We’re back in antebellum Virginia again, hanging out with Mary Randolph. I love that word, antebellum. Not only does it roll beautifully off the tongue, it also exemplifies how language is shaped by concepts that are deemed particularly important to a community. For there to be an adjective specifically describing a part of the United States the way it was before the US Civil War, that way of life must have been, in hindsight, deemed worthy of rememberance and description, of longing and nostalgia. I’m further fascinated by this because from my perspective, “antebellum” describes a lifestyle that was built on exploitation and misery and not particularly worthy of being placed on the pedestal of nostalgia.
And that brings us to our Virginia Housewife again, presiding over her kitchen staff of servants and slaves. This time she’s directing her cook to make something called “Risen cake”.
I make that:
- 1,4 kg flour
- 670 gr sugar
- 1 tsp powdered cloves
- 1 tsp mace
- 1 tsp powdered ginger
- yeast – I used about 50 grams
- 12 eggs (yes, that’s right – 12)
- 450 gr butter
- 2,4 dl brandy
- 900 gr raisins
At first I considered making only half the amount of dough, but after some egging on (no pun intended) by Mr Hindle I decided to go for it and see what would happen. The first thing that happened was that once I’d mixed the flour, sugar and spices and was going to add yeast and many, many eggs, I realised I didn’t have a bowl big enough. So I had to resort to mixing it all in a bucket.
Yet again, a reminder that kitchens in the old days often had to cater to larger crowds than today.
Now, I had to make an educated guess about the amount of yeast. I went for 50 grams. The recipe doesn’t call for the yeast to be added to a warm liquid, as is the usual way, but to let the dough rise overnight. Now, technically this should work. I’ve made bread this way before, successfully, letting time rather than heat make the yeast function. So with full confidence in myself and my dough I mixed the vast quantities together in the evening and set it to rise in the fridge.
Naturally, it didn’t work. In the morning my dough had not risen one iota. So I had to resort to what the kids these days call a life hack – toss the dough into the microwave oven and heat it up, place in a warm spot under a towel, then cross your fingers and pray to Hestia. This completely unacceptable treatment of yeast worked, and an hour and a half later I finally had the beginnings of a “risen cake”.
I then cut the soft butter into small chunks and kneaded the butter and the brandy into the dough. It turned out, rather predictably, to be very sticky. The 900 grams of raisins reduced the stickiness a little, but the dough still had to be scooped and smoothed into the forms. Naturally I had to use my two largest forms. The dough smelled pleasantly of brandy at this point.
In a cookbook written for wood-heated ovens you never get very good baking instructions, so again it was guesswork. I had the oven on about 180 degrees C, which I think may have been too hot. The cakes took upwards of two hours to bake through and by the time they were done they had gotten a bit too dark on the surface. Try a lower temperature and prepare for a long cooking time!
They ended up looking nice enough anyway. The finished cakes were dense and heavy stuff with a strong flavour of brandy. I served the cakes in slices garnished with a bit of whipped cream. The raisins made the cakes very rich and a little piece went a long way, but if you like, say, English fruit cake then you’d like this cake too. If you do try this recipe I would recommend halving or even quartering the recipe and using a lower oven temperature.