A return to historic cooking, manuscript style

With winter upon us, and snow (finally!) on the ground, I thought it would be a good time to fire up the old hearth, so to speak, and return to some historic recipes.  This time around, I decided to explore our manuscript cookbook collection.  These handwritten recipes include as much variety as one would find in published cookbooks, featuring recipes not only for food and drink, but also for household products such soap, tooth powder, cologne, dye, and even medical cures.  The collection features cookbooks from 1770 through 1890.

I browsed through a volume belonging to Augusta M. Boyds Tilgham of Baltimore, dated 1860.  Ms. Tilgham’s book is filled mostly with recipes for cakes and other desserts, as well as a few household items such as whitewash and cold cream.  What’s most interesting about her book are the recipe names.  This personal touch is what makes manuscript cookbooks stand out from their published counterparts.  Ms. Tilgham named many of her recipes after the women who shared them with her.  She also seems to have been on a presidential kick, including recipes for Taylor pudding, Washington cake and Harrison cake.

The numerous cake recipes – Poor man’s cake, Washington cake, a cheap cake, Ellen’s wedding cake – seem to differ only slightly.  They all call for the standard flour, eggs, milk and sugar, but one might call for nutmeg, the other for molasses.  I’m going to give the Old Colony cake a try, whose special ingredient is lemon.  Also, I couldn’t resist trying a recipe that, in 1860, was already called “old.”  I’ve transcribed the recipe below.  I’ll be trying it out this week and will be reporting back soon with the results.  Feel free to bake along and share your results!

Old Colony Cake

3 eggs – 2 1/2 cups of sugar / 1 cup of butter – 1 ts of milk / 4 cups of flour – season with / Lemon – sift sugar over the / cake after it’s in the pan

Published by

Tracey Kry

Assistant Curator of Manuscripts and Assistant Reference Librarian, American Antiquarian Society

5 thoughts on “A return to historic cooking, manuscript style”

  1. Have you tried making this up yet? I suspect that the “ts of milk” should be “do of milk”, dittoing the 1 cup of butter. Just a teaspoon will produce something closer to dough than cake batter. The end does sound like she meant cake as we know it not small cakes or cookies. Might have to try making this up, a nice bright lemon cake in the midst of winter sounds nice.

    1. Thank you so much for pointing this out, Beth! I have not yet made the cake, so I did not catch the gross inconsistency in the measurements. You’re right, I would have definitely ended up with cookie dough instead of cake batter!

      I suppose this is one crucial way in which manuscript cookbooks differ from published ones – the need to pay close attention to handwriting!

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