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Wibble Wobble?: Dr. A. W. Chase’s Chocolate Jelly Cake

2013 March 14
by lucinda matthews-jones

Mary Addyman (University of Warwick)
This post forms part of the JVC Bake off  in aid of Comic Relief. You can sponsor all our bakers efforts here.

When I read about this Bake Off, I knew exactly where to head to find a recipe – my mother’s book shelf. Since starting to volunteer in the Victorian kitchen at Charlecote Park a couple of years ago, she has developed a keen interest in nineteenth century cooking, and her book collection has expanded accordingly. She’s got many tomes on Beeton, plenty of pamphlets of regional recipes, and a series published by Penguin called ‘Good Food’. In the end, I plumped for a recipe from one of these, a book entitled Buffalo Cake and Indian Pudding, which is actually an extract from Dr Chase’s Third, Last and Complete Receipt Book, first published posthumously in 1887.

Alvin Wood Chase was a doctor, born in New York in 1817.  He spent 25 years selling household wares to settlers who were arriving and setting up home along the Maumee River near Toledo, Ohio. Along the way he collected folk remedies and recipes, and in 1858 published them in A Guide to Wealth! Over One Hundred Valuable Recipes, for Saloons, Inn-Keepers, Grocers, Druggists, Merchants and for Families Generally, which sold very well and ran to ten editions. Chase’s third recipe book follows a similar format to his first; it is a compendium of useful information, tidbits and recipes collated from numerous sources, with lots of notes on regional variations in ingredients or names of dishes.

The recipe I chose to make is for a ‘Chocolate Jelly Cake’, which Chase proclaims to be his ‘favorite chocolate cake’. The text is reproduced below.

Chocolate Jelly Cake – Butter, 1/2 cup; sugar, 2 cups; flour, 3 cups; milk, 1 cup; 4 eggs; baking powder, 1 teaspoonful. Jelly – Milk, 1 pt.; grated chocolate and sugar, each 1 cup; corn starch, 1 table-spoonful. DIRECTIONS – Cream the butter and sugar, eggs and milk, as usual (in the order here named); then sift in the flour and baking powder and bake in jelly cake tins. For the jelly: Bring the milk to a boil and stir in the grated chocolate and sugar, and, having rubbed the corn starch smooth in a little cold water, stir it in and boil until it forms a smooth jelly, or paste, as some call it; when a little cool put between the layers.

So far, so simple, I thought. A fairly standard sponge with a gooey chocolatey middle, and with the possible advantage of using American cup measurements, which would make things nice and straightforward with no awkward conversions. Chase gives some general guidance on cake making at the beginning of the ‘baking’ section of his book, and advised to ‘use your own judgement as to whether white or light brown sugar may be used’, which I did, going for golden caster sugar in the cake, and white caster sugar in the jelly…which later turned out to be a disastrous error!

Chase advised to have all the ingredients to hand, so I assembled them.

Making the cakes was fairly straightforward, though there did seem to be a vast amount of batter, and I started to wonder at the suitability of my cake tins. In a different recipe, Chase describes the ‘jelly cake tins’ required as ‘shallow pans’, so I thought my 20cm sandwich tins ought to do the job. Mistake number two. I realised later, when I was fighting my way through a slice of the densest cake I have ever created, that I needed much bigger tins for the quantity of mixture. Whilst the cakes baked OK, and went a nice colour, I had to cook them for longer than I usually would, and I ended up with quite a tough cake, far from the light and fluffy style that I was after.

While they were in the oven, I started on making the ‘jelly’. Obviously because of the lack of gelatin in the recipe I wasn’t expecting to create a jelly of the kind you have with ice cream at birthday parties, and Chase also referred to the mixture as a ‘paste’, so I guessed that I was aiming for something of a consistency similar to buttercream. I heated my milk in a bain-marie, as Chase advised, and stirred in the grated chocolate (70% cocoa solids, of course!), sugar, and cornflour paste. It was completely delicious, a thick, smooth, hot chocolate, and I had to refrain from just pouring it into a mug and forgetting about the tough cake awaiting its anointing on the side. But however hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the jelly to resemble a jelly, or even a paste. I boiled it, cooled it, boiled it again in a bigger pan, put it in the fridge – all to no avail. I was left with a chocolate custard – delicious, yes, but no good for sandwiching between two cakes.

In the end, I gave up and decided I would soldier on with my cake regardless. So I spread some of my custard onto my cake, sandwiched the top on, and sprinkled it with icing sugar to make it look a bit presentable.

Icing sugar in hand, contemplating the disaster in front of me, it suddenly struck me. Icing sugar would have made my custard stiffer and more spreadable. Why hadn’t Chase advised this? Surely he couldn’t have relied on the tablespoon of cornflour to make his icing a paste, when mine was so runny? I went back to the book. I had stopped reading Chase’s preliminary advice after the section entitled ‘Keeping cakes’ (partly because I assumed that was the logical end but also partly because I was not anticipating having to keep it very long – ‘this marvellous creation will be devoured in minutes!’) But sure enough, after the advice about ingredients, baking, and storage, was a section about icing. Chase’s first words when writing about ‘Icing, boiled, for cakes’, are ‘Powdered sugar (and this is the right kind to use for all icings)’. Oops.

Lesson learned; always read the pre-amble! My housemate’s initial excitement at being designated ‘Official Taste Tester’ had slowly dampened throughout the evening as she heard the exasperated noises coming from the kitchen, but she agreed to sample a slice. I improvised a bit in an attempt to score some more points, and heated up some of the leftover custard and drizzled it on the cake to moisten it a bit and presented it as more of a ‘warm dessert’ than a cake. Bless her, she ate it. And gave me a far-too-kind score of 6. The sponge was too dense, and the icing, though delicious, was far too runny.

I decided against my original plan – to rope in the new neighbours as taste testers so I could get an average score – for my sake and theirs.

Although the cake was a disaster, annoyingly, I can’t blame Chase for that, the failings are all mine! I like to think it would have been a successful cake, had I used bigger tins and different sugar, and I’m annoyed at myself for not thinking of these things at the time. On the plus side, I now have an excellent recipe for a kind of chocolate custard, and I’m inspired to try some other settler recipes of Chase’s, in particular a sweet potato pudding.

I won’t throw food away, but I despaired of salvaging the chocolate jelly cake and certainly wasn’t prepared to chew my way through the entire thing, until I read this post on lovely food blog How Sweet It Is, and was inspired by the re-purposing of cake. So tonight I’m going home to convert my disaster jelly cake and the vat of leftover chocolate custard into a variation on Delia’s classic chocolate bread and butter pudding, which I have made and enjoyed eating on several occasions. Soaking things in rum can only improve them, right?

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