What happens when you follow a 1940s cake recipe?

We’ve been enjoying the Great Archive Bake Off, where intrepid modern bakers try cooking from historical recipes held in archives and Special Collections.

I decided to join in and make a Household Cake. I followed this recipe from Tea time tips by Charlotte Cairns, published in 1948 and part of our Fuller Collection.

I chose it because I liked the idea of dates, and also because it contained lard and I have fond memories of pies and pastries baked by my grandma, which I think were heavy on the lard.

It didn’t specify what type of flour so I used plain. Similarly, the type of sugar was not mentioned so I used caster.  The first minor difficulty was that I’m very much a metric girl, and couldn’t remember how many ounces were in a pound.  I was determined not to google anything, so ended up measuring out a pound of flour which showed as 16 ounces, then worked backwards to end up with the half pound (or 8 ounces) of flour that I needed.

Next issue was the 2 ‘made-up eggs’.  I assumed this was some sort of post-war rationing egg (afterwards I did google “made-up eggs” and didn’t find anything helpful: there was a link to an archive recipe website but frustratingly it took me to an error message).  My only option was to use 2 ordinary hen eggs.

The baking soda: is that baking powder, or bicarbonate of soda?  I decided baking powder. I warmed the milk, added the baking powder and got this:

A spoon is held over a bowl. Both the spoon and bowl hold a thick white mixture

Once the dry and wet ingredients were combined, this resulted in a very dense, stiff and doughy mixture.  The instructions are to mix for 5 minutes, and I could barely manage 3 before my wrists started to seriously complain.   Once transferred into the tin it just sat there without sinking into the corners like a modern cake mix would, so I spent quite some time poking it down with my spatula.

I guessed 375 degrees F is roughly 160 degrees C, and set the timer for 1hr 15minutes, instead of the 1hr 30 minutes recommended – and it took considerable will power not to get it out before then, I was so sure I could smell burning.  After 75 minutes, this came out:

A flat brown cake sits on a wire cooling rack

There was a distinct lack of rise: possibly because it needed that 5 minutes of mixing that I couldn’t manage?  Maybe I should have used self-raising flour?  Or is this what cakes looked like in 1948?

Anyway, the taste is the key thing, and fortunately my family were having our first get together since December, so I was able to bring this as my contribution to the feast.  It didn’t exactly shine compared to the trifle made by my sister, and the cheesecake ordered in by my brother who couldn’t be with us.  I was accused of supplying a frisbee:

Mmmm, which would you choose?  Not the household cake I suspect.

Anyway, once we’d tucked into the other two, we all had a slice of my cake.  It tasted okay although would have been improved with some cinnamon or mixed spice (presumably not easily available in the post war period) and maybe some more dates.  The problem really was the texture which was distinctly biscuity: you could probably dunk it successfully.  My mother helpfully informed me that baking soda is bicarbonate of soda, not baking powder (although I’m not convinced that would have made a major difference) but I think the made-up egg issue was the main problem, and there just wasn’t enough moisture in the cake to give it the light, fluffy texture I expect of cakes today.

— Jo Akers, Customer Services Team Leader

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