Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Cécile's Lemon Cake

Making me appreciate how much easier baking cakes has become!

I've often talked about how before the 1850's and the introduction of commercially available baking powder, baking a cake was a lot more difficult than it is today. All that being said, I don't think I've actually made a historical cake without baking powder before. I've made a cake without eggs, of course, but I've been wanting to try and tackle a really authentic, no baking powder cake for quite a long time. It seemed like an interesting challenge, and after doing a lot of thinking about it, I finally found a recipe that seemed like a good beginner's cake.

And it was, and it wasn't. I say that for a couple reasons which you'll find out about in a bit, but I just want to say this up front: I would definitely give this another try now that I'm a little more comfortable with the recipe, so don't lose hope! You too can make an authentic cake from the mid 19th century with relatively little fuss.

American Girl is a little bit funny in how they market some of their characters. Specifically, Samantha has historically always been marketed as their Victorian character, although occasionally they say she's just representing the Turn of the Century. Although it's true that a lot of Sam's life is probably influenced by the Victorian era, seeing as how she's primarily being raised by her very traditional grandmother for most of her series, Samantha is actually more properly an Edwardian character. American Girl characters who are more technically living in the Victorian age are Marie-Grace, Cécile, Kirsten and Addy.
And of all these characters, the one who's most likely enjoying all the best parts of Victorian high society is definitely Cécile Rey.

Cécile comes from a fairly wealthy family, and as someone who clearly has an appreciation for the finer things in life (even if she doesn't especially like wearing the gloves her mother insists she wears), the recipe I discovered from the 1860's edition of Godey's Lady's Cookbook seemed like a perfect for a lemon cake seems like the perfect addition to any party or get together Céce and her family might host, or attend!

This recipe is pretty straight forward. It calls for six eggs, the grated rind of a lemon, the juice of one lemon, six ounces of flour and six ounces of sugar. Not too crazy, right?

To begin, you separate your yolks from your whites and whip both until they're in "a solid froth". I know you're thinking six eggs is a lot for a not very big cake, and it is, but remember, this is what's going to make the cake rise! I'd never whipped egg yolks before, and they definitely didn't come together as easily as the whites did (I mean, obviously...), but they did seem a little thicker when I was done. I set aside the whites and moved on to the next step.

The recipe then says to add the grated lemon rind and sugar to the egg yolks and beat this for fifteen minutes. Once that's done, slowly add the flour and lemon juice to the batter, and mix until everything's well incorporated. You're left with a thick, surprisingly small amount of batter.

It was at this point that things started to kind of fall apart. Egg whites make me nervous - I'm always worried I'm going to over mix my batter and wind up with a chewy, dense cake instead of a light and fluffy one. I've made cakes with egg whites successfully in the past, but those had baking soda or powder to fall back on to help the cake rise. This one, I didn't have that extra chemical reaction to boost it, and I think I wound up undermixing the egg whites into the batter. You can see how there's still some chunks of pure white in the bowl and the baking pan.

On the plus side, adding the whites did boost the batter into something that looks like it's going to make a decent sized cake instead of a doll sized one!

Like most historical recipes, this one didn't give a specific temperature for your oven or time to bake it for. The only direction you get is to leave it in a moderate oven for about an hour. I put it in at 350 degrees and programmed my timer for fifty minutes, figuring I'd check on it and see how it was doing, and then leave it in if need be.

But about forty five minutes later, I thought I smelled something getting a little toasty, and it turns out I was right:

Mon Dieu, Cécile, this is a bit of a disappointment!

I debated for a while about how to salvage this presentation wise, considering I definitely didn't think it looked appetizing and figured no one would want to be a taste tester looking at such a crispy lemon cake, and eventually decided to just cut it into slices along the design in the bunt pan.

It definitely helped make the slices look a little yummier! For a cake that didn't use any food coloring, it's also a really nice yellow color thanks to the egg yolks, and very clearly looks like a lemon cake, apart from the burnt edges. Unfortunately, one other thing I noticed in a couple slices were little white spiderwebs of egg whites that hadn't been fully folded into the batter, which kind of freaked me out a little. Obviously they're cooked and won't hurt you, but I don't like biting into a baked good and getting a rubbery surprise from an unincorporated egg, so that was kind of a bummer.

Reviews of the cake were mixed. Obviously the burned edges didn't help any, but it was easy enough to cut or peel them off and get to the unburnt part of the cake. The texture of the cake itself was very, very dense, though. I don't always mind this in a tea cake, and that's pretty much what this is, but this cake in particular just seemed a little too... rubbery. My grandfather objected to me using this adjective and said he just thought it was spongey, but I definitely thought there was a little too much bounce when I took a bite. I'm willing to blame the eggs for this, but having never eaten any cakes (to my knowledge, anyway) that have had this many in it before, I don't know if this is truly their fault or if I did something wrong. I'm also willing to assume that!

One thing that was pretty universally praised was how lemony the cake was! There was definitely a very distinct lemon flavor in the cake without being too overwhelming or too sweet, making it a great cake for an afternoon snack or accompaniment to tea because it's not quite sweet enough to feel like a true dessert. I was also pleased to discover that it didn't taste eggy, nor did it smell like a frittata coming out of the oven. Just burnt. I'm absolutely thinking this is something I'd try making again for the flavor alone, but also out of a sense of curiosity to see how a second attempt would come out now that I know more of what to expect.

So, what did I learn?

First of all, watch your cakes more carefully. This was definitely a good reminder that even a fairly confident baker can make a stupid mistake and wind up with a quasi ruined product. Obviously this was still edible, but I'm glad I wasn't trying to make it for a party, and I'm really glad I live in a time where I have the means and access to more eggs, sugar, flour and lemon, so remaking this if I needed to wouldn't break the bank or be a hugely unnecessary expense. Second, maybe spend a little longer folding in your egg whites next time! I'm definitely willing to risk a denser cake if it means there aren't going to be weird pockets of egg white in the cake.

And finally, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again! That should probably be the motto of this blog at this point.

Better luck next time!


  1. I made egg only cakes before, they're still a thing for Passover and those doing grain free desserts. Beating and beating the egg whites tries my patience, which is why I refuse to whip them by hand.

    Of the two recipes I used, I liked the 4 egg one better. The 7 egg cake was tasty, but the sweetened egg flavor was strong. It was more like a baked omelet than a cake.

    1. Oh yeah, I definitely don't have the patience to beat eggs by hand. I'd say this one didn't taste too much like an omelet, but that was definitely a concern I had while I was making it. Maybe the lemon helped mask it a little?

    2. The 7 egg carrot cake called for a bit of lemon in it too, so I'm not sure. I'm guessing the overall recipes we used are pretty different, so there might be a combination of factors at play.