in frequent cake baking.

The first ever baking powder was invented in 1843 by British chemist Alfred Bird for his wife who was allergic to eggs and yeast. It took a number of decades and dozens of chemists and manufacturers to perfect baking powder into the reliable kitchen staple we rely on

While chemists delved into cookery experiments the chemical saleratus, (aka, baking soda) became more widely available but it required you to sour the milk before it would have the desire effect, this required fore thought and planning, no good for surprise visitors.

However by the 1860’s there were tolerably reliable baking powders on the market turning cakes from special occasion treats into weekly staples. This is what The Little House Cookbook has to say on the subject:

Now cake baking was practically instantaneous; there was no long beating of eggs, no waiting for milk to sour. 

When I use saleratus I don’t have the patience to allow milk to sour naturally so speed things up with a teaspoon of vinegar. I use this for quick breads. But for cakes my go to raising agent is good old baking powder.

This miraculous invention leads us to the next innovation in the cake revolution  layers…

In our next post I, 1880’s Girl, will wax lyrical on the delicious possibilities introduced by the creative use of milk pans.

3 Inventions that Revolutionized Victorian Cakes


This isn’t like any stove I’ve ever seen before, and I’m not sure how you would go about using it as an oven.

Cakes are something we take entirely for granted today. It only takes a few minutes to whip up a simple butter cake or a coffee cake for unexpected visitors.  But this was not always the case. The home desert of choice used to be a boiled pudding. It may have been quick to throw together but it took ages to cook, three or more hours (remember last weeks wedding cake recipe which was half-way between a cake and a pudding?)

To the Victorian’s  homemade cakes were something to get excited over; they were something to fuel the culinary imagination. American’s especially embraced these new technologies. (Okay so I know technically Americans aren’t Victorians not being under the reign of Queen Victoria but who lets such technicalities get in the way? Not 1880’s Girl, that’s for sure.)

Here are three Inventions that changed the face of dessert forever.

  1. Cast Iron Stoves
  2. Baking Powder
  3. Layers

Each of these proved to be such fascinating lines of research I have broken them up into three shorter posts, petit fours instead of a massive fruitcake.

#1 Cast Iron Stoves

Prior to the advent of iron stoves ovens were massive built in structures made of brick and mortar, only the wealthy would have houses big enough for them. Or as is recorded for us in Patty Cake, Patty Cake you might pay a fee to the village baker for the use of his oven.

Most cooking was done over an open fire with an assortment of arms, hooks and spits worked into the masonry to accommodate boiling and roasting. Hence the popularity of the boiled pudding.

 In 1728, well before the days of Queen Victoria, the first Cast iron stoves began to be made in commercial quantities in the U.S.  but these were primarily designed for increased heat efficiency not for cooking.

In 1800 Benjamin Thompson invented the first cook stove but it was still large, cumbersome and expensive. But the idea caught on. Inventors, designers and blacksmiths across New England began patenting their own new designs. By the mid 1800’s Troy New York hand nearly 200 factories making stoves for homes all over the U.S.

This meant housewives could now easily and efficiently bake in the comfort of their own kitchens,  bread and biscuits (scones) for everyday, pies for something sweet, cakes for something extra special.

Just having a cook stove wasn’t enough Victorians needed

Stay tuned for the riveting history of baking powder.

The Wedding Cake vs The Groom’s Cake

A Victorian inspired wedding cake for today.

A Victorian inspired wedding cake for today.

In A Bride’s Cake I recounted the glories and disappointments of the wedding cakes of my childhood.

But there was an exception, one cousin had an exquisite cake made from a new little shop that had just opened up called Konditorei.  Well let me tell you an Austrian Konditor knows how to make a wedding cake! It was topped with sugar flowers that looked like glass.  It was intricate, delicate and and romantic enough to please any Victorian bride.

(The Konditor creation is not pictured, this one is my own wedding cake)

did you know?

In Victorian England it was all the rage to have not just one cake but two and possibly three.(assuming you were of the class that had cake at their wedding)

Last week we discussed 5 tips to insure your bride’s cake is as light and airy as the bride herself.

Now for the star, THE wedding cake, the thing of sculptured beauty . The cake that was boxed up for guests to take home so that unmarried ladies might sleep with it beneath their pillows. (One can only presume the purpose of this was to dream of their future groom.)


It was common to send a small box of cake to those who could not attend the wedding such as your tenants, or bed ridden great aunt. If you are of a vindictive nature you might ensure a piece is sent to your arch rival, the parting shot.

The wedding cake had a table to itself to show off it’s glory and magnify it’s importance.

wedding cake cutting, Victorian wedding cake, victorian wedding, 1880's girl wedding

We did not go for a traditional cake, I can’t remember all the layers but my layer was chocolate with Raspberry filling. It was not a disappointment.

Last but not least there was the groom’s cake, meant to be strong, dark and rich as one would hope any groom worth his salt would be.

So far, no confusion.

  • Bride’s cake–light and airy
  • Wedding cake–big and showy
  • Groom’s cake–dark and rich.

