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.