Happy Birthday, part 2: Cake!

It was Jonathan M. Clark’s birthday!

Note: this post has been updated twice on November 30, 2020, see below.

This past Saturday was the 208th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan M. Clark. If you missed our special birthday post, click here and catch up on all the new and updated information about Jonathan that we’ve discovered and published here at Clark House Historian since 2016.

One of the highlights of Saturday’s post was this photo of Jonathan’s excellent 200th Birthday cake from 2012, courtesy of Anne Bridges:

Click to open larger image in new window. Photo credit Nina Look.

No doubt about it, that is one fine birthday cake. (Thanks, Anne!) But what if you wanted to bake a cake that Jonathan or Mary Clark, or one of their early Mequon neighbors, might recognize? That calls for another look into the first cook book written and published by an American:

American Cookery (1796)

Click to open large image in new window. (Library of Congress).

Yes, it’s time for more recipes from American cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables : and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves : and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake, adapted to this country, and all grades of life, written by Amelia Simmons, “an American Orphan,” and published in Hartford by Hudson & Goodwin, for the author, in 1796.

American cookery was such a popular book, it was “printed, reprinted and pirated for 30 years after its first appearance.” The book is still fun to read. Click here to go to the Library of Congress and download a pdf for your computer or phone. It’s not a big file, and it’s an interesting window into the kitchens and foodways of the early American republic.


It’s possible that Jonathan’s and Mary’s mothers knew this book, or similar collections of recipes inspired by it that appeared in the decades following its publication. And if they wanted to celebrate an event with a nice baked treat, the book has several pages of recipes for sweet and savory cakes. Here’s page 33, the first page of cake recipes, featuring five kinds of cakes:

Click to open large image in new window.

A call to all you bakers!

I can cook well enough, but I am not much of a baker. So I call upon those of you readers that do bake to help me out. I’m going to try and explain some of Amelia Simmon’s cake recipes, but please let me know whether I’ve got it right or not. Now, on to the cakes!

Plumb Cake

Yes, Amelia’s Plumb Cake sure looks like what we’d call a fruitcake (or perhaps not; see update no. 2, in the next paragraph). And that’s exactly what it is. It turns out that plum used to simply mean a dried fruit. So when Little Jack Horner sat in his corner and stuck his thumb into his Christmas pie, he did not pull out a large, juicy, purple-skinned summer fruit but, more likely, a raisin, prune or—as in this recipe—a currant. (For much, much more on the fascinating history of Plum Cake, start with this article.)

UPDATE November 30, 2020: I forgot to mention the spices! You’ll need one drachm each of nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon. What’s a drachm? That’s an older, British spelling of dram, a measurement of weight and volume; see the link for details. My guess is that Amelia was scooping her drachms as volume measures, probably equaling one eighth of a fluid ounce or, roughly, a smallish teaspoon.

UPDATE November 30, 2020, no. 2: I also forgot to mention the required 1 quart new ale yeast. This is certainly more-or-less synonymous with the mystery ingredient called emptins—which I discuss at more length, below—and may well have turned this plumb cake into less of a dense “fruitcake” and into something more like an airy, modern “cake” for a birthday or other occasion.

Potatoe Cake

At the end of page 33 is a recipe for Potatoe Cake. This seems like a baked version what some folks still enjoy as various kinds of fried potato pancakes or latkes. Amelia’s recipe begins as a savory potato cake, but the final topping with melted butter, wine and sugar lends a sweet touch to the dish. (Readers, do you have any leftover mashed potatoes from Thanksgiving? Why not make Amelia’s Potatoe Cake and let me know how it tastes. It sounds wonderful.)

Plain Cake and Another

This is where I could really use help from our baker-readers. There are three cakes on page 33 that seem to be somewhat similar to what we think of as a modern, celebratory “cake.” The first of this kind of recipe in Amelia’s book is called Plain Cake, and is followed by a variation simply entitled Another. The plain cake calls for a huge quantity of flour (9 pounds!), and large amounts of other ingredients, including 3 pounds each of sugar and butter.

