Plain But Sturdy Frontier Cake
February 8, 2014 5:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm not the least bit tempted to make that cake, but the annotations to the recipe made me laugh.

1 cup of butter (feel free to churn the butter yourself, for authenticity)

Historical accuracy with a side order of modern snark! My favourite!
posted by orange swan at 5:53 PM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Having been forced to whip egg whites by hand once in cooking school, I can attest to the arm-killing nature of the effort and would have balked at that recipe immediately upon seeing that instruction. Long live the Kitchen-Aid mixer!
posted by briank at 6:09 PM on February 8, 2014

I WILL make those doughnuts some day. Yes, I WILL.

(Too lazy to go get my copy of the cookbook) Let's see if I remember this from memory, regarding Long Winter Bread: "you are not likely to find this heavy, coarse loaf as satisfying as Laura did, unless you eat nothing else during the day, help grind the wheat in the coffee grinder, all in a room where a bottle of ink might freeze."
posted by Melismata at 6:27 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I whipped egg whites by hand once because the power went out mid-recipe and I figured I might as well finish making the dough I was working on so it could rise by the time the power was back, but oh man. It took like half an hour, and so much arm pain. I gained a whole new respect for pre-electric mixer bakers that day.
posted by yasaman at 6:31 PM on February 8, 2014

I kind of like whipping eggs and creaming butter by hand. There's a feeling of wrestling the food into being.

I'm convinced too, though without much evidence, that cookies taste better if every step is accomplished by hand. Certainly there's a greater feeling that you've earned your dessert.
posted by Iridic at 6:39 PM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

That's a pretty fantastic cookbook. In the late 90s when I was a K-1-2 teacher, we spent the year reading the complete Laura Ingalls series aloud. We ended the year with a "Farm Boy Breakfast" celebration in which the kids made the full, crazy breakfast menu that appears in Farmer Boy,pies and all. The best recipe in the bunch was Birds' Nest Pudding, something I really want to make again. It was truly amazing, one of the best things I have ever eaten: baked apples nestled in a pudding that was both crusty and crisp like phyllo and creamy and rich like custard. I'm salivating just remembering it now.

I appreciated the humor here but I think that if you bake a lot, this recipe is manageable and not all that crazy. Yes, your arm gets tired if you try to whip eggs (or cream) without a mixer, but because people did it all the time back in the day they had the whole fast-twitch stirring thing down pat. When I worked as a waitress at a very whole-foods-oriented restaurant, we had to whip cream by hand a lot, and we got a lot stronger and faster at it. It was a form of fitness. No shame in using a mixer to get the same result if you aren't able to whip that fast by hand.
posted by Miko at 6:57 PM on February 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

Oh yeah - the one I still want to try is Vanity Cakes, from On the Banks of Plum Creek. They sound essentially like beignets - delicious; and in a way that makes me disappointed for the person who wrote this post. Come on, it's fried dough with sugar on.
posted by Miko at 6:59 PM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Beating egg whites is much easier if you use a whisk instead of a fork. I'm surprised they didn't just improvise one out of twigs or whatever.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:18 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hand-whipped egg white consistency can be obtained by using a blender, same with cream. Using a whisk (by hand or machine) incorporates too much air (source: my Nana).

Personally I'd celebrate Laura's birthday with Vanity Cakes because they come with a lesson from Ma cooked right in (can't quote verbatim, but she tells Laura the name is because they're like vanity, all puffed up with nothing inside).
posted by variella at 7:27 PM on February 8, 2014

Beating egg whites is much easier if you use a whisk instead of a fork.

Entirely true. It simply multiplies the opportunities for air bubbles to be encased by a protein/fat membrane - the point of whipping. The more physically dispersed the agitating mechanisms, the more opportunities to make that happen. With a fork, tines are very close together and can only accomplish a little. With a whisk of any construction, because you have more projections on it to agitate across a larger area, you vastly increase the surface over which air can be introduced to the proteins and fats in the liquid.

I would say the same of a blender - blenders are great, but with eggs/cream can often result in too dense a whip. The goal of whipping is not a dense blend but to lightly spread the tiny air pockets in suspension throughout the liquid, in a fine balance of stiffness and looseness.
posted by Miko at 7:34 PM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Miko, my only caveat is that the account specified that they were beating the eggs on a platter, not in a bowl. Perhaps there's a way of using a fork to elevate a thin layer of egg and thereby get good aeration? I volunteer someone else to try this. Also, someone else to clean the floor afterwards.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:44 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whipping up a batch of egg whites was not that hard if you used the right tool. I used this fifty some years ago, and it was not new then.
posted by francesca too at 7:48 PM on February 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I can't imagine trying to beat eggwhites on a platter, but if I did, a straw whisk would be a good tool provided you kept the platter level and made circles in the center with the whisk. I mean, Ma wasn't a culinary idiot, nor was any 19th-century cook who got these results. And platters, of course, had a fairly deep (1/2 inch) depression in them as the default, at the time. With the appropriate technique, this is of course possible.

I think you could do it with a fork, you just need to be pretty fit (for fast rotation that drives air into the liquid) and to move the fork in a ranging motion across a wide surface.
posted by Miko at 7:56 PM on February 8, 2014

I've beaten eggs with a whisk and with a rotary beater and gotten similar results as with an electric mixer, it just takes longer. Anyway, I assume this is one of the real Laura's blurry memories adjusted for maximum homespun goodness for the sake of the novels, and that they really didn't use a fork on a platter.

hey, Pa--get a job!
posted by padraigin at 8:27 PM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I found this kind of fascinating, but I'm not even a very good baker and I'm a little shocked that they were willing to bake the cake without having actually achieved stiff peaks on the eggs.

