Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Birthday Cake for Charles Dickens

February 7, 2012 is Charles Dickens 200th birthday. As I was looking for a period-appropriate cake to bake to celebrate, I stumbled on the menu for the dinner held in his honor by the New York City press on April 18, 1868.

It was quite an event. Dickens had been touring the northeastern part of America giving dramatic readings from his books since November, 1867. In all he gave 76 readings over five months and earned the equivalent of more than three million dollars.

The New York City press invited Dickens to a celebratory dinner. As reported in an article in the March 1919 issue of The Bookman, “Dining with Dickens at Delmonico’s” by Kate Dickenson Sweetser, the event was a huge success. The gathering of 200 of the city’s leading writers, reporters, and editors rose to their feet and applauded when Dickens arrived in the room. He was ill and escorted to the head table by Horace Greeley.

Dickens spoke briefly before dinner and made a sort of apology for his critical comments and writing about America based on his experiences on his first tour 25 years earlier. This night he promised upon his return to England to “bear such testimony to the gigantic changes in this country. Also to record that wherever I have been I have been received with unsurpassed politeness, delicacy. Sweet tempter, hospitality, consideration and respect for the privacy daily forced on my by the nature of my avocation here and the state of my health.”

Members of the committee spoke as well and a fine meal was enjoyed by all. The menu was printed in French, but is easy enough to understand. Lorenzo Delmonico, the leading restaurateur of the day paid homage to literature as he named many of his dishes for the evening: cream of asparagus soup a la Dumas, small hors d’oeuvres a la Dickens. stuffed lamb a la Walter Scott, chops a la Fenimore Cooper. The vegetables included small peas, tomatoes, artichokes and braised lettuce. And for dessert fruits, orange ice and two cakes. The “Viennoise” cake I take to be a version of what we now call a “Sachre torte” chocolate cake with apricot jam in between the layers. The Savarin is a yeast-raised cake with syrup poured over it.

This was the cake to make and it sure gave me the dickens. And will give me many stories to tell. The hardest part is getting the cake out of the baking pan. But not to worry, if your cake looks like this one below, or worse, just pour the syrup over and then put pieces of the cake in a decorative bowl or glass, top with berries and cream and serve individually. No one need to know the fiction you are passing off as a glamorous cake. It will taste just as good.

Although there are many modern recipes, I wanted to find one from the era. I found one using Google Books in an 1867 cookbook -- Handbook of Practical Cookery for Ladies and Professional Cooks by Pierre Blot who was a professor of gastronomy and founder of the New York Cooking Academy.

This is a classic cake and the recipe is very similar, if not identical, to modern ones. I have adapted it for modern ingredients. However, there are two important differences. The period recipe calls for buttering the baking pan and sprinkling with finely ground almonds and the syrup you make to pour over the cooled cake is much less sweet than modern ones. It is a nice light taste, not heavy and lets the flavors of the brandy or rum fill the cake.

Savarin Cake a la Charles Dickens

1 package instant yeast – quick rise
1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 cup milk, warmed to about 100 degrees F.
2 eggs
6 tablespoons very soft butter, not melted
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour

To prepare the baking pan:
1/2 to 1 cup very, very finely ground almonds
soft butter

For the sauce:
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/4 cup rum or brandy


In a large mixing bowl, combine the yeast, water and tablespoon sugar. Let stand until the yeast is “proofed” and slightly foamy. Put the eggs into the warm milk and stir until well mixed. Stir the milk mixture into the yeast and then the softened butter. Add the sugar and half the flour. Mix well until you have a smooth batter. Stir in the rest of the flour. If the batter isn’t perfectly smooth, beat for a minute or so with an electric mixer. Set the batter aside and prepare the baking pans. Savarin is traditionally baked in a tube or ring pan. Pick one that will hold at least 8 cups of batter, or divide between two pans. Butter the pan very well and sprinkle with the ground almonds, or regular flour. Spoon batter into the pan, no more than half full. Set aside in a warm place to rise until not quite doubled. Put into a preheated 350 degree F. oven. Bake until the cake is lightly browned and firm in the center. Cool in the pans on a rack and the gently insert a knife around the outside edges and push cake away from side of the pan, turn upside down, cross your fingers that it comes out.

While the cake is cooling, make the syrup. In a small saucepan combine the sugar and water. Cook over low to medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Continue to cook for about five minutes until the syrup thickens slightly. Allow to cool and add the rum of brandy.

Spoon the syrup over the cooled cake gradually so that it is absorbed into the cake. Serve with whipped cream and berries. Or as they did at the Dickens’ dinner – with orange sherbet.