Historical Food Fortnightly #10 Let Them Eat Cake!: “Savoy or Spunge Cake”
The Challenge: “The 16th [of October] is the anniversary of the beheading of Marie Antoinette (zut alors!). In honor of Madame Deficit, prepare your best cake from a historic recipe. And then eat it, bien sur.”
The Recipe: The recipe, titled “Savoy or Spunge Cake,” comes from The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook, by Mary Randolph.
The Date/Year and Region: I have a facsimile of the 1860 edition but the book was first published in 1824. It is an American cookbook although this particular cake has origins in France.
How Did You Make It: I followed the instructions on the recipe, although I did use modern equipment such as an electric hand mixer and a modern oven.
Time to Complete: Approximately 45 minutes, including weighing the ingredients.
Total Cost: It’s difficult to calculate the cost as I had everything at hand.
How Successful Was It?: It was very successful.
How Accurate Is It?: I’m confident saying it is almost 100% accurate.
For this challenge, and taking into account the Marie Antoinette theme, I wanted to make a cake from an 18th century French recipe. I looked through my historical cookbooks and it dawned on me that I don’t actually have any 18th century European cookbooks in paper form. I didn’t look at the e-books, so I moved on to other sources. In the end, I settled on this recipe because I like working with ratios rather than set amounts. I find that ratios give me much more agency and allow me to adapt recipes for different yields, and different size ingredients like eggs, better. I also liked that the ratios in this particular recipe are given in weight, and I do love weighing ingredients when it comes to baking.
The recipe as it appears in The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook:
Savoy or Spunge Cake.
Take twelve fresh eggs, put them in the scale, and balance them with sugar: take out half, and balance the other half with flour; separate the whites from the yelks, whip them up very light, then mix them, and sift in, first sugar, then flour, till both are exhausted; add some grated lemon peel; bake them in paper cases, or little tin moulds. This also makes an excellent pudding, with butter, sugar, and wine, for sauce.1
The first thought I had after reading the recipe was “Hey, these are 19th century cupcakes!” They are in that they are baked in cups, but the texture is different from modern cupcakes, but that is not to say it’s bad. Quite the opposite, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The ratio portion is a bit confusing at first, but what the recipe is actually trying to say, albeit it in a jumbled way, is to use the same weight of eggs in the shell in sugar, and half the weight in flour. Therefore, the number or size of eggs used is inconsequential as long as the ratio remains the same. Twelve eggs make quite a bit of batter so I reduced the amount to four large eggs, which makes enough batter for twelve cupcake-sized cakes.
I considered using unbleached, though still fine and processed, sugar but in the end settled for regular white cane sugar. I feel my choice is justified in that at this point in time sugar was already very common, and that households that would be baking this sort of cake most likely had access to pure white sugar, albeit in loaf form. I would actually love to get my hands on a sugar loaf but it is nearly impossible to find them, even on the internet.
My redaction of the recipe:
Savoy or Sponge Cakes
4 large eggs (2 oz each), at room temperature
8 oz white cane sugar
4 oz all purpose flour
the grated zest of half a lemon
Preheat the oven to 350 F
Separate the whites and the yolks of the eggs. In a large bowl, whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form when the whisk is lifted. In another smaller bowl, beat the egg yolks until they are thick and light yellow in color. Fold the yolks into the whites.
Slowly, fold a third of the sugar into the egg mixture, then a third of the flour. Repeat until all the sugar and flour is incorporated. Fold in the lemon zest. The batter will be the color and consistency of condensed milk.
Line a 12-cupcake pan with paper cups. Distribute the batter evenly between the cups. Bake for 18 to 21 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the cakes comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and let the cakes cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
The cakes have a lovely spongy, yet dense, texture, with a crunchy surface. The lemony taste is definitely present but not overpowering. They would most definitely go well with some dessert wine.
1. Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook, (Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co., 1860), 134.