Cooking for a Civil War Wedding

Here at the Civil War Cookbook we get more questions on this topic than probably any other. As more people have taken to participating in reenactments as civilians the need for additional activities beyond the purely military, and one of them is weddings. Be they actual, legal ceremonies, renewals of vows for those already wedded, or purely performance art put on for the benefit of spectators, the ceremony alone is rarely all that is desired. People want to see a full reenactment of the 19th century ritual, and the wedding meal is a big part of that. (Okay, there's another ritual common after weddings that would probably be an even bigger draw, but we will leave discussion of such matters to others and stick to our field of expertise.)r />
Details of other menu items are going to vary wildly based on the time of day of the event, the social status of the couple being portrayed, the financial status of the organizers of the function, and a host of other factors, of which the most important is the facilities available for preparation, storage, serving and presentation of the food and drink in question. The one universal is a wedding cake, so it is there that we will begin our exploration of the possibilities.

Rich Wedding Cake from Mrs. Putnam

(from Mrs. Putnam's Receipt Book and Young Housekeeper's Assistant, New York, Phinney, Blakeman & Mason, 1860, p. 168)

Two pounds of butter, two pounds of fine white sugar, beaten together, eighteen eggs beaten separately, one cup of brandy, one cup of molasses, one teaspoonful of saleratus, three table-spoonfuls of cloves, one of mace, two of allspice, two large nutmegs, two pounds of flour, a quarter of a pound of citron cut in thin slices, and four pounds of dried currants. This must be as well beaten up as for pound cake. Line a wooden box with a well-buttered paper; take out the bottom of the box, and let the cover remain for the bottom of the cake. The above-named quantity will make two small loaves, or one very large loaf. It requires about four hours to bake. Try [test] it with a straw, and when it is done take off the rim, and leave the cake on the cover to be frosted. Beat up the whites of four eggs; add fine loaf sugar as long as you can beat it in, and the juice of one lemon; spread this over the top of the cake about an inch thick, and on the sides half the thickness; set it in a cool oven to dry.

Oh my, where to start?

 Saleratus (sometimes seen spelled as "sal-aeratus" or "salt of air") is nothing more than sodium bicarbonate, aka baking soda. Chances are very high that you have a box readily to hand, and chances are even higher that that box is yellow in color. We would give you a brand name but not until the company in question sends us some money for the product placement ad.

 Measurements: A "table-spoon" in these times was not necessarily the standard size of half an ounce used today, but probably close enough as to make no difference. Remember too that measurements, particularly of items like spices, should be taken as suggestions to be modified by the tastes and judgment of the cook, not as matters carven in stone upon divine authority. All spices were commonly sold in whole form and ground (in a mortar and pestle) or grated (as in the case of larger items like nutmegs) at the time of use. One nutmeg, which is about the size and appearance of a wrinkly pecan, would grate to about a tablespoon.

 Technique (beating): "Well beaten up as for pound cake" translates as follows: Separate the whites from the yolks of the eggs; beat the whites to a froth and set aside. Take the sugar and butter and "beat to a cream"--mix as thoroughly as possible while not allowing the butter to get warm enough to melt all the way to liquid state; then mix in the egg yolks, then the wine, liquor or other liquid; then mix in the egg whites; then the flour; then "strew on" any dried fruit being added.

 Technique (baking): We must admit we find the whole business with the wooden box confusing, as nowhere else have we seen it recommended to use wooden baking pans in wood-fired ovens. While it should not become hot enough to set the wood on fire, it still seems like a chancy proposition and besides, we doubt anyone today owns such a baking device. The concept seems similar to a springform pan and we suggest that be used instead.

 Technique (trying): "Try," as noted, means test, in this case for doneness. Straw, however, does not mean the hollow paper or plastic utensil used for sucking up beverages. It means a straw such as is used in old fashioned brooms. Use a knife instead; besides being more sanitary it covers a larger area and any holes created will be covered up by frosting.

 Technique (frosting): Considering the fact that we are dealing with around 10 pounds of cake here, and the fact that the eggs in question were much more likely to be today's medium-sized variety than jumbo, this does not look like enough frosting to cover to the depth indicated. We could of course be wrong on this.

