Between 1835 and 1870, Sarah L. Weld of Cambridge, Massachusetts collected twenty-three recipes for gingerbread. This repetition of recipes, particularly recipes for baked goods, was not uncommon in nineteenth-century recipe collections. In fact, it was the norm. In my last post, I offered three explanations for the prevalence of cake recipes in the manuscript cookbooks I study: evolving technology, new ingredients, and shifting social expectations that are indicative of changes in women’s work and roles over the course of the nineteenth century. The repetition of recipes for popular types of cake, like gingerbread, illuminates my third point: that changes in the availability and quality of ingredients influenced women’s recipe collecting. Sarah Weld’s collection of gingerbread recipes reveals how the availability of flour, sugar, and chemical leaveners transformed baking during her lifetime.
Wheat flour, the basic ingredient for most baked items, was seldom used in early America. The prevalence of mildew rust on wheat crops lead early settlers to abandon growing wheat in favor of local and hardier grains and most daily baking relied on proprietary blends of rye flour, Indian (corn) meal, and small amounts of wheat flour. Most cooks saved costly wheat flour for fine cakes and pastry made for special occasions. In the mid-nineteenth century improved milling techniques, a growing transportation infrastructure, and the development of fertile agricultural land in the Canadian and American west along with the adoption of the hardier Turkey red wheat made wheat flour more available and accessible. Rather than growing their own wheat, consumers could purchase refined wheat flour by the barrel. Consequently, American wheat consumption soared.
Sugar, like flour, was an expensive commodity that became more accessible during the nineteenth century. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, recipes relied on less expensive byproducts of sugar production like molasses and brown sugar to sweeten baked goods. The invention of a vacuum system of evaporation and the centrifuge made the production of refined white sugar more efficient and, consequently, lowered the price. As refined white sugar became more accessible, it was praised by domestic advisors like Sarah J. Hale as sweeter and of a finer texture than brown sugar and, therefore, best used in baking. By 1871, loaf sugar was replaced by granulated sugar preserving women from the labor of grinding their own sugar.
Chemical leaveners brought about the most visible transformation in American baked goods. These additives allowed women to make cakes more easily (less strenuous beating of ingredients) and more inexpensively by using smaller quantities of eggs and butter. Most significantly, chemical leaveners brought cakes to new heights and transformed their texture from dense, sweet breads to light and airy ones. The first of these, pearlash, stemmed from the Native American technique of combining potash, produced by leaching wood ashes, with the meal. This process, called nixtamalization, created an alkaline solution that released amino acids and niacin in the grain making the resulting product more nutritious. Further, since corn will not react with yeast, the potash provided a small amount of leavening. Innovative American cooks developed a concentrated form of potash called pearlash that when combined with an acidic substance like sour milk, citrus, or molasses would create a quick and reliable leavening agent.
Beginning in the 1840s, pearlash would be slowly supplanted by chemical leaveners that improved the leavening properties of pearlash: saleratus, cream of tartar, and baking powder. Saleratus or baking soda sped up the chemical reaction that produced carbon dioxide in baked goods and yielded more consistent results. Cream of tartar helped activate the baking soda and neutralize the unpleasant alkaline aftertaste left by the soda. In the 1850s, the process of baking was further streamlined by the introduction of baking powder, which combined baking soda and cream of tartar into one product.
Together, changing technology and ingredients revolutionized cooking during the nineteenth century. The yeast-raised cakes of the past never entirely vanished from American cookbooks (Election Cake remained a perennial favorite), but chemically leavened butter and sponge cakes largely supplanted their popularity. Recipes for gingerbread from Eliza Leslie’s classic Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828) and The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896) by Fannie Merritt Farmer reflect these changes in the process of baking. Technology that made baking easier along with improved ingredients transformed the appearance of baked goods, particularly cakes. As refined sugar and wheat flour became more affordable and chemical leaveners became more reliable, dessert became increasingly more elaborate. In the 1870s and 1880s, layer cakes dominated American baking filled first with jelly and later with caramel, chocolate, fruit, or nut fillings. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the variety of cakes increased exponentially with confections named White Mountain Cake, Devil’s Food, Angel Cake, Moonshine Cake, Chocolate Marshmallow Cake, Boston Cream Pie, and Mocha Cake. Thus, women not only collected cake recipes for the practical reason that technology and ingredients had changed, but also because they were so many new and exciting options for cake baking.
Nancy Carlisle and Melinda Talbit Nasardinov with Jennifer Pustz, America’s Kitchens (Boston: Historic New England, 2008).
Abigail Carroll, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. New York: Basic Books, 2013.
Alice L. McLean, Cooking in America, 1840-1945 Daily Life through History, Edited by Ken Alba. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.
Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005).
Susan Williams, Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006).
 Sarah L. Weld, Cookbook, 1835-1870. Schlesinger Library. 010117969.