Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Christmas Cake

The Christmas Cake

By Guest Blogger Aimee Cook

Out of all the tradition the Christmas season holds, my absolute favorite is the gathering at our house on Christmas Eve.  That wonderful day is spent carefully crafting and creating the dinner, setting out our wedding china at the dining table, and humming to my favorite Christmas carols as the tree lights twinkle from sun up to sun down. 

The evening brings with it a special magic as the family shifts slowly from the dining room to mingle around the living room relaxed and content and almost willing the magic of the night to slow and last.  I then take this opportunity to pile my mom’s antique dessert plates, cups full of coffee or eggnog, along with this year’s Christmas cake onto my cheery red tray.  And with all the pomp and circumstance I can muster, usher the bountiful tray into a very eager and appreciative family. 

You see, I always choose a cake for dessert on Christmas Eve, as it conveys all the elegance and richness that this season holds.  Pies, cookies, and sweet breads may still find a place to the dessert table at Christmas, but it is the cake that has always been the main focus for generations.  It is a time to splurge a little, not only on ingredients, but also on calories.  While many may imagine my cake as being the quintessential fruitcake, it is in fact an ever changing dessert that varies from year to year, just like the gifts under the tree. 

While the much beloved fruitcake will never truly lose its luster during the holiday season, home bakers for decades have been creating and serving other wonderful concoctions to their families.  Proof of this lies in the numerous magazine and cookbooks dating back as far as the 1900’s, where editors offered their readers recipe after recipe to make their holidays special.  Acknowledging the universal appeal of cake at Christmas, these tried and true recipes are in themselves time capsules and offer us modern bakers a look into kitchens of the past.  Rich, dense cakes bedecked with nuts, fruit, and marzipan evokes the extravagance of the Edwardian Era.  Light, exotically flavored cakes bring into mind the fun-loving 1920’s, while cakes relying on few and easy to find ingredients show the struggling times of the Great Depression. 

Here are a few of my most favorite Christmas cakes recipes from the past, written word for word as they appear in their original form. Modern versions of these cakes can be found readily, but are a fun challenge to dissect as written.

 Dolly Varden Cake
Cream together one-half cupful of butter and one cupful of sugar, then add alternately one-half cupful of milk and two cupfuls of sifted pastry flour with which two teaspoonfuls of baking powder have been mixed.  Then fold in the stiffly beaten whites of three eggs.  Flavor with one teaspoonful of almond extract.  Bake in a cake pan for forty five minutes at 350° F.  When cool, cover with an icing made as follows: Beat the three egg yolks; add one-fourth teaspoonful of vanilla and sufficient confectioner’s sugar to make it of a consistency to spread well.

Cocoa Sponge Cake
To the yolks of four eggs beaten until thick and lemon colored, add one cupful of sugar and mix well.  Add four tablespoonfuls of cold water.  Measure and sift together one-half cupful of sifted pastry flour, one teaspoonful of baking powder, one half-cupful of cocoa, and one-eighth teaspoonful of salt.  Combine with the above one teaspoonful of vanilla and last of all fold in the stiffly beaten whites of the eggs.  Bake in an angel cake pan at 320° F for one hour.  This cake may be iced if desired.

Wellesley-Fudge Cake
Cook three squares of chocolate, one-half cupful of milk, and two-thirds cupful of brown sugar for ten minutes; add one teaspoonful vanilla.  Cream one cupful of light brown sugar and one-half cupful of butter.  Add one-half cupful of sour milk, two well-beaten eggs, and two cupfuls of sifted pastry flour, with which one teaspoonful of soda and one-fourth teaspoonful of salt have been sifted.  To this add the above cooked mixture.  Combine well and bake in layers at 375°F for twenty minutes. Put together and ice with chocolate fudge icing. 

You-and-I Sponge Cake
Beat the yoke of two eggs till light.  Add one-half cupful of sifted sugar, and one-eighth teaspoonful of cream of tartar dissolved in one teaspoonful of cold water.  Beat again till very light.  Add the grated rind of one-quarter of a lemon or orange.  Then add alternatively one-half cupful sifted flour, and stiffly-beaten egg-whites.  Bake in a lightly greased and floured pan at 320°F for 40 minutes or in patty pans (small, individual tins.)

The beautiful thing about traditions is that they can be created new every year.  Friends and family alike, welcome the comfort of past rituals as well as the excitement of something new.  With a season dedicated to cherishing those around you, let your heart and your apron lead the way.   I hope you try one of these delicious recipes, as they were once a part of another family’s holiday traditions.  Merry Christmas and happy baking!


