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Old hand-written recipes speak a different language. Imbued with the mystical aura of capable hands, they suggest a kind of knowledge that isn’t spelled out in modern recipes. In the silence hangs the wisdom of a coterie of cooks who simply know how. Although the indefiniteness of “flour until it is enough” leaves us insecure and feeling vaguely deficient, for cooks of earlier centuries there was no mystery.

The old recipes characteristically called for rough amounts such an “butter the size of an egg,” or “a teacup of sugar,” but in our world of scientific measurement, we want to know just which egg or teacup they meant. A farming wife with a large hen might be cooking with larger eggs than those other neighbors whose chickens were smaller. This was also somewhat seasonal—in the spring young hens or pullets, laid very small eggs. And there must have been variation within the flock, according to genetics and feeding. How much butter, then, in an egg? And how many eggs should one use, if their size was irregular and your recipe called for six?
Perhaps it didn’t matter so very much. Perhaps that quantity was more an approximation than a fixed and unyielding amount. In that time, one learned to cook by observation and demonstrations, by example more than a printed page. You learned to judge the critical amounts and processes of each step by watching smelling, tasting, touching and listening. One knew when the proper amount of flour had been added because of the physical signs—“a spoon will stand up in it”—or when it achieved a certain color or flavor—“beat until light-colored.” Sensory experience was more dependable than volume measurements in a time of limited household measuring equipment, and to this day remains one of the critical standards for experienced cooks. 

In similar fashion, the method for putting a recipe together was often omitted. Everyone already knew. Thus no directions were offered except to suggest that it needed vigorous combining. The single instruction was, “Beat to death” (Anonymous recipe collection, author’s collection).

Then, too, daily cookery was far less varied than ours today, and the basic, generic recipes of commonly prepared dishes were well known by all. In such cases, the measurements and directions in a personal recipe collection did not need to be explicit and complete, as they were simply variations on a well-known pattern. Therefore a recipe that carefully noted exact amounts of spices but was casual about flour (perhaps omitting it entirely in a cake recipe, for example) fully expected the cook to know enough to add flour and how to judge the signs for proper batter thickness.

In addition, I suspect that many of the early recipes were flexible enough to accommodate small differences in the proportions and still turn out a decent, if a somewhat different result. After doing hundreds of cornbreads by guess and by golly, and a variety of red ware cups (and no scientific measurements), I have never had a failure. Some are closer to spoon bread and some are firmer, some are sweeter, and some are lighter, but they are all fine. Perhaps that would account for the many similar borrowed recipes recorded in a manuscript cookbook (personal recipe collection). 

It seems possible that you might have made a fairly decent pound cake yourself, but aspired to make your cousin’s sensational version. According to the stories, you would be grateful if she agreed to share the recipe, but then might wonder why it didn’t turn out the same as hers. The old commentary was that she may have omitted something, whether accidentally or deliberately. But perhaps it was the vagaries of measurement that would account for it; perhaps success depended on sharing her measuring cup and her step-by-step judgments as well!

Wonderfully, after the advent of the late 19th-century determination to apply science to cookery, the old terms were updated. For example, a Long Island fundraising cookbook very helpfully noted, in a long list of measurement tips, that butter the size of an egg was equal to 2 ounces, while butter the size of a walnut was 1 ounce. I have not yet found a modern equivalent to the early “bowl,” and would be most grateful for readers’ help.

There were, of course, some recipes that were very specific about amounts, and let you know that in their case you had to be precise. Following the European style, weighed-out ingredients permitted accuracy of measurement. Mary Randolph’s bread (Virginia Housewife, 1824) for example, tells you that you will need 1 quart of flour for a loaf, and that this will weigh 1¼ pounds. And that quantity is indeed right for a marvelous loaf.

Temperature measurements fall into the same pattern. Early candying recipes were very descriptive about each sugar syrup stage, without the Centigrade and Fahrenheit systems. They knew, for example, that when boiled sugar syrup reached the temperature at which a drop off the spoon would leave a thin thread “flying,” you had reached the soft ball stage and your cooled mixture would have the texture of a chewy caramel. Today we want to depend on thermometers, which unfortunately have their own drawbacks of inaccurate calibration.

If the old method worked, why did cookery adopt science in the kitchen? Fashion entered into it, of course, and the need to improve on homemaking image. Fanny Farmer, of the Boston Cooking School, is generally credited with reformulating American cuisine through scientific measurement and careful directions, although in many cases the quality of her food suffered. She was more a scientist than cook, I’m afraid. She must have known that the printed page could not apply the sensual standards of when the flour is “enough” or just how much butter would equal the volume of an egg. Her science was a viable accommodation to changing times, when increasing numbers of uninstructed women were broadening their culinary repertoires with a fashionable and broadening cuisine. And she opened the door to the world we live in today, to our great desire for variety, and our embracing of the myriad ethnic foods and exotic dishes our grandmothers never heard of.

Jeannie’s Black Chocolate Cake

Put 2 tablespoons cocoa & yolk of 1 egg, ½ cup sweet milk (fresh milk] on stove. Let thicken. Add piece of butter size of an egg.

1 cup gran. (granulated) sugar
½ cup sour milk
1 teaspoon soda
1½ cups sifted flour

Filling & Frosting
1 cup confectioners Sugar
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons boiling water
2 big teaspoons cocoa

In your modern kitchen
Note: the above recipe apparently makes enough for one loaf tin. You my wish to double it and use two 8" layer pans, according to the second version.

Use 2 tablespoons of butter for “butter the size of an egg.” Heat the cocoa, egg yolk and sweet milk mixture over gentle heat until just below the boil, stirring constantly. At this time the egg yolk and chocolate have thickened the mixture. Remove from heat and stir in butter. Let cool.
Sift flour. Measure and resift with sugar and baking soda. Add gradually to cooled cocoa mixture, alternating with sour milk. Beat until smooth.


      The scientific formulations in printed cookbooks, newspaper and magazine columns have become the new authorities. But we really need both. The printed page is a great way to start working on something new; the hands-on skills can only enhance that.

       How do you get an old recipe to work, if you haven’t learned by watching and trying at the side of a master? One way is to find a modern recipe the seems to be close, and practice it, observing closely the textures and tastes along the way. Then, try the old one, comparing it with what you have learned to expect (it won’t necessarily be the same), and the results. And then apply some common sense, adjusting thickeners or liquids or seasonings as required. Good luck!

         The accompanying recipe has been taken from an anonymous hand-written recipe collection, ca. 1920, in the author’s collection. It was chosen because it illustrates beautifully the inconsistencies in measurement and lack dearth of directions, suggestive of a time when sensory and scientific styles overlapped. Most interesting, the recipe occurred twice in the collection, the later version almost identical except that the icing quantity was doubled and a reference to both icing and filling was added. Clearly the fashion was swinging from loaf cakes to layer cakes at that moment.



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Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is