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Baking powder (Recipe: coffee spice cake)


While cleaning out several decades' worth of accumulated stuff in his barn, my friend Matt discovered a small book, which he passed on to me.

Published in 1939, A Rhode Island Rule Book is not about football, or dating, or straight lines.

It's a cookbook. More precisely, it's a cheat sheet for women (yes, women) who already know how to cook. The introduction explains:

The Rule Book of the past contained only those rules which were too complicated to be memorized by the cook, the mother.

Directions for cooking eggs, fish, meats, and vegetables were unwritten lore handed down from mother to daughter, who learned by doing. These were fundamentals and to know them not was a disgrace...

I am sensing disgrace in my future.

In the chapter titled Cakes and Frostings, the Rule Book states that "Baking powder is new-fangled. Saleratus and cream of tartar will keep cake more moist."

Saleratus? I had to look it up. (See? Disgrace.) Saleratus is sodium or potassium bicarbonate: baking soda, which has been used in baking since ancient times. The "new-fangled" baking powder has been on the market only since 1856.

You can't really talk about one without the other, so once again we're back at the difference between baking soda and baking powder. To recall which is which, remember that in alphabetical order, acid comes before alkali, and powder comes before soda. Baking powder = acid, baking soda = alkali.

Most baking powder consists of baking soda, cream of tartar and/or aluminum sulfate, and corn or wheat starch -- a formula designed to ensure that the chemical reaction that causes leavening happens at the right time. It's a popular ingredient in baked goodies of all types, including rosemary loaf, carrot cake, lemon cupcakes, orange-cranberry biscotti, molasses cookies, eggnog pound cake and cornbread.

Rumford Baking Powder is, for me, the epitome of eating local, as it was developed in East Providence, Rhode Island. It's one of the few baking powders that does not contain aluminum. Many people claim they can detect a metallic aftertaste in food baked with other types of baking powder. My palate isn't that sensitive, but it does seem like baking without more chemicals than absolutely necessary is a good idea.

When using baking powder (or baking soda) in a recipe, be sure to sift it along with the flour and other dry ingredients, to distribute the baking powder evenly and to eliminate any clumps. Store baking powder on a cool, dry pantry shelf, well sealed to keep moisture out, for up to one year.

There are a number of gluten-free baking powders on the market, or you can make your own by combining 1 part baking soda, 2 parts cream of tartar, and 2 parts arrowroot starch.

By the way, in June 2006, the American Chemical Society designated the development of Rumford Baking Powder a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

No disgrace in that.

Coffee spice cake

Word for word from A Rhode Island Rule Book, with the original punctuation, here is the recipe in its entirety. No mixing instructions. No guidance on spices. No pan size. No oven temperature. Can you help fill in the blanks?


1 cup of sugar, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup of butter, 1/2 cup of strong coffee
2 cups of flour, 1-1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
Little salt and 2 teaspoons of mixed spices

1-1/2 tablespoons melted butter, 1-1/2 cups confectioners sugar, 1-1/2 tablespoons cocoa, and 3 tablespoons strong coffee.


None provided in the book!

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Drop In & Decorate sugar cookies
Apple spice bread
Raisin-banana scones
Aggression cookies

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I´d probably be ok with that recipe, on a confident day. What throws me is the term "coffee cake". This one has coffee, but I´ve read recipes that seem to suggest they´re normal cakes, to take with coffee, maybe? Confusing but who cares.

I have a 1920 Royal Baking Powder booklet! Here is their Coffee Fruit Cake recipe
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup strong coffee
1/3 cup rich milk or cream
1 3/4 cups flour
3 tsp Royal Baking Powder
1/2 lb raisins
1/8 lb. sliced citron
1/4 lb figs, cut in strips
Cream shortening; add sugar; add egg yolks, coffee and milk; sift together flour and baking powder and add slowly; add fruit, which has been slightly floured and fold in beaten whites of eggs. Bake in greased loaf pan from 60 - 90 minutes.
This is a New York company, "used by prominent chefs and expert bakers in American, including those of the famous restaurant in New York, Chicago, San Franciso.. Physicians recommend Royal Baking Powder for its wholesomeness and for the healthful qualities that it adds to the food."
Perhaps Rhode Island cooks (Rumford is a RI company) are more intuitive and don't need details. chuckle.

What a fun recipe! I am almost tempted to try making it as I adore coffee! Baking powder is sold here in Peru in 20g packets, nothing bigger. It makes me crazy! I brought a costco size container with me to use with all my baking!

Saleratus sounds so much cooler than plain old baking powder! I am going to call it that from now on :D

I love old cookbooks and the way they are written. There are always ways to make-do... I guess there wasn't always a market around the corner.
fun post!

Those old recipes were often slim on the details! Perhaps that's where the "unwritten lore" came into play?

I would love to read that book. I find old cookbooks so interesting. I have a baking book from the 1800's which belonged to my husbands great grandmother and it reminds me of this, very scant on the details! Good luck with the recipe!

