Soda Cake, Cooking in the Scripps Archives Part 2

This is the second post featuring a recipe from the Earl of Roden Commonplace Book held at the Scripps College, Denison Library. Read the first post here for information about this manuscript.

Reader, do you cook with baking soda or baking powder? I bet you do. Twenty-first-century recipes for cake, cookies, breakfast breads, and pancakes (I could go on) are predominantly leavened with sodium bicarbonate. Joy the Baker explains how, why, and when to use baking soda or baking powder in this excellent Baking 101 post.

That squat cylinder or cardboard box full of white powder in your kitchen cabinet is the product of a culinary revolution. In the last decades of the eighteenth century chemists produced the sodium bicarbonate compound for the first time. By the early nineteenth century, “soda” begins to appear with some frequency in culinary recipes. The breakfast chapter in Abigail Carroll’s Three Squares suggests that baking soda transformed American breakfast traditions in the nineteenth century. (Hear her talk about baking soda and more on this episode of the wonderful podcast Gastropod.)

Before the discovery and popularity of baking soda, vigorously whisking eggs or leaving a yeast-laden mix to rise were the primary methods for producing leavened baked goods. All this took a lot more effort than spooning something else into your dry ingredients mix. We’ve been working with pre-baking soda leavening methods from the very start of this project. For example, in the recipe for Potingall/Portugal Cakes whisked eggs add the fluff factor. The recipe for Oven Cakes calls for yeast and rising time. “Soda Cake” is the second recipe I prepared from the Earl of Roden Commonplace book and it’s the first recipe calling for baking soda, or “Soda (Carbonate),” I’ve come across during the course of this project. Many of the recipes in this manuscript were copied in the early nineteenth century and our compiler was decidedly on trend with this spicy, soda-leavened breakfast bread.

The Recipe

Soda Cake

1 Lb of Flour 3 Oz of butter 3 Oz of Lard 1/2 lb of moist sugar
2 Tea spoons full of Soda (Carbonate) 2 Eggs and a little
Milk make it about the thickness of Cream a few
carraway seeds 1/2 a teaspoonful of ground Alspice.

Our Recipe

The ingredients in the original recipe are relatively straightforward (at least now that we’ve discussed the origins and significance of baking soda), but the recipe does not provide any instructions for preparation. To develop a method, I took a look at my mother and grandmother’s Irish Soda Bread recipe in my own handwritten recipe notebook. Following the basic method from my family’s recipe, I began by combining the butter/lard with the dry ingredients and then added the eggs and milk to form a dough.

1 lb flour
1/2 lb sugar (or brown sugar)
2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt (I didn’t use any, but I think it needs some.)
1/2 t caraway seeds
1/2 t allspice
3 oz butter
3 oz lard (or substitute butter)
2 eggs
6 T milk

Preheat your oven to 325 F.

Mix flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and spices in a large bowl. Add the butter and lard to this dry mix. Cut the butter into small cubes and work into the dry ingredients by hand or using a pastry cutter. The mix should resemble a coarse meal. Add the eggs and milk. Stir until a sticky dough forms. Shape into a round loaf and place on a baking sheet. Cut across the top with a sharp knife.

Bake at 325 F for about 40 min.

The Results

Soda Cake is dense, sweet, and spicy. The baking soda certainly did its job and the texture is like a substantial muffin. The spices give this cake a unique flavor. Next time, I might put some seeds on the top for crunch and add some salt to the mix to deepen the flavors.

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To make Little Cakes, Cooking in the Scripps Archives Part 1

I may have written about Southern California citrus and orange pudding few months ago, but so far all of the recipes Alyssa and I have posted here are from manuscripts held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts. There are a few good reasons for this! When we launched Cooking in the Archives last June, we were both PhD candidates and our start-up funding came from an interdisciplinary innovation grant at Penn. The Penn Libraries also have a wonderful collection of manuscript recipe books, comprehensive digital collections, and a number of open-access projects, like the recently launched OPenn site.

This academic year I’ve been teaching and conducting research at Scripps College in Claremont, CA amidst bountiful culinary and archival resources. This post is the first of a series on recipes I’ve prepared from the Earl of Roden Commonplace Book held at Scripps’s exquisite Ella Strong Denison Library. In one of my upper-level literature and book history courses called “What is a book?” my students and I used this commonplace book for paleography practice. (More on that course here.) As we were reading poems and recipes from the manuscript, I found a lot of things I wanted to cook.

The Earl of Roden Commonplace Book is one of two manuscript commonplace books in the Perkins Collection at Denison. John I. Perkins, a Los Angeles bookseller, donated this collection to Scripps in 1941 with the intention that the books would establish a teaching collection and be primarily used by students. The manuscript’s provenance is relatively easy to trace as a bookplate with the Earl of Roden‘s arms is pasted inside the front cover. The earldom was created in 1771 for Robert Jocelyn, 2nd Viscount Jocelyn (1731-1779) and was part of the Peerage of Ireland, or the English aristocracy in Ireland. The earls of Roden likely lived on estates in County Tipperary. Perkins may have acquired this manuscript because of its provenance, its mix of poems and recipes, or its distinctive green binding, built-in vellum-lined pockets, and partial clasps.

