Today’s recipe is for what was call American potash cake.
- 4 cups Flour (Rye, wheat, or any type you like)
- 8 tbsp. Pork Lard (or butter)
- 1 cup Sour Milk (If you don’t have sour milk, you can add 1 tbsp. lemon juice or vinegar to milk)
- ½ cup Light or Barbados Molasses (or sugar)
- ½ tsp Pearl Ash (or Baking Soda)
- ¼ cup Water
Rub lard into flour and set aside. Mix milk and molasses together. Dissolve pearl ash completely in water and add to milk. Quickly mix milk into flour mixture until blended and turn out onto a floured surface.
Roll into ½ to ¾ inch sheet and cut as desired.
Bake at 400 degrees for 16-18 minutes.
Transcript of Video:
In just a little while, I’m going to be making a recipe that’s very unusual and very interesting. It’s not a recipe from a cookbook, but it’s actually a recipe from an editorial, or a letter to the editor, 1799. This episode is a companion piece to go along with our “Exploring the 18th Century” series where we’re talking about leavening or chemical leavening.
If you haven’t watched Exploring the 18th Century, I encourage you to do so. We are discussing in depth our research into chemical leavening in the 18th century and that will help give you a much greater context for the recipe that I’m making today.
Today’s recipe is for what was call American potash cake. As I mentioned in the introduction, it’s found in a letter to the editor in the London Monthly Magazine. This letter was written by Margaretta Curly, who at the time was living in New York. In her letter, Mrs. Curly expounds on the benefits of a cake that uses no yeast. Rather, she uses potash or pearl ash which is an alkaline that reacts with an acid creating carbon dioxide bubbles that lightens or leavens your cake as it bakes. Mrs. Curly wrote about how these cakes could be made in minutes rather than hours and they were especially handy when yeast wasn’t readily available. She also wrote about how these cakes could be made using a variety of ingredients.
Today we’re using her suggestion for making them with rye and molasses, because sugar and white flour were scarce in various regions in North America. I’m cutting the original recipe in half and I’m using a pound of rye flour. It’s about 4 cups. You can use wheat flour if you wish. To this, I’ll rub in 4 ounces, or about, say, 8 tablespoons of pork lard. If you don’t want to use pork lard, you can use butter instead.
Once I have these combined well, I’ll turn to my wet ingredients. I’ll start with a cup of sour milk. Now if you don’t have sour milk, you can take fresh milk and add about a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar. To this, I’ll add 4 ounces, that’s about a half a cup, of light or Barbados molasses. You really don’t want to use black strap molasses. It’s too strongly flavored. You can use 4 ounces or a half a cup of sugar instead if you wish.
Now before I’ll add our dry and wet ingredients together, I’ll take a ½ a teaspoon of pearl ash and dissolve it completely in a quarter of a cup of water. Add this to your milk mixture and quickly add that to your flour.
We now offer pearl ash at James Townsend and Son. You can substitute baking soda, but that is a mid-19th century invention.
Mix this until blended and then turn out onto a floured surface. Roll it out to about ½ or ¾ of an inch thick.
You can cut these any shape you wish. I’m using a biscuit cutter.
You want to bake these at about 400 degrees for 16-18 minutes.
Now notice the crumb on this. It’s very light and fluffy. That’s definitely the work of the pearl ash. Well, it’s got a really nice flavor, a bit like, say, you know, a breakfast biscuit, but with the molasses and the rye flour, it’s definitely got a nuttier flavor, and one of the interesting things I thought about this recipe was that there was no salt, so you can tell it’s a little lacking in salt, but really not bad at all. I think the potassium in the pearl ash really helps give it a little of salty flavor anyway.
Now I went ahead and also made a recipe using regular wheat flour instead of rye flour and using butter instead of lard. Now that rye and lard flour version is very, very inexpensive. This is a more expensive version, but let’s see how this turned out. It’s got sugar instead of molasses too, so it’s missing that molasses flavor, much more like what you would expect as a modern sort of breakfast biscuit. It’s a little bit sweeter. You know, it actually almost reminds me of a shortbread that you would use for strawberry shortbread. It’s kind of that sweet and that kind of yummy.
This recipe of Mrs. Kerlie’s in 1799 in this London Monthly Magazine gives us a great little snapshot of something that’s going on right there in the Hudson River valley, where we see this knowledge being spread from the Dutch community, probably right there in the mid-18th century, and it spreads, where she’s giving that knowledge about how you can leaven breads, not with just yeast, but with this new method.
Anyway, a couple of years later, the recipe was published in the Domestic Encyclopedia of London. In 1808, Duncan McDonald picked up the recipe and included it in his cookbook, The New London Family Cook and while chemical leavening was much more quickly accepted in North America than in Great Britain, it does begin to slowly emerge in the 1820’s and 30’s in English cookbooks.
Again, if you haven’t watched our “Exploring the 18th Century” series where we’re discussing chemical leavening, I really encourage you to do so. We really get to go in depth and tease out these ideas of where chemical leavening comes from.