American Cake – A great baking book and a recipe for vanilla sauce

I’ve only cooked two recipes out of it and I love it, the book is American Cake by Anne Byrn (ISBN 978-1-62336-543-1).

It combines baking, history, and cooking science. Byrn follows the history of the United States in cake recipes, going back to 1600s.

The recipes are presented mostly chronologically, with notes about baking techniques and ingredients available at various times in U.S. history.

Which is why I also think of this book as yet another entry in the long list of reasons why the “good old days” weren’t as great as a lot of people like to think.

On page 7, Byrn describes what was needed to make light and fluffy cakes in colonial times. There was beating egg whites and egg yolks until they were fluffy enough to provide some leavening of the cake they would be put in. That was often an hour or more of whisking by hand, since even hand-powered gear-driven mixers would not be invented for quite some time. By the late 1700s, many cooks and bakers had started using potash, which was ash from burned hardwood trees which had been rinsed with water (the rinsing water was used for cleaning because of the lye in it). Pearlash was a purified form of potash, and the next time you open up your baking cabinet I invite you to marvel at the fact we don’t have to use woodash to make cakes anymore. Unsurprisingly, woodash (even rinsed) did not taste very good, so cakes that used it for leavening usually had a lot of strong spices or strong tasting ingredients like molasses. Which would still be nicer than having to whip eggs by hand for an hour every time someone wanted cake. It was not until the middle 1800s that baking soda or baking powder became available.

The recipe I’m including below is not even an actual cake recipe, it’s just a vanilla sauce recipe that’s an aside to one of Byrn’s cake recipes. Even so, it’s great, the book is great, and if you like cakes or history, I would definitely recommend getting American Cake.

Vanilla Sauce:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 Tablespoons vanilla extract
  1. Place the sugar and cornstarch in a small pan, mix thoroughly with the 2 cups boiling water, and simmer or lightly boil over low heat until thickened. Take off the heat, stir in the butter and vanilla extract. Spoon over cake or whatever else you are putting it on.

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