My grandmother can beat eggs by hand. I cannot. It definitely takes a lot of practice. But they wouldn't have said stiff peaks if they meant "until you get tired and peaks still haven't formed!"

This reminds me more of my grandmother's first reported experiment with cake baking, where she didn't have enough butter but she did have chicken fat, and she thought maybe she could substitute it. We still don't let her do dessert.
posted by Sequence at 9:10 PM on February 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

All this feels hideously familiar in a distant way having come to be transplanted in Minnesota from a warm comfortable life elsewhere in the US
posted by Ferreous at 9:35 PM on February 8, 2014

Why is everyone at the OP's link hating on rosewater?! Rosewater is the best
posted by threeants at 11:03 PM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just bought a bottle but so far I'm too scared to use it. I was thinking of beating baker's cheese with sugar and adding a bit of rosewater, and serving it as a topping for stewed apricots.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:07 AM on February 9, 2014

If you like Turkish delight you'll like stuff flavored with rosewater.
posted by brujita at 12:33 AM on February 9, 2014

147 is the new 127.
posted by dr_dank at 5:14 AM on February 9, 2014

I re-read the Little House series every few years and think the food descriptions add so much. (Future generations will probably not marvel at our reminiscences of Bagel Bites.)

But really popped in to recommend Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life for any Lauraphiles out there.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:52 AM on February 9, 2014

I almost always hand whip my egg whites for meringue-related purposes for three reasons:

★ Getting out the stepladder to get my 1940s Hamilton Beach down from a high shelf, then cleaning it, using it, and cleaning it again before putting it back is a pain.

★ You have way, way more sense of fine texture and control with a whisk.

★ It hurts because we 21st century cave apes are weak and atrophied with flappy, limp little modern laptop-ruined Tyrannosaurus Rex arms. This goes away awfully quickly with a little bit of upper body work in the form of horrible old household labor tasks like whipping some egg whites and weekly churning some amazingly good butter by shaking a jar while binge-watching Farscape instead of just cobrowsing wikipedia entries on Gigi Edgley on a tablet while binge-watching Farscape.
posted by sonascope at 6:11 AM on February 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

Yeah, rosewater is great. YOu can use it anywhere you'd use vanilla - basically the same idea.
posted by Miko at 6:39 AM on February 9, 2014

My grandmother often told me of the beautiful, large white platter that her mother had when she was growing up. When her mom had people over for dinner she had to, as a child, whip 18 egg whites on the platter with a fork to make angel food cake. When she told the story she would use hand gestures that made me think the eggs would be piled a foot high when she was finished. She said that she bought an electric mixer as soon as they were available and she had the means. I asked her to show me how to do it because it seemed like an interesting skill to have. She just laughed and said that she could show me more useful things to do in the kitchen and that we have mixers now for a reason.
posted by colt45 at 5:41 PM on February 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's an egg-whipping technique that specifically uses a platter, either for its increased surface area or perhaps to allow longer strokes: Whipping Egg Whites with a Flat Wire Whip.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:27 PM on February 9, 2014

OK, y'all got me curious with this platter thing. There must be a reason, I thought. Perhaps the very idea of our choosing a bowl when it's time to whip an egg is modern - a result of the advent of the electric mixer, which required a bowl to keep the batter together and allow the beaters to get to the bottom of the liquid batter.

First, here's the science of what we're doing when we're whipping.

The Kitchn on The Hows and Whys of Whisking By Hand. Her mention of the vigorous "swishing" of whites until foamy as the first step would argue for a large, wide platter.

This detailed description
specifies that the vessel used for whipping (at least in the professional French kitchen she is citing) must be "in the shape of a hemisphere and without an angle at the bottom, and one that is big enough to allow the whisk to work easily."

Then I remembered primary sources and went to Google Books. Almost every 19th century mention of beating eggs just says "beat the whites until stiff" and makes no mention of tools. But eventually I found the following instructions from Jennie Jamison, who gave a "Cooking School" in 1895 at a Wisconsin Farmer's Institute
There is a good deal in the beating the whites of eggs and getting as much bulk as possible. I like a whisk the best of anything. I do not like the Dover beater nearly so well, and the whisk should be held very nearly flat on the plate, to cover the whole width of the plate as nearly as possible.
And then, in the 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book:
Beat on a platter whites of eggs until stiff.
Finally, a present-day baking wizard:
When using a flat whip, the best container for the whites is a large flat platter with raised sides. This gives you a generous surface area for moving the whites around and a nice roomy space for manipulating the whip.
So there we have it. It looks pretty certain that until we mechanized beating egg whites, it looks like a platter with a shallow depression was the vessel to use, at least if you didn't have a copper egg beating bowl which most people certainly did not. We're probably only using a bowl because the mechanized beaters require one, making us think that is the best tool for hand beating as well. Can't wait to try this sometime.
posted by Miko at 7:43 PM on February 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

See, I knew someone would volunteer eventually!
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:48 PM on February 9, 2014

I just bought a bottle but so far I'm too scared to use it.

Don't be scared, rosewater is indeed the best! Try putting some on vanilla ice cream with crushed cardamom sprinkled on top. Smells amazing, tastes great. And like Miko said, it does just fine in place of or in addition to vanilla in most recipes.
posted by yasaman at 9:43 AM on February 10, 2014

Next up! Almanzo's Apple Pie!
posted by The Whelk at 2:06 PM on February 14, 2014

I tried A VERY LITTLE rosewater in some strawberry ice cream. Gosh that stuff's strong. About five times as powerful as the vanilla extract I'm using, I'd guess. Anyway, I'd say about a drop per liter or quart will improve fruit-based ice creams. More than that will turn it into rose-flavoured ice cream, which is ... different.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:20 PM on February 15, 2014

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