I think it’s most likely that this book began its life as a bound and ruled blank book, was initially used as a commonplace book for poetry, and was eventually repurposed as a household recipe book. The manuscript includes about eighty pages (40 folios) of poems followed by about ninety pages (45 folios) of recipes. Like many other commonplace books, the poems are listed for in an alphabetical index laid out at the beginning of the book. Although I haven’t checked to see if all the poems are accounted for, the compiler was very precise about noting the date and source of poems and songs. These dates helped Perkins date the manuscript’s compilation to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some poems from the early eighteenth century establish the start date (perhaps even before the Earl of Roden’s earldom was created) and a wine-making recipe that refers to wine produced in 1824 dates later use to the nineteenth century.

I’ve prepared a few recipes from this book so far. Today I’d like to talk about “little cakes,” or tasty shortbread cookies similar to “Jumballs.”

 The Recipe

little cakes

To make Little Cakes.

Half a pound of Flour, half a pound of Sugar, two Eggs, one
ounce and a half of Butter melted two ounces of Coriander
Seeds bruised. Cut it thin and bake it.

Since these instructions and measurements are relatively straightforward, our recipe is basically the same.

1/2 pound flour
1/2 pound sugar
Two eggs
1 1/2 oz. butter, melted
2 oz. coriander seeds

Preheat oven to 350 F. Prepare a baking sheet with butter, spray, or baking parchment.

Bruise the coriander seeds by gently crushing them in a mortar and pestle. To release more of their flavor, you can also lightly toast the seeds in a dry, hot pan beforehand.

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and stir until a thick dough forms. Form it into a ball and transfer it onto a clean surface or cutting board. Shape the dough into a log. (I didn’t need to add flour in the rolling process, but you may find that you need some.) Slice thin cookies off the log. Mine ranged from 1/3-1/2 inch thick.

Bake 15-18 min until the edges brown.  Attempt to let cool before eating.

I halved this recipe because I was running low on coriander seeds and made 13 cookies, a full batch would yield around 24.

The Results

The little cakes are really shortbread cookies. The coriander sings through the sweet and buttery base. Hot from the oven, the herbal flavor dominated. When I ate another with my coffee the next day the flavor had pleasantly mellowed. If coriander isn’t your favorite spice or you don’t have any on hand, substitute caraway or fennel seeds.

I think this base recipe would work with a range of spices like cinnamon or nutmeg, chopped fresh thyme or rosemary, dried lavender, or even citrus zest. I also think a whole-grain flour like whole wheat, spelt, or buckwheat in some combination would add nuttiness and depth.

“Little Cakes” are a quick and easy dessert that require only five ingredients and minimal prep time. Stay tuned for more recipes from the Scripps archives.

Herb Soop

A few weeks ago, thanks to my old friend George Leader, I was lucky enough to visit an archaeological dig at an eighteenth-century farmhouse on The College of New Jersey’s campus. I’d never been to a dig site before, so the technical details alone were fascinating: the reasoning behind determining where to dig in the first place, the standing sieve to strain buckets of earth for artifacts, the practice of wrapping fragile artifacts in foil (who knew!), the technology used to date wooden architectural features. I really dug it. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

Seeing the farmhouse, getting to hold some of the artifacts unearthed that day – a metal button, a shard of blue and white pottery, and a small clay sphere that we theorized might have been a marble – made me think about this project and what we can uncover. I’m used to engaging with the past through words on a page. The archives always feel a little bit magical to me: these texts still exist centuries later, and I get to touch them, smell them, read them. I felt a similar tug at the dig, seeing artifacts being unearthed and thinking about our access to the past through what happens to have been left behind. At a basic level, archaeological investigation and archival literary research give us physical access to fragments of past lives, preserved deliberately or accidentally. You figure out where to look, but you don’t always know what you’re going to find.

This project is one of reconstruction from a distance and with pieces missing: the recipes are vestiges of what did get recorded, leaving little behind of what didn’t. Cooking from the archives creates a powerful bridge between me and the past. I will never stand in a kitchen without refrigeration, without even the possibility of electric lights, without having spent my whole baking life reaching automatically for ingredients like vanilla extract and uniform sticks of butter, but I can still approximate how Naples biscuits would have tasted nearly three hundred years ago.

There’s always a gap, though, related to how just far that bridge can reach. Working on this project has brought me up short at this gap time and again: reading handwritten manuscripts begs to know more about the person who wrote them, but there’s often little headway to be made. We can decipher handwriting, but identities are harder. This impulse isn’t just personal – it’s a question that comes up often for me and Marissa, of who wrote these recipes down, of what we know about them. Usually, not much. But this recipe left a faint trace of one of the individuals behind it.

