Victorian Cooking with Great Aunt Lillian or the Slow Food Movement Reinvented

Everyone is talking about the Slow Food Movement now and rightfully so. It’s great to get away from the additives, high fructose corn syrups, and processed foods that we, as Americans, have become so accustomed to eating. Going back to our roots and eating food made from scratch, using local ingredients, and organic products is really the way to go both for health and for the local economy.

As an historian, I have stumbled on a unique look at the Slow Food Movement. This week my Sister-In-Law mailed us two old worn cookbooks as she is cleaning house to downsize for retirement. One was quite old and was filled with hand written recipes, which I assumed dated from the the very early 20th century to the mid-20th century. The other was newer dating from around the mid 20th century.

Cup Cake Recipe from Lillian's Handwritten Cookbook

Cup Cake Recipe from Lillian's Handwritten Cookbook

As I poured through the recipes, I realized who the owners were. The older book belonged to Dan’s great aunt Lillian, a woman I never knew, but who I’m deeply connected to. I wear her engagement ring from c. 1909 which was purchased at Shreve Crump & Low in Boston. Dan loved his Uncle Charles (as he called him even though he was his Great Uncle) and spent many wonderful summers at his home in Kittery Point, Maine. Lillian lived from 1879-1945 and married Uncle Charles in 1909. She probably started her cook book after her marriage and from the looks of some of the recipes cut out of newspapers she continued it up to her death

We know that Lillian cooked all her life on a wood stove as Dan remembers that Uncle Charles cooked on the same stove up until his death in 1958. Dan’s mother hated cooking on the stove when the family would come to visit for the summer, but somehow she managed. I wouldn’t have a clue on how to begin.

Thanks to the fact Lillian used a cookstove, the recipes are amazingly brief. No temperatures and no cooking times! And many times the measurements are very vague. Most of the recipes are for desserts and sweets. One wonders how many she actually used, or like many of us did she have good intentions and only write them in and never actually cook them. Some appear stained from use like the muffin, coconut drop cake, date cake, and chocolate fudge pie recipes which all appear well used, while Italian Spaghetti (no doubt very exotic at the time) appears clean as a whistle.

I’ve always loved historic cooking and done my share of it, so I thought it would be fun to try to cook these recipes. It would make me feel closer to Aunt Lillian and Dan’s ancestors and allow me a glimpse of early 20th century life in Kittery, Maine.

So, for the summer I will be cooking the recipes, trying to use local and organic ingredients whenever possible. And I will be blogging about the experience here on Unchained as a way to connect with the Slow Food Movement.

My first experiment was simply entitled Cup Cakes. Here’s the recipe as written by Lillian:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Break 2 eggs into cup and run over just a bit with milk
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder

Wow – how simple can you get! But, yet how daunting. No temperature for baking and no times. And what’s with the “run over just a bit with milk?”

The batter is quite stiff, not runny!

The batter is quite stiff, not runny!

Undaunted I pulled out my 1928, Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer. That gave me a bit more comfort. The recipe was quite different and I didn’t want to alter Lillian’s, but it did give me some hints. I know enough about baking to know that I needed to cream the butter into the sugar to start. Certainly not a lot of butter! I then beat the eggs in a bowl and did just as told – took some milk and dashed it over the eggs and then beat them together. Then another hint from Fannie Farmer – I sifted the flower into a separate bowl with the baking powder. Then mixed in the eggs and milk.

This made just enough batter to go into a standard cup cake tin for 12 cupcakes, which I buttered before putting the batter in. But the next problem was that the 1928 Fannie Farmer didn’t have any temperatures or times either! By the 1944 edition (did I mention I collect historic cookbooks?) they are telling you to put them in a moderately hot oven at 375 degrees, but still no time. So, in desperation I went to a modern cookbook and found 20 minutes was about average.

Mac-- My Kitchen "Helper"

Mac-- My Kitchen "Helper"

In they went with our dog Mac supervising the whole thing with eager eyes!

After the 20 minutes I tested to see if they were done, and it was perfect! There was no mention anywhere in Lillian’s cook book about icing, so I found a confectioner’s sugar icing in the 1928 cookbook and after cooling iced them with a simple lemon icing.

The Taste Test

I was a bit nervous trying them. I thought how could these be good with so little butter and milk? I was pleasantly surprised as they turned out great! Dan loved them too and the dogs gave them the paws up (but they are not too picky).

Dan and I agreed that these cupcakes taste nothing like the cupcakes of today which I’m not fond of at all, especially the kind that are being sold at these trendy cupcake stores. To me they are way too sweet and gooey. Aunt Lillian’s cupcakes were substantial and had a rich taste to them that was cakey, moist, and slightly sweet.

My frosting job is pretty bad, but you get the idea of what the cupcakes look like.

My frosting job is pretty bad, but you get the idea of what the cupcakes look like.

For a fascinating history of cupcakes check out Lynne Olver’s great Food History website. There’s even some recipes for cupcakes that look even harder to make!

Please let me know if you make the recipe and what you think of it. I’ll be interested to hear your reaction to Slow Food Movement Cup Cakes – Aunt Lillian Style!

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