Today’s recipe is brought to you by The World’s Fair Recipe Book by J.F. Landis, which featured over 600 recipes for food, medicine, remedies for various human and animal ailments, etc. Because it was published in April of 1893, I would assume it was sold at the Columbian Exposition (“Chicago World’s Fair”) beginning the following month.
Access the entire digitized book here: The World’s Fair Recipe Book
It is difficult to find any specific information about the collection. I have so many unanswered questions: Whose recipes were they? Was this intended to be a souvenir or what? Were these recipes for foods sold and featured at the Exposition? Were these recipes collected by the Ladies’ Auxiliary or submitted by Exposition vendors?
What I do know is that The Ladies Auxiliary of the Columbian Exposition put out their own souvenir cook book, called The Home Queen World’s Fair Souvenir Cookbook. The Souvenir Cookbook had vague, simplified recipes (a 19th century woman probably knew kitchen basics), and many of them were even signed by individual Auxiliary members. This book included hundreds of recipes, etiquette guides, homemaking tips, pictures and bits of other pertinent info. Some sources suggest this book was not sold as a souvenir during the Fair, but given to all the Exposition’s Lady Managers, the many members of the Ladies Auxiliary who participated, and the wives of governors or other important people. So the Home Queen souvenir collection may or may not have been available to the general public but a decent number of copies were out there.
As for The World’s Fair Recipe Book, we can only assume it was available for purchase but I don’t know. There don’t seem to be any surviving copies! At the very least, it was submitted to the Library of Congress and a request was made on the cover for salespeople (“Agents wanted everywhere”). Why bother publishing such a book if not intending to sell it at the World’s Fair?
For the sake of understanding where the following Minnehaha cake recipe came from, we know it probably didn’t originate with a Ladies’ Auxiliary member (they published their own book), but instead was gathered by J.F. Landis from some other source. Regardless of where the recipe came from, it’s a valuable piece of American food history from the 19th century.
There is such thing as a traditional Minnehaha cake and a few different versions can be found online. Basically it’s a layered butter cake with raisin filling and sugar icing. It was apparently very popular in the U.S. around the turn of the century. There is no definitive source for the name that I can find, but it is widely assumed to be named after the Indian princess Minnehaha from Longfellow’s 1855 poem Song of Hiawatha.
Step ONE: The Batter
“Four eggs, leaving out the whites of three for filling. One-half cup butter, one cup sugar, one-half cup milk, two cups flour, one teaspoon soda, two of cream tartar.”
Pretty much every cake-from-scratch from this era, or really any era, suggests creaming the sugar and butter before blending all the wet ingredients together. This recipe doesn’t say it specifically but I’ve baked enough cakes to know creaming is the first thing to do. After that was done I added the remaining wet ingredients (milk, 3 egg yolks and 1 full egg), then the baking soda and cream of tartar and mixed well. Flour was added last.
While not a common practice in modern cooking, flour definitely would have been sifted in the 19th century. Commercial flour these days is refined enough that it doesn’t contain the bugs, chaff, or other things that it used to. However, sifting helps with exact measurements and actually gives the flour a lighter and less lumpy texture, which is especially useful in cakes. Dry ingredients could be sifted with the flour if you want to blend them together extra well.
I poured the batter into two 8″ rounds and baked at 350 degrees. It took between 20-25 minutes for my cakes to be done, but you may need to add a few minutes if necessary.
Step TWO: The Filling and Frosting
“Whites three eggs, one and one-half cups granulated sugar, one cup chopped raisins, add a little water to sugar, and boil till it will hair, then add the beaten whites, and to part of this add the raisins…”
I will admit that after attempting to follow the vague directions in the recipe with zero sugar-working or confectionery experience, this experiment was a total failure.
After a couple tries, my baking partners and I decided to abandon hopes of making an 1893 boiled sugar icing that day. We also ran out of eggs. So I divided what frosting I happened to have on hand into two portions. Chopped raisins were added to one portion and the rest was left as is.
Luckily for you, I’ve done a bit of research and discovered that it is helpful to use a candy thermometer to get the sugar to the correct temperature or bad things will happen. Also, “beaten eggs” in this case means beaten to the point where peaks form, such as in a soufflé. To make life easier in the future, simply use this Fluffy Boiled Icing recipe. While not exactly like the World’s Fair version, the resulting flavor and texture will probably be close enough.
Step THREE: Layer and Frost
When the cakes have cooled completely, level one with a knife or a cake leveler. Spread the raisin-frosting filling on top of the leveled round and stack the other on top of it.
Use the plain icing to frost the entire exterior of the cake and unless you want to decorate it further, your Minnehaha cake is done!
Despite the issue with the icing and not having enough backup frosting to cover the entire cake, the Minnehaha Cake was delicious. It is hearty, sweet, and the raisin filling was way better than I expected. I would definitely make it again (and I will), but perhaps after I have figured out how to make the boiled icing.