This Herb Soop comes from UPenn MS Codex 1038, home to some of my favorites, like the Maccarony Cheese and Desart Cakes. The volume contains at least three separate hands, and we still don’t know anything about these writers. This handwriting is the second in the volume, probably written down sometime in the 1790s or early 1800s. The end of the recipe attributes it to “Lady Laroche.” (She is probably the source and not the writer of this recipe, since several subsequent recipes in the same handwriting are attributed to other women.) It is nearly impossible to know anything about the other women whose names accompany their recipes – the Mrs. Baker who gave the writer her recipe for Curd Cheescakes, the Mrs. Fordham who told her how “To make Flumery,” or the Mrs. Turner who showed how “To Dress a real Turtle as the[y] do in the West Indies,” for instance. “Lady,” however, provides direction in a way that “Mrs.” often cannot.

It turns out that this “Lady Laroche” can be one of only two women. James Laroche, a Bristol politician and slave-trader, was created baronet in August 1776. Since the baronetcy became extinct when he died in 1804 without any male heirs, this Lady Laroche has to have been one of his two wives. The first Lady Laroche was born Elizabeth-Rachel-Anne Yeamans in Antigua. An heiress (she brought at least one plantation to the marriage) and widow, she married James Laroche in 1764 and moved to England with him. After Elizabeth-Rachel-Anne died in 1781, James remarried; his second wife may also have been named Elizabeth. We know nothing else of her except that she survived her husband and died in Wales in 1824. Can we know how or even if this recipe writer and either Lady Laroche knew each other? What else they might have talked about, why this particular recipe was the one shared? No. But sometimes, even this small glimpse into archival identities feels like uncovering something satisfying.

The Recipe

Herb soopHerb soop contd

To make Herb Soop

Take Parsley, Spinnach, Cabbage Lettice, Leaves of
White Beet, Sorrell, Cucumbers, Pease & small Onions
with the green ends to them, a little Mint, and a very
little Fennell. Wash them all clean, and Chop the
Herbs very small. Season them with Pepper & Salt,
Put them into a Pot to stew with a piece of Butter
according to your quantity, but no Water. Let
them stew quite tender. Have ready boiled some
Cream or Milk, with the Yolks of Eggs beat up in it,
Mix this gently with the Herbs and serve it up.
You must not let it boil, or be on the Fire after the
Eggs are put to it. You are to observe it is not to
be a thin liquid, but more herbs than Soop. that is,
thick of the Herbs. Less than half a pound of butter
will do unless the Terene is very large. There shoud
be Cellery chopped amongs the herbs if to be had &
—-
other herbs you like but not strong of any one in particular.
Some leave out the Fennell, as it is apt to be too strong.
Lady Laroche.

Our Recipe

3 generous handfuls of spinach (about 1 1/2 c. chopped)
1/2 c. parsley, chopped
a few mint leaves, chopped
1 large or 2 small cucumbers, diced (I also seeded mine)
1-2 celery stalks, sliced thinly
1 c. chopped cabbage
3/4 c. green peas (fresh or frozen)
3 scallions, sliced thinly
1/2 tsp. salt
a few grinds of pepper
1 tbsp. butter
1/2 c. milk
1 egg yolk

In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients except for the milk and egg yolk. Cook them over low-medium heat, stirring often enough to prevent the greens from sticking. Cook until the greens are all wilted and the cucumbers are translucent; for me, this took about 20 minutes. (Though you could probably let them “stew” even longer.) Heat the milk in the microwave or on the stove until quite hot. In a small bowl, whisk the egg and then, still whisking, add the hot milk in a steady stream. Remove the herb mixture from the heat and stir in the milk. Serve immediately.

The Results

The Soop tasted green: stewed together, the herbs and vegetables made a pleasantly flavorful whole. I’d never had cooked cucumbers before and was curious – they softened but held their shape, rather like zucchini, and provided nice texture in the soup. I liked the zip from the scallions and the chewiness of the cabbage (even if cooking it did make my kitchen rather … fragrant). In its piling together of many different herbs and vegetables, the Herb Soop felt like a precursor to some of Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes. I found it satisfying that what I was tasting was probably pretty close to some of the results this recipe would have yielded for eighteenth-century cooks: all of the ingredients remain available, the cooking technique was easily duplicated in my kitchen (albeit with the ease of a gas stove), and the methodology was specific enough that I could follow the recipe’s instructions closely.

In fact, this Herb Soop recipe is quite detailed in its ingredient list and instructions – it’s very helpful to know, for instance, that the end result should be “more herbs than Soop” – more so than many of the other recipes we’ve engaged with, like Artificial Potatoes. But it provides few precise measurements. I guessed at these proportions, determining them largely based on what I had and what I liked. (I don’t love fennel, so I’m one of those “some” the recipe mentions who “leave [it] out.” And my little produce market doesn’t carry sorrel, so I didn’t use it.) And I imagine that’s what early cooks did as well, making the soup slightly differently each time based on what needed to be used or what was available.

What else could you toss in here? Leeks, zucchini, basil, cilantro, green bell peppers – really, anything green that happens to be lurking in your crisper could make its way into this soup. Some hot pepper flakes would liven things up. I see the appeal behind the milk-and-egg liquid choice: it’s a rich addition and adds some depth to the greens. However, I might substitute some vegetable broth or chicken stock for a lighter soup. Basically, this recipe provides a wonderful alternative idea for using up the leftover greens that I normally toss into a grain salad, a stir-fry, or baked eggs.

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