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“Every recipe, every advice, every little piece of information, is the result of personal experience,” claims the author of The Dominion Home Cook-Book, who identifies herself only as 'A Thorough Housewife'. The book, published by Adam Miller in 1868, aims to provide “explicit direction” and guidance to “housekeepers who study simplicity and economy in the preparation of food.”[1] In its 133 pages, it manages to cover a myriad of topics, from preparation and carving of meats to bread to frosting.

To further aid the unsure cook, the book begins with a series of illustrations (seventy-nine in total) depicting some items that may be necessary to properly furnish a kitchen. For me, these illustrations were a reminder of sixth grade Home Economics class. Before we could go anywhere near the kitchen, we had to pass a quiz identifying various culinary tools and appliances. Luckily, we did not have to know what a larding needle or a patent ice breaker was, otherwise I may never have graduated from sewing a stuffed hedgehog to making cheese biscuits.

Another useful segment of the cookbook describes how to best select meats, eggs, butter, and fish for purchase. To choose fresh eggs, one’s tongue should touch the egg at the “larger" end. "If it feel[s] warm, the egg is fresh.”[2] A method more familiar to twenty-first century sensibilities is to place the egg in a pan of cold water and watch to see whether it sinks or floats: the fresher the egg, the further it will sink.[3] I’m fairly certain the manager of my local grocery store would not be pleased if I tried either of those tricks before selecting a carton of eggs. Moving past “Important Hints to Cooks” and directions for carving, the 'Thorough Housewife' moves on to sharing her recipes.

Recipes included in the book are, according to our nameless author, meant to be used by the “frugal and industrious.”[4] She tells us she is writing for those who do not have access to more expensive ingredients or have not had the culinary training other cookbooks of the day expect the reader to have.[5] We can imagine then that all the recipes included in the book would have been familiar to Canada’s Victorian housewives. It contains a surprising array of recipes, including the faux-extravagant Mock Turtle Soup as well as instructions for various types of home-cured meats. It even includes instructions for making hot chocolate and cocoa: drinks that had only recently become widely available to the lower classes.[6] The book itself, though published in Toronto, was likely not written for a specifically Canadian audience. Exactly the same book was published four years earlier in New York City by Dick & Fitzgerald Publishers under the title The American Home Cook Book. The American edition was written by “An American Lady.” Adam Miller similarly published a Canadian edition of the British cookbook Health in the House a few years later.[7] In fact, thirty-seven of the ninety-six cookbooks published in Canada between 1825 and 1900 were reprints of foreign books − American books were particularly favoured for this as the same ingredients were available in Canada and the United States.[8]

The typical nineteenth-century cookbook barely resembles its twenty-first century kin, and The Dominion Home Cook-Book is no exception. Instead of presenting one or two recipes per page, usually accompanied by ingredient lists, descriptions of the results, and photographs, the recipes here are written in paragraph form with simple instructions and are crammed onto the page. The general organization of the book, however, resembles a modern cookbook exactly, beginning with introductory remarks and tips for selecting ingredients before moving on to the actual recipes. And, like any modern cookbook, it concludes with a complete eleven-page alphabetical index. A Thorough Housewife divided her recipes into the following sections: Soups and Broths; Fish; Meats; Poultry; Gravies; Sauces; Vegetables; Eggs, Omelettes, &c; Butter, Cheese, &c; Pickles; Ketchup; Pies and Puddings; Pancakes and Fritters; Custards; Creams and Ices; Jellies, Preserving, Bread, &c; Fruit Cakes, &c; and Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and Cocoa. My favourite sections of this cookbook, and most cookbooks, are those dedicated to sweets. The reason for this, I think, is twofold. First, sweets are delicious. Second, I tend not to use recipes when I cook, but always when I bake. For those reasons, I passed on the boiled eels, roasted beef heart, and pigeons in jelly.

I was intrigued by a recipe for something called Vanity Cake. The three-liner is the penultimate recipe in its section. It reads “Vanity Cake, Three eggs, one cup of sugar, two tea-spoonfuls of cream of tartar, one tea-spoonful of saleratus, two of cream, one and a half cups of flour.”[9] The recipe is deceptively simple and missing one crucial thing that no twenty-first century recipe would dare to be without: cooking instructions. Many nineteenth-century recipes, like others in The Dominion Home Cook-Book, lack times or oven temperatures, merely instructing readers to bake in a quick (hot) or slow (low temperature) oven. The vanity cake recipe gives no hint of how it should be baked. Its inclusion in the Fruit Cakes section implies that it should be baked like a cake.

Vanity cakes appear in several nineteenth-century cookbooks, but the recipe and ingredient proportions are inconsistent. The recipes fall into two categories: fried and baked. I am familiar with the fried version, having read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s frontier children’s stories. Vanity cakes make an appearance at a birthday party in On the Banks of Plum Creek, where they are crispy fried shells that melt in one’s mouth:

[Ma] made them with beaten eggs and white flour. She dropped them into a kettle of sizzling fat. Each one came up bobbling, and floated till it turned itself over, lifting up its honey-brown puffy bottom. Then it swelled underneath till it was round and Ma lifted it out with a fork … The cakes were not sweet, but they were rich and crisp, and hollow on the inside. Each one was like a great bubble. The crisp bits of it melted on the tongue…[10]

Recipes for fried vanity cakes like Ma’s usually call for fewer ingredients: eggs and flour, maybe salt, with instructions to fry in lard.

