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.