 Instruments (authenticity of utensils): People in the 19th century were just as crazy about kitchen gadgets as they are today, the difference of course being that they were mechanical rather than electrical. The mechanical eggbeater, alas, seems to have been a fairly late invention. Most cookbooks suggest beating eggs with implements ranging from two smooth wooden rods to a single-wire version of a whisk to perhaps the strangest, a cork stuck longwise onto a fork. And then there is the "spaddle" (see Dr. Kitchiner's Cakes below) which as best we can figure out is a combination of spoon and paddle. Think "spork" in modern terms.

Wedding Cake from Mrs. Putnam

(from Receipt Book, see above, p. 167

One pound of butter, one of sugar, ten eggs well beaten, half a pint of brandy, a glass of wine, three nutmegs, a table-spoonful of mace, one pound of flour, two of currants, one of stoned raisins, and half a pound of citron. This makes one large loaf.

Yup. That's it. The whole kit and kaboodle. This is what passes for a "recipe" in 19th century books. There was no introductory material at the start of the "Cakes" chapter describing things which all recipes to follow had in common, just this. About all we can do is to mention that "stoned raisins" are not what your evil 21st century mind undoubtedly jumps to imagine, but simply raisins which have had the seeds removed. Since each raisin used to be a grape and probably contained anywhere from 2-4 seeds apiece, the tediousness of this process is best left to the imagination.

Kitchiner's Wedding Cakes (some with Icing!)

These recipes are from The Cook's Oracle; and Housekeeper's Manual, published in the US in 1832 with the subtitle "Adapted to the American Public by a Medical Gentleman." "William Kitchiner, M. D." was given as the medical gentleman's name, although if that was his real name it was most coincidental since "kitchiner" was a folk name for cook in the same way that "miller" was for one whose family operated a mill. At any rate, this was a British cookbook at heart and the "adaptations for the American public" were fairly minimal. Copyright law was not heavily enforced in these times. The book was quite popular and citations can be found from it in other cookbooks for most of the rest of the 19th century.

Bride, or Wedding Cake

The only difference usually made in these cakes is, the addition of one pound of raisins, stoned and mixed with the other fruit.

There, isn't that simple? Of course you have to make "these cakes" first before you get to the adding-raisins part. Here are the recipes that Dr. Kitchiner suggests as potential wedding cakes:

Plain Pound Cake

Cream one pound of butter, and work it well together with one pound of sifted sugar till quite smooth; beat up nine eggs, and put them by degrees to the butter, and beat them for twenty minutes; mix in lightly one pound of flour; put the whole into a hoop, cased with paper, on a baking-plate, and bake it about one hour in a moderate oven.

An ounce of caraway-seeds added to the above, will make what is termed a rich seed cake.

Add those raisins now. Of course you can throw in anything else you like, from maraschino cherries to nuts, but you are in danger of turning it into a fruitcake and we know what happens to those: Doorstops!

Plum Pound Cake

Make a cake as [above], and when you have beaten it, mix in lightly half a pound of currants, two ounces of orange [peel], and two ounces of candied lemon-peel cut small, and half a nutmeg grated.

A nutmeg in its natural state is about the size of an unshelled pecan. If you are using the already-ground form, it would be around a teaspoonful. That's rather a lot of nutmeg so use your own judgment in the matter of spicing.

Common Seed Cake

Sift two and a half pounds of flour, with half a pound of good Lisbon or loaf sugar, pounded into a pan or bowl; make a cavity in the centre, and pour in half a pint of lukewarm milk, and a table-spoonful of thick ye[a]st; mix the milk and yest with enough flour to make it as thick as cream (this is called setting a sponge); set it by in a warm place for one hour; in the meantime, melt to an oil half a pound of fresh butter, and add it to the other ingredients, with one ounce of caraway-seeds, and enough of milk to make it of a middling stiffness; line a hoop with paper, well rubbed over with butter; put in the mixture; set it some time to prove [rise] in a stove or before the fire; and bake it on a plate about an hour, in rather a hot oven; when done, rub the top over with a paste-brush dipped in milk.

