Two weeks ago, in a post that included pics of Alexander and Eliza’s wedding bands and wedding kerchiefs, I gave a link to a recipe for a cake that was identified as their wedding cake. The author of the article expressed some doubt about the authenticity.
It occurred to me that I know someone who runs a website that collects manuscripts of early American recipes. I passed the Schuyler recipe along to her, asking whether it looked like an authentic 18th-century recipe, and how many people it would serve.
Within 24 hours, I had exactly the sort of answer I’d been hoping for from Steven Schmidt, principal researcher and writer for The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey (and a co-creator of the site), who has been studying historical Anglo-American cooking for over twenty-five years and has published, spoken, and consulted extensively on the subject. With his permission, I’m posting his comments.
I am skeptical that this cake is of the 18th century—or of any time. I think the recipe is a hoax, perhaps dating from around the time of the Centennial, when lots of supposedly colonial recipes were manufactured—as also occurred in 1976.
The ingredients in the recipe are:
12 pounds brown sugar
12 pounds butter
12 pounds of browned flour
12 dozen eggs
46 pounds raisins
24 pounds citron
Molasses [handwritten] – 1 gallon
3 quarts Brandy
1 quart Jamaica Rum
12 ounces each of cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, pounded fine in a mortar.
10 teaspoons salt
12 teaspoons pearl ash
Molasses was not used in wedding fruitcakes until after 1820, browned flour and brown sugar debuted in fruitcakes around 1860, and I have never seen a wedding cake recipe calling for rum until nearly 1900. Also, the pearl ash is wrong. The alkali may have been on the scene as a leavening by 1780 (though there is no written record to prove its use before 1796), but chemical leavening was not countenanced in fine cakes like wedding cakes until after the Civil War. Also, 18th century wedding cakes always had currants and lots of mace (and typically rose water too), all of which are oddly absent here—and 18th century cake recipes absolutely never call for salt.
The cooking instructions in the recipe are: “Mix in large oaken tub. and bake 16 hours.” Steve said:
Finally, the business about the large oaken tub and the 16-hour baking sounds to me like someone’s fantasy of “ye olden colonial baking.” Even if this 125-pound cake was baked as a single loaf—and I am extremely skeptical that it was (or could be)—you can’t bake any cake for 16 hours. The outside will char.
Today, most people would consider a 3-ounce serving of fruitcake more than ample, which would mean this cake would serve close to 400 people. But somewhat more cake per wedding guest seems to have been allowed in early America, as 50-pound wedding cakes are fairly common in middle-class cookbooks, and I doubt that middle-class weddings typically had 150 guests.
By the way, the cookbook recipes make clear that these large cakes are to be baked in multiple pans, sometimes as small as 1 quart.
I also asked Steven what a real 18th-century wedding cake recipe looked like. He replied:
Eliza Leslie, the most popular and influential American cookbook author of the second quarter of the 19th century, outlines a recipe for “Black Cake, or Plum Cake” that can be considered a basic template for wedding cake as typically made in this country from circa 1760 to 1860.
- The Manuscripts Cookbook Survey is a fascinating site. Hey, for our next Hamilton-themed party, why don’t we whip up some authentic 18th-century recipes?
- Thanks to Szilvia Szmuk-Tanenbaum, director of the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey and a co-creator of the site, who put me in touch with Steve Schmidt.
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