Juneteenth Recipe Suggestion: Raspberry Tea Cake from Mrs. Malinda Russell’s 1866 cookbook

Raspberry Tea Cake, page 13 in A Domestic Cook Book
Adapted by Pamela Cooley

Photos by P.C.

Mrs. Russell’s Raspberry Tea Cake is quick and easy to make, includes only a few ingredients, and is a perfect platform for fresh berries in season. Serve it as a tasty, refreshing dessert on a hot summer night.

Between 1766-1966, there are only four known recipes for Raspberry Tea Cake besides Mrs. Russell’s 1866 version, and hers is the earliest one and therefore most likely the original. The others appear in the early 1900s. Unlike Mrs. Russell’s, they include eggs, and call for raspberry jam rather than fresh berries. 

Mrs. Russell’s recipe may use some terms that you might not be familiar with. These terms are explained in the Notes below. But except for the notes on sour cream and nutmeg, read them only if you are interested. Following the recipe below, you will still have success making this lovely, not too sweet tea cake.

  • White Sugar plus extra to sweeten the berries, 1 cup/215g
  • Butter (melted), 3 tablespoons/42g
  • Sour Cream (see Note), 2 cups/480g
  • Flour, 3 cups/330g
  • Baking Soda, 1 ½ teaspoons/7.5 ml
  • Cream Tartar, 2 teaspoons/10 ml
  • Grated Nutmeg (see Note), 1 teaspoon/5 ml
  • Fresh Raspberries, 1 pint/

Method:

Preheat your oven to 400ºF/205C.  Butter  a 11”x 7”/28x18x5 cm baking pan, then cut a piece of parchment paper to cover the bottom of the pan and to reach up the sides (about 17”x 7”). Line the pan with the parchment paper, tucking in the ends if they reach above the edges of the pan.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the butter and sugar together, then stir in the sour cream (see note below). In a larger bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together. Add the sour cream mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring gently just until the batter is blended and no streaks of flour are showing.

Pour the batter into your buttered and papered pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 23 minutes or until the top is light golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, mash the raspberries, saving out a few for garnish if desired, and as Mrs. Russell says, “sweeten to your taste.” Set them aside to macerate.

When the cake is done, set it on a rack to cool then, grasping the parchment paper “handles,” remove the cake to a cutting board. Cut the cake in squares and split each square in half horizontally. Place the bottom slice on a plate, spoon on some of those juicy raspberries, cover with the second slice and spoon more raspberries on top. Garnish with whole raspberries if desired. 

Notes:

The abbreviation “do. stands for “ditto,” for example: “one and a half teaspoon soda, two do. cream tartar” means “one and a half teaspoon soda, two teaspoon cream tartar.”

The Sour Cream that Mrs. Russell would have used is unlike the thick sour cream we buy in the dairy section of our supermarkets. Instead, it would have been cream that had gone sour and the consistency, as described in a cookbook of the period, would have been “as thick as can be taken from the top of a cream jar.” For a modern equivalent, you could substitute 2 cups of buttermilk or use 1 ⅔  cups of milk mixed well with ⅓ cup of yogurt or sour cream. I used the buttermilk with good results.

Cream Tartar is a white powdery by-product of the wine making process and used, along with baking soda, in many of Mrs. Russell’s recipes as a leavening agent. You should be able to find it in the baking section of your supermarket. 

Mrs. Russell calls for freshly Grated Nutmeg, and this works best but ground nutmeg can be substituted. Since ground nutmeg is not as flavorful, you will probably need to add a bit more to the batter.

Sheet Paper is white paper similar in weight to modern-day copy paper. It was used in this case, just as parchment paper is used today. It was also used to “tent” baked goods in the oven to keep the tops from getting too brown.

The image of Dripping Pans below illustrates rectangular tin pans of various sizes. They were originally used to catch the drips from meats roasting on a spit in the hearth but had evolved to have many different functions including cake baking. An 11”x 7” baking pan was used in this recipe.

A Quick Oven is a very hot oven. For this recipe, 400 degrees for 23 minutes worked well.

A Gell Cake is a layered cake with jelly spread between each layer.

Serving suggestions:

Plating these tea cakes and refrigerating them about ½ hour before serving gives the juice time to saturate the layers. For a more up-to-date finish, a dollop of sweetened whipped cream flavored with sugar and a pinch of nutmeg could be added just before serving. And of course, other types of berries could be used.

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