Happy Birthday, Miss Anthony!

Susan B. Anthony (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Susan B. Anthony (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

 
A Note to Readers:
 
 
This blog has moved. For newer posts plus copies of all the old ones (even this one!), please visit me at the All-New IN OUR GRANDMOTHERS’ KITCHENS.
  
Tinky

 

February is chock full of holidays and commemorative days. My second grade class staged a presentation in which our teacher, Miss Asman, asked each of us to represent one of these days. I was assigned a few words about Charles Dickens, who was born on February 7, 1812.

 

A ham even at that early age, I made the most of my role. Nevertheless, I was secretly jealous of the person who talked about Susan B. Anthony, born on February 15, 1820. I had read a book about Miss Anthony’s life and her participation in the struggle for women’s rights. I thought she was an inspiring person to talk about. I still do.

 

Born near Adams, Massachusetts (not far from my home in Hawley), Susan B. Anthony was brought up Quaker. Well educated and articulate, she became active in abolitionism and the temperance movement. In her early 30s she found her true calling as one of the strongest voices this country has ever heard arguing for women’s rights and suffrage.

 

Along with her friend and colleague Elizabeth Cady Stanton she formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. She also wrote and lectured extensively. She actually cast a vote in 1872, although she was arrested and tried for violating the law. She responded to her sentence with an eloquent speech in which she said, “It was we, the people, not we the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the union.”

 

Susan B. Anthony died 14 years before women achieved the right to vote. She is nonetheless remembered as a pioneer in that effort and as a remarkable person, both an indefatigable warrior and the beloved “Aunt Susan” of younger feminists. Just before her death in 1906 she gave her final speech, which ended with the rallying cry, “Failure is impossible.”

 

Last week my friend Peter suggested that as a food writer I should pay culinary tribute to Miss Anthony’s birthday. I called the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, New York, and asked whether the people who worked there had any idea what she liked to eat. To my delight I was informed that they had just been discussing this topic. Sue Gaffney kindly sent me the text of a letter draft from 1898 in which Miss Anthony was responding to a group of college juniors who wanted the recipe for her favorite cake.

 

Miss Anthony couldn’t find the actual recipe. (It’s reassuring to know that someone of her stature could have trouble finding things since this is one of my own more frustrating habits.) Instead she gave her correspondents a sponge-cake outline:

Dear Junior Girls: My favorite cake is the old-fashioned sponge, made of eggs, the whites lashed to a stiff froth, the yolks beaten thoroughly with cups of pulverized sugar, a pinch of salt, a slight flavor of almond. Into these stir __ cups of flour – first a little flour, then a little of the white froth – and pour and pour the foaming batter into a dish with a bit of white buttered paper in the bottom. Clap into a rightly tempered oven as quickly as possible and take out exactly at the proper minute, when it is baked just enough to hold itself up to its highest and best estate. Then don’t cut, but break it carefully, and the golden sponge is fit for the gods . . .

 

Well, the dickens is to pay – I can not find the old cook book – so just put in any good sponge cake recipe for me, and then add: “It matters not how good the recipe or the ingredients may be, the cake will not be good unless there is a lot of common sense mixed in with the stir of the spoon.”

 

My helpers and I didn’t quite follow Miss Anthony’s formula, but we came close. We substituted vanilla for almond extract since one of the kids in the neighborhood is allergic to nuts. It seemed a little odd making a feminist’s birthday cake with boys, but I was impressed that these young males had actually heard of Miss Anthony (two of them had coins with her face on them). And after all part of feminism is part of making sure that the traditional “feminine” arts like baking are open to both genders. So I offer kudos to Michael Weisblat, Carson Carr, and Sam Duffett.

 

We topped our sponge cake off with a little raspberry sauce and whipped cream. It was indeed fit for the gods. I guess we must have blended a sufficiency of common sense into the bowl.

 

The Susan B. Anthony House is hosting a birthday luncheon on Wednesday, February 11. Journalist Lynn Sherr, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words, will be the featured speaker. At the time of this posting tickets were still available on the house’s web site. If you can’t attend the celebration, feel free to make this cake at home. 

 

Sam, Michael, and Carson take turns lashing egg whites to a stiff froth.

from left to right: Sam, Michael, and Carson take turns lashing egg whites to a stiff froth.

Susan B. Anthony Sponge Cake

 

Ingredients:

 

5 eggs at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract

1 cup sugar

1 pinch salt

1 cup flour

raspberry jam or sauce for garnish (optional)

whipped cream for garnish (optional)

 

 
 
 

We ended up with ONE girl. Michael's friend Anna Capper stopped by in time to help break off pieces of cake.

We ended up with ONE girl. Michael's friend Anna Capper stopped by in time to help break off pieces of cake.

 

 

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut a piece of wax paper to fit the bottom of a 9-inch tube pan.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat together the egg yolks and extract until they lighten. Gradually beat in half of the sugar.

 

Wash your beaters thoroughly. Beat the egg whites and salt until they form soft peaks. Gently and gradually beat in the remaining sugar. When the peaks are glossy and beginning to stiffen, remove the beaters from the bowl.

 

Fold a quarter of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Pour the remaining egg whites on top, and sift the flour on top of them. Gently fold the flour and egg whites into the batter.

 

Delicately pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake the cake until it is a golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Invert the cake over a cooling rack and let it cool completely before coaxing the cake out of the pan. This will probably involve running a knife delicately around the sides of the pan and the tube. Peel off the wax paper.

 

Gingerly break off pieces of the cake. Serve with or without jam and whipped cream. (With is better!) Serves 10.

 

cakeweb1

mandaweb1

 

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5 Responses to “Happy Birthday, Miss Anthony!”

  1. Molly Stejskal Says:

    The cake described by Susan B. Anthony sounds like our family’s “Mary Parthenia Cake,” which comes to us from my namesake and great-great-grandmother in South Carolina. Especially the instruction to break off pieces instead of cutting, which we learned as an important rule for eating this cake. I wonder if Susan B. Anthony said anything about serving it with wine sauce, which is our tradition, and absolutely sublime!

    • tinkyweisblat Says:

      I’m curious: do you know WHY it is important to break it rather than cut it? Is there a culinary reason–or does breaking the rules of polite table manners just make it more fun?

      Susan B. probably wouldn’t want the wine sauce since she was active in the temperance movement–but I’m sure readers would be interested if you’d share the recipe for your sauce. Maybe we can do another sponge cake post soon.

      Tinky

  2. Priscilla Says:

    Breaking instead of cutting is recommended for many cakes that use egg whites for height. The pressure of the knife cutting (and most people do apply pressure rather than drawing the serrated edge across to effect the cut) is liable to collapse the cake, while the pulling action of breaking the cake will not offend the delicate structure supporting the height. I learned this with angel food cakes, and the principle applies to this sponge cake as well.

    If one wants to be graceful and mind one’s table manners while breaking the cake, use two forks inserted in the cake back to back and pull them apart to make the break.

    • tinkyweisblat Says:

      Thanks for the information! It’s great to have one’s questions resolved so quickly and thoroughly…….

      Tinky

  3. commonweeder Says:

    This is a delicious post. We actually served an angelfood cake at church yesterday, and it would have benefitted from being ‘broken’ not cut. There is a serving tip! Thank you. I also went to the SBA House website which is filled with wonderful information, and pictures

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