Jane Austen on Cake

Jane Austen on Cake

I’ve had cake on my mind of late. Not eating it, exactly, but thinking about the cultural significance of cake. This lead me to considering a couple of iconic cake moments in Austen novels, which made me decide to dig a little deeper into Austen’s views on cake.

She mentions cake in a letter to her sister written on June 15, 1808. After referencing an evening her sister had spent with Miss Austen and her niece, she adds, “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.”  I read and re-read that passage, wondering if it was sarcastic or sincere and find I’m just not sure. Buying a cake from a bakery would not have been a common experience among the ladies of Austen’s sphere, so the idea of bypassing the hour of hand-whipping the eggs to make a sponge cake may well have seemed like a luxury she would appreciate. On the other hand, Austen was clearly responding to something her sister had said, so if Cassandra had found the visit tedious, the quip might have been Jane’s snarky acknowledgement of a boring conversation.

If we turn to references of cake in JA’s novels, we get a few hints of her opinion on cake, yet she does a good job of hiding her precise position. Let’s look at those scenes I referenced earlier. The first is from Emma, Chapter 2. Here is the passage:

Mr. Woodhouse lectures Mrs. Weston on cake
Slice of Cake_Adjusted
The Perry children seen with a slice of Mrs. Weston’s wedding cake.

There was no recovering Miss Taylor — nor much likelihood of ceasing to pity her: but a few weeks brought some alleviation to Mr. Woodhouse. The compliments of his neighbours were over; he was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an event; and the wedding-cake, which had been a great distress to him, was all eat up. His own stomach could bear nothing rich, and he could never believe other people to be different from himself. What was unwholesome to him, he regarded as unfit for anybody; and he had, therefore, earnestly tried to dissuade them from having any wedding-cake at all, and when that proved vain, as earnestly tried to prevent any body’s eating it. He had been at the pains of consulting Mr. Perry, the apothecary, on the subject. Mr. Perry was an intelligent, gentlemanlike man, whose frequent visits were one of the comforts of Mr. Woodhouse’s life; and, upon being applied to, he could not but acknowledge, (though it seemed rather against the bias of inclination,) that wedding-cake might certainly disagree with many — perhaps with most people, unless taken moderately. With such an opinion, in confirmation of his own, Mr. Woodhouse hoped to influence every visitor of the new-married pair; but still the cake was eaten; and there was no rest for his benevolent nerves till it was all gone.

There was a strange rumour in Highbury of all the little Perrys being seen with a slice of Mrs. Weston’s wedding-cake in their hands: but Mr. Woodhouse would never believe it.

I hold that Austen was having a bit of sport with us here. We all know – as did the people of Highbury – that cake doesn’t fall into the “wholesome food” category and that it may even make some feel a bit unwell. In spite of Mr. Woodhouse’s warnings and attempts to prevent people from indulging, every bite of the cake was eaten up and by all accounts, everyone survived. Of course, folklore has long held that eating a piece of wedding cake brings a person good luck, so their odds of survival were promising from the start.

Mrs. Weston’s Wedding Cake (Emma 2009)

The second scene I’d like to share is from Persuasion, Chapter 6.

Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove with their badly behaved grandchildren. Is it time for cake yet?

Mary’s declaration was, “I hate sending the children to the Great House, though their grandmamma is always wanting to see them, for she humours and indulges them to such a degree, and gives them so much trash and sweet things, that they are sure to come back sick and cross for the rest of the day.” And Mrs. Musgrove took the first opportunity of being alone with Anne, to say, “Oh! Miss Anne, I cannot help wishing Mrs. Charles had a little of your method with those children. They are quite different creatures with you! But to be sure, in general they are so spoilt! It is a pity you cannot put your sister in the way of managing them. They are as fine healthy children as ever were seen, poor little dears, without partiality; but Mrs. Charles knows no more how they should be treated — ! Bless me! how troublesome they are sometimes. I assure you, Miss Anne, it prevents my wishing to see them at our house so often as I otherwise should. I believe Mrs. Charles is not quite pleased with my not inviting them oftener; but you know it is very bad to have children with one, that one is obliged to be checking every moment, “don’t do this, and don’t do that;”; or that one can only keep in tolerable order by more cake than is good for them.”

