Steam, steel and beets: How 5 innovations made the cake cakier

Imagine you are a chef in a genteel household around 1815. Your master and mistress enjoy eating cake, and they also like to boast of the quality of ‘their kitchen’ to the guest of their dinners and assemblies. So, they constantly urge you to stay abreast of the latest trends in baking. Cakes at Royal Parties, they hear, are of a fluffy texture and delicious sweetness.
They give you free rein to achieve similar results, whatever the cost and changes to the kitchen may be. Check out five innovations that help you to succeed in this task. But be aware: baking powder is not yet available!

1. New baking techniques make your cake fluffier

For the most part of the 18th century, cake was a dense, rich and chewy baked good. Fluffiness of the dough as we know it today was only made possible with the invention of the baking powder in 1843. However, bakers of the 18th century were ingenious, too:

  • From about the mid-18th century, they started using beaten eggs as a rising agent. This was rather laborious, as you had to beat the white of the eggs for about 30 min. Having laid the foundation for better fluffiness, mixing butter, flour, sugar and eggs would take another hour of muscle work.
  • Chefs in France began using copper bowls for mixing egg white in the 18th century.
  • Using round baking hoops instead to of tins or trays allowed the cake to rise, as the dough can adhere to and climb the sides of hoop.

2. High-quality cast-iron becomes key for baking

Great baking requires great kitchen equipment. High-quality cast iron was required to produce the latest technical innovations for dedicated chefs.
Steel had been produced for centuries, but it was not until around 1750 that steam-powered blowing increased furnace temperatures enough to introduce new processes that generated the much better cast iron.
This technical progress enabled a great expansion of iron production in Britain and the production of the first steel of modern quality which was used in items like knives, tools, machinery – and new ovens for baking cakes.

3. New ovens take the heat off your cake

Most households of the late 18th century still had a kitchen with an open fireplace and a beehive-shaped oven made of brick. Once the cake was inside the oven, you couldn’t control the heat. Thus, not having your cake burned by the flames was part experience, part good luck. However, modern and rich households could buy the latest innovation in kitchen equipment: a kitchen range with a specially designed oven.

What was new about this new oven? To put it simply: the cooking-fire was taken out of the open hearth and put it in a box. This idea is usually attributed to Count Rumford. His so called “Rumford Roaster” of the 1790s was a kind of iron drum with a metal door, a fire box and an ash-pit. The heat of the fire could be regulated by varying the draught through the ash-pit-door. Moreover, you could cap a fire with an earthen-ware cover so that it burned only very low.
Thus, thanks to the Rumford roaster, a cake could not burn. Besides, the new oven was also rather energy efficient as it needed less fuel than the traditional ovens.

4. Save energy and be rewarded with better cakes

Clever chefs began using coal as fuel for their ovens instead of wood. Coal yields a higher amount of energy per unit mass, so you get more heat from coal and need less fuel.
Coal-ovens also had an impact on baking cakes. If you use wood for baking, you get a crispy texture (think of pizza from a wood-oven). When using coal, the baked goods have a moister texture (which is great for cakes, but not for pizza).

5. Have a clear conscience, don’t use sugar from slave work

Early cakes were only mildly sweet. As sugar was rare and expensive, recipes listed honey as ingredient. When sugar became more available from about the second half of the 18th century, it substituted honey quickly. The taste of cake became sweeter, and people loved it. The number of recipes for cakes in cookbooks increased significantly from about the late 1760s, and most of them listed sugar as ingredient – sometimes very much so, with more sugar added to the dough than flour.

More sugar than flour: The early Sponge Cake. Recipe by Esther Copley, from the cookbook “The cook’s complete guide“, 1810

From about 1740 to the 1820s, sugar gained from sugar cane was among Britain’s most sought-after import products. In 1770, the British consumed five times as much sugar as in 1710. The average consumption rose from 4 pounds per head and year in 1700 to 18 pounds in 1800. Four-fifths of the sugar came the colonies in the West Indies – meaning it was a product of brutal slave work.

The abolitionist sugar boycotts of the 1790s and 1820s tried to stop the production of sugar by slave work and the slave trade. By 1792, about 4 % of the British were either abstaining from sugar or bought imports from India (thinking that East Indian sugar, while still produced under very grim conditions, was preferable to sugar produced under slavery).

Innovation brought a solution for those who cared for sugar and a clear conscience: In 1801, the world’s first facility for beet sugar production was established in Prussia. It never was commercially successful, but Napoleon saw its potential: In 1811, he promoted the study of the beet, and by 1815, over 79,000 acres were put into production in France with more than 300 small factories. By 1840, about 5 % of the world’s sugar was derived from sugar beets.

Would you have succeed in making better cakes?

As a chef in a genteel household in the year 1815, making good use of the 5 innovations explained in this article will guarantee your continued success. Your cakes will delight the palate for your master and mistress. Now all it takes is a little bit of patience: The inventor of the baking-powder, Alfred Bird, is already four years old. It won’t take long until the cake will rise even more …

Try your hand at 18th-century baking

Why not try a hand at baking like a Regency chef?
Check out here how a friend made a Savoy cake with a recipe from 1802.

Good luck and have fun!

Related articles

Sources

  • Patricia Bixler Reber; Rumford Roaster – never before seen pieces; http://researchingfoodhistory.blogspot.com/2020/02/rumford-roaster-for-sale.html, February 17, 2020
  • Tony Knox: Rumford Kitchen, https://www.rumford.com/RumfordKitchen2.html, July 1997
  • Ruth Goodman: The Domestic Revolution, Michael O’mara Publications, 2020
  • Esther Copley, The cook’s complete guide, 1810, https://archive.org/details/cookscompletegui00copl/page/568/mode/2up
  • Clarissa Dickson Wright: A History of English Food, 2011
  • Stef Pollack: This Seventeenth-Century Cake Is the Ancestor of the Cakes We Love Today, at: Cupcake Project; Published 11/4/2016, Last updated 9/15/2017 (https://www.cupcakeproject.com/this-seventeenth-century-cake-is-the-ancestor-of-the-cakes-we-love-today/ )
  • University of Exeter: Georgian children boycotted sugar to protest against slavery and support abolitionists, study shows; https://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/research/title_853263_en.html, 1 April 2021
  • Anne Ewbank : This Bowl Contained Sugar ‘Not Made by Slaves’; An early version of ethical consumption, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/history-of-boycotts-slavery, July 19, 2018
  • Rachel Nuwer: Blame Napoleon for Our Addiction to Sugar, Smithonian Magazine December 4, 2012 (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/blame-napoleon-for-our-addiction-to-sugar-152096743/)
  • wikipedia.com

Article by Anna M. Thane, author of the novel
“Von tadellosem Ruf” (
http://amzn.to/2TXvrez)

2 thoughts on “Steam, steel and beets: How 5 innovations made the cake cakier

  1. A really interesting article, thank you. Life must have been tricky for chefs baking cakes in a Regency kitchen; I can’t imagine how my cakes would turn out if I couldn’t control the heat effectively!

    • Cooks of the Regency period are awesome – I am so glad we have modern ovens these days, and electric mixers as well :- ).
      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment!

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