Recipe Archive

Cake from Esta

In addition to letters, the Spooner Collection at the Plymouth Antiquarian Society includes a large number of family recipes. This cake recipe is from a notebook kept by Frona Spooner. Its title, “Cake from Esta”, suggests that it originated with Esther Spooner, Frona’s sister-in-law. The recipe was adapted for 21st-century bakers by Paula Marcoux, a Plymouth food historian whose training is in archaeology and cooking. She is the executive director of Plymouth CRAFT, and columnist and food editor of edible South Shore & South Coast magazine. Her latest book is Cooking with Fire.
Original recipe in Frona Spooner’s notebook, c. 1865
3 eggs
2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup milk
3 good cups flour
1/2 teaspoon soda in the milk
1 teaspoon cream tartar in the flour

Adaptation by Paula Marcoux

This formula results in a versatile “plain cake,” with a subtle ginger flavor. Not knowing Esta’s ideal, I’ve had to guess at the desired degree of gingeriness—double it for a more assertive bite. If you bake it in round pans, the layers can be split when cool, and the whole stacked into a fancier affair with the filling of your choice. (For example, a cooked filling of dried figs was popular in the period, and would complement the ginger nicely.) Or just serve plain with berries and ice cream, for a 19th-century Plymouth summertime treat. 

If you don’t have cream of tartar in your cupboard, just omit that along with the baking soda, and leaven your cake with 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder instead.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cream of tartar (see note above)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) butter, soft
2 cups sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1 cup milk, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Select either a pair of 8-inch or 9-inch round cake pans, a 9” X 13” pan, or a deep 5” X 9” loaf pan. Line the bottom of the pan(s) with wax paper and butter and flour the bottom and sides.

In a medium bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, salt, ginger, and leavening(s).

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter until light. Add the sugar and beat well. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, and beat again shortly, until evenly incorporated.

Add about a third of the dry ingredients and a third of the milk and mix briefly but thoroughly. Repeat in two more additions, then scrape down the sides well, beat briefly, and divide the batter evenly into the pans, smoothing the tops level.

Bake 35 – 45 minutes, or until cake is pale golden brown and just beginning to pull away from sides of pan. A wooden skewer poked into the center of the cake should emerge clean.

Cool on racks in pans for 10 minutes before unmolding. Turn upright to cool thoroughly.

© Paula Marcoux