“Canada is the land of cakes.” So states Catharine Parr Traill confidently in the cake section of her Female Emigrant’s Guide of 1854.
It is to one such recipe, for “cup cake” that I turn for this second installment of economical cooking with Traill. It’s “about as good as pound-cake, and a great deal cheaper” says Traill before getting down to the business of ingredients and instruction:
Three cups of ﬂour, one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, and four eggs, well beat in together, and baked in pans or cups. NOTE.—This is a regular American cake.
Not a note about temperature and timing here but readers of The Female Emigrant’s Guide will come to know that there are all kinds of subtleties of skill that comes with hearth cooking. Fires are hot, quick, clear, brisk, slow and slack and dishes may be placed on or near to achieve the desired effect. Adjusting temperatures is not, as it turns out, a mere matter of turning a dial.
Shelley and I wanted to highlight Traill’s Guide this past month because
- It pairs so beautifully with the Culinary Historians of Canada, Canada 150 challenge
- McGill-Queen’s University Press is soon to release a new re-set edition of the Guide, under the expert guidance of Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas. Look for it this coming June with the title Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide, Cooking with a Canadian Classic.
Fiona Lucas joins us below to tell us a little about the book and also speaks to this week’s recipe.
We include encouragement to recreate her recipes, such as a measurements chart and shopping advice. We also explore Canadian foodways in the mid-nineteenth century in relation to today’s tastes and techniques. Take the word “cake.” In Traill’s English youth early in the century, the term “cake” encompassed three basic categories: plum cake (large yeasted or egg-raised fruit breads; also called “great cake”), pound cake (plain butter cakes), and sponge cake (plain cakes made very light by the addition of eggs, yolks and whites beaten separately until very airy; also called biscuit cake and savoy cake). It was also a generic word for any sweet, flour-based baked item, what we’d call a cookie today. By her middle-aged years in Canada, “cake” was encompassing new American forms, like “cup cake.”
Cup cakes were dollops of plain batter baked in little cups, even literally teacups, often paper-lined. Directions generally stipulated one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs, well beaten together, and baked in little pans or cups. This contrasted with the old British pound cake and its one pound each of butter, flour, and sugar. Fancier cup cakes boasting fluted papers and a bit of icing anticipated the decorative icing-laden treats that became briefly all the rage a few years ago. Traill’s recipe was taken without attribution from Mrs Child in The American Frugal Housewife (1832).
For her British immigrant readers, Traill’s cake recipes were distinctly North American in three ways. They were mostly measured by volume (cups) instead of weight (pounds); raised with chemical pearlash, saleratus, or soda, not yeast or multiple eggs; and moistened with molasses, milk, or sour cream rather than softened butter. Inexpensive, quick, small, and simple, with few eggs to whisk, they were very unlike the fruit-laden, yeasted great cakes of her Suffolk childhood. In other words, exactly what busy mothers in the bush with no servants needed.
Belying the notion that white sugar was costly and unavailable, her cakes were amply sweetened with it, brown and maple sugars being substituted only if necessary, although sometimes molasses was texturally preferable, as in gingerbreads and Indian cakes.
Text by Fiona Lucas and Alexia Moyer
Photos by Alexia Moyer