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Sunday Baking: lost cakes of yesteryear

Cake – we eat it to celebrate, to commiserate, and even just because. In 2019 stuff.co.nz ran a poll to see which cake falvours were most loved in New Zealand. Popular options included chocolate, banana, and carrot cakes -the staples of the cafe cabinet. But what caught the eye of my friend Emily was the less popular options, all of which come of a certain vintage and who enjoyed popularity in the past century, but no more. Citrus cakes like lemon and orange, fruit cake, madeira cake, sponge cake and marble cake all polled under 10% each. Some might be justified, but for the most part these cakes are suffering a tired image and have lost favour.

I’m actually not surprised by marble cake polling at 0%. It doesn’t have a distinct flavour, but it does have a colourful interior. But, in my copy of the Victoria League of Auckland’s 1937 copy of Tried Recipes, the page number for both marble and Madeira cakes are handwritten at the top of the page of contents for speedy finding. It was a sign – I needed to make a marble cake.

Photo – recipe & noted pages

I was surprised by the lack of a chocolate swirl in the cake – my childhood marble cake baking from the Edmond’s Cookbook included one third plain, one third red and one third brown batter. To be fair, it wasn’t really the most attractive combination, but marble cakes do exist in popular culture, but with a different name. This version, with its red and white is quite simple, although the instructions to spread three layers of batter one atop each other was fiddly – I did my best but gave it a swirl to try and make it more marbled.

The marble cake has a German and American Heritage, and seems to have been adopted into Jewish cookery as well. In Nigella Lawson’s Feast, she includes a marble cake recipe in the Funeral section: the recipe was provided by a Jewish friend who explained a marble was customary for shiva, prompting Nigella to muse over whether it was in anticipation of the marble headstone.

Going further back, the marble cake can trace its ancestry to a German cake called Marmorkuchen, which was flavoured with molasses, spices, dried fruit and coffee, partially mixed with plain batter and baked. The first English reference that’s been found to Marble Cake is in America: according to Poppy and Prune, the term ‘marble cake’ was first recorded in English in the September 29, 1859, issue of the Illinois State Chronicle. Recipes have been found from 1864 (a molasses and spice version) and 1889 with Chocolate.

In New Zealand, an early marble cake recipe can be found on Papers Past with a recipe in the July 1885 ediotion of the Wairapapa Standard with a molasses tinted batter. A recipe for the cake with a trio of shades was published in 1901 recipe, a red-and white recipe from 1907, was included in a gas cookery demonstration in 1918 and was regularly published in Newspapers in 1931, 1933, 1939, and of course, the recipe I made above in 1937. There would be many more recipes in cookbooks publised in New Zealand, but suffice to say this cake was well loved.

I had a final nod to my 1937 cake to bring it into the modern era, icing it – although it really was almost too pretty to ice – with a marbled, mirror glaze so beloved on instagram.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. MrsC (Maryanne) #

    Pretty! I don’t remember where I read it but I had always thought marble cake was neopolitan – pink, white and chocolate, but found out it was three types of spice originally. Which would look a lot more marbly. There’s also a Tiger cake in Tui Flower’s NZWW cookbook from the 70s, which is chocolate I think and orange. I like it. I like the idea of a neopolitan marble cake flavoured with dehydrated raspberry powder and real vanilla but that is modernising it isn’t it!

    Like

    July 12, 2020
    • Modernising but a genius idea! I was surprised this one wasn’t tricolored as well, but decided to stick to the recipe.

      Like

      July 13, 2020
      • Yes I love that you’re finding out what they were really like! I’m sure many have lost ground since then. Sad to see fruitcake so low on the list, I adore it.

        Like

        July 13, 2020

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