Let’s Bake a (Historical) Cake

June 9, 2020

By Katie Mayer

Matthew Cowan, OHS Archivist for Photography and Moving Images, baked this chocolate nut cake from a recipe in the 1912 “Practical Cook Book,” compiled by the Women’s Auxiliary to Pacific College, Newberg, Oregon. Twelve members of the OHS staff tested the recipe as part of a cooking experiment to pass the time and keep connected during the pandemic.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, I found myself alone in the house with a batch of cookies. Ordinarily, my colleagues at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) reap the benefits of my baking habit, but now we were all at home. Though I had baked for comfort, the sight of a treat I would usually share was unexpectedly emblematic of the strangeness and grief of the moment.

In those same days, however, something else became obvious, too. Food came up again and again in my social media streams, my texts, my conversations, in news stories I heard and read. People talked about ingredients they couldn’t get and ideas for substitutions, about the anxiety of navigating the grocery store and the grind of putting meals on the table, about restaurant pickup and food cravings, about trying to avoid waste, about cooking to pass the time, about sourdough, sourdough, sourdough. Even though we were apart, many of our experiences with cooking and eating during the pandemic were common ones. Food was a stress and a chore, but it still could be — still was — comfort and communion, too.

And that gave me an idea for a cooking experiment. I’d pick a recipe from one of the historical cookbooks in the OHS Research Library collections, anyone interested in a minor baking adventure could try it, and then we’d compare notes on how it went — a potentially delicious activity people could do separately, but together. In the Practical Cook Book, published in Newberg in 1912, I found a recipe that fit the bill. The recipe, for a chocolate nut cake, had a few actual instructions (as I've written before, many of the old recipes have none) and required only a short list of ordinary ingredients that people would have on hand or could easily acquire. What made it irresistible, though, was a surprise ingredient: the cake contains mashed potatoes.

When I pitched this baking adventure to OHS staff, 11 people eagerly volunteered to test the recipe with me. Some of us baked alone; others made the experiment a family affair, baking with partners or kids. Some of us swapped emails and texts and chat messages about our cakes, discussing the consistency of the batter, the pans we’d used, substitutions we'd made, the type of icing we chose, whether we liked the results. Each of the 12 cakes was a little different, and some were quite fancy. From this adventure, we all got dessert, but something else, too: a brief respite from the pressures and monotony of lives constricted by the pandemic.

Practical Cook Book, 1912. OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr, photograph by Robert Warren.
For this baking adventure, I selected a chocolate nut cake recipe from page 113 of the 1912 “Practical Cook Book.” The recipe had a few instructions and a surprise ingredient — mashed potatoes. OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr, photograph by Robert Warren.

But this experiment, and the joys of it, were never meant to end with us. The recipe, some tips, and a slideshow of our 12 cakes are below; join us in rolling up your sleeves, mashing potatoes, and transforming them into chocolate cake. There are no rules and nothing is cheating: make any adaptation or substitution you like, and if you've got questions, consult any source you find helpful. Once you've baked, fill out our comment form and tell us how it went. Grand success? Total failure? We want to hear about them all. Submit your results by July 31, and if enough people participate, we’ll feature your comments and photos in a future blog post or email newsletter.

Chocolate Nut Cake

From The Practical Cookbook, compiled by the Women’s Auxiliary to Pacific College, Newberg, Oregon, 1912

Cream together ½ cup butter and 1 cup of sugar, add the well beaten yolks of 2 eggs and 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon and vanilla extract. Stir in ¼ cup of milk, and ½ cup of mashed potatoes, ¼ cup of melted chocolate, ½ cup finely chopped English walnuts, 2 cups of flour, into which 2 heaping teaspoons of baking powder have been sifted, and the stiffly beaten whites of 2 eggs.

Before you get started, here are trends from our test bakes that you may wish to take into account: 

  • Despite the name, the cake doesn’t have a strong chocolate flavor; one tester compared it to zucchini bread without the zucchini. It’s definitely more of a breakfast cake than a birthday cake.
  • We generally found the batter to be quite stiff, and without the benefit of a set baking time, some cakes came out a little dry.
  • Though the recipe doesn't call for frosting, most of us independently decided to ice our cakes and did not regret it.
  • The cake gets better over time as it sits.
Stroman

Sarah Stroman, Oral History Librarian

Would make this cake again.

Best part: Melting chocolate.
Most difficult:
Determining baking temperature and time.
Alterations:
Doubled the recipe and added frosting.

“I made a giant cake, and all of my neighbors were suddenly on diets, so I was left with a huge chocolate cake to eat, just myself and my husband and my toddler. This turned out to be a wonderful thing — because the cake had time to settle. The perfect time to eat this cake seems to be about three days after baking.”

Brasell

Erin Brasell, Oregon Historical Quarterly Editorial, Design, and Production Manager, and son Miles Gelwicks, age 9

Would make this cake again.

Best part: Playing sous chef to her 9-year-old son.
Most difficult:
Choosing a pan and how long to bake.
Alterations:
Substituted almonds for walnuts, sweet potatoes for regular potatoes, and cake spice instead of cinnamon.

“The flavor was great, and we all went for second tastes (with liberal helpings of strawberries and sauce).”

