Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Horse Cake?

Maurice Schwartz as Tevye

Well, I was looking for more cheese sandwiches, but I found something else I just have to tell you about right this minute. H. Braun’s 1914 Familyen kokh bukh, has a gingerbread recipe called “horse cake.” The book is a compilation of 694 recipes in Yiddish culled and translated from “American, French, German and Italian cookbooks” with a twenty-one page “English supplement.” The English section includes an explanation of the Jewish dietary laws, presumably not needed in the Yiddish section, and a selection of the simplest recipes (“Coffee in a pot”), and those most markedly Jewish (“Kugel (Sabbath Pudding)”). The Yiddish section is encyclopedic. There are recipes for peanut brittle, dandelion, cheese sandwiches, “Beefsteak pie,” “Goose pastrami,” and hominy! Regrettably, the compiler never indicates from which cookbooks she selected the recipes, and in some cases it is very difficult to guess. Here’s my translation of the horse cake recipe:

Horse cake

This is called “horse cake” in English, but it is in fact for people, not horses.

Take a quart of flour, a pint of molasses, a cup of sugar, a cup of sour-cream in which you have earlier dissolved two teaspoons soda, three tablespoons ginger and half a tablespoon Crisco. This mixture makes a cake which everyone loves and children adore.

Everything must be very well-mixed and smooth.

Why is this called “horse cake”? Because it used to be baked in horse-shaped molds. In fact, you can bake it in any kind of pan.

This cake is clearly similar to the well-known Jewish honey-cake, but it is considerably better.

Some modest googling led to countless horse-shaped cakes for children, none of which seemed to fit the recipe. Horse cake did not turn up in any flips through the indices of several old American and English cookbooks within an arm’s reach. I did however find a very similar recipe in What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking called “Old-Time Ginger Cake” Mrs. Fisher’s recipe calls for sour milk rather than sour cream, and butter rather than Crisco. Mrs. Fisher’s recipe also has three eggs, which I think would improve this recipe enormously. A few details about the two recipes, particularly that in both the measure for flour is a quart, made me think the Yiddish recipe may have been copied from this or another African American source. A search for “horse cake” and “African American history” yielded these morsels:

The cake turns up in this narrative by a former slave. Two books, both published in 1907, mention horse cake. Bonnie Belmont is the only source I have found so far that mentions ginger as an ingredient. This 1907 book from the North Carolina History and Fiction Digital Library mentions horse cake in a parable.

The texts in this small and possibly non-representative sample all seem to understand horse cake as a humble food associated with slavery. It may be that this cake was more likely to have resembled the eggless, butterless version offered by Braun, and that Mrs. Fisher, a former slave, improved the recipe once she was cooking and baking in San Francisco. I don’t know what to make of Braun’s explanation that the cake was baked in a horse-shaped pan, or her assertion that it is “considerably better” than Jewish honey cake. Reasonable men may differ on the honey cake issue, but the pan explanation seems unlikely. I am afraid it might be likelier that the cake did resemble mixtures made for horses, as this horse nutrition website indicates.

You do want to read What Mrs. Fisher Knows, the first American cookbook known to be by an African American woman, available in facsimile with notes by Karen Hess.

Braun, H. Jewish Cook Book. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1928.

Braun, H., Alexander Harkavy, and David Moses Hermalin. Dos Familyen Kokh-Bukh: Bearbaytet Nokh Amerikanishe, Frantsoyzishe...Kokh-Bikher. Nyu York: Hibru poblishing kompani, 1914.

Cochran, John Salisbury. Bonnie Belmont. Wheeling, W.Va.: Press of Wheeling news lith. co., 1907.

Fisher, Abby, and Karen Hess. What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.: In Facsimile with Historical Notes. Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 1995.

Fisher, Abby, and Katherine Golden Bitting Collection on Gastronomy (Library of Congress). What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. San Francisco: Women's Co-operative Printing Office, 1881.


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