Cakes are an icon of American culture
and a window to understanding ourselves.
Growing up, I ate the frosting off the cake, giving the sponge to my mom. The more frosting a cake had, the better. I baked cupcakes for friends birthdays and eventually discovered that homemade buttercream is 500% better than frosting from a can. In graduate school, I made the shift from box mixes to cakes from scratch.
During one of my book browsing afternoons at the Tattered Cover, I found American Cake. I pulled it off the shelf and sat on the love seat in the cookbook section. The history of cake in America. This was the history I needed. What was the first cake? Where did the ingredients come from? How did bakers measure their ingredients? With American Cake, I could learn the stories and recipes of MORE THAN 125 CAKES! I added the book to my Christmas wish list and was not disappointed on Christmas morning.
Byrn made history appealing to me. Knowing why people were eating certain cakes and the influences of the time feels like experiencing the food trends of different eras firsthand.
Upon opening the book, I made the immediate decision to bake my way through the ages. Beginning with the 17th century, I am determined to bake cakes with historical connotations. Each week, a new cake and history will be consumed in my kitchen.
Byrn researched and baked until recipes that had unobtainable ingredients and strange measurements could be baked in today's modern kitchen. As per usual here at Type & Cakes, I'll make things a bit more complicated by taking some allergies into account. I'll comment on any adaptations I made to the recipe (gluten-free, vegan, etc.), but to experience the cake on your own, you'll have to buy Byrn's book. I encourage you to get your hands on a copy and bake along with me.
There will be cakes I skip based off of personal preference and my own dietary restrictions--unless I have someone who wants a cheesecake, there will be no cheesecake in my kitchen--but I'll start with the earliest American cake and bake my way through to the more modern recipes.
The first two recipes in the book are gingerbreads. The top is American Gingerbread. The bottom is Mary Ball Washington's Gingerbread (George Washington's mom!).
What I found most interesting about gingerbread is that when traveling by sea, gingerbread was eaten because people of the 17th century considered it a "stomach settler." Ginger was originally used for medicinal purposes and people often seek ginger for their upset stomachs today.
I used my favorite gluten-free flour blend for both cakes, substituted earth balance butter for butter, and used coconut milk instead of cow milk. For the American Gingerbread recipe, I added 1 teaspoon of xanthan gum. Although my gluten-free cake sunk a tiny bit in the middle, I'm convinced it would've remained a delicious cake without it. I think the xanthan gum caused the cake to rise a bit too much. Other than that, this gingerbread was a good 17th century baking experiment.
The Mary Ball Washington Gingerbread is accompanied with a modern vanilla sauce. This gingerbread contains golden raisins, which I thought was unnecessary at first but enjoyed them when it came time to eat the cake. Unlike the American Gingerbread recipe, Mary Ball Washington's cake pictured in the book is much lighter. In my photos, these cakes look identical. For the molasses in both recipes, I used what we had in the cupboard: blackstrap. Byrn doesn't indicate any specific type of molasses. I didn't think about different types until I looked at my cake compared to Mary Ball Washington's. It tasted like gingerbread should--like comfort in a dense dessert that warms your stomach even after it's completely cooled--but I suggest playing with different types of molasses to achieve different tastes.
As I keep baking along, find me on Instagram (@TypeandCakes) to see what century I'm in, where the recipe came from, and how the cake turned out!