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The Young Housewife’s Daily Assistant, or rather the sameness of Victorian cake

2013 March 18
by lucinda matthews-jones

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (LJMU)

JVC Online readers will know that this isn’t the first time I’ve turned to the Victorians for baking inspiration. However, in the past, I’ve tended to focus on Mrs Beeton and her rather gaudy fare. For this challenge, I decided I would leave Mrs B to one side. Perhaps it was the Welsh dragon on the opening page of Cre-Fydd’s Family Fare: The Young Housewife’s Daily Assistant on all matters relating to cookery and housekeeping that tempted me to this book. More likely,  it is because after making- or rather attempting to make- Mrs Beeton’s creamed apple tart, I decided that I needed a more reliable source. There was something more honest and readable about Cre-Fydd’s Family Fare. The ‘Authoress’ notes that the ‘quantity of every ingredient used is carefully given’ and ‘French terms are avoided’ [xiii]! At the heart of Cre-Fydd’s Family Fare is a desire to aid ‘and smooth[…] the way in difficulties of housekeeping, and in that essential to health and comfort, good cooking’ [xiii] for the young inexperienced housewife. I would love to think that inscription at the front of my copy, ‘To Alice from her loving friend Annie Stanley Dec. 18. 1879’ was for one such inexperienced housewife. I image Alice as a struggling and daunted new housewife, whose older, wiser friend has decided that all she needed as help was a little book entitled Cre-Fydd’s Family Fare.

Cre-Fydd’s Family Fare was just what I need, not necessarily because I see myself as an inexperienced housewife, but more because I really needed recipes that would be easy to follow and easy to make. Worried that the Victorian tea party at LJMU would not have enough cake, I decided that I needed to bake, bake, bake. I chose three recipes from Cre-Fydd’s Family Fare; the Queen’s Cake, the Madelena cakes and a last addition, the Sponge Cake.

Sponge Cake

I decided to include the Sponge Cake because the recipe looked really interesting. All you need to make this cake are eggs, flour, sugar and lemon mixed with elbow grease; surely standard household ingredients! There was one ingredient I was surprised to see missing from this list, and that was butter. I always thought sponge cakes had butter creamed into the sugar and I was intrigued to see what a cake without it would taste like. This cake was really easy to make, though of all the cakes I made this needed the longest amount of beating at 15 minutes. It really worked. I was surprised at how much the cake rose in the oven. Unfortunately, when I opened the oven door the cake collapsed slightly, while the top of the cake had turned to what can only be described as a leathery texture. It also needed longer than the three-quarters of an hour suggested. It was probably in for around an hour and fifteen minutes. What emerged from the oven was a dense and solid cake. Sadly, on tasting, I decided that it was the worst cake I had ever eaten. It lacked any flavour and was extremely heavily. This wasn’t quite the sponge cake I had imagined. It tasted more like a slab of batter. Luckily for me, one person at the bake off liked this cake enough to award it 3 points. Sadly, though, it languished at the bottom of the Victorian cake league table, and I’m not surprised.

The Sponge Cake

Queen's Cake

The Sponge Cake was the base for my other two cakes: the Queen’s Cakes and the Madelena cakes. Luckily both these recipes included butter. Both cakes were made from eggs, butter, flour, currants, and two tablespoons of alcohol (brandy for the Queen’s cakes and Curaçao  for the Madelena cakes). The Madelena cakes also included almonds, vanilla and an egg white vanilla glaze. These small differences were not enough to make me think that there was much difference in taste or texture to make them worth the additional cost or effort. Nevertheless both recipes were easy to  make and as they only took 10-15 minutes to bake I was able to make around 60 little cakes for the bake off. If I had to describe them they seemed to be like continental breakfast cakes, not the overly sweet cakes that seem to dominate Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. I’m left wondering if this is the more authentic tastescape of the nineteenth century.

On arriving for the Victorian tea party I found that I didn’t need to worry about lack of cake.

Madelena cakes

The table was full of delicious and exciting looking goodies! Perhaps unsurprisingly, my little cakes barely got a look in. My Madelena cakes did receive some marks (probably from my wonderful gender history students) but they were barely mentioned on other people’s ballot papers. When we left I discovered a whole Tupperware box of small cakes. Did I want to take them home? No….James and I had eaten 30 Madelena cakes only a few weeks before so it seemed only right that they were packed up with the other cakes and sent off to the Basement, a Liverpool charity that works with the homeless.

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