 Bentley, Mildred. Department of Cookery: The Christmas Cake. Good Housekeeping, Volume 77. 1922. Print

Imagine It: An Edwardian Christmas

Imagine It: An Edwardian Christmas

By Guest Blogger 
Megan Gillespie

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Getting Intimate With History: The Lessons Everyday Items Teach Us About the Past

Getting Intimate With History:

The Lessons Everyday Items Teach Us About the Past

By Guest Blogger : Sarah A. Chrisman

"From my earliest boyhood, ancient wearing apparel, old household and kitchen utensils, and antique furniture, have appealed to me with peculiar force, telling facts and relating incidents to me in such a plain, homely but graphic manner of the every-day life of our ancestors, that I look upon them more as text-books than as curiosities; for it is only by the light of truth reflected from these objects that we are enabled to¼pierce the¼fiction with which the perspective of years surrounds the commonest objects of those remote times."
—Beard, Dan C. "Six Feet of Romance."  The Cosmopolitan. July, 1889. p. 226.

            The more we use something, the more familiar we become with it.  For instance, no one would expect watching French films once a year to make them fluent in the language, let alone intimate with the culture, but living in the country is a different matter.  Until someone invents a functional time machine we can't emigrate to different times to study the cultures of other eras.  However, we can learn about them through all the everyday artifacts people left behind.  Familiarity with the things that shaped people's world helps us understand them better. 

            My husband Gabriel and I live with as many everyday Victorian items (especially things from the 1880s and '90s) as we possibly can.  It's an extraordinarily tangible way to connect with and learn about a time that fascinates us.  The antique objects which fill our days and nights are our teachers, and they constantly teach us new lessons.

            We started by collecting antique clothes, then gingerly wearing them for short periods on special occasions, then creating meticulous copies we could wear every day.  Clothing is amazingly intimate.  It shapes the people who wear it, and they shape it in turn.  Some of our earliest lessons in the depth of this relationship came from Gabriel's antique suits.  We could find garments that fit him in every single dimension save the chest and shoulders, where the proportions would be dramatically different.  This baffled us, until we realized Victorians were trained from a very early age to hold themselves erect, with shoulders back to expand the chest.  They didn't spend hours every day slumped over driving wheels or in many of the other hunched postures that destroy so many modern backs.  Gabriel began doing workout routines which tightened his back muscles.  He made a conscious effort to hold himself upright every day, and slowly his proportions shifted until he could wear those antique suits he admired so much.  (Always very carefully of course, since age had rendered them delicate.)  In my case changing my physiology was much quicker and easier: it only took a corset.

            We made copies of those original garments so that we could wear them every day without damaging irreplaceable antiques.  It's important to remember that they weren't always antiques, though .  The damage done and repairs made by the clothes' original owners tell their stories in very poignant ways.  One of Gabriel's antique suits is nearly immaculate, and one could easily assume it had been worn only once or twice before it was forever stored away.  Looking down the viewer sees the reason: an enormous tea stain across the front of the trousers.  Another of his antique suits is made of relatively fine fabric —except for its pockets, which are rough as sailcloth.  The former owner must have carried heavy items (keys, perhaps?), and knew his own propensity for wearing through pockets.  These sorts of details are considered flaws by most collectors and dramatically lower antiques' financial worth.  (This is why we can afford them at all!)  However, they increase their educational value in a way that has nothing to do with money.  To us these aren't flaws: they are memories of people long gone, details too mundane at the time to write in books, but recorded forever in the items they touched.

            When Gabriel and I moved to a house built between 1888 and 1889, we expanded our explorations beyond clothes and into nearly all of life's intimate details.  Using oil lamps as our main source of artificial light has taught us that paraffin oil burns more dimly than kerosene, but with a cooler flame less apt to crack the chimney of an especially small fingerlamp.  The light of oil lamps, magnified and reflected by mirrors and mercury glass common in Victorian houses, has given us a much deeper appreciation for light and darkness and the ways they play off each other.  It has taught me that natural daylight is best for sewing with dark fabrics, but that white and other pale colors can be worked at night.  It has made us more conscious of questioning exactly how much light —or any resource— we truly need at a given time.

            When Gabriel first presented me with a Victorian kerosene heater, the device made me distinctly nervous.  Could such a large flame possibly be safe?  But I remembered peeps into modern Japanese home life when I'd taught English in the small town of Komatsu for a year.  Kerosene heaters are still quite common in Japan, and my friends there didn't think twice about using them when the weather turned cold.  Remembering their nonchalence made me willing to try the Victorian heater.  Now after five years of using the dependable, utterly safe device, I recognize my old anxieties for what they were: narrow-minded prejudice against something unfamiliar.  Familiarity with the tool gave me confidence in my ability to use it.

            I bought my eyedropper fountain pen with a portion of my first book advance, and I came to look on inkstains on my right hand as a mark of pride which proved I was doing my job as a writer.  They also incline me to think that inkstained hands were a contributing factor in the popularity of gloves in Victorian wardrobes: an insight I would never have gained if all of this hadn't become such a part of me.

            Every object humans create says something about its individual makers, and every item we use bears our fingerprints in one way or another.  My husband and I love our antiques for their beauty and utility, but most of all we love them for their lessons of the past.  They allow us to literally touch history, and to connect with its most private details.