Like Lucie, the idea of the Valentine’s Day Bake-Off was one that was incredibly appealing to me. For though the particularities of food competitions differ slightly between Britain and the U.S., we here in the States have also embraced the format with aplomb. I count myself among that “we” and can admit that my weekend veg-outs and semi-frequent bouts with insomnia have made me well-versed in the various forms of this now-ubiquitous genre—as Iron Chef, Cupcake Wars and, of course, Top Chef.
In preparation for the Bake Off, I scanned the very helpful online resource http://www.mrsbeeton.com/. For not only is it a searchable database, but the sidebar takes you directly to the particular kind of recipe or course that you’re looking for. My selection criteria for choosing my recipe was fairly narrow. 1) I needed a dessert, reducing my selections to either a pudding or a cake. Since Lucie and Lisa had both claimed puddings, I decided to take a different tack: Eric and I would eat cake. 2) I read each recipe asking myself the question: “What would Oscar Wilde do?” As a gay man making a Valentine’s treat for my equally gay spouse, I thought this was the most appropriate course of action as a Victorianist. And though I doubt Oscar Wilde ever baked, I forged on head with my tracks and clicks.
Then, I saw it. As if the patron saint himself had deemed it so: the Savoy Cake. For what could me more romantic than my darling partner and I, decked out Sarony-portrait-like velvets and furs, feeding one another bits of Savoy Cake in pre-gross-indecency-trial decadence. So it was settled. And I was off.
Once I gathered the necessary ingredients, I took a closer look at the recipe itself. It seemed straight forward and fairly simple, but then its deeper nineteenth-century mysteries began to reveal themselves.
1782. INGREDIENTS – The weight of 4 eggs in pounded loaf sugar, the weight of 7 in flour, a little grated lemon-rind, or essence of almonds, or orange-flower water.
Problem 1: Pounded loaf sugar. “And this is different from regular old sugar how?,” I asked. Luckily Google reveals all, and told me that sugar used to be sold in solid loaves during the nineteenth century, and that lumps would be cut off (presumably the predecessor to our perfect cubes) and pulverized into granules with a mortar and pestle. I decided to find all the clumps in my container of granulated sugar and break them apart with my fingers, convincing myself that Oscar would have approved of my anachronistic strategy and compromise.
But then Problem 2: “The weight of 4 eggs in pounded loaf sugar” and “the weight of seven eggs in flour.” Now I had expected some difficulty in measurement, knowing that British recipes often use weight versus volume for things like sugar and flour. But “the weight of 7 eggs”!?!
Now baking, as has long been pointed out by experienced chefs and food writers, is more chemistry than cooking, requiring a delicate mix of ingredients that undergo a profound transformation with the addition of heat. This means that accuracy is paramount for a good and delicious result. Otherwise you end up with soggy cake or one that refuses to rise at all. Just ask anyone who has ever mixed up baking soda and baking powder, or who has overmixed their cookie dough to the point where the resulting cookies make better hockey pucks than tasty snacks. So I stopped to marvel at the good many Mrs. Beeton’s all across Victorian Britain who were so intimate and had such a profoundly corporeal relation with their cookery that they knew its weight by touch. It struck me just how familiar one would have to be with eggs and sugar and flour to pull that kind of measuring off and to produce an edible result. I knew that such a familiarity would only be possible with years of touching, and feeling, and sensing one’s food—and so I succumbed to weighing out four and seven eggs on my electric food scale because I refused to have a ruined cake. Another presentist compromise, I admit. But I continued on.
Mode.—Break the 7 eggs, putting the yolks into one basin and the whites into another. Whisk the former, and mix with them the sugar, the grated lemon-rind, or any other flavouring to taste; beat them well together, and add the whites of the eggs, whisked to a froth. Put in the flour by degrees, continuing to beat the mixture for 1/4 hour, butter a mould, pour in the cake, and bake it from 1–1/4 to 1–1/2 hour. This is a very nice cake for dessert, and may be iced for a supper-table, or cut into slices and spread with jam, which converts it into sandwiches.
Time.—1–1/4 to 1–1/2 hour.
Average cost, 1s.
Sufficient for 1 cake.
Seasonable at any time.
Having felt like a big ole sell-out for resorting to my food scale, I decided to try and retain some modicum of authenticity by setting aside my most beloved kitchen appliance, my red Kitchenaid stand mixer, in favor of some good Victorian-style elbow grease. A little arm workout never hurt anyone, I thought, and I was certainly feeling the burn by the end. But as I sat with my sugar-yolk mixture in one bowl and my egg whites in another, I read the recipe again and was struck with fear and befuddlement.
You see, there is no chemical leavening in this cake—no baking soda or powder—which means that all the sponge of the cake must be produced by the air in the whipped egg whites. Anyone who has made Angel Food Cake or a soufflé knows what a delicate and risky business this is, in undertaking the often nerve-wracking process of folding and trying not to deflate the whites and all that beautiful air so painstakingly whipped into them. But my problem was not going to be just in the folding. Mrs. Beeton tells me that I must add the frothy whites, THEN the flour, and THEN continue to BEAT the mixture for a full FIFTEEN MINUTES. What precious air was cultivated was going to be pummeled into oblivion. “But Mrs. Beeton cannot be wrong,” I told myself and forged ahead. I mixed and beat and then poured the batter into my buttered pan, throwing it in the oven with a flick of the wrist. Indeed, by that time I had becoming so cavalier about the whole thing that I thought “1-1/4 hour in a Victorian oven surely equals 40 minutes in my oven at 375.” I set the timer and waited. Praying to the good Widow of Windsor herself.
Pulling the pan out oven the oven a little later, the cake had indeed cooked all the way, and had risen slightly. It came nowhere near filling the top of the pan, but I decided not to take what the good Victorian baking gods had given me for granted at that point. It was not soggy. It was not burnt. Two points working in my favor. After letting it cool, I flipped it out of the pan, and was pleasantly surprised with how regal and architectural it looked. Much like a proper Savoy Cake. And Having researched Savoy Cake decorations, I adorned my creation with sliced almond accoutrements and some piped hand-whipped cream and presented a slice, lovingly, to my own dearest of all boys.
The cake was predictably and incredibly dense. Much like our contemporary version of pound cake meets your grandmother’s brick of a Christmas fruitcake. I now realized why the Victorians created a “tipsy” variation of the recipe that would involve soaking the cake in sherry or madiera “until it could drink no more.” It softened things up, or at least got you too buzzed to care about how dense the cake was in the end. The flavor overall of my cake was quite good. It was not cloyingly sweet and had the delicate aroma and taste of the lemon zest and almond extract I had added to it. The side of whipped cream and strawberries made a nice complement. Eric was a very good sport and finished the whole slice, but could only muster the high praise of “Whoa, that’s heavy.”
Thus, I won’t be baking this particular version of the Savoy Cake for my Valentine or company again soon. In researching the Savoy Cake, I’ve learned that it has lived on and is still a beloved confection—but that contemporary recipes have learned the good sense of folding in eggs whites as the last step. Doing so, produces the much a much lighter version of cake, which appeals to the tastes of our contemporary palates. Ironically then, the Savoy Cake shows how much tastes change, and how much they stay the same. I think Oscar Wilde would have appreciated that contradictory fact, even if he would have likely preferred muffins to cake. Eaten calmly, of course.