A Cupcake By Any Other Name

The year is 1828, and Eliza Leslie (1787-1858) is about to publish her first book. Her only formal education was in sewing and cooking, but she loved to write. Combining her skills in cooking and her love for literature, she published Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats under the pseudonym “a Lady of Philadelphia.” This book is one of the earliest American cookbooks, and it showcases the changing diet of Americans during the time.

Before the 19th century, the most popular cakes among the general population were fruitcakes and gingerbread because the ingredients were inexpensive and the cakes themselves lasted for a long time. Refined sugar had come on the scene, but it was so expensive that most women would use the byproducts of it, like molasses and brown sugar, instead to sweeten their cakes. Chemical leaveners like baking powder were not as available or used widespread until the late 19th century, so cakes either used yeast or a lot of eggs and butter. Eggs needed to be beaten strongly so that cakes would be light and airy.

I found Eliza Leslie’s cookbook in a collection of cookbooks on Michigan State University’s Library site. It interested me because it was one of the earliest American baking cookbooks that they had, and I wanted to recreate a recipe from early America. I have decided to try a couple of recipes from Eliza Leslie and then move on to a cookbook from the mid-1800’s, and so on and so forth until I reach the current century.

Eliza Leslie (1787-1858) was a popular writer of books on domestic management during the early 19th century.

The first recipe I decided to try is the cup cake. Modern cupcakes are made using regular cake batter in small circular pans. The ultimate result is a mini cake that is decorated with frosting. Sometimes, cupcakes are arranged and decorated together to form a larger image. Like the pound cake, food historians hypothesize that the cup cake is called such as the ingredients are measured by cups- one cup butter, two cups sugar, three cups flour, etc. According to Sara Elliot at howstuffworks.com, “when food historians approach the topic of cupcakes, they run into a gray area in which the practice of making individual cup-sized cakes can become confused with the convention of making cakes with cup-measured ingredients” (web). For instance, the recipe that I used specified that the batter should be spooned into small tins, which suggests that the origin of the cupcake, or the mini cakes, that we know today were around at the latest in the early 1800’s.

I picked the cup cake recipe as it did not use refined sugar or chemical leaveners, so it was the most like the cakes the average American would make. Essentially, it is gingerbread. It differs slightly from modern gingerbread as it does not use vanilla or cinnamon as these were probably hard to find at that time. The recipe called for molasses and brown sugar to sweeten and beaten eggs and butter to leaven. The recipe also used measurements that I had never seen, like a large tea-cup. Luckily, at the front of the book is a measurement list. I also googled it.

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List of measurements included on the first page of Eliza Leslie’s cookbook.

As it says at the top of the page, not all households had the same measuring tools, so Eliza Leslie tried to standardize the units as much as possible so everyone could make the recipes. I did some calculations and realized that a large tea-cup would be ⅔ of a standard cup for us, or six ounces. Here is the recipe I used:

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The Cup Cake Recipe, which is more like a gingerbread than a cake.

I was surprised at the sheer quantity of the ingredients used. Five cups of flour is a lot for any recipe. Modern cake recipes would only use around three cups of flour. Warming up the milk, butter, and molasses was new for me as well. Modern cake recipes usually start with room-temperature butter beaten with the sugar, then eggs are added, and finally, the flour and milk are incorporated alternately, starting and ending with the flour. If modern cakes are over mixed, they lose the airiness and lightness that one associates with cake. This cup cake recipe, however, mixes all the liquids but the eggs first. Melting the butter and sugar in the milk was strange to me, but it did seem to mix the ingredients more evenly than if they were not melted. I found it interesting that the recipe did call for adding the flour and the eggs alternately just like in modern recipes.

Since women did not have access to conventional ovens and thermometers, I had to decide what a “moderate oven” might mean. I settled on cooking the cakes at 300° Fahrenheit. A time frame was not given, so I checked on them every ten minutes with a toothpick in the center until the toothpick came out clean, about thirty minutes. The smell of ginger and cloves filled my entire apartment, reminding me of something I had forgotten about when I decided to make this recipe. I hate gingerbread. Even the smell of gingerbread makes me sick. How was I going to taste them to see if they were good?

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My gingerbread Cup Cakes. They are hideous.

I tentatively tried a bite. Then I emphatically spit it out. It most likely was not as bad as I am making it seem, but I could not get past the taste. The texture was not great either, although, that was probably my fault. The cake was dense, lumpy, and so, so dry. I think if I had beaten the egg yolks and egg whites separately, I could have kept the cake lighter and airier. I also think that thirty minutes was too long. Twenty-five minutes would have done the trick. Overall, I feel that it was a good first attempt. Next recipe I make, I will make sure it does not involve ginger.

As I was contemplating who in their right mind could actually enjoy this heinous creation, I stumbled onto the obvious realization that since people before the 1850’s did not often have refined sugar, their palates differed greatly from mine or anyone from today. Gingerbread must have been a wonderful treat, especially during the cold, brutal months of the year. So much of their food was bland that a spice-heavy cake was an excellent change of pace. As for me, however, I think I’ll stay with Apple Tart.


ELIZA LESLIE (1787 – 1858), librarycompany.org/women/portraits/leslie.htm.

Elliott, Sara. “Who Invented the Cupcake?” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 5 Oct. 2009, recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/who-invented-the-cupcake.htm.

Leslie, Eliza. Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats. Munroe and Francis, 1828.

Olver, Lynne. The Food Timeline: Cake History Notes, www.foodtimeline.org/foodcakes.html.

Snell, Rachel A. “Old-Fashioned Recipes, New-Fashioned Kitchens: Technology and Women’s Recipe Collecting in the Nineteenth Century.” The Recipes Project, recipes.hypotheses.org/4264.

Snell, Rachel A. “Tag: Nineteenth Century.” The Recipes Project, 11 June 2014, recipes.hypotheses.org/tag/19th-century.

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