To bake the plain cake, you’ll also need some emptins. I’ve been able to source only one reference that explains this ingredient. According to Wiktionary, emptins are:

1. The sediment of beer, cider, etc.
2. A type of yeast obtained from the remains of the brewing process.

Merriam-Webster has a similar definition, and the helpful tip that emptins is a variant of emptings, which are both alterations of emptyings, referring to:

a liquid leavening usually made at home from potatoes or hops and kept from one baking to the next

This suggests that Amelia’s plain cake included at least one yeasty ingredient to help the batter rise. And by the way, you’ll be relieved to know that Amelia’s errata list, inserted following page 24, clarifies that you’ll only need a pint of emptins for the plain cake, and not a quart.

What do you think, is this plain cake like a modern “birthday cake,” or more like a “pound cake”? Or something else altogether? And how big might this cake be when cooked? What kind of pan would you bake it in?

And while the variation, “Another,” seems like a more modest cake overall, I’m guessing that it is not a light and fluffy baked cake (no emptins, it seems), but might have the density of a (non-chocolate) brownie or some other dessert item. What do you think?

A rich Cake

The author is not kidding; this sounds like a very large, very rich cake. Along with substantial quantities of butter, flour, eggs and raisins, there are other, less-usual ingredients, such as rose water, and both wine and brandy.

If you try this recipe at home, you’ll need to know a few archaic terms and ingredients. A gill is a liquid measure; in the U.S. it has usually equalled a half-cup (4 ounces). With a gill of brandy and a pint (16 oz.) of wine, this cake is “rich” in more ways than one.

Rose water is just what it seems. It is still used for many purposes, including cooking, though it is not a featured ingredient in most contemporary “American” foods. If you’re going to make A rich Cake, you can get some rose water here or at various specialty shops. And you’ll need another pint of emptins for this cake, so perhaps it will turn out as a yeasty, raised cake like the plain cake after all?

Loaf Cakes — with frosting!

The recipe for A rich Cake concludes with the instruction to “bake as loaf cake, No. 1.” This refers the reader to a recipe on the next page in the book, with these instructions:

Click to open large image in new window.

Oh ho! Are these Loaf Cakes the ancestor to the modern American birthday cake? It has emptins to leaven the cake, and egg whites for cohesion (and fluffiness?). And lots of time spent rubbing (i.e., whipping? or stirring?) the ingredients. But we also have large amounts of lard, along with a pint of brandy and a half-pint of wine. Whew. Readers, what sort of cake is this? (It’s not lite, to say the least!)

How hot? How long?

Amelia says very little about temperature of the oven or duration of cooking for any of these cakes. Not surprising, as the brick ovens and fireplaces of late-eighteenth century America had neither thermometers nor kitchen timers. But these Loaf Cakes No. 1 do call for drying some ingredients, heating the oven for an hour and a half with dry (that is, hot and clean-burning) wood, and cooking for 2 hours (if large loaf pans are used; reduce time proportionally for smaller pans).

Given the right ingredients and a few instructions—and a fair amount of trial and error—it was up to the cook herself to keep an eye on the dishes and insure that they came out right. So readers: would any of you like to try and adapt one of Amelia’s recipes for the modern American kitchen? If you do, please contact me here at the blog. I’d love to know how it goes—send a photo, too!—and I’ll be happy to share your results if you like.

Happy cooking!



• For more on Amelia Simmons and her influential book, the Wikipedia article is quite comprehensive and has links to additional sources. And you can view and download a free pdf of one of only four extant copies of the first edition of the book at this Library of Congress link.

• Don’t forget that Amelia’s book uses both the “long-S” and “short-S” forms of the letter. So when you see something like this:

You’ll need to Boil and mash 3 pints potatoes, wet them with butter, add sweet herbs, pepper, salt, fill and roast as above,4 and so on. For more on the Long-S, see the paragraphs on Spelling in the 19th-century: long-S, in this earlier post.

• Let me know if you locate any emptins, or if you figure out an appropriate amount of yeast or some kind of yeasty-water to substitute. I have no clue for either.

• And remember, I have not tested these recipes and really don’t know whether they are delicious or healthy. They look tasty, but…

2 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, part 2: Cake!

  1. “Rubbing in” butter or shortening is a technique still done today. Most of the time, the cook cuts up the butter or shortening into a bowl of dry ingredients, then literally rubs the pieces into the flour/sugar/salt, etc. mixture. Eventually, you end up with a bowl of moist “crumbs” or a crumbly texture. You can use two butter knives to “cut in” the same ingredients, or buy a fancy pastry cutter, but hands work just as well.

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