Pork Cake: A Century-Old Technical Challenge

December 8, 2020

By Sarah Stroman

A recipe for  “Pork Cake” from the ca. 1911 “Cherry City Cook Book” prompted Oral History Librarian Sarah Stroman to embark on another OHS staff century-old-recipe cooking challenge. Photograph by Robert Warren. OHS Research Library, 641.5 U58c.

Once again, when Technical Services Librarian Katie Mayer came to me with a recipe from the Cherry City Cook Book (ca. 1911), I was intrigued. It was a recipe that inspired nightmares for some of my colleagues, but for me, it sounded like an adventure — an adventure called Pork Cake.

Expectations

Most people, when hearing the phrase “Pork Cake,” think of something horrifying, perhaps gelatinous, and definitely inedible. I expected an odd sort of fruit cake — with pork in it — perhaps originally intended to preserve excess ham. I imagined searching the internet to find terrifying tales of people trying similar recipes and their horrific results, but what sort of adventure would it be if I had done any research first?

Notes on Ingredients

Finely Chopped Pork: In this house, we love and respect pigs. Furthermore, a childhood of ham-filled holiday dinners has left me with no desire whatsoever to eat pork ever again. (Bacon, of course, doesn’t count). Thus, I am quite uneducated in the ways of preparing and purchasing pork. So, when this recipe asked for “finely chopped pork,” I thought only of ham. Thusly dispatched, my husband purchased a pre-cooked ham, as he is also no ham-fan and wanted no part in its roasting — or whatever it is one does with hams.

Pre-cooked ham used for Pork Cake recipe.
Sarah used a pre-cooked ham for this cake, since the recipe did not specify the type required.

Brown Sugar: I make my own brown sugar because it is cheap and easy, and, honestly, it's one less thing taking up space in the pantry.

Buttermilk: Yet another ingredient that does not have a permanent place in the Stroman household. I could have made it myself with whole milk and vinegar, but we splurged. Unfortunately, for this first attempt at pork cake, my husband purchased reduced fat buttermilk, which, why is that even a thing? (Spoiler: This actually made a difference in the final result).

Raisins and Nut Meats: Look, I don’t like raisins, ok? We didn’t have any. I did, however, have dried dates. In a later second attempt, I used dried cranberries. For nut meats, I dipped into our cache of hazelnuts and cashews.

Ingredients for making brown sugar.
Sarah always makes her own brown sugar and prefers it dark.

The Process

This is where the adventure truly began. Ingredients gathered, I embarked on my journey with no directions. But I was not wholly lost — I’ve made cakes before! Step one is always: combine dry ingredients.

2/3 cup of ham used for Pork Cake.
Sarah was surprised that only a small amount of ham, just 2/3 cup, was used in the pork cake.

This cake, however, seemed to want to be made backwards, as the amount of flour it demanded was entirely dependent on the wetness of the rest of the ingredients. So, I actually began by making the brown sugar, roasting hazelnuts and crushing them, and chopping the ham. I was surprised by how little pork the recipe actually called for — a mere 2/3 cup. I was left with an awful lot of ham, and while I used some of it later for a second cake, we were forced to get quite creative with our meals for several days after.

Then, I added the spices to my pile of fruit, nuts, and meat. Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves are frequent guests in my pantry. Next came the two eggs and one cup of buttermilk. I wrote notes throughout the baking process, and here, my handwritten notes say only, “Mixy!”

At last, the fun part! “1 spoon of soda sifted in sufficient flour to make a stiff batter.” What kind of spoon? How stiff a batter? How do I measure its sufficiency? Adventure!

Using my powers of deduction, I reasoned that, having previously specified the measurement of teaspoon, the recipe could only be referring to the other popular spoon-based measurement: the tablespoon.

So, into my flour sifter went one tablespoon of baking soda and an opening salvo of one cup of flour. After mixing, I added more flour until the dough looked suitable for a bread (albeit much stickier). The final amount of flour equaled about 1 ½ cup.

Bake loaf in a moderate oven.

For funsies, I decided to use a bundt pan. I greased it, just to play it safe, even though the recipe does not specify, and I used a non-stick pan. Having no idea what was meant by “moderate oven,” I guessed at 350 degrees F. Naturally, there was no time provided, so I checked the baking progress of my creation at 10-minute intervals.

Pork cake dough.
The pork cake dough was quite stiff, similar to what one might expect for a bread.

While waiting, I bravely tasted the batter. It was immediately obvious that the cake contained cloves. After the first 10 minutes, the cake smelled done. Checking revealed browned edges and a raw center. Obviously, 350 degrees F had been the wrong answer. I reduced the heat to 315 degrees F and left the oven door open for a few moments to let off excess heat. After 5 minutes at the new temperature, the cake seemed happier, so I continued on as before. After 40 minutes, I declared the pork cake finished!

The finished pork cake was nice looking, and it tasted great, too.

The finished pork cake was nice looking, and it tasted great, too.

The recipe advised another, final step: Frost when cool. I recoiled at this idea. My notes say: “What? No. What?! I have no idea what kind of cake frosting pairs with pork, and I honestly don’t want to find out.” How wrong I was.

This cake is, frankly, amazing. I made a second one to bring to my coworkers. This attempt featured several adjustments. I used real, full fat buttermilk, which resulted in a thicker dough and creamier cake. I doubled the nut meats and, most importantly, I frosted it. And I failed to take a photo.

My coworkers, after tamping down their original revulsion and terror at the prospect, obliged and tried the cake. One said it was like a tasty banana bread with pork raisins — but in a good way. Another said it reminded her of Christmas cake from back home in England. Everyone agreed that the dense cake was delicious and filling. I, myself, had a generous slice for my entire lunch more than once.

If you, too, are looking for a way to use up a bit of ham after a holiday dinner (ham was my grandmother’s go-to main course for Christmas and Easter), here is my tested (and lauded) recipe:

1 ½ cup dark brown sugar
⅔ cup diced ham (about 2 thick slices)
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup full-fat buttermilk (do not skimp!)
1 cup dried cranberries dusted with flour
1 cup roasted and chopped hazelnuts
1 cup chopped cashews
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp allspice
¼ tbsp cloves
1 tbsp baking soda
1 ⅓ cup flour

Carebear the dog.
Carebear was very grateful for my sloppy pork chopping skills.

Sift dry ingredients together. Add everything else and mix, making sure to coat fruit, nuts, and meat completely. Add more flour as needed to form a stiff batter. Spoon into a greased bundt pan and bake at 325 degrees F for 40 to 45 minutes, checking frequently. Allow to cool, then frost with a glaze made from water and powdered sugar. Enjoy with friends!

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