The baked vanity cakes are much closer to what we consider “cake” today, though all vary slightly from The Dominion Home Cook-Book’s recipe, calling for varying amounts of butter and milk or cream. Several of the baked recipes give specific instructions that the cake should be baked in two pans, then iced and stacked.[11]

As there were two possible cooking methods, I made both fried and baked vanity cake. Following the recipe, I beat three eggs in a large bowl with sugar, cream of tartar, baking soda (instead of saleratus), cream, and flour. Half of the batter went into the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the other half made its way, spoonful by spoonful, into lard of a similar temperature.

The resulting fried cakes lacked flavour and shape but certainly turned a deep golden brown and had a crispy exterior. The inside though was not hollow as some descriptions promised. Instead, it was something between a doughnut and a funnel cake. Adding more flour and rolling out the dough produced a puffier final product, but it was still far from the air pocket I had read about. However, the cake baked in the oven for about twenty minutes was much more successful. It rose during baking but fell before it was finished, as if it wanted to hold onto the sides of the pan but couldn’t. The texture was similar to cornbread, with a large crumb. It also seemed like it didn’t want to be cut. It was by no means hard, but responded the same way that an angel food cake does, in that ripping may have been a more successful way of parceling out slices than cutting cleanly with a sharp knife.

Without any of the usual cake flavourings like vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate, or coffee, the cake, though sweet, lacked depth. I still found this cake interesting, however. It seemed to exist for a period of about fifty years in many cookbooks either in fried or baked form and then simply disappeared. It was even part of a little poem that appeared in a variety of publications in the late 1890s. The poem, “Notes from the Cooking Class,” proclaimed: “…For a geologist, Layer cake/For a sculptor, Marble cake/For an advertiser, Puffs…/For a belle , Vanity cake.”[12] Beginning in the 1920s, advertisements for “vanity cake pans” appear. One states that it should be used for making angel food cakes.[13] Perhaps the vanity cake, or at least The Dominion Home Cook-Book’s version, was one precursor to today’s angel food cake. If you scour the Internet, the general consensus seems to be that the earliest angel food cake recipe with standard measurements appeared in Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book in 1884 and in the 1896 reprint. It is similar to our Dominion Home Cook-Book vanity cake recipe in that the main ingredients called for are flour, cream of tartar, vanilla, sugar, and egg whites. The only major difference is with the last ingredient, the egg whites. While the Boston Cook Book calls for eleven egg whites, beaten “until stiff and flaky,”[14] the Dominion vanity cake recipe calls for whole eggs rather than egg whites. The Dominion recipe also includes saleratus, which is not part of the Boston “angel cake” recipe. However, whipped egg whites are a form of leavening, as is saleratus. Lastly, the Boston recipe calls for vanilla or almond extract, which is absent from the Dominion vanity cake recipe. As for baking, Mrs. Lincoln is much clearer than our Thorough Housewife. Like modern angel food cakes, the Boston angel cake is to be baked in an ungreased funnel cake pan.

Despite the lack of baking instructions, the vanity cake recipe is definitely one that can easily be followed. This is precisely what A Thorough Housewife intended. She writes in her “Introductory Remarks” that each recipe included in the book is meant to make the best use of all ingredients, even if the housewife or cook cannot “procure the finest kinds of food.”[15] From this idea, it seems possible that vanity cake is meant to be a cake for those unable to access large varieties of dairy products, but with some more expensive ingredients at their disposal, such as the whole cup of sugar. It is one of the few recipes that require no butter and only a small amount of fresh dairy and eggs.

The origin of the name is even more of a mystery. Unlike cookbooks offering vignettes or origin stories describing a recipe’s beginnings, The Dominion Home Cook-Book gives none. With a name like “Vanity Cake,” one expects a story. Perhaps the way the cake puffs up in the oven gave way to the name. Vanity, after all, causes people to puff up, either literally or figuratively. The origin of the name might also have something to do with the fact that the cakes were meant to be hollow (though mine were not): those who are vain are empty, lacking in substance. As Ma says of her vanity cakes in On the Banks of Plum Creek: “they are all puffed up, like vanity, with nothing solid inside.”[16] Or perhaps the name derives from some other aspect entirely, some reference which I have not yet been able to tease out.

References to vanity cakes are few and far between in the culinary world. The recipes I have already mentioned here make up most of the literature on vanity cakes. Laura Ingalls Wilder fans know that Barbara M. Walker’s Little House Cookbook includes a recipe with modern measurements, probably derived from the recipe in a letter written by Laura’s aunt, Martha Carpenter. A book called The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalism says that vanity cake is “a Mississippi dessert often served at teatime,” which is far from what my own research suggests.[17] Etsy and Ebay sellers occasionally offer tube cake pans with the words “Vanity Cake Pan Pat. Apl’d. For” stamped on the side. There is no real consensus, in other words. Perhaps for now the origins of the vanity cake will have to remain unknown.