Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year Cakes

I must say, I didn't expect them to be crunchy.

In honor of the New Year (and just in time to serve on January 1), I finally got around to testing out Eliza Leslie's New York Cakes recipe, which she claims are quite similar to New Year's Cakes.

The recipe, being quite old, needed some interpretation and substitution. I also hunted about in various places for a corroborating description of said cakes, which oddly enough, I found with little trouble. My final preparation was to purchase an intricate cookie mold from a Pennsylvania Dutch wood carver I found on the Internet: srwhitecarving.com.

The flavors (nutmeg, cinnamon, rosewater, and caraway seeds) are a bit jarring to the modern palate and the cakes are barely sweet; it has taken me a day or so to find them rather pleasant after all. As I mentioned at first, the texture was definitely a surprise. I had thought they would be very similar to German Springerle -- they certainly are in appearance -- but instead of being cakey, they have a definitely biscuit-like crunch. The insides are flaky and break apart in layers.

Here is the description of New Year's Cakes I found. You'll note that it is from Buffalo, not New York City, but according to Godey's in January 1847, writing about New Year's calling, "A custom obtains in the city of New York - and we believe to a considerable extent throughout the state..." so I think that we may fairly attribute Buffalo's general attitudes on New Year's Day to the rest of New York.

There must be many younger men and women who well remember Van Velsor's New Year's cakes. I had almost said that New Year's was ushered in by these famous confections for their popularity in Buffalo was almost universal. They were of various shapes and sizes, some being eighteen or twenty inches across, and from three quarters to an inch in thickness; the smaller ones were about half an inch thick. They were heart-shaped, or in the form of stars, spheres or diamond-shaped, with flowers, baskets of fruit, cornucopias, birds, etc., stamped on the upper side in very distinct relief. They were redolent with caraway seeds, and fond papas quite generally stopped on their way home on New Year's Eve, to purchase the expected New Year's cake.
New Year's Day In The '3o's, Collected Essays from the Buffalo Historical Society edited by Frank H. Severance, 1905

Elsewhere in the essay quoted above, the authoress actually mentions her family's dependence on Miss Leslie's cookbook, making it even more apropos that I should be working from the following recipe. How often does one find such synchronicity in historic research?

From Directions for Cookery by Eliza Leslie 1817 (1840 edition)

NEW YORK COOKIES. --Take a half-pint or a tumbler full of cold water, and mix it with half a pound of powdered white sugar. Sift three pounds of flour into a large pan, and cut up in it a pound of butter; rub the butter very fine into the flour. Add a grated nutmeg, and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon, with a wine glass of rose water. Work in the sugar, and make the whole into a stiff dough, adding, if necessary, a little cold water. Dissolve a tea-spoonful of pearl-ash in just enough of warm water to cover it, and mix it in at the last. Take the lump of dough out of the pan, and knead it on the paste-board till it becomes quite light. Then roll it out rather more than half an inch thick, and cut it into square cakes with a jagging iron or with a sharp knife. Stamp the surface of each with a cake print. Lay them in buttered pans, and bake them of a light brown in a brisk oven.

They are similar to what are called New Year's cakes, and will keep two or three weeks.

In mixing the dough, you may add three table-spoonfuls of caraway seeds.


Rubbing in the butter -- I had to use the salad bowl to hold all 12 cups of flour.


My first challenge was to change the ingredient amounts into modern measurements. A half-pint water was easy. I used the weights on the sugar and flour packages, along with their servings per container to calculate how many cups of each (1 cup sugar, 12 cups flour) I needed. I had no idea how much an entire nutmeg would be once it was ground, so I grated one fresh. Like the water, butter and cinnamon needed no translation. I discovered that a wine glass held a bit more than a cup of water, but as I was nervous about making the dough too wet, I added the rosewater in parts, first 1/2 a cup, then the other 3/4 of a cup.




I had to replace some ingredients that are no longer available. The powdered sugar nearly had me tricked. Without thinking, I initially planned to use confectioner's sugar. Just in time, I remembered that it was not pure sugar -- it's actually a mix of finely ground sugar and cornstarch. Instead, I dashed out to the store for superfine, or caster, sugar. I imagine that it might be quite similar to what Miss Leslie thought of a powdered sugar, back in the days when you had to grind your sugar off a loaf.

The pearlash was a problem as well. I have not been able to find any commercial source of this early leavening (used until the middle of the 19th century, when the first baking powder was invented -- that's a whole other blog post). I did discover directions for making it, but lacking both a wood burning fireplace and the courage to feed distilled hardwood ashes to my friends and family, I decided to substitute baking soda.


Here is the flour/butter mixture with all the spices added.

Kneading was fun, and the dough did actually become quite light.

Rolling out, stamping, and cutting the cookies was very laborious. It took me nearly 2 hours to produce 80 cookies. Since I only had a single mold, I had to press (very hard) each cookie and cut around it with the 'jagging' knife individually. I began by rolling the dough nearly 3/4 of an inch thick, but discovered that it took far too long to bake them through. I discovered that if I rolled the dough on the thin side, it would contract once I cut out the oval and become nearly 1/2 an inch thick.

I tried baking them first at 425, for a 'brisk oven', but they seemed to burn on the outside before cooking through. So I lowered it to somewhere between 375 and 400. It took about 15 minutes for each batch to develop the called for 'light brown' color.

When fresh out of the oven, they were soft and flaky, like butter biscuits. After cooling, they began to harden, and now, a day old, they are very hard indeed. Not unpleasant though. We shall see how they fare with the guests tomorrow! Perhaps their pedigree will help ingratiate them with a 2009 audience.

Happy New Year to one and all!

ANOTHER YEAR! another year,
Is borne by Time away;
Nor pauses yet his swift career,
Nor tire his wing, nor makes me here
E'en one short hour's delay. -
But hurries on, and round and round,
The wheel of life is sped;
Unnoted oft, until rebound
Upon the ear, the startling sound,
Another year has fled!
Who ever said, 'tis New Year's day ,
With unmixed care or glee?
For hope still points the future gay,
And memory o'er the past will stray,
With sorrowing constancy.
Yet blest if they here behold
The grave of well-spent days'
The joy of gratitude that told
The tear, in patient trust that rolled -
The christian's hallowed bays.
Another year! so swift it flew,
We scarce had marked it ours;
Ere, fading from our backward view,
'Tis but the past our eyes pursue;
Eternity's long hours!
'Tis New Year's day , the coming year
All blank before us lies;
Oh! may no blot or stain appear,
To mar its history written here,
When published in the skies!
'Tis New Year's day ! how oft have I,
While yet a simple child,
Made it the goal from whence to try,
That race to run, which to the sky
Can guide through Time's dark wild.
The sky, that home of quiet rest,
When Life's poor dream is o'er,
Where spirits mingle with the blest,
And sorrow, in the aching breast,
Shall reign, shall reign no more!

Weekly Advocate, January 1837

1 comment:

slohmie said...

So what was the vote? Did your guests like them? Did you like them?

My mom refers to caraway cookies as "pepperoni cookies."