For the 2017 visitation season, Lippitt House Museum organized The Art of Dining: A Taste of Providence's Golden Age. The exhibition is part of the state-wide 2017 À La Rhody program celebrating Rhode Island’s food culture. For the exhibit I thought it would be interesting to recreate a ladies luncheon Mary Ann Lippitt hosted in September 1877. In her journal she lists the guests and the eight course menu (plus beverages) that were served. Using period cookery books along with Mary Ann’s notes, I found information detailing recipes for the menu items and specifics about how the table was laid and the service presented. Since Mary Ann just listed “Cake and coffee” for the final dessert course, I picked a recipe published in Charles Ranhofer’s encyclopedic 1,000 page tome The Epicurean: A Complete Treatise of Analytical and Practical Studies on the Culinary Art as an appropriate cake that might have been served – Mocha Cake with Mocha Cream frosting.
Because of the length of the exhibit (6 months) all the food displayed in the Dining Room would be faux so not to attract bugs or melt during the hot Providence summer. Since a historically accurate faux Mocha Cake is not a ready-made item, I decided to use the period recipe and bake an actual cake that we could then replicate with in-organic materials. Seems easy enough, right?
The cake recipe was pretty straight forward. The only leavening in the cake was provided by beaten eggs whites. When completed I was a bit surprised that the Mocha Cake was actually a brandy flavored pound cake. (Note there is no chocolate or coffee in the “Mocha Cake” recipe.) The frosting was a bit more challenging.
I followed the recipe for the Mocha Cream but it didn’t turn out right. The butter didn’t fully incorporate and the mixture didn’t thicken. Thinking I missed something the first time, I tried again but with no better luck. What was up? Something was omitted in the instructions that would already be known to any competent 19th century cook. However, I was not a competent 19th century cook. (If I was interviewing for the position of Cook at 199 Hope Street, I wouldn’t have gotten the gig.)
I researched other historic and modern frosting recipes but no other recipe resembled this recipe in regards to the amount of liquid and the use of egg yolks. Stumped, I reached out to a former colleague and culinary historian in Virginia for help. Her area of expertise being cooking and not baking, she was stumped and passed it along to another culinary historian and cook book editor in Savannah. He didn’t know what the issue was and passed it along to a food writer in Atlanta. She too was puzzled and asked some interesting questions but didn’t know why the frosting wasn’t turning out.
I was not going to be defeated by the Mocha Cream! After further thought and deliberation it hit me – what if I used a bain-marie (double boiler)? I bought more eggs and sugar determined to try again. I heated everything very slowly in the bain-marie, this time it gradually thickened like pudding. I realized what was happening. I wasn’t really making frosting. What the recipe called for was making custard and then adding butter when it cooled to give it body. That was the key. Any competent cook today or in the 19th century knows you make custard in a double boiler. Mystery solved!
So when you come to Lippitt for our exhibition make sure to note the elaborate dessert course set on the dining table. And hopefully think about the highly skilled servants that lived and worked here who made it possible for the Lippitt family to live and entertain in such high-style.
MOCHA CAKE (Gâteau Moka)
Deposit in a vessel half a pound of sugar, six egg-yolks and one whole egg; beat for fifteen minutes to have it light, then add six ounces of flour and two ounces of fecula sifted together also two tablespoonfuls of brandy, six ounces of melted butter, and lastly six well-whipped egg whites. Bake this in a buttered and paper-lined pound-cake mold; as soon as done remove, un mold on a grate and leave it there until perfectly cold. Now pare the cake very straight and cut it across in two even parts; fill it with a three-eighths of an inch thick layer of Mocha cream (No. 45); cover the top and sides with the same and decorate the surface through a channeled socket pocket using more of the cream; dredge with Mocha sugar. Leave the cake in a cool place until required for serving.
MOCHA CREAM (Crème Moka)
Put into a tinned basin sixteen egg-yolks and one pound of sugar; beat and dilute with a pint of very strong coffee and a pint of boiling milk. Set the basin on the fire, stir with a small whip, pressing it against the bottom, bring the liquid to a boil, without allowing it actually to boil, then remove from off the fire, let stand till cold. Put sixteen ounces of butter in a vessel, heat it lightly and work it well to a cream, then pour it into the preparation and stir the whole vigorously with a whip.