Thursday, June 23, 2022

Sour Cream Spice Cake: or, The innocuous beginning of a stack of old recipes

Free newspaper trials can be dangerous. Some people uncover surprise family skeletons in the marriage and divorce records. I on the other hand spent those three precious days of free access frantically snipping assorted recipes to foist on friends. Today, we're going to make something that passes for normal. We have to gently ease everyone else in the house into the wonderful world of outdated food, so we are making a spice cake.

Sour Cream Spice Cake
⅓ c butter, margarine, or shortening
1 c dark brown sugar
1 egg
⅔ c sour cream
⅓ c water
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cloves
½ tsp nutmeg
2 tsp cinnamon
⅛ tsp salt
2 c flour

Heat oven to 350°. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit a 9" square pan. Grease the pan, press down the paper, and grease it again.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy in a large bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and beat well for two minutes.
Pour into the prepared pan and bake 25 minutes.

Caramel Frosting:
1 c dark brown sugar
⅔ c white sugar
2 tbsp butter
1 c water
½ tsp vanilla

Combine everything except the vanilla in a large saucepan (it needs plenty of room to boil up). Cook over high heat to soft ball stage (235° F), stirring constantly. Set aside to cool for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, beat well until thick and creamy, but still runny enough to easily pour. Quickly pour over and spread on the cake. If the icing has thickened too much to spread, put it back on the stove and stir until it thins again.

Source: "Helping the Homemaker" by Louise Bennett Weaver, Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram morning edition, Fort Worth TX, May 3 1933, page 5

This is our first venture into the Louise Bennett Weaver-written "Helping the Homemakers." Unlike Laura Kirkman of Efficient Housekeeping fame, Louise seems to have branched out from newspaper columns and written a substantial number of recipe books. All of her books have a story to tie the recipes together, starring a woman named Bettina. Usually, such story-cookbooks have cute little plots like "Little Clara is visiting her quaint country relatives who show her how to do rustic things and also how to cook the old-fashioned way" or "Eleanor just got married and is hopeless in the kitchen until the friendly women in her neighborhood teach her all about cooking." But Louise Bennett Weaver chose to write all her story-cookbooks about Bettina, a know-it-all housewife who's irritatingly perfect but also too nice to hate. 

Apparently I'm not the only one looking up these books almost a century later; they appear not just on archive websites but on the Kindle store. On a last note, A Thousand Ways to Please the Family (book 2 in the Bettina series) is the only book I have ever seen where they make the copyright notice into a picture.

A Thousand Ways to Please a Family with Bettina's Best Recipes, Louise Bennett Weaver (you can read it online for free here)

Back to today's recipe. I do love how the recipe just calls for "⅓ cup fat." First of all, it's the Depression. If we can't afford butter or lard this week, we can just scrape together a third cup of the drippings from last night's dinner and thus avoid cake deprivation. Second, fat may have been acceptable in the 1930s, but it has since become the dietary demon of the west. No one today is going to brazenly use the word "fat" in an ingredient list.

As you can see, we are opting for shortening instead of butter. We still had a bit of it left from the green velvet cake that crowned the Saint Patcaken, and I hate to permit groceries to go rancid in the pantry. After scraping the shortening can very well with a rubber spatula, we had exactly one third cup of fat like the recipe calls for. The brown sugar completely camouflaged it after creaming the two together as directed. Can you tell there's any shortening in this bowl?

 At this point, the recipe tells us to just dump everything in the bowl and beat it really hard for two minutes. I was going to use the mixer for this, but I saw an ad from the same year as this recipe advertising a stand mixer for $19.95. That's like $425 in the year 2022. I'm going to assume that most housewives couldn't convince their husbands to pay that much for a mixer, especially since they were probably still paying off the sewing machine. It's true that a lot of newspaper recipes from this time leave out a lot of instructions in the interest of cramming as much as possible into the limited space. But this one expressly tells us to just dump every thing else in and start stirring. I wanted to try this new method that's probably meant to be thoroughly foolproof if you have the arm strength.

