A Birthday Cake for Lucretia Mott – JANUARY 3RD

Hello all and welcome to the first Monday of 2023! Abena is still traveling for the holidays, so I (Kayleigh) attempted this first dish on my own. I waited to read the recipe until right before getting started and I quickly realized that this was not like other baked good recipes I have made in the past. There were a few little mishaps along the way, but overall no major crises, and the result was a beautiful cake with an… unexpected flavor. 

But before we get to all of that, let’s talk about Lucretia Mott… 

“Our efforts must still be to destroy the system, root and branch, to lay the axe at the root of the corrupt tree.”

Lucretia Mott, Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society April 10, 1856
Lucretia Mott, from the records of the National Woman’s Party. F. Gutekunst, Philadelphia, PA

Lucretia Mott was born in Nantucket, MA on January 3, 1793 as Lucretia Coffin. When she was 13 years old she began attending a Quaker boarding school in New York, where she later became a teacher. She married James Mott, another teacher at the school, and the couple moved to Philadelphia. During this period Mott became interested in matters of equality, speaking at Friends meetings and eventually becoming a minister of that faith.

The Quakers, or Friends as they are often called today, are a religious group that emphasizes guidance of the Holy Spirit, rejects the traditional ordination of ministry, and are famously pacifist. Mott adhered to these principles and traveled the country speaking on temperance, women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and peace. Even though the religion was committed to relatively progressive principles, Mott’s views on abolition in particular caused many members to question her membership and ministerial status.

She also faced opposition, though in this case it was because of her gender, from members of the American Anti-Slavery Society to which she was an early contributor. The Historical Cookbook focuses on this element of Mott’s life, writing “(m)asculine opposition protested that ‘to put a woman on the committee with men is contrary to the usages of civilized society’.” Despite these conflicts, she continued to work with the society and was the founding president of the affiliated Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. It was one of the only integrated anti-slavery societies in the antebellum U.S. The Cookbook also points out that her house was a station on the underground railroad. 

Executive Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in 1851. Standing, from left to right, are Mary Grew, E. M. Davis, Haworth Wetherald, Abby Kimber, J. Miller McKim, and Sarah Pugh; seated are Oliver Johnson, Mrs. Margaret James Burleigh, Benjamin C. Bacon, Robert Purvis, Lucretia Mott, and James Mott.
Image Credit: Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College via PBS

In 1837 Mott helped organize the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, which was the first time that women from across the nation met to discuss the female role in the anti-slavery crusade. Both Black and white women were in attendance, including the famous Grimké sisters. Some scholars have suggested that this conference was the first at which women’s independent political rights were discussed. Nearly ten years later, the more famous Seneca Falls Convention took place in New York serving as the formal launch of the Woman Suffrage Movement. Lucretia Mott was one of the conveners of that meeting, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Nearly 20 years later she was the first president of the American Equal Rights Association, which sought equal rights for all American citizens regardless of race or sex.

Mott continued to speak on these matters until her death in November of 1880. The recipes for the Historical Cookbook entry were provided by “The Philadelphia Council,” which is most likely the Philadelphia branch of the NCNW. They explained “Because of her remarkable work in this and other capacities… the Philadelphia Council offers pound cake in celebration of her birthday… ‘cranberry special’ for her birthplace, Nantucket… and lemon pie for the spirited service given to the abolitionist, civil and human rights movements of her day.” 

The Dish:

So, like I mentioned earlier, I did not read the recipe before getting started and I quickly learned that this was unlike anything I have tried before. First of all, the recipe was exactly five sentences long – that’s it. And while I have no problem with a simple straightforward recipe, the brevity in this case prompted more questions than confidence. Second, it said the cake was going to bake for an hour and a half at 250 degrees! I have never made anything in an oven that was that cold. I texted Abena and she insightfully asked if this was in Celsius (ah the provincialism of the United States), but we figured that it certainly couldn’t withstand 482 degrees for an hour and a half… Finally, the recipe called for one pound of butter, but then did not mention adding it in the recipe. 

It is important to note here that the reprinted version of the cookbook points out that there was a wide variation of assumed knowledge in the recipes. Sue Bailey Thurman and the Cookbook Committee did not standardize the recipes or, assumably, test them all. It makes sense that women in the middle of the 20th century would make certain assumptions about the skills of the other women that would be reading the book. To address some of these gaps, the editors of the reprint added in an Appendix of sorts to the book with notes and clarifications for the modern cook. But alas, it provided no insights to the butter problem.

Also, two of the three recipes provided by the Philadelphia Council involved lemons. I can find no connection between the City of Brotherly Love and the lemon, besides a Lemon Hill on the riverfront, so maybe this is just a coincidence? If anyone knows anything, send us an email. 

