The Complexities and Perils of Baking a Cake

Jonathan Townsend

Posted on December 03 2012

The Complexities And Perils Of Baking A Cake

In her 1807 book “A New System of Domestic Cookery; Formed upon Principles of Economy, and Adapted to the use of Private Families,” Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell offers wonderfully helpful advice to the novice baker, especially when it comes to baking cakes.

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, the word “cake” was used to describe what we would presently call both cakes and cookies. Mrs. Rundell’s counsel pertained to the baking of large cakes.

First a little science:

While modern cake recipes primarily utilize chemical leavening agents, i.e., baking powder and baking soda, early cake recipes depended on either biological or mechanical leavening. Leavening is the process of infusing gas into a dough or batter, causing it to rise, resulting in a lighter, airier finished product.

The aforementioned baking soda (and its antediluvian cousins,  pearlash and saleratus) requires acids to be present in the dough or batter in order to work. Remember the childhood science experiment involving baking soda (alkaline) with vinegar (acid)? Foamy. Baking powder, simply put, is that same science experiment but in powder form. It becomes reactive when introduced to the moisture in the batter or dough.

Biological leavening is accomplished primarily through yeast, but also through bacteria. Yeast is a microscopic fungus that feeds on sugars and as a result secretes alcohol and carbon dioxide. While people knew of the leavening properties of yeast for centuries (if not for millennia), no one really knew what yeast actually was or how it worked until Louis Pasteur started poking around.

Mechanical leavening is different altogether. Its primary catalyst is called “cubito Deturpant” — that’s Latin for “elbow grease.” With a little elbow grease, for instance, whisk some egg whites and voila! Chiffon! (Add sugar and you’ll have meringue.)


Many 18th and early 19th century cake recipes use this technique for leavening. Eggs were separated, then the whites were whisked into chiffon while the yolks were often mixed separately with other ingredients before being reunited in a cake pan. The recipes’ success depended in part to how well the air was trapped in the egg whites.

Here’s a recipe from Mrs. Rundell’s book that demonstrates this technique:

But firm peaks didn’t guarantee a light and fluffy cake. Oven temperature was also a critical factor to success.

Now keep in mind that we’re not talking about a modern thermostatically controlled oven here. When this recipe was written, the oven was likely a brick or earthen oven heated by a wood fire. Depending on the size and construction of the oven, it could have taken an hour or more to reach proper temperature.

By the way, wood-fired ovens are really remarkable devices. If you’ve never had a pizza made in a flaming 700-degree wood-fired oven, in my opinion, it’s worth the time to watch our video on how to make an oven as well as the effort to build one yourself.

Baking a loaf of bread, or a cake, or a pie, for instance, in a brick or earthen oven requires a little more delicate touch. The oven is emptied of its embers with a rooker, the floor is swabbed clean of ash with a malkin, and temperatures need to be hot enough to cause rapid steam production in the batter (which in turn inflates the tiny air pockets trapped in the chiffon), but not too high so that the cake burns. But if the oven isn’t hot enough, the cake will be heavy.

Furthermore, there needs to be enough heat stored in the walls and floor of the oven to radiate the entire baking time, so that the developing crumb or sponge structure of the cake can “soak” or set.

(Come to think of it, I take for granted the conveniences of modern “kitchenry.”)

Mrs. Rundell’s book addresses this precarious aspect of baking cakes in a wood-fired oven:

It’s critical that the oven conditions are right to get both a rapid rise as well as a set crumb structure. Mrs. Rundell suggests a quick poke with a clean shiny knife to see if the cake is done. If any of the cake sticks to the knife, the baker shouldn’t dillydally, but should return the cake to the oven immediately.

Cakes were expensive back then. Their ingredients were expensive. And making them was tedious and even grueling. They weren’t as simple as “combine 1/3 cup oil, one egg, and the contents of this box.”

But if the investment in ingredients and labor combined with the uncertainty of wood-fired confectionery wasn’t a big-enough concern for the 18th and 19th century baker, consider Mrs. Rundell’s final and rather ominous caveat to those who dare try their hand at baking a cake:

Wow. Talk about pressure — especially in this economy.

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