Land of Cakes

“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.


eggs, flour, sugar, butter

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

  1. It pairs so beautifully with the Culinary Historians of Canada, Canada 150 challenge
  2. 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).

ready to bake

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.

baked cake

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.

a slice

Text by Fiona Lucas and Alexia Moyer

Photos by Alexia Moyer





To make Dry Pea soop

This week’s recipe comes from The Johnson Family Treasury: A Collection of Household Recipes & Remedies 1741-1848, edited by Nathalie Cooke and Kathryn Harvey, transcribed by Erin Yanota, with forward by Lynette Hunter.

Johnson Family Treasury

Begun in Hertfordshire and London in the mid-eighteenth century, the manuscript found its way to Canada and into recipe collector Una Abrahamson’s hands and, eventually, to the University of Guelph’s rare book collection where it was taken up by Cooke.

This recipe book is the product of many hands and the editors have seen fit to preserve the visual proof of multiple contributors. Recipes appear in both typescript and in their original handwritten form.

Built over a period of over one hundred years, this collection is rich with instructions for stewing carp and lamprey, making Ratafea cakes and alleviating all manner of diseases from scurvy and pleurisy, to weakness in the ankles and cancer. This is indeed a treasure trove for scholars and amateurs alike interested in the history of medicine as tested by homemakers.

As tempting as it would be to soothe a sore throat with a plaster made from mutton suet, butter and bees-wax, I have elected to try my hand at pea soup. This is partly to do with the fact that the temperature here in Montreal has dropped of late to a brisk -20. At -20 nothing but soups and stews will do. Furthermore, this recipe calls for ingredients one can easily find in one’s “larder”.

Here, in one compact paragraph are the ingredients and (somewhat) vague instructions, transcribed by contributor C (as she is identified by the editors) and contributed by a certain Captain Torin, who has also provided a recipe for hard biscuits. I know not whether Torin’s captaincy was held by sea or by land. That the gentleman had excellent taste in soups, however, is undeniable. This is a pea soup to warm your cockles.

Dry Pea Soop

When you have strain’d off your Peas, stew in a little of that liquor, some sorrel, spinage, Beet leaves, Parsley, Carrot & leeks chopt together (a very little time will do them) in the mean time cut some sallery [celery] into pieces and boil it in the soop, and when the herbs are stewed put the soop to them; then fry a little fatt Bacon, in which you will fry your toasted bread to put into the soop.


Quick recipe note: If I’ve understood the recipe correctly, Captain Torin calls for the addition of just the pea broth to the soup. Presumably the peas are reserved for some other meal. I’ve included them in this case.

Cooke, Nathalie, Kathryn A. Harvey, Lynette Hunter, and Erin Yanota. The Johnson Family Treasury: A Collection of Household Recipes & Remedies, 1741-1848. , 2015. Print.


Text and Photos by Alexia Moyer