Monday, December 7, 2009

Hot Milk Cake

A few weeks ago, I tried to make my great-grandmother’s recipe for Hot Milk Cake. I failed miserably. It looked wonderful coming out of the oven, but it sank into a light-yellow gelatinous form resembling something like lemon curd trapped inside of a cake’s deflated body.

In retrospect, I probably baked it a few minutes too few and improperly sifted the flour. This time, just to be sure, I beat the eggs longer until they were really fluffy and made certain to sift the first half-cup of flour with the baking powder. I put the mixture in the oven at 350 degrees for about thirty minutes and got a cake that I think my great-grandmother would recognize.

The cake should be baked in a round tin or pan, which I left behind at my mother’s over Thanksgiving. Next time, I will make it round and I might also add a filling, as Hot Milk Cake usually had one in the middle between two layers.

Just thankful to get the cake to what I imagined to be right, I accompanied it with a honey glaze made by bringing to a boil a quarter-cup of honey, two tablespoons of sugar, and one tablespoon of butter.

Both my father’s maternal grandmother and Alice, my mother’s maternal grandmother, made Hot Milk Cake. That’s not terribly surprising. Hot Milk Cake was very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when both women came of age. Home cooks considered it an “everyday cake,” which seemed strange to me after first attempting to make it given how horribly I failed. How can something be an “everyday cake” if it is this hard to make? Yet if you know what you’re doing, which they probably did, it’s not difficult. The cake is sweet, but not too sweet, and it’s definitely not rich, rendering it something that people could conceivably eat everyday.

Recipes for Hot Milk Cake can be found in many late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century cookbooks written by middle- or upper-class women who deemed themselves experienced cooks with a mission to instruct working-class women, who they supposed inexperienced in the kitchen, on how to run a proper household. The Lowney’s Cook Book, in which I found this recipe inserted, was intended to encourage women to use Lowney’s flour, but it also purported to help the unseasoned or working-class cook to gain the skills to run something akin to a middle-class home.

Alice's recipe for Hot Milk Cake, I discovered, is almost identical to one that can be found in The Cook Book by Jane Rush, published in 1918. Rush, the president of the Massachusetts Auxiliary to the Navy Relief Society, prided herself on writing easy-to-read recipes. She was therefore perfectly suited to compose a cookbook for the “inexperienced cooks” who might have trouble intuiting the under-detailed recipes usually found in cookbooks (much like those in the Lowney’s Cook Book). Rush admitted that such recipes had ruined her efforts in the past, but she was no working-class, green cook. Not only did she know how to render recipes intelligible, her domestic servants, a sign of her wealth, encouraged her to write the cookbook.

I have no idea if Alice read Rush’s cookbook. Yet given how detailed her recipe for Hot Milk Cake is in contrast to some of the others written down by her and how similar it is to Rush’s version, my guess is that she penned this recipe at a point in her life when she was familiar with reading the more-detailed cookbooks written, like Rush’s, around World War I and later. In other words, this was probably not a recipe she inherited from her mother.

By 1918 my great-grandmother was thirty years old and recently married with an infant daughter. Until her wedding she worked outside the home. Once married she tended to the household; her husband, Ned, had a good job in a rivet factory. The recipe as my great-grandmother wrote it spoke to how middle-class, domestic ideals expressed in cookbooks informed her life as a working-class mother and housewife.