Here, cake becomes the point of discord between Mary Musgrove and her mother-in-law. Mary complains to Anne that her MIL is feeding the children junk food, and then she has to deal with the tummy aches and misbehavior, while Mrs. Musgrove gripes that Mary doesn’t manage her children and that she has to ply them with cake to get them to behave. I have to laugh a little at this scene because this exact scenario plays out in many families even today. I think of it every time my husband tells our adult children that his job as the grandpa is to feed the kids sugar, shake them up and send them home.

I reviewed other instances of cake appearing in Austen’s novels and found that the other scenes hinge on the role of serving cake in showing hospitality and eating the cake you are served in accepting hospitality and be a good guest. Then there is Mrs. Elton who is shocked at “the poor attempt at rout-cakes”. Basically, she’s a cake snob.

In spite of the fat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, sugar-free, and organic only movements, the popularity of cake has only grown and expanded since Austen’s time. I wonder what she would think of the boxed cake mixes, tubs of icing and electric mixers that make baking a cake far easier than making a pie.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Wedding Cake.

And now, just for fun, I leave you with a picture of William and Kate’s wedding cake. I bet everyone who got a piece of THAT cake felt pretty lucky! It’s your turn. So, what’s your favorite (or least favorite) type of cake? Have you ever spent an afternoon or evening perusing the Cake Wreaks website or looking at cakes on Pinterest? Let’s talk cake!


29 Responses to Jane Austen on Cake

  1. I suspect a wedding cake in Austen’s time would have looked somewhat different in Austen’s time than that still from the movie “Emma”! Had they no icings, had they no sugars?

    • You’re right that iced cakes were available in that era, but it’s not what you might imagine. In 1786, Elizabeth Raffald, published the first known recipe for an iced bride cake in “The Experienced English Housekeeper.” The cakes back then were actually quite heavy–think fruitcake–and were preserved with alcohol, liberally applied. The recipe referenced above contained nutmegs, currents, almonds, citron, candied orange, candied lemon and half a pint of brandy in addition to the flour, sugar, butter and eggs. It is the icing step that is interesting. The recipe for it contains egg whites, rosewater, sugar and ground almonds. When the cake comes out of the oven, the icing is applied and returned to the oven for the icing to “brown.” There is an additional step offered to the very affluent who could afford the white, refined sugar. When the browning of the almond layer is complete, another layer of beaten eggs, starch, and sugar can be added on top. The instructions indicate that it will be “hard” by the time the cake is cool, so it would be more of a candy-like coating over the almond icing than a creamy frosting. Cookbooks from the early 1900s have very similar recipes for “bride cakes.” There were also glazes (which they called fondant) made of of sugar, rosewater, egg white, lemon juice and gum paste that small cakes were dipped in. Cakes were often decorated with candy-like leaves and flowers, etc. In fact, the dye used to make green leaf confections for cakes contained arsenic and there are incidents on record where adults saved them as treats for their children, who died from consuming them.
      It wasn’t until 1840 that the modern multi-layered “white wedding cake” was introduced by Queen Victoria, but creamy buttercream frosting wouldn’t show up until the 1950s along with the chilled, rolled-out fondant we associate with the term today.
      Back to the cake in the picture, I don’t know if the cake itself is true to the era, but the sugared grapes around it certainly are. Thanks for commenting, John.

      • The “beaten eggs, sugar & starch” sounds very much to me like a variant of royal icing which does get very hard indeed after it dries.

        • You are absolutely correct, Susan. “Royal Icing” picked up its familiar name in 1840 when it was used both to coat and also to decorate Queen Victoria’s wedding cake.

