Despite the title, this post isn’t about the countless buckets of wash and cook water we carried (and occasionally splashed) as a part of our morning and afternoon routines.
After a training primer delivered by one of the journeymen, the first work to be done by each of the interns was the making of a pound cake. This was fortunately familiar territory to me, and immediately reminded me of the connections we form between food and family. There is seldom a trip to see my paternal grandmother that I don’t return home with a poundcake. The recipe is classic, dense, and best after sitting overnight (a test of patience to any rational person with taste buds). I volunteered to be the first baker.
While the formula has remained essentially unchanged over 250 years, as I stood in the Kitchen of the Governor’s Palace a small error message flashed in my mind when I heard Barbara Sherer assertively instruct me to
“take your hand and mix them together,”
pantomiming the cupped shape that would allow me to collect any dry flour from the side of the large redware bowl before me. Perhaps I cast an eye toward the wooden spoons within arm’s reach, or stared back blankly at the suggestion I dirty my hand just to mix a batter, but the kind grin on Barbara’s face reinforced the edict.
As the batter crept up my wrist it became evident why the spoon wasn’t the tool for the job – breaking the small clumps of flour was more easily accomplished with the broad surface of my fingers pressing into the wall of the bowl. The rhythm came naturally to stir and press, folding air in all the while to make for a light cake with no chemical leaven. As I spoke to guests about the process, Barbara reminded all of us of a simple fact: Our senses are integral to the cooking process – without using them we miss key elements of the cooking process: textures, tastes, sights, and smells.
I’ve always been quick to remind guests of the aptitude that humans possess when it comes to detail and discernment. When recreating clothing, it was easy to show that practice could yield fine & even stitching. I was excited to see this acknowledged in another trade so early in my time there.
Into the well buttered and floured pans the batter went. Every insurance is taken to prevent the delicate brown surface of the cake from adhering to the pan as the product is turned out for service. Even weeks later, when I think I’ve buttered, enough, I butter some more. They were baked off in the oven, which was made integral to the hearth. The smaller of the two ovens I would use all summer, the Palace setup was also quicker to lose its heat as the bricks of the adjacent hearth & chimney absorbed the energy.
The cakes rose, set, and were turned out without a hitch. One was reserved for an ice cream social to thank the Junior Interpreters before they parted for the summer (the ice cream made in a period-style sabotier), the other was mine to do with as I pleased. I beat feet out of the Palace grounds to share the bounty with colleagues across town.
Here’s Hannah Glasse’s recipe for pound cake from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy(1747):
Take a pound of butter, beat it in an earthen pan with your hand one way, till it is like a fine thick cream: then have ready twelve eggs, but half the whites; beat them well, and beat them up with the butter, a pound of flour beat in it, a pound of sugar, and a few carraways. Beat it all well together for an hour with your hand, or a great wooden spoon, butter a pan and put it in, and then bake it an hour in a quick oven.
This was a great first receipt to try out because of the readability (no missing details, or abstract proportions), and requirement to dive into the work… with your hand anyway.