Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1879-1932) is known as an author, philosopher, and participant in the early Sturm und Drang movement. But did you know he also liked rose-flavored pastries?
That’s what I discovered while searching through the New-York Historical Society Library’s Manuscript collection, which includes a considerable number of cookbooks. A recipe entitled “Goethe’s Favorite Cake” can be found in the personal cookbook of Isabella Vache Cox of Valhalla, NY, which she began compiling in 1894. So what better way to celebrate his upcoming birthday (August 28) than to try to make it?
Before you do, though, a caveat: It might not work out exactly as it did in the 19th century, as I learned while trying to make the philosopher’s beloved cake this past weekend. The recipe comes with an introduction that drew me in at first:
“Goethe’s mother was noted for her cookery and especially for her ‘frankfurter breude’ which Goethe always demanded on great occasions. The recipe for this cake came to Vienna probably through Ottilie von Goethe, and to this day religiously preserved in the family of Frau Auguste von Littrow Bischoff, who recently died. Frau Ella Lang-Littrow, the daughter of the last-named, has allowed the recipe to be published.”
Unfortunately, this passed-down recipe doesn’t quite read the way many modern recipes do. This is how to make the cake, according to Frau Ella Lang-Littrow:
“A pound of finely crushed almonds, sprinkled with rosewater, is mixed with a pound of fine white sugar and slowly heated over the fire, being kept continuously stirred. Then the mixture is put into a dish, which much be well powdered with sugar beforehand, covered in a cloth, and left in a cool place. The next day the mass must be well kneaded on a pasteboard with the white of an egg and 2oz of fine flour, rolled out to the thickness of a quarter of an inch, and stamped with wood cutters. After lying 24 hours in a dry place, the Breude is baked on a tin, which is first made hot and then well waxed to prevent sticking.”
You can see how this is a bit confusing. How much rosewater constitutes a sprinkling? How long do you heat this mixture, and for how long do you bake it? How is this powdery mixture supposed to become a dough with just one egg white? Nevertheless, I set out to try it.
Problems arose quickly. After combining one pound of almond meal and one pound of white sugar in a large pot on the stove, I began sprinkling the mixture with rosewater over a medium flame. I figured the mixture should have a slightly moist consistency, so I may have been a bit liberal with the sprinkling. I stirred continuously, but removed the mixture before it could get burned, then put it in a dish coated with powdered sugar.
The next day the thing was hard as a rock—impossible to knead, and almost impossible to break. So I leveraged modernity and broke out the food processor. One egg white did almost nothing, and two ounces of flour just made it worse. This was not going to knead unless some serious moisture, so I allowed myself to cheat yet again by drizzling some water in.
That quickly turned the mix into less of a dough and more of a batter, so rolling it out and leaving it alone for 24 hours wasn’t really going to work. I decided to roll with it, and the whole thing went into a cake pan in the oven at 350 for 45 minutes.
What emerged was a moist, dense, cake-ish thing that tasted overwhelmingly of potpourri—and this is coming from someone who generally likes rose-flavored things. However, I was heartened to know that whatever I made was certainly nothing like whatever the recipe intended. Perhaps it’s best that Goethe’s Favorite Cake remain a mystery.
Cookbook credit: Isabella Vaché Cox, Cookbook, 1881-1946. New-York Historical Society Manuscript Collection