This is clearly more of a rich bread, as indicated by the use of yeast, than what we commonly consider a cake today. The lines between the two were not so clearly drawn in Civil War times though, so we include this for historical completeness. We conclude with another item which crosses category borders, being primarily a Christmas cake but one which could be used just as well for a wedding feast, particularly during the winter:

Twelfth Cake

Two pounds of sifted flour, two pounds of sifted loaf sugar, two pounds of butter, eighteen eggs, four pounds of currants, one half pounds of almonds blanched and chopped, one half pound of citron, one pound of candied orange and lemon-peel cut into thin slices, a large nutmeg grated, half an ounce of ground allspice, ground cinnamon, mace, ginger, and corianders, a quarter of an ounce of each, and a gill [1/2 cup] of brandy.

Put the butter into a stew-pan, in a warm place, and work it into a smooth cream with the hand, and mix it with the sugar and spice in a pan (or on your paste-board) for some twenty minutes; stir in the brandy, and then the flour, and work it a little; add the fruit, sweetmeats, and almonds, and mix all together lightly; have ready a hoop cased with paper, on a baking-plate; put in the mixture, smooth it on the top with your hand, dipped in milk; put the plate on another, with sawdust between, to prevent the bottom from colouring too much: bake it in a slow oven* four hours or more, and when nearly coke, ice it with No. 84.

This mixture would make a handsome cake, full twelve or fourteen inches over.

Ah yes, you noted that little * in the receipt above. Here are Dr. Kitchiner's instructions in the maddening matter of how to bake in an oven which has no thermostat, no timer, and in fact nothing whatever to indicate the heat being generated from the fire made of burning wood or coal:

*The goodness of a cake or biscuit depends much on its being well baked; great attention should be paid to the different degrees of heat of the oven: be sure to have it of a good sound heat at first, when, after its being well cleaned out, may be baked such articles as require a hot oven, after which such as are directed to be baked in a well-heated or moderate oven; and lastly, those in a slow soaking or cool one. With a little care the above degrees may soon be known.

In making butter cakes too much attention cannot be paid to have the butter well creamed; for should it be made too warm, it would cause the mixture to be the same, and when put to bake, the fruit, sweetmeats, &c., would in that event fall to the bottom.

Sugar and flour should be quite dry, and a drum sieve is recommended for the sugar. The old way of beating the yelks and whites of eggs separate (except in very few cases) is not only useless, but a waste of time. They should be well incorporated with the other ingredients and, in some instances, they cannot be beaten too much.

To paraphrase the great philosopher (Popeye), that's all ye gets, and ye ain't gettin' no more. We move now to the matter of Icing for this juggernaut of a baked good:

Icing, for Twelfth or Bride Cake

Take one pound of double-refined sugar, pounded and sifted through a lawn sieve; put into a pan quite free from grease; break in the whites of six eggs, and as much powder blue as will lie on a sixpence; beat it well with a spattle for ten minutes; then squeeze in the juice of a lemon, and beat it till it becomes thick and transparent. Set the cake you intend to ice in an oven or warm place five minutes; then spread over the top and sides with the mixture as smooth as possible. If for a wedding cake only, plain ice it; if for a twelfth cake, ornament it with gum paste, or fancy articles of any description.

Obs.--A good twelfth cake, not baked too much, and kept in a cool dry place, will retain its moisture and eat well, if twelve months old.

Well, the mystery of the name of the "twelfth cake" is apparently resolved here, although we are left with the question of how "spaddle" switched to "spattle."  It's still the same flattened spoon. And unless your sugar is very lumpy it should not need sifting in a "lawn sieve" or any other.

  This leaves us with the question of "powder blue" and how much of this article will fit on an average sixpence. Kitchiner does not define the stuff, suggesting that it was commonplace at the time, but has quite died out since then. As best as we can find after an extensive search, "powder blue" is a substance known as "smalt, a crushed-glass product used in laundering and dying applications and of a deep, dark blue hue." Evidently the intent is to offset the yellow coloring the butter and egg whites are likely to give the icing, so as to wind up with as pure a white as possible. We suggest--very, very strongly suggest--skipping the smalt and using a very small bit of  blue food coloring instead.

Now that the centerpiece of the celebration has been composed, it is time to make the rest of the wedding feast. For suggestions we hope you will consult our Civil War Wedding, Holiday and Fancy Dinner Menus page.




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