Lafcadio Hearn’s Pecan Cake
Months ago, as I searched for something sweet in Lafcadio Hearn’s Creole Cookbook, published in 1885, I stumbled on Pecan Cake. I expected it to be delicious and easy to make.
Yes to the first. No to the second.
Hearn, a journalist who lived in New Orleans from 1877 to 1887, wrote for the Daily Item and the Times-Democrat. He loved food, collected Creole recipes and briefly owned a restaurant called The Hard Times where every dish was 5 cents.
With the expectation of huge crowds in New Orleans for the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exhibition of 1884, Hearn persuaded a New York friend to publish his Creole Cookbook. Printing delays pushed the date back to April 1885 and the cookbook sold badly.
It’s this same Cotton Centennial that keeps Renee Desselle, heroine of The Willing Widow, busy with hat orders at her shop, so I was eager to try a recipe from the era.
Hearn’s ingredients and directions confused me. What was sweet milk? He called for baking soda and cream of tartar, not something I typically use, as a leavening agent. Then he simply wrote, “bake in a small cake pan” with no hint as to temperature or time.
I guessed correctly that sweet milk was whole milk, not buttermilk, not fat free. A small pan? I tried an 8-inch round cake pan, filled it and then used a souffle dish for the leftover batter. I baked these at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes.
The cake tasted delicious. How can you go wrong with pecans? But the sunken middles in both the cake pan and the soufflé dish looked unsightly.
After a second attempt, this time using a loaf pan, I had another sunken middle. The cream of tartar and baking soda mixed into the flour were not up to the task.
On the third try, I substituted baking powder, a common ingredient by the 1880s. I baked this in a 10-inch food cake pan.
Ah, Sweet Success. No sinking middle. Since this is a New Orleans, I sifted powdered sugar on the top.
½ cup butter, softened
1 ½ cups sugar
¾ cup sweet milk (whole milk)
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup of chopped pecans
¼ cup sifted powdered sugar (optional)
STEP BY STEP:
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an angel food cake pan.
2) Place pecans on a rimmed baking sheet and cook for about 8 minutes, until they become fragrant. Shake once or twice while baking.
3) Cream butter and sugar.
4) Add eggs and mix well.
5) Alternately add flour and milk into batter, beginning and ending with flour.
6) Stir in baking powder and pecans.
7) Bake cake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes until golden brown and a tester comes out clean.
8) Cool, remove from pan and sift powdered sugar on top.