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Anatomy of a recipe: How to bake a 1900 coffee cake

May 7, 2011

You may have noticed that some of the recipes in my previous posts are not exactly what we think of in 2011 as complete.

As we prepare dinner out here on the farm we scour old recipe books to see what they may have been eating on farms in 1900 so we can cook accordingly. The recipes in these cookbooks are always fun but sometimes less helpful for actual production of a completed meal. Without full color pictures to compare like today’s cookbooks, a lot of times we guess at what the finished project should be like. Then again, that is part of the fun. We end up interpreting not only the history of the particular recipe, but everything else that recipe can tell us. For instance, what goods were available or what could be substituted, the seasonal eating patterns of the farm families of the turn of the century, and how to translate “cook in a warm oven until done” to “bake at 300˚ for 25 minutes.”

To give you a taste of what we do, I decided to take you through a favorite recipe, step by step, so the next time you pick up a 19th century cookbook you won’t be scared to follow the obscure directions and see what bakes up.

(This recipe was taken from Three Meals a Day, a recipe book from the turn of the century written by Maud C. Cooke. Several editions were published, our recipe is on page 260 of the 1889 version.[1] Like it says it is a quick and light coffee cake, we eat it for dessert a lot, but it would be a great addition to a breakfast or brunch, and will last a couple of days if kept covered. Try it warm out of the oven!)

Quick German Coffee Cake

1 c. sweet milk
1 heaping tsp. butter
1 egg
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
½ c. sugar
flour enough to make a stiff batter

Sift the baking powder with part of the flour. The egg can be omitted. Cover the top with sugar, cinnamon, and bits of butter. Bake. Very nice hot for breakfast. Can cover the top of this cake with apple or peach slices, be careful to bake without burning.

Three Meals a Day, 1889

Like I said above, less than helpful, it doesn’t even tell you when to put the milk in. For your benefit, let’s break it down.

Step 1: Assemble ingredients.  I use a smaller than 13 x 9 pan for this recipe because I like a nice thick coffee cake. Yield is 8-10 pieces of coffee cake.

Step 2: Mix your ingredients together.  I start by mixing all my dry ingredients (just under 2 cups of flour), then add the butter (which I melt) and the egg (pre-beaten in a bowl). Then I take a look at the consistency of the batter. Consistency changes based on how heaping of a teaspoon of butter and what size of egg I use. For this particular recipe we want to have a rather thick batter (stiffer than cake but thinner than bread. You don’t want it to fall off the spoon when you turn it over. Here are some pictures of what the batter should look like. If your batter is too thin you can always stir in some more flour. At this point I start to add the milk. The recipe calls for sweet milk, but I have never had a problem using regular milk.

Step 3: Assemble and prepare to bake. I use butter to grease the pan, and then dump in the batter, making sure that it is evenly distributed for best baking. Like the recipe says, the cake should be topped with bits of butter, sugar (I like brown sugar) and cinnamon.  I am usually generous with the cinnamon, and before putting the cake in the oven, I take a butter knife through to give the cakes a marble of cinnamon. When using fruit, I don’t take the time to peel (but that is a personal preference).  After putting it all together, stick it in the oven.

Step 4: Bake. How much more vague could Ms. Cooke be? Generally speaking I bake this in a moderate oven (350 works nicely) for about 25-30 minutes or until the knife comes out clean. I usually check and turn my cake every 10 minutes to make sure it is baking evenly.  Baking too long will lead to dry cake, and no one wants dry coffee cake.

Step 5: Enjoy!  Warm out of the oven is best! This is a fairly simple recipe that can be adapted to fit most tastes.  Don’t like apple or peach? Try pear or just add more cinnamon and no fruit. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do here at the farm, and that is makes you less afraid to try and baking something new!


[1] In researching this book, I found that it may have been reprinted in 2007.

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In the Kitchen   Recipes   1900 Farm


  • Shawna says:

    Thank you so much for this blog. I love it and follow it. We are members for the first time this year and I haven’t been to Living History Farms since I was a child in school. I have taken my daughter a couple times this year and she loves it! She really loved it when you let her churn the butter! She can’t wait to go back again so she can churn more butter!!! :) I am definitely going to try this recipe!


  • daleinqueens says:

    The recipe sounds great! Though I’m not yet 50, a big part of my childhood was lived on a farm exactly as my grandparents lived in the 1920s as children, not not much differently from their parents.

    Without refrigeration, milk soured very quickly. So, sweet milk in a recipe from this time simply means milk that hasn’t soured. When I was a child “milk” was buttermilk or clabber and “sweet milk” was plain old milk, as we buy at the store now.

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