Friday, July 5, 2019

Addy's Strawberry Nut Loaf

A treat Addy, Abraham Lincoln, and Jane Austen might have enjoyed!

In my experience, one of the many benefits of going to grad school is making a whole bunch of fun new friends who share similar dorky interests to you. These friends are then always willing to hook you up with cool things they discover that might catch your eye, leading to a whole lot of fun collaboration on hobby projects as well as actual academic research. 

Take today's post for example: this delicious tea bread comes from a cookbook I was gifted by a good buddy of mine for my birthday... two whole years ago. Sorry it took me so long to try something out, Ashlee! I promise it was worth the wait. Read on to discover the inspiration behind this perfect summer tea treat and the cookbook that clued me into it.

For two years, my friend Ashlee worked at one of Washington, DC's hidden treasures: President Lincoln's Cottage. The cottage is located a ways out of downtown DC, so it usually isn't on people's radar as a possible tourist destination, but it's growing a reputation of being a must-do when you come to the city. The cottage was Lincoln's retreat from the hustle and bustle of Washington, allowing the president and his family a chance to unwind - and also mourn the passing of Willie Lincoln after the boy's death in 1862. The cottage's biggest claim to fame is that it was where Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, and because of this, the cottage has become very invested in educating the public about and fighting other injustices in our modern world. 

I've visited the cottage, but unfortunately don't have any pictures of Addy there to share because it was raining pretty heavily the day we went and they don't allow photography inside. You'll have to take my word for it that it's a very beautiful building with a lot of cool history to explore! 

While working there, Ashlee became an expert in all things Lincoln, and surprised me with this cookbook from the gift shop as a birthday present. Lincoln's Table: A President's Journey from Cabin to Cosmopolitan by Donna D. McCreary is a great combination of cookbook and history book, tracing Abraham Lincoln's life with recipes he might have enjoyed and explaining how and why the president encountered these dishes over the course of his life. It's a fun book to page through for Lincoln enthusiasts and adventurous cooks alike! 

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of great recipes in here, from recreated state dinners to Mary Todd Lincoln's famous white almond cake, which I've always meant to make again after my first stab at it was such a huge success. But what ended up catching my eye were all the strawberry themed recipes, presented with a really interesting discussion of why this berry (and others) were such a huge hit with Victorian era Americans.

As it turns out, berries can thank their boom in popularity thanks to popular authors like Jane Austen writing about their characters enjoying berry dishes at parties. Her books and other similar ones were still quite popular in the mid 19th century. Readers were just as intrigued by the descriptions of these decadent affairs as modern readers are by things like Katniss Everdeen's favorite lamb stew and the opulent feasts at Hogwarts, and immediately set out to try recreating these treats themselves. This enthusiasm changed strawberries and other similar fruits from something you'd forage for in the woods in spring to a major commercial crop that inspired parties and festivals. McCreary notes that growers in Cincinnati, Ohio made an industry first by shipping their strawberry crop in refrigerated rail cars in 1843. This innovation helped make strawberries accessible across the United States, and only made the fad all that more popular. 

I actually did make a recipe inspired by a passage from Emma about strawberries several years ago as Caroline post, but that was not especially tasty, so I was excited to see what other recipes were suggested in the book. 

You see, it wasn't just the general public who was totally enchanted by strawberries: First Lady Mary Lincoln herself was a huge berry enthusiast and frequently hosted parties featuring these tasty fruits. Mary hosted strawberry (and late summer berry) parties at the Lincoln's home in Springfield and in Washington. In one letter McCreary quotes, Mary tells a friend she had been to five strawberry parties in one week! 

Although the menus at the Lincoln's strawberry parties are lost to history, McCreary presents several traditional strawberry themed recipes that might have been served: short cake, strawberry pie, strawberry jam, strawberry jam cake, just to name a few. The one that caught my eye the most was this strawberry nut loaf, mostly because I am a tea cake fiend and this sounded like it would be a perfect thing to accompany a spring or summer fancy party. 

I halved the recipe to make one loaf rather than two to conserve ingredients. To start off, I sifted 1 1/2 cups of flour, 1 cup of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, and 1/8 of a teaspoon of nutmeg together. In a separate bowl, I whisked two eggs together with 5/8 of a cup of vegetable oil together. To get everything combined, you need to alternately add your wet ingredients to the dry with 1 cup of fresh, sliced strawberries. When I first started adding the wet ingredients, I was already a tiny bit worried I wasn't going to have enough wet ingredients to really make this feel like a cake batter.

My concern continued as I started adding the berries, and then folded in 1/2 cup of chopped pecans. The batter really took some elbow grease to get everything incorporated, and was extremely thick and gloppy once it was all combined. It did ultimately come together, but it was an interesting process and caused some raised eyebrows in the kitchen. 

I'd also definitely recommend slicing the strawberries up thinly to get good distribution in the finished loaf, and mixing them in alternately with the wet ingredients ensures some of them will get that great flour coating that prevents fresh fruit from just immediately sinking to the bottom of the pan. 

Pour (or mold...) your finished batter into a loaf pan which has been greased and battered, and let it bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about 45-50 minutes.

My loaf took about an hour and twenty minutes to cook all the way through, which is pretty typical of our oven. A toothpick or cake tester should come out clean when it's done, and you've got a really nice, surprisingly light and very, very fragrant loaf to enjoy. While it was baking, the whole apartment smelled like strawberries! 

It came out of the pan very easily and I set it aside to cool before cutting into it.

Cutting in revealed a very attractive cake slice, full of nuts and strawberries!

I was a little skeptical about whether this cake would be better suited for fall/winter or spring/summer because of the spices and nuts, but I shouldn't have worried. The strawberries are absolutely the star of this cake, making it very sweet and summery. The oil and fresh berries also made it super moist and a little lighter than I expected. Don't get me wrong, this was still a dense cake that would be best served in small squares at a tea or thick slices for breakfast, but it was really pleasant to eat instead of feeling dry or heavy. The spice does come through, but it's pretty gentle and overall not too distracting from the fresh berry flavor. I'd definitely make this again and really enjoyed eating the leftovers, as did Jess. I wanted to bring some to Ashlee to try, but she's since moved to Baltimore so it's a little trickier to share my creations with her. Next time we get together at my place, I'll have to remember to make another batch! 

Considering the popularity of berries at this moment in time, it's definitely possible that the Walkers and their friends got swept up in the enthusiasm even if they weren't fans of Regency literature. Working class families might have had a harder time getting their hands on these berries depending on the time of year and where they were located, as imported berries could be (and still are!) very expensive, but I can definitely see a bookworm like Addy reading a book like Emma, being totally enchanted by the description of the delicious berries, and immediately trying to find a way to convince her parents to create her own strawberry confections. Maybe she would have added a strawberry patch to their garden and looked forward to seeing her own bright berries on the vine to be enjoyed fresh, added to ice cream, or baked into a tasty cake!

Have you ever tried a dish because you read about it in a book?


  1. We made butterbeer before you could buy it :)

    Whenever I read the Outlander series, I get cravings that make me start cooking too.

    Literature is cool that way.

    Loaf looks great!

  2. Is that Sarah?
    I want Addy's Jane Austen opinions