Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kirsten's Prairie Teacakes

Tiny lemon cakes with a citrus glaze? Yes, please.

As many of my followers know and as many of you likely have guessed even if you haven't checked out my FAQ page, I have been into American Girl since I was pretty small, and Kirsten was my first doll. While I know this is something nostalgia addicts like to claim without really meaning it, I can genuinely point to this toy line and Scholastic's Dear America book series (and their spinoffs) as the reason I'm so interested in history, and American history in particular, which has had its ups and downs. I often joke it's too bad Pleasant Company didn't make science themed dolls and stories, because I was really into biology as a kid, and that... has kind of died off. And might have opened doors to more lucrative professions!

But I really don't have many regrets. I'm proud I got my BA in what I did, and if nothing else, I have a lot of good cocktail party stories, so long as I remember to tone down on some of the more upsetting topics I've become passionate about raising awareness of.

What does all this have to do with cake, Gwen? I'm getting there!

This post today is intended as kind of an homage to my enthusiasm for American Girl, which really kind of is responsible for where I am today, and a throwback to my ninth birthday party, which happened about fifteen years ago this month. Growing up, I was lucky to have a mom who went a little over the top creativity wise for birthday parties, and this recipe is the slightly more complicated version of what she and my grandmother put together for my birthday, with a little help from a book I've talked about here before.

I got my Kirsten doll when I was five years old. I wasn't that into dolls, so when my grandma showed me an American Girl catalog and asked me which doll I'd want if I could have just one, I picked Kirsten not because she was blonde, not because her dress was blue, not because she was a pioneer... I picked her because she had cats. And, crafty thing that I was, I figured if I got the doll who had cats, someday I would get the cats. Kirsten spent her first few months with me mostly being displayed because I knew she was expensive and didn't want to wreck her, but after my mom read me her books, I quickly warmed up to her and she became my buddy. She got dragged around places and slept with, and the only thing I didn't do was let other kids play with her unsupervised (or much at all...) or let anyone but my mom fix her braids, because I had seen some of my friend's dolls who took their hair down, and Kirsten was not turning into one of those, thanks very much. My sister got Samantha for her fifth birthday, and wound up buying Molly with her own money a few months before my birthday.

Despite bonding with Kirsten and her books pretty quickly, I don't remember being totally bitten by the American Girl or history bug in an all consuming way until I was a little bit older. In my hometown, kids are traditionally taught about colonial America in fourth grade. We got to make period crafts, learn about local history and apply that to the rest of what would become America, which all led up to two things: a class field trip to Sturbridge Village (which Caroline and I revisited last summer) and another field trip into town where we spent all day at two historic homes wearing period costumes and doing things like quilting and calligraphy, as well as learning about herbs and what school was like for kids back in the 1700's.

Thanks to this curriculum, I figured I might as well give Felicity's books a shot, and we happened to have Felicity Learns a Lesson at my house. I read it in probably under an hour and was hooked, hard. I devoured the rest of her series thanks to our school library and also read Addy's and Josefina's, and then reread all six series again, and again, and again. This was also around the time Dear America books started to become popular with kids my age, so I got hooked on those too and the rest is, well. History!

I know some people think it's bizarre I care so much about things that happened a long time ago, but honestly, I think it's never really felt that way to me because the way I got hooked was through stories that put you in the shoes of kids who were very similar to you, they just lived in a different time period and did slightly (or very) different things. It's not really any different than enjoying reading a fantasy novel, except that it's based on things that really happened. My other reasons for liking it are a little more complex, but you're not here for a lecture about why I can't stop talking about World War II. You're here for the food!

In 1999, I was turning nine and in third grade. My class did the colonial cirriculum a year early from my perspective because it was a multiage class, and having a spring birthday happened to coincide perfectly with our field trip to the museums, so somewhere along the line, an idea was hatched: what if I had my birthday party on that day, which would mean most of my friends would be coming dressed up as colonial kids? And what if it was American Girl themed?