As we started piling all the ingredients in, we noted that this recipe uses a lot of spices. People often complain that food from this time is underseasoned and bland (and often they are correct), but look at how much spice is going into this thing! You should know that despite my usual inclination to dump in spices with a generous hand, I carefully measured these so I could make this recipe as originally intended.

I found it amusing how the blob of sour cream dislodged all the spices and landed with an almost-audible WHOMPH! on the other ingredients.

We proceeded to turn this promising mess into a cake batter because the newspaper told us this would work. With my eye on the second hand of the nearest clock, I proceeded to give the ingredients the cement-mixer treatment for the specified two minutes. The batter fought back a lot harder than I expected. Those of you trying this at home will want to use a bigger bowl than this one so the batter has more room to get out of the spoon's way while you stir it.

The recipe just says to "pour into a shallow pan" without specifying a size. I wanted to make a square sized cake instead of a huge 9"x13" one, but had some misgivings about possible overflow since I wasn't halving the recipe. Then, I figured that any extra batter could become a cupcake or two. Upon pouring, it appeared I had placed the cake batter in the correct-sized pan. But seeing how thick it was made me wonder if I had mismeasured something somewhere.

I decided to make the icing right after getting the cake into the oven rather than waiting until it was ready to be bedecked. Usually I don't mix the icing until it's time to apply it so that it doesn't have any time to dry or harden-- and also because I usually spend the entire baking time cleaning away cake-related splatters and smears from the countertops. But this recipe specifically tells us we must cool the icing for 25 minutes before getting it onto the cake. With that in mind, I figured that both icing and cake would be ready at the same time. And if the cake was still a little warm come cake-dressing time, maybe that would help the icing spread over it.

For those keeping track, this recipe puts more sugar on the cake than in it. This icing looks similar to the salted caramel icing from our Patcaken adventure that turned out to be a faulty recipe. You may remember that it turned out unpleasantly greasy from an excess of butter. This recipe only uses a tiny little blob of the stuff.

I really wanted this icing to work so that I could have a viable recipe for when we're out of powdered sugar. As I stirred the the pot, I wondered how many people in the 1930s clipped this out of the newspaper and made it at least once. Did anyone save it? How many people spent a (surprisingly) long time stirring a pot of brown sugar water while it boiled into candy so they could put it on this very cake? 

An article tracing the history of various people's family recipes found that most of these edible treasures come from forgotten ads, clippings, and cookbooks. Some people out there may still make this very recipe, not knowing that their mother got it from her mother got it from her grandmother who cut it out of the morning paper. 

After a while, the kitchen smelled a little bit like we were making a war cake.  The pot also looked very similar to the beginnings of a war cake, aside from the absence of raisins.

After cooking the icing to the named temperature, the contents of the pot had turned from sugary water to a syrup that looked about right to pour on one's pancakes. The kitchen also smelled like brown sugar, with an odd and distinctive antique-recipe overtone to it. You could see how thick the syrup was if you gave the pot a quick spoon-swipe.

After the icing has cooled for 20 minutes, the recipe tells us to add vanilla and then beat the icing "until creamy." It seemed pretty thick and creamy before we even started stirring it, but who am I to dispute Louise Bennett Weaver? I'm not the one with an entire book series and a syndicated newspaper column.

Besides, by following the recipe instructions I can be sure that whatever failure I get is absolutely in no way my fault. That's what I often tell myself when things seem a bit odd in a recipe: I can blame the writer if I end up throwing away a big pan of failure after carefully following someone else's instructions. And that's exactly what I expected to do as I kept stirring my pot of brown sludge with no visible change. Then, all of a sudden it started to get lighter in color at a rapid rate.

Soon, it was the color of peanut butter and only barely runnier. This is the first time I have ever made a boiled icing before, and it was looking absolutely divine. If you have never made a boiled icing, you should. Also, you should know that you have about thirty seconds between when it's just creamy enough to spread and when it sets into heartbreakingly perfect fudge.

