An 18th century Albany wedding cake (maybe)

schuyler wedding cake documentThe Albany Muskrat pointed this out today, and given the interest in the early 19th century "Albany Cake" recipe last fall, we figured you might be curious: This is said to be the recipe for the cake served at the 1780 wedding of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany.

The recipe is from a document dated 1941 from the NYS Archives, and posted online by the What America Ate project. The document -- which, somewhat oddly has the title "Schuyler Wedding Cake 1690" -- attributes the recipe to a Mrs. Richard Schuyler of Ballson Spa, "for many years mistress of the ancestral home, The Flatts." (The Schuyler Flatts property is in what's now Menands.)

Anyway, check out the recipe:

12 pounds brown sugar
12 pounds butter
12 pounds of browned flour
12 dozen eggs
46 pounds raisins
24 pounds citron
Molasses [handwritten] - 1 gallon
3 quarts Brandy
1 quart Jamaica Rum
12 ounces each of cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, pounded fine in a mortar.
10 teaspoons salt
12 teaspoons pearl ash
mix in large oaken tub. and bake 16 hours.

This is obviously for a very large batch, but... yeah, three quarts of brandy and one quart of rum.

Pearl ash? As historian Sarah Evenson explained to us last year, "Pearl ash is potassium carbonate, a leavening agent used before baking powder or baking soda. You don't see much mention of this until the late 18th/early 19th century. Prior to that, yeast and whipped egg whites were the chief leavening agents."

The recipe documented appears to be from some sort of almanac, and is attributed to J.A. DeHollander. We mostly came up empty of a few quick searches today, though. Maybe you know more about this person? Update: Pamela provides the backstory in the comments.

Update: Pastry chef Greg Kern tried out the recipe and the cake was... not good.

Earlier on AOA:
+ Baking that Albany Cake
+ What did Albany eat in the 18th century?
+ "You maintain your empire in spite of all my efforts..."

image via What America Ate / NYS Archives


So this is basically a fruit cake, typical of early wedding cakes (the tradition later carried on in the form of "groom's cakes" that are dark compared to the white wedding cakes). It's not the amount of brandy and rum that boggles my mind, but the gallon of molasses. This is a very dark, moist cake, with a ton of raisins and citron relative to the 12 lb. flour. (Not sure what "browned" flour is except maybe it was toasted first?)

The Browned Flower is an oddity- usually that is used to thicken liquids: it isn't as efficient as regular flour but the browning takes away the raw taste and adds color & a somewhat nutty flavor- it is a nice gravy thickener. You either stir a quantity in a dry pan over heat, or you bake it in the oven, stirring it up at intervals.

You might use it in a cake for color and flavor, but the molasses will do that anyhow & the spices are going to cancel out any subtle flavors

I am a little curious, to say the least, but not confident it will be any good.

When you scale it down there isn't really a disproportionate amount of molasses compared to contemporary cakes that are similar.

The browned flour is pretty neat. Im not sure I agree so much with Eric that it is a subtle flavor - when it is browned correctly it is a very assertive and distinct flavor - though I still could see it being overwhelmed by the spices in the recipe.

A nice trick to making great speculaas cookies (which are a traditional dutch cookie) is to brown your flour. Maybe this was much more common practice in traditional Dutch baking than I realized - going on the assumption that it is fairly likely this recipe is Dutch.

Can some sort of cake boss tell me how large this cake, weighing the same amount as a small human, would turn out to be?

J. A. Hollander was one of the writers employed by the Federal Writers Project (part of the WPA) in New York State in the late 1930s. These writers from around the country were charged with researching and collecting foodways narratives and recipes that documented the way Americans were eating during this era.

The manuscripts they created were for a book along the lines of the American Guide series that was also published by the FWP. This book was to be called, “America Eats.” But funding for the WPA, of which the FWP was a part, became unpopular and WW II happened and the book was never published.

Luckily, these original manuscripts still exist in some state archives (including our own NYSA!) and in libraries such as the Smithsonian and Clemens Library in Michigan.

And the beauty of the America Eats website is that it brings this treasure trove of original material together, along with lots of other food ephemera from the period, and makes it accessible for all to see.

Check it out, especially the New York State stuff. You’ll find out what was eaten in Adirondack lumber camps, Long Island clambakes, and in Buffalo, what happened at Finger Luncheons, Box Parties, and Two Cent Suppers, and lots more.

@ Paul -- the written instructions say "The ingredients were mixed in an oaken tub, as decreed. Then the batter was poured into large pans which were attached shovel-like to a long handle, and baked in old time Dutch ovens, out of doors." So who knows how big the pans were or how many pans.

@ everyone else -- by sheer chance Gustav Ericson recently told me he's toasting the buckwheat for some buckwheat cookies he's making for The Placid Baker and that toasting/roasting flours is all the rage among pastry chefs in France now. I can imagine "browned" flour adding a complex flavor to a simple cookie like a shortbread. I would think it would make the most difference in flours that still contain the germ.

@Pamela: Thanks for the background!

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