13 February 2023

The Little House Cooking Club - 1, 2, 3, 4 Cup Cake


"Self sufficiency was the badge of the American pioneer. Self sufficient, indeed, the Ingalls seemed. Yet, they never dared settle too far from the country store. It was their lifeline, supplying the essentials that made survival possible and the luxuries that made life livable. "  This week, I chose to depart from the corn flour recipes and dwell a bit on the idea of a special celebration cake. The Ingalls would have had to time their visits to the general store around seasonal weather, harvest times when they could use some of their excess for trade, and the train supplying the merchants at the various outpost stores and general stores they used over the years.         

"It seems strange to have everything one could want to work with," Ma said at the end of the long winter when the supply train finally arrived." Now I have cream of tartar and plenty of saleratus, I shall make a cake." She was speaking of two important stores that made the difference between heavy baked goods and light ones. Saleratus, now called baking soda, and cream of tartar are the main components of baking powder, a key ingredient of cakes and quick bread ... "            - excerpts from The Little House Cookbook

Today, I chose a very old recipe that has become a 'master recipe' for many a modern day cake. I daresay that Ma Ingalls knew it by heart, as it's so simple to remember. She may well have had the same cook book that I took it from, although in an earlier edition !  It is a recipe for using as a base to 'fancy up' with whatever spices, extracts, 'waters', juices, or other liquids that one might have in one's pantry.

The recipe is called a Cup Cake and was published  in The American Frugal Housewife in 1828. It became a staple in many a housewife's home because of its list of recipes, advice on housekeeping and food preparation and setting things by. There were many editions published over the years and it is popular with historical society cooks, re-enactors and historical buffs to this day. 

Lydia Maria Child bunched her recipes by groups in the book and offered advice on how to run an efficient and frugal kitchen. Her recipes are short and sweet with the basics of measurements and very concise directions for executing the dish. Just take a look !

I used this recipe and my modern knowledge of cake making to put together the cake, using baking powder à la Ma Ingalls, but also using the techniques of Mrs. Child's era of baker. The eggs were whipped for a few minutes before adding the sugar and then, that mixture was whipped to a frothy light yellow. This put a lot of air into the batter. The butter was cut into the flour and baking powder until it was tiny pieces and then allowed to rest a bit to let the fat and flour meld.  Then, the flour mixture was added in three small additions that were alternated with a generous cup of milk. Mrs. Child has no milk in her recipe, but I found the batter too thick, so I went with milk. 

All these ingredients would have been extremely dear for the Ingalls family early on in their homesteading days. Once they got some acreage, cows, chickens, and fields established, the dairy and wheat might not have been such a stretch. White sugar, though, would have remained dear and running out of leavening agents during certain times of the year would have meant waiting for the supply trains or that infrequent trip to the general store.  

When the batter was beaten to a nice consistency, I divided it in half into two bowls. At this point, I decided to scale the cake to two single layer cakes. One cake layer became a citrus cake. I added a small amount of vanilla extract, a small amount of orange blossom water and orange zest. Heavenly !  I kept thinking about how one would save the citrus peels from the Christmas orange savored on Christmas Day and dry it for zesting at a later date. Orange blossom water and other floral waters have been popular with bakers and cooks for ages. I can only imagine that one might have been gifted some on a rare occasion by friends 'back East'; they would have been very rare in pioneer cooking. I was gifted some orange blossom water from friends who bake frequently and I bought the rose water when I went to the Hancock Shaker Village. It was produced and sold by the Shakers for years. The second cake batter combo that I made became a Scandinavian Cake with the rose water and dry cardamom added to the batter. So subtle and simple and it really does smell of roses. Both cakes bake longer than that twenty minutes ! In a 350 degree F oven, they took 35 minutes. 

The Scandi Cake is bagged and frozen for another special 'cake day'. The citrus cake has been given a layer of orange butter cream frosting and is my Valentine for my 'Sweet Tooth Guy'. 

Actually, this cake is doing double duty, as it also is in honor of Laura Ingalls Wilder's birthday, which was on February 7th ! How very timely ! It was a delicious tea time treat this afternoon ! I hummed a 'Happy Birthday' tune to Laura Ingalls Wilder and enjoyed a slice of Citrus Cup Cake with some Constant Comment tea. 

So ... here's my adapted recipe from Lydia Maria Child's The American Frugal Housewife . The buttercream icing recipe comes from my mother's recipe box.

Cup Cake


1 c. butter

2 c. white sugar

3 c. flour

4 eggs

1 tbsp baking powder

1 c. whole milk

Making the Cake:

1. Place the butter, cut into small chunks into the flour and baking powder measure and cut with knives or smash with your fingers to bits tht are mixed well with the flour. Set aside.

2.  In another large bowl, whisk the eggs until they are light and frothy. Add the sugar measure in two additions, whipping until the mixture is a soft lemon-y color and there are no scraping crystals along the bottom of the bowl. 

3. At this point, you may add any flavor embellishments that you like. Some suggestions: these measurements are for all the batter. If you decide to make both cakes, continue to Step 4 and then, divide the batter evenly and halve the following embellishment measurements. Make sense ?

- for a Citrus cake: 1 tsp. vanilla extract, 3/4 tsp. orange blossom water, the zest of one small orange

- for a Scandi cake: 2 tsp. rosewater, 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom 

4.  Add the flour in three additions, whipping the batter and adding some of the milk in between each flour addition. Beat to a smooth batter and then either split the batter to make single layer cakes with separate embellishments or proceed to Step 5.

5. Butter two cake pans (9-inch work best). Line the bottoms of the pans with baker's parchment or wax paper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

6. Divide the batter evenly, smooth the surface and bake in the center of the pre-heated oven for about 35 minutes. The cake will be golden and puffed. Remove when a cake straw comes clean when you poke the center of the cake.

7. Cool for ten minutes and run a knife around the outer edges and tip onto cooling racks. Gently pull the parchment paper from the bottoms of the layers and cool completely before making a glaze, a butter cream frosting, or just dusting with some fine sugar.

8. Make some tea and enjoy your 1, 2, 3, 4 Cup Cake !


  1. It came out terrific, Laura ! I did wonder how Mrs. child's version without any leavening other than the air one beats into the eggs would have come out though. I think Ma ingalls was wise to wait for that supply train before tackling a cake !


Anonymous comments will not be accepted. Please be aware that due to spamming concerns, I must be able to track back. Use your Google account ID to comment.