This is where The American Girls Party Book came in, which had been published the previous year and somehow got on our radar. It's a pretty cool book with a lot of party ideas - each of the then six historical characters gets three different historically inspired party ideas and then several crafts, games and recipes to try which vary in difficulty and detail. My original plans for this event were very ambitious. There are still pencil marks in the index next to things I wanted to include, which was basically one item per character per topic, which is... pretty insane, little me. My mom did her best to accommodate her crazy daughter's wishes, and to the best of my memory we made a paper cup and ball game for Felicity, paper flowers for Josefina, stuffed calico kittens for Kirsten, rag dolls for Addy, and clay marbles for Molly. My mom and I think we did a game in lieu of a craft for Samantha, but we're honestly not sure and since this was before we had a digital camera, we don't have many pictures for evidence.

But I still have the calico kitten I made, because I'm a bit of a packrat and don't get rid of much.

I have a confession to make, though: little me was not only insanely ambitious, she was also kind of a brat. Any time I mention how cool this party was, my mom goes "you were so mean!" because she worked so hard to do this picture perfect party and apparently when asked if I had fun, I said it was "just okay". I have no idea why I said that considering this is one of the parties I've always thought was super cool, but in discussing it with her we're wondering if it had more to do with the fact that I had some issues with depression that went kind of unnoticed by everyone until middle school... Or the fact that I was nine years old and totally overstimulated with the field trip and birthday party being on the same day!

Moving on! I do have some pictures of the actual event to share with you all, but since I don't feel comfortable posting pictures of friends I haven't spoken to in years on the internet without their permission (and frankly, don't feel comfortable posting myself, either), I had to do some artistic cropping and mostly focus on our table setting for dinner. Hopefully you'll get the gist! I'm the kid in the person sized version of Kirsten's birthday dress. The dress like your doll version of Kirsten's outfits were the only dresses I wore willingly as a child, so my mom bought me a few of them in an attempt to insure I didn't show up to formal events in shorts and a t-shirt.

Of course, it wouldn't be an AG birthday party without dolls! So each of my friends brought one of theirs with them. I don't think most of them had more than one, and I do think it's pretty hilarious how we all have one of the original three, despite six dolls and the modern line being available by then.

My Kirsten is the one playing The Exorcist, and my sister's Samantha and Molly are the dolls farthest on the right. My friends Katherine and Amanda brought Samantha, my friends Alyssa and Molly brought Molly, and my friend Jen brought her Kirsten.

But obviously the best part of any birthday (except maybe the presents, and I'll fully admit the Felicity that was waiting for me on my actual birthday was better than any cake I've ever eaten) is the cake, and these cakes were pretty awesome. See, despite my love of Felicity, Kirsten holds that special spot as my first doll and the character I relate to the most. I might want to be Felicity, but my inability to shut up about things I'm excited about, anxiety about trying new things and change, and my general bad luck makes me a kindred spirit with little Miss "I Brought Home a Raccoon and He Burned Our Cabin Down".

This meant instead of wartime chocolate cake, cherry pie or petit fours, this cake was heart shaped and served with strawberries, just like Kirsten's.

While I think technically the cakes we ate at my party were just vanilla box mix cakes, one of the recipes featured for Kirsten's party ideas in the book is the following recipe for "Prairie Teacakes", and I figured this would be a fun way to share a treat similar to what we had for my birthday fifteen years ago in a way that's a little more involved than just pulling out a box mix.

First, you combine a cup of sugar and a half cup of softened butter until it's good and incorporated. Since this called for softened butter, I used a hand mixer to speed the process along knowing it wouldn't burn out trying to get cold butter mixed in. Next, you add an egg, a half teaspoon of lemon extract and grated lemon rind into the mixture and mix it all together. The recipe technically calls for a tablespoon of grated lemon rind, but I'm never fussy about measurements like that when I'm grating a rind. I usually just grate the whole thing into the bowl.

Next, add two cups of flour and two teaspoons of baking powder to the sugar mixture. Once that's incorporated, add in a cup of milk, and you're left with a pretty easy to manage cake batter. It's a little on the thick side, but definitely not unmanageable.

This gets poured into greased muffin tins. We still have the heart shaped ones my grandma used to make my birthday cakes, so those got pulled out of storage! I filled mine up about half to three quarters of the way full to make sure the cakes were about the same size and didn't spill over.