3 cups Gold Medal Flour
1 pound butter
8 eggs
½ cup cream  
1 cup milk
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon lemon extract
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of nutmeg

Now, once I got serious about this recipe I googled “pound cake” at least five times to double check that I was not fundamentally misunderstanding this recipe or the essence of this dish. It turns out that, according to somebody else’s legitimate cooking blog (not sarcasm), pound cakes got their names because they were made with one pound of butter, one pound of eggs, one pound of flour, and one pound of sugar. I asked my grandma about this and she had never heard of this explanation, so do with that information what you want. The one pound of butter required for this recipe makes me think that there must be some truth to the four pound explanation, but I have no idea if the other ingredients in this recipe weighed a pound each. 

The first step is to sift the dry ingredients together. I decided to take the butter out for about 30 minutes to let it warm up and I also preheated the oven. These steps were not in the recipe, but both are mistakes I have made in previous baking endeavors so I figured it wouldn’t hurt. Mixing dry ingredients together was no big deal. I was off to a great start. 

Step two is to “add the yolks of the eggs that have been beaten, then add milk and flavoring.” Now, this was the first step that really gave me pause because based on all of my (limited) previous baking experience, you typically add the dry ingredients to the wet. You also generally cream the butter and sugar together first. This recipe skipped right over the butter, so I had a choice to make: at what point do I add the butter? I decided it should go before the eggs, so I tossed in a half a stick just to see what would happen.

A mess happened. 

Me, in my kitchen, after making the wrong choice.

So, I decided it might be best to chop the butter up into cubes. Once that was done, I let it mix for a while and it became incredibly thick. While that was mixing I started separating the yolks from the whites. The first three or four went really well, but then I got cocky. The next eggs were a blur of broken yolks and other forms of contamination to the whites (ie shells). I fished most of it out, but some yolk remained. I added the yolks, milk, and flavoring to the mixing bowl. 

Step three is to beat by hand or electric mixer: Nailed it.

Step four says that “when finished” fold in the egg whites. Now, I was not certain how to tell when it was finished. Everything seemed incorporated, but I was a little worried about the butter of which there were still some pretty significant clumps. But I took my chances and added in the whites. 

It looked… gross. 

Eventually, it all came together (mostly).

The final step is to bake for one and a half hours at 250. It did not say what kind of pan, so I googled and it seemed my loaf pans would work. The batter filled one whole loaf pan and about a third of a second one. I’m not sure if you put it in a bundt pan if there would be extra batter. 

You can really see the lumps of butter in right pan.

I put them in the oven. There were still chunks of butter, but at that point I didn’t know what to do so I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. While they cooked, I googled the cold oven issue and found out that since pound cakes are supposed to be very dense they cook at low temps to prevent the baking powder from rising too much. However, none of the recipes I saw had a temp as low as 250 – most were around 300 or 325. 

Despite my best efforts not to, I opened the oven to check on the cakes at least 5 times. I did not take pictures, but I could tell that the butter was creating a bit of a problem. My fears were confirmed when the timer went off and a pool of butter was sitting in the middle of the cakes. I put a fork in them and the center under the pools of butter was still raw. They ended up needing an extra 15 minutes or so. 

I let them cool in the pans for a while because they were too heavy to get out without breaking. When they finally cooled I cut a piece of the smaller cake and it tasted like a lot of nothing. I was expecting to get some lemon or even maybe some of the vanilla, but it mostly tasted like oil. After my third or fourth bite, it hit me that there was no salt! The recipe didn’t call for it and I used unsalted butter. However, I’m not sure if the salt would have made that much of a difference. 

I attempted to rectify the situation by making some lemon frosting, but it did not do much to fix the issue – it seemed like too little too late. 

Final Reflections:

Overall, I had a perfectly lovely time making this cake. I think that there were definitely some issues with the proportions of the ingredients. I’m not sure if it needed more flour or less butter, but something needs to balance out the oil issue.

I really didn’t want to waste it, but also did not want to eat it. I decided to crumble it up and make lemon ice cream. 

So, I guess I’m celebrating with a Lucretia Mott Lemon Pound Cake Ice Cream? Regardless, Happy Birthday to Mrs. Mott and may we share her spirit for equal rights for all!

The quote at the top of the post was found in Ikuko Asaka’s “Lucretia Mott and the Underground Railroad: The Transatlantic World of a Radical American Woman” published in Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 38, Number 4, Winter 2018, pp. 613-642. https://doi.org/10.1353/jer.2018.0067

For more on Lucretia Mott and her political efforts, visit some of the following sites:

Carol Faulkner: Lucretia Mott’s Heresy
Lucretia Mott: Discourse on Woman

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