Woah Nellie! Almond Cake (topped with meringue soup)

by Mary Jo David

Long before anyone had ever heard of a “pinterest fail,” local newspapers ran cooking columns like “Mother’s Cook Book.” Syndicated by the Western Newspaper Union, “Mother’s Cook Book” was a column, signed each week by Nellie Maxwell, and featured by newspapers like the Stockbridge Brief-Sun.

Nellie Maxwell’s cooking column first appeared in newspapers circa 1916 and ran for about 20 years. This month, Stockbridge Community News decided to shake things up a bit. Instead of recapping news articles from 100 years ago, this writer decided to challenge herself to bake a 100-year-old recipe featured in one of Nellie’s columns from a September 1922 issue of the Stockbridge Brief-Sun.

Selecting the recipe. The weekly issues for September featured a number of recipes, but it was easy to eliminate most of them. One called for “mushroom catsup” as an ingredient (yes, it’s a thing. Google it), and another listed “finely chopped suet,” which I only had on hand in my birdfeeders—not the most hygienic choice! Yet another called for halving green peppers, baking eggs in each half and serving them over “rounds of toast”; this was definitely the kind of recipe you’d be tasting all day—and not in a good way!

So I arrived at the safest choice—Almond Cake—for which I had all the ingredients on hand (see clipping) without having to run to the store.

The process. Admittedly, today’s cooks and kitchens have many more advantages than in Nellie’s day. Coincidentally, according to Timetoast.com, KitchenAid came out with its first electric hand mixer in 1922—exactly 100 years ago. How apropos, I thought. It did occur to me that not every cook owned one of these newfangled hand mixers back then. However, the important thing for today’s experiment is that this cook owns one, so I went ahead and used it! I also used a microplane grater—one of my favorite kitchen gadgets—for zesting lemon, and our microwave came in handy when slightly softening the butter (10 seconds twice on power level 1).

Everything was moving along well. I assembled all the ingredients for the first layer, which was yellow cake with lemon zest flavoring. Although it didn’t make much batter, it was enough to spread to the corners of an 8-inch-square cake pan.

With my confidence bolstered, I moved on to the top layer. Upon reading the instructions, it sounded like a pretty basic meringue. I might mention here, that, much as I love to bake, I hadn’t made meringue for probably 20 years. But how hard can it be, right?

I put my trust in Nellie and whipped up the egg whites. My meringue was turning into a thing of beauty, with plenty of volume. Next, following Nellie’s instructions, I added the cup of sugar—BAM—and the chopped almonds—BAM—to the egg whites. Suddenly my beautifully billowy meringue was a sunken, liquidy mess—never to rise again.

Upon Googling, I learned I probably should have added these ingredients a little bit at a time. Apparently Nellie didn’t want to risk giving rise to a generation of bakers who were better than her, so she left out this very important tip.

Having used the last of my eggs, I decided, “it is what it is,” and I poured (yes, poured) the milky meringue mixture over the yellow cake and popped it into a “slow oven.” Luckily, I’m old enough to know a slow oven equates to roughly 325 degrees. But then I noticed another omission—Nellie offered no suggestion for baking time! Once again, I turned to my new best friend, Google, and decided to bake for 35 minutes, then upon inspection, I added another 20, then another 5, for a total of 60 minutes.

The result. At first glance, the meringue wasn’t so bad. It certainly didn’t have the height it should, but it browned nicely and wasn’t a terrible embarrassment to look at. As for the cake itself—”the sponge” as the British like to say—it was quite delicious. Between Nellie’s ingredient amounts and my guess at baking times, the cake was baked through, yet nice and moist.

The best compliment of all came from my husband, who tentatively took his first bite and then proclaimed, “It sure doesn’t taste like it’s a hundred years old!”

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