At least it was a the same color as the cake. That made this whole production look slightly less inept if you gazed upon the vintage magnificence from afar. I scraped a lot of the icing off the top, microwaved it until it melted again, and tried to pour it around the edges. I can't decide if that made the cake look worse, but at least everyone got icing on their piece of cake.

We may have flunked presentation, but this is a really good cake! There's nothing particularly antiquated in the ingredients, but it tasted like a recipe one would get handed down on a brittle paper scrap after everyone else in the family has gotten to make it. It's also very wonderfully effort-free to make--- well, the cake itself is, anyway. The icing clearly will require a few attempts to get right. With that said, the two are made for each other. The cake is really good uniced, but the icing just goes so perfectly with it. 

But I was very disappointed that I failed to ice the cake properly. This seems like one of those techniques that nearly everyone knew until it just sort of fell out of the kitchen. So, I decided to give the icing another go, being very aware that you have about 30 seconds to get it on top of the cake before it hardens. This time, we put it on top of the nun brownies. Unfortunately, I got too overenthusiastic about leavening them with the new stand mixer. This brownie recipe has no added leavener, so the only thing that leavens it is your effort as you beat the batter (before adding the flour, of course). Rather than getting out a wooden spoon and treating the batter like it just said a naughty word, I let the mixer run for an extremely long time while I tidied up around me. The mixture got aerated until it looked (and tasted) like the best chocolate mousse I have ever eaten. I may get pasteurized eggs and do it on purpose. But the point is, the sin of pride struck my well-aerated nun brownies, and they overflowed the pan.

This is what happens when you contravene the instructions of nuns.

But after (badly) trimming away the spillover, we could get it iced. If you don't want to wait 25 minutes for the icing to cool like the recipe says, you can set the whole pot in a pan of cold water and lightly stir it ever few seconds. The water sucks the heat right out of your impending icing.

We poured the icing onto the brownies perhaps a bit early. It puddled right into the center of them. We had to spend a minute or so pushing the icing back onto the edges with a spoon before it suddenly set. And once this icing sets, it shall not be moved. We tried to pour a bit of excess from the pot onto the brownies, and it refused to spread from where it landed.

This icing may require a few practice attempts to get it right. But when you do, it's like you coated the cake in caramel fudge. We definitely recommend both the icing and the cake, either separately or together. In closing, I have to share this short article from the same newspaper page.

SMOKE FILLS HOUSE BUT ONLY HAT BURNS. A house full of smoke and the smouldering remains of a hat were found by firemen when they arrived at the home of H. C. Kennedy, 4518 Washburn Avenue, yesterday afternoon. The hat, they were told, had been washed in gasoline and placed in an oven to dry. Heat from the oven ignited the headgear. The only loss was the hat.


  1. I'm the only one in my friend group who really likes spice cake (oh, everyone else will EAT it, but there will be inquisitive remarks about whether or not I might do lemon or chocolate next time), so the cake itself may have to wait. But I think I need to find an excuse for this ICING tout suite.

    1. Oh definitely! It's tricky to get it right the first time-- you either stop beating the icing while it's still too runny, or you accidentally stir for too long and it sets in the pot instead of on the cake. But it is so, so good!

  2. I'm guessing that you didn't sleep for the 3 days that you had free access to the newspapers. It was all for a noble cause.
    I checked the frosting recipes in my St. Ludmila Parish home of the Kolach Festival 1975 cookbook. Most of their cooked frostings involve corn starch. They also liked making cream cupcake filling.

    1. Well, on the last day I was like "I don't want to leave the house and get pizza for dinner until the free trial ends!" I wonder if the cornstarch keeps it soft and spreadable for longer. Though I can't argue with cream filling in cupcakes.

  3. Loved the cooking bit as I always do, but, also, gotta go wash my hat in gasoline.

    1. Thank you! And... there's a PSA about dry cleaning at home with gasoline. The whole thing's on, but here's the relevant part:
      It's so easy to forget that even the hokiest of these films were made in response to something-- until you see someone putting a gasoline-soaked hat in the oven.