Hanel

Sara Hanel, Venue and Event Manager

Would make this cake again.

Best part: Discussing cooking time and pan options with her husband, and using potatoes in a new way.
Most difficult:
Getting the ingredients during the pandemic.
Alterations:
Used hazelnuts instead of walnuts and a Nutella glaze drizzle.

“My husband and I talked about it pretty extensively beforehand, then I had to send him away as I was working because he wanted to make it, too, but not in the same way I did! I also consulted my grandmother's recipe book as well as the Internet for substitution alternatives.”

Yasuhara

Nicole Yasuhara, Deputy Museum Director

Probably wouldn't make the cake again.

Best part: Mashed potatoes. And cake.
Most difficult:
Compensating for mistakes in beating egg whites and preparation of mashed potatoes.
Alterations:
Used chocolate chips instead of nuts and added extra cinnamon.

“I reused my bowl to beat the egg whites and the existing fats must have affected their ability to form peaks. I thought, hmmm, should I start over? Nah! and I used them anyway. Also, in my attempt to kill two birds with one stone I made mashed potatoes for dinner the night prior. I absent-mindedly added garlic (and butter and milk) before remembering I was using the leftovers for this cake. Again, did I start over? Nope!”

Gandy

Shawna Gandy, Library Director

Would not make this cake again; bland and dry.

Best part: Researching cooking history to fill in the gaps in the recipe.
Most difficult:
Choosing ingredients that would most closely match those from the era of the recipe.

“It tapped into my love of research and cooking. I learned some new things about the history of American cooking. For example, the 1910s saw the advent of packaged foods (think Oreos) and self-serve grocery stores (Piggly Wiggly).”

Cowan

Matthew Cowan, Archivist for Photography and Moving Images, and daughter Pola Cowan, 5

Would make this cake again.

Best part: Tasting everything during cooking: licking the butter and sugar off the spatula, then the melted chocolate, then the egg whites, then the batter from the bowl.
Most difficult:
Folding in egg whites and determining baking time and temperature.
Alterations:
Used hazelnuts instead of walnuts and slightly more chocolate than called for, added salt, and put some milk in the mashed potatoes.

“I think it would be particularly good for first breakfast — fried up in butter on the griddle.”

Hyatt

Tania Hyatt-Evenson, Oregon Encyclopedia Editorial Coordinator

Would make this cake again.

Best part: Partaking in a baking project together with her husband, the primary cook in the house.
Most difficult:
Figuring out how much butter and milk to add to the potatoes, and folding in the egg whites.
Alterations:
Added chocolate frosting.

“The cake turned out okay. The flavor was mild and it was on the dry side. My husband made a really thick chocolate frosting which helped give the cake an over-the-top richness. I recommend having a slice with a cup of coffee in the morning, especially during a global pandemic.”

Cole

Tara Cole, Museum Services Coordinator

Probably wouldn't make again; dry and crumbly.

Best part: Cooking with so few instructions.
Most difficult:
Cooking with so few instructions, and beating the egg whites to stiff peaks.
Alterations:
Increased chocolate to ½ cup and added chocolate frosting.

“This was fun, and now I have a whole chocolate cake to eat.”

Miller

Dana Miller, Collections Management Librarian

Maybe, with alterations.

Best part: Diving into the unknown.
Most difficult:
Beating egg whites to stiff peaks, lack of instructions, thick batter.
Alterations:
Used buttermilk instead of plain milk, increased quantity of (butter)milk and sugar, added a Mexican chocolate frosting.

“The cake was pretty good if somewhat bland. Some crumbs stuck to the bottom of the pan and I tried them before deciding whether to frost. The cinnamon in the recipe made the cake taste like Mexican chocolate, which I like, so I went with that for the whole theme. Even though the recipe did not call for frosting I added a Mexican chocolate frosting to it. That made it very good.”

Randles

Rachel Randles, Director of Marketing and Communications, and daughter Peyton Randles, 3

Would make this cake again.

Best part: Seeing how mashed potatoes would affect the cake, and baking with her daughter.
Most difficult:
Deciding how long to bake the cake.
Alterations:
Increased the quantity of chocolate, used instant mashed potatoes, and added buttercream frosting.

“The most fun part for me was doing this whole experiment with my almost three-year-old daughter. We both donned aprons, rolled up our sleeves, and spent a fun morning together baking (and then eating more than our share of buttercream frosting!)”

Mayer

Katie Mayer, Technical Services Librarian

Would make again.

Best part: Experimenting in the absence of instructions.
Most difficult:
Choosing a pan and a baking time and temperature; folding in egg whites.
Alterations:
Added orange zest to the batter and used a coffee glaze.

“With so little instruction or description in the recipe, I wasn't quite sure what I'd get at the end, and it was fun to try things just to see what would happen. I already change recipes pretty frequently as I cook, but there's something liberating about using such a sparse recipe as a basic template that I could bend to my exact taste.”

Buergel

Kim Buergel, Museum Registrar

Probably would not make again.

Best part: Trying out a recipe with so few instructions.
Most difficult:
Deciding on a baking time and temperature.
Alterations:
None.

“It was fun to fill in the blanks to see if I could make something edible.”

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