Historic Recipe of the Month: Lemon Cakes

. May 4, 2015.

‘Tis spring, and a young (or old) cook’s fancy turns to thoughts of fresh, bright flavors. This month’s recipe is a lemon cake from Culinary gems : a collection of choice recipes gathered with care from the treasures of culinary experts, published in Westfield, Massachusetts in 1884.

Lemon was an extremely common flavor for desserts and pastries in the 19th century — almost the default neutral flavor, the way vanilla is now. Although vanilla was known in Europe as a flavoring by the 16th century (there’s an article on it in Diderot’s Encyclopédie of 1765) and a commercial extract was available in the US from at least 1847, it overtook lemon in cakes and pies only slowly.

Although it is not clear from the text who the proceeds would have supported, the book has the structure of a charity cookbook, The recipes are contributed by members of a community and are attributed by name, and the tone is not that of an expert informing the less accomplished, but rather of women who cook for their families every day offering a resource to their peers as a favor. The practice of beginning chapters with quotes on household or gustatory matters, in rhyme, is also typical of charity cookbooks.

It *is* clear that the book was lovingly put together: the typography of the title page is quite lovely

Also typical of charity cookbooks from the late 19th century (although not exclusive to them) is its enunciation of women’s charge and mission in the world, which was to care for their homes and families.The preface is unequivocal about this: “No woman should be considered well educated who does not know thoroughly the fundamental elements of housekeeping.” The social importance of feeding a family well is amply reinforced throughout the book.

While there is no rhymed epigraph for the chapter on Cake, a later page gives us this for Desserts–

While this is a simple cake, it is one with many uses. It does well as a shortcake with early strawberries and whipped cream, or an interesting take on Boston cream pie. It makes an appealingly delicate layer cake with buttercream frosting (try lime or orange), a bittersweet chocolate glaze or ganache, or a vanilla-and-almond-inflected cream cheese frosting; and it’s great for cupcakes with a simple lemon juice and powdered sugar glaze. Or try serving it with rhubarb compote on the side.

Here’s the original recipe:

And here’s a modern interpretation:

4c flour

1tsp baking soda  

4 large eggs

Juice of 1 lemon (4Tbsp)

Zest of 1 lemon  (1Tbsp)

1c butter (2 sticks)                   

3c powdered sugar         

1c milk


Preheat oven to 350°

Mix baking soda into flour

Separate eggs

Zest and juice lemon


Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, beat in lemon zest

Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, until very light and fluffy

Beat in the milk and lemon juice

Beat the egg whites until they hold a stiff peak, and fold in

Fold in the flour just to combine

Bake at 350°in greased and floured pan(s):

9”x13” pan  35-40 min

2 9” layers ~30 minutes

Further reading

Cook, Margaret, America's charitable cooks : a bibliography of fund-raising cookbooks published in the United States (1861-1915) / by Margaret Cook. Kent, Ohio : The Author, 1971.


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