Today is Comestibles’ first anniversary, so what better corner of food history to explore than that of the birthday cake.
People have been celebrating holidays with special baked goods for thousands of years, but the white fluffy birthday cake with sweet icing we associate with every child’s party is a fairly modern invention. It could not exist without two important technologies that came out of the industrial revolution, grain mills equipped with porcelain or metal rollers, and baking powder.
Before the invention of roller mills (about 1870) flour was made using grind stones resulting in flour that contained some of the bran and all of the germ of the wheat. To get white flour the miller then had to sift or boult the flour through a succession of cloths of differing weaves which filtered out the bran and the germ. The oil that comes out of the germ during milling stayed in the flour giving it a gray-ish yellow color. The presence of that oil shortened the shelf-life of white flour to about six months after which it would go rancid. All of these limitations meant that white flour was expensive and used only by the wealthy or for special occasions.
When flour is ground using rollers, the grain passes through two rollers moving at different speeds the slower one holds it and the faster one strips it. Scraping off the germ before grinding meant that no germ or germ oil got into the flour. And so was created the first truly white flour, ground solely from the endosperm of the wheat. It was a snowy white and due to the lack of wheat germ and wheat germ oil, it had double the shelf life of the old style “white” flour. The new technology made it much less expensive and the longer shelf-life meant that it could be shipped all over the country. Everyone could have white flour.
The other invention important to those towering, sugar-laden birthday treats is baking powder. It was Initially created in England in 1843. The first American manufacturers were Evan Norton Horsford and George F. Wilson who founded the Rumford Chemical Works in Providence, Rhode Island in 1857. Before chemical leavening, cakes had to be raised with the power of eggs alone, which requires a lot of elbow grease with a whisk (remember, no stand mixers in the 19th Century), and speed to get it into the oven before it begins to collapse. It took an expert baker with lots of skill to make a fluffy, high angel food cake. Baking powder changes all of this, anyone could just add some to their recipe and poof, a cake as light as a cloud.
According to the incredibly useful Food Time Line, the first recipe printed in an American cookbook that was specifically referred to as a “birthday cake” was in Jennie June’s American Cookery Book by Jane Cunningham Croly, published in 1870. To celebrate Comestibles’ first anniversary I decided to try making it, or I should say them, as the recipe is for cakes plural, in individual servings.
The most intriguing aspect of this recipe is the topping. It calls for colored caraway seeds. Candied caraway seeds (also called comfits) have been an after-dinner treat since at least the Medieval period, caraway being thought of as good for the digestion. It is also common to see candied fennel and cumin used in the same manner. It is quite easy to use natural food colorings to make comfits in a variety of cheerful colors. Perhaps these are the ancestor of the rainbow sprinkles which adorn our ice cream cones.
I was not able to find anyone selling candied caraway seeds, but I came close. Kalustyan’s in New York, had candied anise in their baking section, although sadly it was not brightly colored, just pure white. They also had candied fennel seeds in pink, white and yellow which are often served at the end of a meal in Indian restaurants. Finally, I also brought home some green mukhwas which are another Indian mouth freshener in bright red and green. There was no ingredient list on the package, but common ingredients for mukhwas include fennel seeds, anise seeds, coconut, and sesame seeds. They are sometimes also flavored with essential oils like peppermint. As you can see in the photo above, I tried various combinations of toppings on the cakes.
I also found a recipe for caraway comfits which I would love to try. I’ll post more about it here when I do.
These cakes are more like scones than what we might think of today as a birthday cake, but still good to eat. They are quite rich with butter and the currants combine nicely with the slightly savory “sprinkles,” giving a flavor similar to a spice cake.
Adapted from Jane Cunningham Croly
Makes 8 scone-sized cakes
¾ cup dried currants
1 pound flour
4 ounces sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, chilled (1 stick)
1 large egg
about 1 cup milk
⅓ cup candied caraway seeds, or candied fennel, or sprinkles
Preheat oven to 425F.
Soak the dried currants in warm water for 10-15 minutes as you prepare the rest of the recipe.
Use a fork to stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into smaller pieces, and work it into the dry ingredients using a pastry cutter, two knives, or your fingers until the resulting mix resembles breadcrumbs or peas.
Add the egg and stir with a fork.
Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time until the dough just comes together. When you pick up a handful it should stick together and not be too crumbly. Be careful not to add too much milk, you don’t want the dough to be wet. You may use a little more or less than 1 cup of milk depending on the humidity on the day you make the cakes.
Drain the currents and add them to the dough mixing throughly with your hands to distribute them evenly.
Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and place them on an ungreased baking sheet. Sprinkle the candied caraway seeds or other toping on each one, pressing it into the dough slightly to help it stick.
Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the tops are light brown.