  2. Love cake! It’s kind of a family thing. We actually held cake tastings before my wedding. I didn’t care what it looked like it had to taste good!! My dad had to be involved, it was kind of his thing. My grandmother and aunts brought my sister’s wedding cake from a bakery in Pittsburgh to the wedding in Michigan, along with a gallon of icing to help repair any mishaps. We all stood over that icing with spoons just to get a taste of it….I need to bake a cake today I think

  3. The photos of the cakes are gorgeous! Our family, in the past – when our children still resided at home, made cakes from scratch for birthdays and holidays. Favorites were Red Velvet Cake and Walnut Cake. My personal one favored more the glaze than the cake itself. I looked my mother’s Lemon Butter recipe for a glaze, usually over a white cake. My son-in-law loves Carrot Cake but it is usually ordered from a professional cake baker who is known for her wedding cakes in our area. It is very moist and uses a cream cheese icing. Another favorite on my husband’s side is “Crazy Chocolate Cake” which is mixed and baked in the same pan and uses coffee in the recipe. It, too, is a very moist cake and can be served with just a sprinkling of powered sugar. I also make a cheesecake from a recipe on the back of a graham cracker crumb box. Everyone raves about that but it is very rich.

    • Those all sound so delicious, Shelia! When I was married, heavier cakes were popular, so the bottom tier of my my 3-tiered wedding cake was carrot cake. The two upper tiers were banana nut. I remember getting so many compliments from people on the delicious cake. Carrot cake has remained a romantic favorite of mine, since it always tastes like wedding cake to me. 🙂

    • Thanks, Rose. It’s awesome that your program does include cake on the menu – the psychological satisfaction of just knowing it’s an option provides a very real sense that it isn’t all deprivation, even if cake isn’t your personal weakness. Of course, I’ve been on enough dietary programs to recognize that the cinnamon helps the body’s insulin response and the protein from the cream cheese helps prevent the carb “hit” from the cake part being severe. Use a light whole grain and sneak in a little extra fiber and it’s practically health food…as long as they conquer the sweet aspect. I think even Mr. Woodhouse would approve of your cinnamon cream cheese swirl cake – especially served with a baked apple. 🙂

  4. I concur with Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake”!
    My favorite cakes have been the ones my children have made for our birthdays – both from scratch and boxes. Not always aesthetically pleasing but the essential ingredient being love makes them divine. My son Michael makes an amazing buttercream frosting that causes the cake to become just a footnote.
    When making red velvet cake from scratch once, I was disappointed to learn that the only variable was red food coloring – it had been a ploy during the depression to sell food dye. It creates a feeling of extravagance on a tight budget I suppose.
    My memories of coffee cake will always be of our brothers using various flavors of Jello mixed with butter for the topping when it was their turn to fix breakfast.
    Your post takes the cake! ? (sorry, I couldn’t pass that one up).

    • Hello there, my punny sister! You do know that the cake comment did not work out well for Marie, right? LOL – actually, there are some interesting theories among historians about the legendary cake remark – most being that she never said it. (Wiki-Diana can back that up if you want to know more.)
      I do have one additional correction to offer to history. The original Jello coffee-cake was invented, not by your brothers, but by your elder sister. Your brothers, I fear, were copycats.
      Speaking of cake, I know a certain lady who has a birthday next week. Perhaps some collaboration is in order. 🙂

  5. Diana, This was such fun! Thank you for the lovely post and all your research. It is indicative as to how times have changed and eating habits as well. I am not a sweet fancier and yet one of my fondest food memories is of indulging in a pear tort cake at the Dormy Inn in the Cotswolds. It was many years ago and I can still conjure the incredible mix of flavors.

    • Oh my, a pear tort cake sounds fantastic. I think that the words”Dormy Inn in the Cotswolds” lend additional romantic appeal as well. Pear is one of those flavors that I find tends to be underrated, put on the back shelf as being bland and boring, but I find that pear flavor is subtle but wonderful. If pear anything is among the offerings, I will usually opt for that (even over my beloved chocolate.) Thanks for commenting, Barbara!

