I’ve been struck, reading old cookbooks, at how much has changed in the instructions for testing whether a cake is done. Today we rely on the ubiquitous cake skewer – if it comes out clean, it’s done (not true of all cakes, of course: think gooey brownies, for one). Alternatively we’re instructed to look out for a change in colour, or a springy texture when pressed. We can be fairly precise since we know that our ovens are baking at approximately the correct temperature. Even today, however, time of baking alone is not enough to ensure a reliable outcome, as ovens differ in the way they distribute and maintain heat.
This was a problem in spades in the past. A much more common description of oven temperature would be ‘quick’, ‘moderate’ or ‘hot’ since temperature dials weren’t common until the 1930s and 40s. The authors of the Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, which originated in Ohio in 1877 (the buckeye is its state tree) made the wistful but prophetic comment that ‘All systematic housekeepers will hail the day when some enterprising Yankee or Buckeye girl shall invent a stove or range with a thermometer attached to the oven so that the heat may be regulated accurately and intelligently.’ A common instruction in recipes was therefore simply to bake ‘until it is done’.
This assumes something quite fundamental: that bakers will be familiar with the appearance of a fully baked cake, or will already know about the tests they could do to check. Appearance and texture were still good signs, of course, but beyond that a lot relied on familiarity with the recipe, and also with one’s own individual oven.
Here, for example, is one way of checking oven temperature: the piece of paper test. Insert a piece of paper into the heated oven. If it catches fire, the oven is too hot; if it chars, it is still too hot; if it scorches to dark brown but does not catch alight, it is the correct temperature for small pastries; light brown is suitable for vol au vents, choux buns and pie crusts; dark yellow for large pieces of pastry, and light yellow for cakes and meringues. Other bakers would throw a little bit of flour in to see how quickly it charred, or use their hand. These methods all required a fair amount of prior knowledge so that the cake would go into the gradually cooling oven at the optimal time.
Gradually this started to change. Not only did ovens become a bit more reliable in terms of heat, but recipe writers started to realise that actually many women did not have the sort of inherited knowledge which gave them this confidence. As family sizes shrank and people moved around much more to find work, they were less likely to live near to extended family – or even their own parents and siblings. It was also simply more possible to be specific about baking and cooking methods by this time, as the surge in production and technology brought about by the industrial revolution had produced a wealth of new goods for the home; including clocks for timing, more efficient and smaller ovens, and a greater range of kitchen equipment.
Eliza Leslie, for example, who wrote some of the most popular cookery and etiquette manuals in early nineteenth-century America, realised that her readers needed clear and simple instructions and did not necessarily have specialist equipment. In her hugely popular 1828 75 Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats she told them that a cake was ready when a twig or wooden skewer thrust into it comes out clean; also it will have shrunk away from the sides and ‘cease making a noise.’
Things were not so different twenty years later, when Catherine Beecher (sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) published a volume of recipes, under the title Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book. Catherine Beecher was a passionate campaigner for female education, and her books on household management were full of the new interest in domestic science, chemistry and nutrition. Nonetheless, her instruction on testing for done-ness is of the much more traditional variety: instead of Leslie’s twig, Beecher suggested testing with an easy-to-find household object: a broom splinter. She also offered a common-sense way to judge whether the oven had reached the required temperature, and one which women had probably been using for generations:
A quick oven is so hot that you can count moderately only twenty; and a slow one allows you to count thirty, while you hold your hand in it.
Today, we have ovens with regulated temperature dials, timers and precise instructions. Yet when you think about it, our shiny metal skewers are only broom splinters made from a more up to date material. For real success we still need to balance the recipe instructions with the demands of our pans, our ingredients, and the type of cake we are baking. No wonder the Bake-Off contestants spend so much time on the floor, staring through their oven doors…