Great distinction and mnemonic device for remembering the difference between baking powder and baking soda. Thanks!

Nice bit of research there, very interesting detail about raising agents.

So, to reveal my disgrace, are there any rules or guidlines when one should use either baking powder or baking soda? I've been working on a batter for fish, trying to make it really crunchy and I'm using baking powder. Now I'm wondering if baking soda might give a better result.

I would have had to look that up too!

Lobstersquad, it's confusing, I agree. Coffee cakes most often do not have coffee, but are cakes that are eaten at coffee or tea time. I'm not 100% sure that on my most confident baking day I could get this recipe right! Oh, the disgrace...

Marcia, thank you so much for sharing this recipe. I'm assuming that in this one (and in the one from my Rules book), the coffee is meant to be prepared coffee (liquid)?

Gretchen, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Now I wonder why only small packets of coffee are available in Peru? Thank goodness for Costco!

Nupur, if you do call it saleratus, everyone will think you are quite mysterious -- or very wise. But remember that saleratus is the baking soda, not powder.

Sandi, believe it or not, this is one of the more complete recipes in the Rules book! I would have been disgraced many times over for not knowing some of these recipes by heart.

TW, the worst part is that you were meant to learn all of this from your mother. But my mother didn't cook -- well, she was a terrible cook -- so I really would have been in trouble.

Katia, I feel very lucky to be the keeper of this book, and some day I too will pass it along.

Hillary, I such a bake-of-phobe that I need all the devices I can dream up.

Neil, I'm going to send you to a site that has great information about baking powder/soda:
I think which one you use depends on what else (other acids, like buttermilk) is in your recipe.

Peabody, you are such a wonderful baker -- if you do attempt this recipe, please help me fill in the blanks!

Two tablespoons of mixed spices... well, that's good and vague. ;) Nevertheless, it really does sound sort of intriguing!

That rule book looks like a hilarious blast from the past. I would think that there must be quite a few gems in there

I love old books like that.
Interesting some of the books written today for the professional chef leave out a lot of the details and look something like this one.
It does look like it would be interesting to try.

I guess you'd have to know some of the rules to fill in the blanks. (LOL) But I have a suspicion that they probably used whatever spices they had in their kitchen.

Love the book! Makes us modern day chefs seem like a bunch of unimaginative sorts who need every detail spelled out!

Ah yeah, liquid coffee. Once when I was a kid, I made a mocha sponge cake and put in coffee straight from the can. Ummmm interesting texture. My mother was not pleased because I'd wasted so many eggs.

Michelle, perhaps cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg? It's a bit vague for me, too.

Mike, believe it or not, there are some recipes in the book that are so unclear that, if they weren't listed under a chapter heading, I wouldn't know what the recipe was for! Disgrace, disgrace....

MyKitchen, I love old cookbooks, too. I can understand professional references leaving out the instructions -- but surely they'd include a few more specifics? Then again, I'm not much of a baker, so I really do need all the details in recipe.

Toni, it's true -- and we criticize cookbooks today for not giving us details and photos and basically holding our hands through every step. But I think it's because, in many cases, we don't live near our families and we don't have the opportunity to learn from our mothers and grandmothers, so we expect cookbooks (and podcasts and videos, etc.) to teach us everything.

Marcia, thanks. I think coffee cakes made with coffee are rare these days.

Old cookbooks can be confusing. Maybe there should be recipe Mad Libs and we can fill in the blanks with whatever we have left in our pantries.

Saleratus - yes I would have to lok that one up too. This recipe sounds pretty impressive. Love all the flavors!

Such a treasure to find an old recipe book~ are the pages falling out?So much interesting info you shared! I would have never taken the time to do this research and I appreciate your efforts!I am smarter tonight!

Rupert, recipe Mad Libs -- I do believe you're on to something!!

Meeta, I still don't think I could make this cake without help, but it would be fun to try.

Jann, the book is actually a bound reprint of the author's grandmother's rules book, so it's possible this is a one-of-a-kind book and not one that was issued commercially. It's in beautiful condition, as though it was never actually used in the kitchen. I'm thrilled to have it.

See? Mother was right! She always said you were supposed to know how to cook...recipes were only for baking!

Katie, in my family I think learning to cook was a generation-skipping thing. My grandmother was a wonderful, instinctive cook who had learned to cook the traditional way, with recipes passed down through family. Somehow all of that skipped my mother -- so there was much I never learned until I was an adult and taught myself to cook.

Spice cake with Coffee- yes it's with real coffee and is delicious! spices:1tsp cinnamon, 3/4 tsp nutmeg,1/4 tsp allspice,1/4 tsp cloves,1/4 tsp ginger- 350 - 45 mins-(8x8x2 pan)

Ellie, welcome to The Perfect Pantry, and thank you so much for filling in the blanks in this recipe!

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