Raspberry Tea Cake, 1866

My raspberry bushes are going strong and I have more fruit than I know what to do with! So over the last couple days I’ve been searching for something new and different to try, preferably Victorian.

When looking for Victorian recipes the best place to start is always with Mrs. Beeton or Fannie Farmer. As expected, raspberry-specific recipes are few and far between, though I did find some interesting recipes for jams and ices. However, during my search in the HathiTrust Digital Archives I came across a little cookbook from 1866 with exactly the type of thing I was hoping for: Raspberry Tea Cake.

About the Book

This recipe is from a book called A domestic cook book : containing a careful selection of useful receipts for the kitchen, written by Malinda Russell. The author ran a boarding house and a bakery for many years so the majority of the recipes are for desserts like cakes, breads, puddings and pies. But there are also a variety of recipes for preserves, medicines, soups, omelets, salads and even one for “catsup.”  There’s a little bit of everything in this book!


I find a lot of value in building additional historical context by knowing a bit more about my sources and their authors, which was especially easy in this case because Malinda Russell wrote a detailed introduction about her life. Her story is best told using her own words rather than mine so I highly recommend reading it for yourself here.

Malinda was born around 1812 and was a free woman of color, making this book the earliest known cookbook written by an African American! She was a woman of many talents who relocated to Michigan in 1864 when the Civil War made its way to her home in Greenville, Tennessee. This book was published in the village of Paw Paw two years later. It now serves as a beautiful time capsule of mid-19th-century Southern cuisine.

The Recipe

Raspberry Tea Cake


  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 3 T. melted butter
  • 3 cups flour, sifted
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • Raspberries and additional sugar to taste

Step ONE: The Batter

“One cup white sugar, one pint sour cream, three tablespoons melted butter, three cups flour, one and a half teaspoon soda, two do. cream tartar, grated nutmeg, mix into a batter;”

Combine all ingredients (except raspberries) together and blend well.

Most old cookbooks assume the reader has at least basic cooking skills, so minor details are often left out. For example, the flour would certainly have been sifted, partially because it made for a nice delicate cake but mostly because the flour often contained bugs, chaff or other things left behind from the milling process.

Typically when making a cake, the sugar is creamed and the dry ingredients are mixed together before adding to the wet ingredients. You may combine all the ingredients together at once as long as you blend it very well. I do suggest mixing the sugar and sour cream together first before adding anything else. This will ensure that the sugar is evenly distributed. It’s also not a bad idea to sift all the powders together ahead of time.

For authenticity, I stirred it by hand until the batter was smooth.

An important note about 19th-century measurements:

The nice thing about working with 19th-century recipes, as opposed to the medieval or ancient texts I often use, is that they include measurements! However, measurements were not standardized until the end of the century, so there can still be some variation and uncertainty. Luckily, the majority of this book uses measurements that are familiar to the modern chef, but it also contains less definitive amounts such as “gill,” “peck,” “teacupful,” “size of a bean” or “enough.”

For this reason, I was initially unclear on how much makes a “do.” I hadn’t run into this term in cookbooks before but discovered that it’s not a measurement at all! It’s the archaic abbreviation for “ditto.” In this particular recipe the “two do. cream tartar” is referring to the teaspoon measurement of the soda just before it. “One and a half teaspoon soda, two ditto cream tartar.”

Another piece of historical context is that in 1866, baking powder as we know it did not yet exist. Instead, baking soda was combined with a sour milk and cream of tartar to get the right leavening chemical reaction. For more details on this, read New York Gingerbread, 1899.

Step TWO: Bake

“Pour over sheet paper into a dripping pan; Bake in a quick oven.”

Line a cookie sheet with some parchment paper and pour in the batter. It will be thick (not quite cookie dough thick) and will not spread out on its own, so spread the batter around a little with a spatula so it is level and roughly the same thickness all over. Do not spread it out to fill the dimensions of the cookie sheet unless you want a really thin wafer-like cake (you do not).

Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until it is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.

Step THREE: Stack and Serve

“When done, cut into squares, crush the berries, and sweeten to your taste. Cover the cake with berries and stack the same as Gell cake.”

While your cake is cooling, crush your raspberries in a bowl and sweeten to taste with sugar. I do not know exactly how many berries you will need because there will be variation in cake size and filling preference. 1-2 packages should do. Set a few aside for the garnish.

Cut the cake into squares. Half of the squares will be the bottom layer and the other half will be the top. You may end up with approximately 12 completed pieces of layered tea cake, depending on the size of the squares.

Screen Shot 2020-07-11 at 7.04.56 PM
This is likely the “Gell cake” mentioned in the recipe instructions.

Cover the bottom layer with the raspberry filling and stack the second layer on top. Garnish with whole raspberries, using a dollop of the filling to get them to stick.

If you would like, glaze with a simple icing made with powdered sugar and milk. I personally prefer my cake plain without the icing but it’s good both ways.

The Verdict

This tea cake is truly delicious. It is delicate and soft and not overly sweet. The slight tartness of the raspberries brings a nice balance to the flavors. Unlike traditional Southern-style tea cakes, this is not a cookie. If anything, it seems to more resemble an English sponge cake.

Raspberry Tea Cake is a refined and light summer treat that I imagine would have gone well with afternoon tea.  Everyone who tried it loved it, so I will definitely be making this one again!

Raspberry Tea Cake

  • Servings: 12
  • Print


  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 3 T. melted butter
  • 3 cups flour, sifted
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • Raspberries and additional sugar to taste

Combine all ingredients except for raspberries. Blend well to a smooth batter. Pour into a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Smooth out the batter with a spatula so it is the same thickness throughout. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Meanwhile, crush raspberries with a fork and sweeten to taste with sugar. Cut cake into squares and layer, spreading the raspberry filling between two layers. Garnish with raspberries and/or glaze with a simple icing (optional).

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sharolyn Knudsen says:

    Loved the history lesson with the recipe. Can’t wait to make it.


    1. Sarah B says:

      Thank you! If you do make this at home, please let me know how it turns out!


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