  6. Well, I unfortunately have developed sensitivities to all fun food (or so it seems) so I do not eat cake any longer. However, I do like to bake and this week made a banana chocolate chip cake for my sons. They were impressed that I actually used sugar and did not try to sneak in anything “healthy.” I have a tendency to do that with recipes. 🙂 I have never been a real fan of sugar, even as a child before I developed issues with eating it. I liked cakes that were not too sweet. One of my favourites was a coffee cake that my mom made for breakfast. I believe it was a corn bread sort of recipe with a peanut butter frosting that I loved. It was always served warm along side either boiled or scrambled eggs and the requisite 1/2 grapefruit.

    • Oh, and I have tried making a “cakes” recipe from a very old cookbook (published late 1700s, I believe). They flopped. 🙂 And they were cookie like…or were supposed to be. LOL I did adjust and get them to produce a good product on my second go.

      • The Banana Chocolate Chip cake sounds YUM. Shhhh – I won’t tell your boys that the banana’s are an excellent source of potassium and fiber and that chocolate is full of flavonoids.

        The coffee cake your mom made sounds intriguing. I’ve never heard of anything quite like it. I confess to being a bit chicken when it comes to cookbooks that old. I’m highly aware that the ingredients they used are dramatically different than what is even available today. I’m impressed that you were able to adjust the cakes into goodness on just the second try. That, my friend, is talent.

  7. It was nice to read about the references to cake drawn together. Jane Austen said so little about what people ate, that no single book gives us much information, although Mr. Woodhouse probably has more references to food than the rest of the books combined.

    • My initial thoughts about cake that prompted me to explore this topic had more to do with the celebratory traditions and rituals that often include cake, such as blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, or a bride and groom cutting the wedding cake together.

      Since Mr. Woodhouse actually tried to dissuade Miss Taylor from even serving a wedding cake at all was initially a curiosity to me. Although his protests centered around the idea that cake was unwholesome, the opening phrase – that there was no recovering MIss Taylor – hints that Mr. Woodhouse is not celebrating her departure from his household, but could not reasonably prevent it since Emma is grown up. I suspect that his fixation on the cake was as much a protest to the marriage as it was to the sugar. It gave him an excuse to be a curmudgeon at the wedding too.

      It was fun to poke around and search out Austen’s cake references, which were clever and fun. In the end, I concluded that she liked cake as much as anybody.

  8. Thanks for the picture of Kate and William’s wedding cake. It looks too gorgeous to eat. I like a fluffy frosting that is more whipped cream like than loaded with sugar. One of the bakeries in a grocery store near me makes pretty good cakes. A cake I will remember forever is a raspberry chocolate icecream cake my daughter bought me for my birthday one year. A lovely time.
    Cakes usually mean happy times.
    I tried making rout cakes from the Jane Austen cookbook. I gathered the ingredients carefully– currants, rosewater, sherry and followed the directions as carefully as possible. I didn’t deviate from the recipe at all as I am wont to do. My son asked if I was making hockey pucks. They were somewhat like hermit cookies. They were rather dry and hard. They did go well with a wine punch but not exactly something anyone wanted to eat just as a cookie.

    • Oh wow, I looked up the recipe for rout-cakes with the idea of making them and since I didn’t have any of the more exotic ingredients on hand, decided not to attempt it after all. The person who had posted the recipe online said that hers turned out like what an American would consider a soft, cake-like cookie and what a British person would consider to be a current scone. Her tasters had mixed reviews with “not bad” being the general consensus and agreed that it needed some sort of glaze or icing to make them truly pleasant.

      My thought when reading about the rout-cakes were that they seemed the sort of treat a person with limited resources would make so they could serve something to a guest, particularly the vicar’s new wife. The passage doesn’t say who served her the rout-cakes, only that she was shocked at their inferiority, but references to Mrs. Bates, Mrs. Perry, Mrs. Goddard immediately after the cake reference all hint that it whoever did it was not wealthy.

      Now I’m off to fantasize about raspberry chocolate ice cream cake.

