Most food historians believe the “Portugal” in the name comes from the fact they were made with Portuguese wine (probably the ubiquitous Madeira that found its way into so many baked goods at this time). The wine not only provided a deeper layer of flavor, it also served as a natural preservative in the days before refrigeration. Madeira was the most popular wine in colonial America, a well-known favorite of Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers. This was a direct result of the longstanding diplomatic alliance that had been forged between England and Portugal. The British were able to dominate the Madeira trade, and King George III later enacted laws forbidding the importation of any other wine to the colonies. Since the colonists could purchase Madeira tax-free, it was consumed in great quantities and also used in a variety of sweet and savory dishes, including buns, cakes and sauces.
By the late eighteenth century, these tiny cakes were known as Queen Cakes and were often baked in charming heart, round or oval-shaped pans. In addition to wine, they also called for brandy, rosewater and spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and mace, all popular flavorings at the time. The ratio of ingredients was comparable to today’s pound cake – equal amounts of butter, flour, sugar and eggs. Baking powder and other chemical rising agents had not yet come on the scene, so the cakes were leavened by beating the eggs to a froth, incorporating air into the batter and causing the cakes to rise. The miniature cakes not only presented a pretty picture, but they were also less likely to end up with streaks and a gummy taste and texture, which sometimes occurred with larger cakes when the eggs didn't fully incorporate into the batter.
The term “cup cake” was actually first mentioned in print by nineteenth century food and etiquette writer Eliza Leslie in her first cookbook, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats (1828). However, her cup cake recipe was more of a spice cake or muffin, and not iced like the Queen cake recipe listed in the same cookbook. Other nineteenth century “cup cake” recipes were labeled as such because the ingredients were measured in cups rather than weighed. But cupcakes as we know them today likely descended from the Queen cakes version listed in Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery (1807), which suggests baking the cakes in little teacups or saucers.
Here is the Queen cake recipe from Eliza Leslie’s Seventy-Five Receipts, exactly the same as the version taught at her mentor Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow’s cooking school.
· One pound of powdered white sugar.
· One pound of fresh butter—washed.
· Fourteen ounces of sifted flour, being 2 ounces less than a pound.
· Ten eggs.
· One wine-glass of wine and brandy, mixed.
· A glass of rose-water, or twelve drops of essence of lemon.
· One tea-spoonful of mace and cinnamon, mixed.
· One nutmeg, beaten or grated.
Pound the spice to a fine powder, in a marble mortar, and sift it well.
Put the sugar into a deep earthen pan, and cut the butter into it. Stir them together, till very light.
Beat the eggs in a broad shallow pan, till they are perfectly smooth and thick.
Stir into the butter and sugar a little of the beaten egg, and then a little flour, and so on alternately, a little egg and a little flour, till the whole is in; continuing all the time to beat the eggs, and stirring the mixture very hard. Add by degrees, the spice, and then the liquor, a little at a time. Finally, put in the rose-water, or essence of lemon. Stir the whole very hard at the last.
Take about two dozen little tins, or more, if you have room for them in the oven. Rub them very well with fresh butter. With a spoon, put some of the mixture into each tin, but do not fill them to the top as the cakes will rise high in baking. Bake them in a quick oven, about a quarter of an hour. When they are done, they will shrink a little from the sides of the tins. Before you fill your tins again, scrape them well with a knife, and wash or wipe them clean. If the cakes are scorched by too hot a fire, do not scrape off the burnt parts till they have grown cold.
Make an icing with the whites of three eggs, beaten till it stands alone, and 24 teaspoonfuls of the best loaf-sugar, powdered, and beaten gradually into the white of egg. Flavour it with a tea-spoonful of rose-water or 8 drops of essence of lemon, stirred in at the last. Spread it evenly with a broad knife, over the top of each queen cake, ornamenting them, (while the icing is quite wet) with red and green nonpareils, or fine sugar-sand, dropped on, carefully, with the thumb and finger. When the cakes are iced, set them in a warm place to dry; but not too near the fire, as that will cause the icing to crack. It is best to ice them twice over, spreading it very thin the first time.
These cupcakes were delicious - much denser and richer than typical cupcakes - similar to a pound cake or a Dover cake (another nineteenth century favorite). My son thought they tasted like jumbles (cookies), probably because of the rosewater and nutmeg. Next time you are in an indulgent mood, give them a try!
Queen Cake Cupcakes (modern version)
Yield: 16 cupcakes*
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 2 sticks butter, softened
- 2 ¼ cups cake flour
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp mace
- 1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
- 5 eggs
- ¼ cup brandy or Madeira
- ¼ cup rosewater
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 16 muffin tins with cupcake papers.
Beat the butter and sugar until very light, set aside. Sift the flour and spices together, set aside. Mix the brandy and rosewater into a cup measure, set aside. Beat the eggs on med-high speed until they are light and frothy, about 5 minutes (the longer beating time is required to help the cupcakes rise). Beat the eggs into the butter-sugar mixture a little at a time, alternating with the flour and spices. Once incorporated, add the brandy and rosewater and beat vigorously until well mixed. Drop batter using a spoon or scoop into lined muffin tins.
Bake at 350 for 15-18 minutes, until toothpick inserted in the center comes clean. Cool on wire rack.
To make the icing, beat two egg whites until stiff and then gradually add ¼ cup powdered sugar and ½ tsp rosewater. Spread the icing on top of each cupcake and then sprinkle with colored sugar.
* Because I adapted the recipe, the batter yielded a little more than a dozen, but not quite two dozen.
The City Tavern Cookbook by Walter Staib, The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets By Darra Goldstein, Sidney Mintz, Michael Krondl, Eric Rath, Laura Mason, Geraldine Quinzio, and Ursula Heinzelmann, The Art of Confectionery, Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America's First Cooking School by Becky Diamond, Baking in America by Greg Patent