Having that all straight I went delving for recipes and it all got muddied.  All my sources agree as to the bride’s cake white, light and airy.

The confusion lies in that both the wedding cake and groom’s cake are described as dark, made with molasses, possibly with chocolate, dried fruit and soaked in or flavored with liqueur. Other sources recommend a pound cake or equally heavy batter of substance for the wedding cake leaving the fruit and alcohol for the groom’s cake.

One friend insisted on a good solid fruit cake for his wedding, any other cake simply wouldn’t be a wedding cake.

Personally I doubt there were any hard and fast rules about the cake as long as it was tasty and solid enough to hold up the elaborate decorations.

Maybe this is how we ended up with the modern tiered cakes each layer a different flavor.

Hear is the recipe from The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cook Book for a wedding cake that could be passed off as a groom’s cake

Wedding Cake

  • 1 lb. butter
  • 1 lb. sugar.
  • 12 eggs
  • 1 lb. flour
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon each: nutmeg,allspice, mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon clove
  • 3 lbs. raisins seeded and cut in pieces.
  • 1 lb currants
  • 1 lb citron thinly sliced and cut in strips
  • 1 lb figgs finely chopped.
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice.

Cream the butter, add sugar gradually, and beat thoroughly. Separate yolks from whites of eggs; beat yolks until thick and lemon colored, whites until stiff and dry, and add to first mixture.  Add flour (excepting one-third cup, which should be reserved to dredge fruit) mixed and sifted, with spices, brandy and lemon juice. Then add fruit, except citron, dredged with reserved flour. Dredge citron with flour and pu in layers between cake mixture when putting int he pan. Bake same as English Fruit Cake. That is…

Put in deep pans, cover with buttered paper, steam three hours, and bake one and one-half hours in a slow oven, or bake four hours in a very slow oven.

It seems to me you need a mighty lot of experience to make up for what isn’t explained in these recipes but they are fun to read.

Tip of the Day for the Victorian Baker:  “Currants bought in bulk need through cleaning. First roll in flour, which helps to start dirt; wash in cold water, drain and spread to dry; then roll again in flour before using.” (rolling in flour prevents the currants from all settling at the bottom.)

Stay tuned for more fascinating tidbits and morsels of Victorian cakey goodness.

A Brides Cake and 5 Tips For The Victorian Baker

A beautiful reprint of the original cook book, complete with Victorian advertisements, out dated punctuation and at times sketchy detail.

A beautiful reprint of the original cook book, complete with Victorian advertisements, out dated punctuation and at times sketchy detail.

Do you remember attending weddings as a child?

I don’t know about you but next to the dress my  favourite thing was the cake. That tower of loveliness with its flowers and and ribbons, promising such great things but more often than not proving a bitter disappointment,  too sweet, too dry with flavourless foamy icing and slightly salty flowers.

To avoid having one of those cakes that are better to look at than to eat try this recipe from The Boston Cooking-school’s Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cook Book . Don’t forget to follow the 5 tips extracted from the instructions for mixing butter cakes. These are real tips for real Victorian’s so warm up those arm muscles and get ready for some serious mixing.

Bride’s Cake

  • 1/2 cup butter.
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar.
  • 1/2 cup milk.
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar.
  • Whites six eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoons almond extract

Follow recipe for mixing butter cakes. Bake forty-five to fifty minutes in deep, narrow pans. cover with white frosting.

For mixing Butter Cakes

  1. An earthen bowl should always be used for mixing cake, and a wooden cake-spoon with slits lightens the labour
  2. Count out number of eggs required, breaking each separately that there may be no loss should a stale egg chance to be found in the number, separating yolks from whites if rule so specifies.
  3. When yolks and whites of eggs are beaten separately, whites are usually added at the last as is the cas when whites of eggs alone are used.
  4. A cake can be made fine grained only by long beating, although light and delicate with a small amount of beating.
  5. And never stir a cake after the final beating, remembering that beating motion should always be the last used.

Mixing the cake is only the beginning. “The baking of cake is more critical than the mixing. Many a well mixed cake has been spoiled in the baking”. 

There is an entire page of fine print, unalleviated by paragraphs, devoted to the details of baking cakes, remember at this time “no oven thermometer has yet proved practical“.  It gives guidance on how to open, check and raise back covers, or to leave oven door ajar all without disturbing the cake. Also it warns against putting the cake too close to the fire box as it may burn on one side.

How much we take for granted when we cook our cakes, pre-washed fruit, ovens that stay mostly a constant temperature and do not require years of experience to expertly operate and not to be forgotten,  reliable baking powder.

This is all extremely fascinating but I opened with tantalizing memories of wedding cakes not bride’s cakes. “What?” I hear you say, “Aren’t they one and the same thing?”

No gentle reader they are not.

There are Brides’s cakes, Groom’s cake and Wedding cakes to be covered in more detail on Monday.

Don’t forget the flowers of the week….

What emotion should you call up if you find someone has slipped a French Marigold and sprig of Frog Ophrys on your pillow? And who would send such a message?

leave your guesses in the comments or tweet me @seahamber.