  9. Chocolate cake with whipped chocolate frosting is my favorite, which will surprise no one who knows me even a little. 😉 I have found, though, that as I have gotten older, and especially as I have begun eating better, that I prefer things less sweet, hence the whipped frosting, which is not nearly as sweet as other types. I like other kinds of cake, as well, but I usually go straight for the chocolate. LOL Thanks for the yummy post! 😀

    • Chocolate is wonderful in nearly all forms. (I was never impressed with the diet chocolate soda Shasta came out with, but that was an anomaly.) Whipped chocolate frosting is especially yummy on a very light (as in airy) moist chocolate cake. With just a few curls of shaved dark chocolate sprinkled on top. Mmmmm. I hear you on changes that happen as you get older. I still like my cake sweet and rich, but a much smaller portion satisfies me.

  10. I like petifores. Real petifores, made the old fashioned way, with layers and flavor soaked cake and icing. So much so that I’ve tried to make them several times, in spite of the terrible mess I end up creating and the total and complete lack of success I experience. I’ve had a great time with a vintage 1919 “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” by Fannie Merritt Farmer (yes, Fannie Farmer), that’s been passed down in my family. I love the recipes in it (so many different cakes that you’ve never even heard of), and enjoy trying them. I will say, the recipes are often considerably more work than a lot of what we make today, and there’s a lot more lard involved. Personal favorites are homemade mayonnaise (the best way to make any sort of mayonnaise based salad) and the section on sauces. Everyone who loves cooking should learn to make the five basic sauces.

    • Oh, yes! You are fortunate to have an old-school cookbook. The oldest one I have is from 1982 and even it has recipes that are hard to come by. They are choc full of margerine and shortening though. I do agree with you on the mayonaise. My brother lived in France for two years and taught me how to make mayo when he got home. It’s amazing. I don’t know that I’ve ever had old fashioned petifores – the ones I’ve had are not as you describe! They sound decadent! (as any good cake should be!)

  11. I’m a bit of a baker and just adore making desserts. I am allergic to animal products so I can make a fabulous vegan cake and serve it right next to a fully loaded with buttercream cake and be a happy clam. I think my favorite cake is lemon. Back in the day (before I was allergic) I used to make a white chocolate pound cake with a layer of lemon curd sandwiched in the middle…sigh I’m not a fan of chocolate on the best of days so my favorites all tend to be more fruity and light. I also enjoy a fresh strawberry cake. The Apricot nectar mentioned by PP makes me want to google…LOL I think too much cake would make ANYONE sick. Especially today’s cakes with the mounds of frosting and filling 😉 Poor Mr. Woodhouse, there’s just nothing to be done for it. The cake WILL be eaten.

    • I imagine your fabulous vegan cakes are in great demand! I find that the vegan and gluten-free bakers I know make the best cakes – they don’t take a back seat to traditional baked goods at all!

      As a child I loved buttercream icing, but I’ve moved on. I love a good cream cheese icing, a frothy and light-sweet whipped cream icing, and on chocolate cake (as I mentioned before) a fudge icing is divine. As a side-note, my mom never once bought frosting so she taught me how to make it. I can make an excellent standard frosting or glaze without a recipe. That’s a life skill that I’ve been grateful for many times!

      Your white chocolate pound cake with lemon curd does sound delicious. It makes me want to google too!

  12. Diana, what a delicious post…no pun intended…well maybe just a little. Oh dear, what type of cake…Italian Cream just gives me goosebumps, I love Rum Cake, spice cake, Apricot Nectar, oh…wait, Chocolate…let me see…

    • Sounds like you have a lot of favorites. I’ve only ever had real Rum Cake once, and I had no idea what it was at first. Shortly after we moved into a condo in L.A., my neighbor’s daughter got married and she brought me a piece of the wedding cake. I kept commenting on how delicious and moist it was, and finally, after I’d eaten the whole thing, she commented on how they got the Rum for the cake from some specialty importer and it was the best you could get. I was (unknown to her) pregnant at the time and was horrified. She assumed I knew it was a Rum cake.

      I’m a triple-chocolate fudge cake fan myself.

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