These baked in a 350 degree oven for about 37 minutes (the recipe said they can take anywhere between 35 and 40 minutes) and got put on a rack to cool. All in all, this recipe made exactly twelve little heart cakes which were probably a bit larger than your standard cupcake. They're a good sized personal snack cake, but splitting one doesn't leave you feeling cheated out of a good portion. I'd guess this would probably make about two full trays of regular sized cupcakes.

To finish, mix together three quarters of a cup of powdered sugar, one teaspoon of lemon juice and one teaspoon of water together to make a lemon glaze. This should be thin enough to drizzle, but not so thin that it just immediately slides off your cakes. It's really important that you let your cakes cool fully before putting this on them, or it'll just immediately drip over the sides and make a giant mess on your counter.

The recipe does warn you in advance that the glaze might be too thick to work with at first, and recommends adding a teaspoon of water at a time until it gets to the consistency you want it. I say that's boring: this is a lemon glaze, and you've likely got leftover lemon juice. Might as well add in a teaspoon of lemon at a time until you get the consistency you want!

I think it turned out pretty well.

What you're left with is a nice, cakey cake. I say cakey because it wasn't quite moist, but it wasn't dry or crunchy, either. Just cakey! The cake itself didn't have an especially strong lemon flavor, but it wasn't bland, either. The glaze was a good compliment because it did kind of offer that extra citrus pop that the cake doesn't really have on its own. I liked making cakes this specific size, too. It really did feel like a good portion of cake without making you immediately go for another piece because you didn't feel like you'd had enough, meaning going back for seconds was more about enjoying the cake than feeling cheated out of a good sized piece of dessert. They were a big hit with my taste testers and are long gone as I finish writing up this post. I've even gotten requests to make them again!

Now, what's so historical about these? Honestly, I'm not sure, considering I've never personally stumbled upon a similar recipe in my admittedly half hearted adventures into finding authentic pioneer food. Most of the longer recipes in the book do seem fairly authentic, or are at the very least modern interpretations of historical dishes, but a lot of the other suggestions are more historically inspired than truly authentic. I will say that a treat like this definitely would have been welcomed at a pioneer party because - as the book points out - most pioneer families didn't have giant sets of plates and forks and things for visitors to use, so they had to pool resources with neighbors at events like barn raisings or presumably find treats that could be eaten with your hands. These cakes are just the right size for that, and the lemon flavor and pretty drizzle of glaze on top make them look like the perfect blend of homey and a little classy, making them perfect for a special occasion on the frontier.

I hope you all enjoyed my rambly trip down memory lane, because I definitely had fun revisiting one of my favorite birthday parties. It's kind of difficult to believe that it was fifteen years ago! I'm turning twenty four today and I still feel like an awkward teenager most of the time, and often get hit with moments of wait, I'm an adult with a job and a car and a paycheck, when did this happen? But it's been a (mostly) fun ride, and I'm looking forward to seeing what next year brings me.

Hopefully, it'll involve some more tasty food.

And maybe more of these cakes!


  1. I recently started following your blog and I think it's awesome! Very inspiring! I am especially taken with this post, because Kirsten was also my first doll and my gateway into love for history and for American Girl. I too had Kirsten's pink dress (that I wore constantly) and I too attempted to have an American Girl birthday party, though it was much less successful than yours since my friends were boring and didn't dress up. I am definitely going to have to try this recipe!

    1. Well, the dress up was a requirement of the field trip, I'm not sure if they'd have dressed up by themselves! But that's so cool!! How weird we've got so much in common, haha. Welcome to the blog and I'm glad you're enjoying it so far! :D Hope you continue to enjoy what you see!

  2. Finally read your post and loved the tribute to your old birthday party. It was crazy, but fun putting it all together and I'm glad it brings back fond memories for you. And I love the pictures, both old and new! It's nice that the crab apple tree was photographed since the flowers didn't last very long.

    I loved the teacakes. They were really delicious and worth every calorie!
    Happy Belated Birthday with love!

    1. Sorry I was being a brat! It really was one of my favorite parties, and the attendees who saw the post on Facebook said they enjoyed it, too. Glad you liked the pictures and the teacakes! <3

      (PS to any readers, Mom said happy birthday on my real birthday too, she worried people might think she didn't.)