Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Rather extravagant" Shaker cake

In The Best of Shaker Cooking (1970) this treat is officially titled "An old recipe from an old sister for an excellent and rather extravagant cake." Yes, I'd say four sticks of butter, nine eggs, and two cups of dried fruit goes a long way toward extravagance, wouldn't you? The "old sister" was a member of a Shaker community in Mt. Lebanon, New York.

To make it you will need:
  • 2 cups (4 sticks) butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 cups mixed fruit -- raisins, candied fruit, currants, etc.
  • 9 eggs
  • ground cinnamon and ginger

Cream the butter and sugar together, and then mix in the flour and fruits gradually. Beat the eggs lightly, and add to the mix. Season to taste with cinnamon and ginger. (This is an odd instruction. You might start with perhaps 1/2 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 tsp ginger, but won't spices taste different in a raw batter than they will in a finished cake? Perhaps the old sister reasoned that it won't matter much anyway, since the prime taste of the cake is butter and sweetness.)

Beat well. Bake in a greased, 9 inch square baking dish, in a moderately slow (325 F) oven for 1 hour.

An hour was not quite sufficient to completely cook this very thick batter, so prepare to add ten minutes or so to the baking time, and keep on checking until you are reasonably sure the thing looks the way the old sister would have wanted. If the center is still gooey no matter how dry and clean the toothpick emerges with which you test for doneness, why -- why then, enjoy the rest of it.

Idly looking over the baking section of this cookbook, it seemed curious to me that this cake should not also serve as "Mother Ann's birthday cake," the recipe for which is printed just above it on the same page. Mother Ann was Ann Lee, the "beloved founder" of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. Why shouldn't her birthday be celebrated with as much extravagance, as much butter, eggs, and dried fruits, as possible? Especially since she had the luck to be born on Leap Day. I've always thought that would be such fun.

A closer look at the two recipes may explain the curiosity. Where Extravagant Cake is a huge galumphing bowlful of rich sweetness and expense, the birthday cake is a light, refined, and graceful affair, three small layers leavened by both baking powder and egg whites -- twelve of these -- the layers enriched with peach jam in between, and all topped by "any delicate icing." It requires more work and loving skill than mere galumphing extravagance. Even before beginning, the baker is instructed to go out and cut peach twigs, "which are filled with sap at this season of the year," bruise their ends, and use them to beat the batter. "This will impart a delicate peach flavor to the cake." Anything for Mother Ann, and with good reason. She not only founded the Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, she was thought to exemplify the Second Appearing in herself, and taught that all Believers spiritually held Christ in themselves too. It was a wildly revolutionary idea, going far beyond any simpering claims that all people can be good.

Since the Shakers are down to their last three members at one last, venerable place called Sabbathday Lake in Maine, it seems right to offer them a paragraph. They were a most unusual American denomination. The ferment of an industrializing eighteenth-century urban England partly gave them birth, along with Protestant religious revivals flaring both in the mother country and in the American colonies. The rest of their identity they owed to young English factory girl Ann Lee's strong personality. Her youthful spiritual torments about sin and correct service to God, combined with a deep revulsion to sex, helped create -- once she was through with a near-forced marriage and the tragic deaths of all her four young children, and had left Manchester -- a new religion. In rural New England the she and her followers separated themselves from the world, lived quietly on large communal farms, and devoted themselves to work, prayer, total sinlessness, handicrafts, and business in imitation of the earliest and purest Christians. They were celibate. (I had trouble once explaining this idea to a class full of fourteen-year-olds. "But they would just sneak around," one young man leered meaningfully. "No," I said. And I had to explain the desire not to sneak around.) How their dancing and physical convulsing -- hence, Shakers -- was in imitation of the primitve church is a mystery to me. Historian Paul Johnson judged that this ecstatic worship may have had long-forgotten European roots in Crusader exposure to the Muslim world's "whirling Dervishes." Anyway so famed was it, in sleepy backwoods New York or Maine, that the Shakers built small bleachers into their meeting rooms to allow outsiders, the "worldly people," to come and watch and be out of the way. Their famed song "Simple Gifts" is about dancing (" 'tis the gift to come down where we ought to be ... to bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd").

I am not sure when the dancing stopped. Two and a quarter centuries after their founding, what these humble people will be remembered for, apart from living incredibly sweet and tidy lives, will likely be their perfect furniture and their robust farm food. I have not yet tried the "Birthday" cake, but if you care to attempt it in honor of beloved Mother Ann, here is the recipe. The Believers used to celebrate her unusual Leap Day birthday on March 1.

Mother Ann's birthday cake
  • 1 cup best butter (sweet, fresh if possible)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 cups flour, sifted
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 12 egg whites, beaten
  • 1 tsp salt

Beat the butter and sugar into a smooth cream. Sift the flour with the cornstarch and the baking powder, and add alternately with the milk to the butter mixture. Beat well after each addition (ideally using the peach twigs at some point). Add the vanilla and then lightly fold in the egg whites which you have whipped with the salt.

Bake the batter in three greased 8-inch cake pans in a moderate (350 F) oven for 25 minutes. When cool, fill between the layers with peach jam and cover the cake with any delicate icing.


A History of the American People, by Paul Johnson (1987)

Work and Worship: The Economic Order of the Shakers, by Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews (1974)

The Story of the Shakers by Flo Morse (1986)

The Four Seasons of Shaker Life: an Intimate Portrait of the Community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine by Gerard C. Wertkin (1986) -- in the photos you can spot the three remaining members still pictured at the community's official website today.

YouTube has the Ken Burns' film on the Shakers, Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984), uploaded in 15-minute segments. Here you can see the woman who fears being "remembered as a chair or a table"' (at 7:20).

More about the community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine
Mother Ann Lee, at wikipedia
The Shaker Museum and Library
The National Park Service's Shaker Historic Trail site

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