Bake Off Wrap-up and Corn Cake Conundrums

Thank you for coming along with us on the 2022 Special Collections and Archives Great Rare Books Bake-Off! As the Rare Books Librarian, this is my favorite time of the year.

We hope you got to witness some of the spectacular attempts at resurrecting the recipes we found among the rare books and archives. Here’s a run-down of the posts, in case you need to catch up!

Below, read about my own attempt at a recipe!

In my blog post at the end of October, I talked about looking for recipes that had to do with overall health. I kind of wanted to make something…gross. My past bake-off efforts usually end up okay, but I thought picking “health food” meant that it would be difficult to determine whether the disgustingness of the dish was due to my own failing or based on the recipe itself.

I settled on hospital food – notorious for being perhaps not the greatest eats. A Collection of Recipes for the use of Special Diet Kitchens in Military Hospitals, published in 1864, felt like the right place to start.

I was also delighted to find that the author was a woman, Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer. Would I find a recipe here that I couldn’t ruin? Or at least one that couldn’t be blamed on me? Perhaps I could blame Mrs. Wittenmyer.

I also wanted to make something that didn’t require shopping for too many special ingredients. The book’s Corn Cakes recipe seemed exactly right.

Here are the ingredients as written:

  • 2 quarts finely sifted meal
  • 4 well-beaten eggs
  • 2 tea-cups of flour
  • 1 cup sweet milk
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/2 tsp soda
  • 1 tsp salt

I immediately got the sense that this is meant to serve A HUGE number of people. I suppose in hospitals that’s the challenge – how to make enough food to serve every patient who needs a meal. I figured I’d need to half the recipe.

Even after halving the recipe, the quantity of cornmeal (one quart) seemed excessive for just me! I ended up quartering the recipe and I’m so glad I did. There are only so many corn cakes one can handle solo.

The quantities were all pretty usual, aside from the tea-cup of flour. I ended up using one of my standard teacups and just doing half and hoping for the best.

After combining the ingredients as described, it said to add “enough water to make a thick paste.” I think this is what threw me off. I ended up making more of a dough, and creating what looked like little corn cookies. I grilled some of these up in a buttered pan.

Horrible. Truly awful. These yellow hockey pucks sucked in taste and texture. I clearly missed what the recipe meant by “thick paste,” and landed on something more akin to tile grout. It was gritty, dry, and bland. I wouldn’t wish these on my worst enemy, much less folks already in the hospital.

I questioned whether Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer actually liked people, or food. I went back to my bowl to puzzle it out.

Couldn’t make it any worse, right? I smooshed the weird corn balls I had created and added a splash more milk and a lot more water, then forked the hell out of it until a much wetter paste, like pancake batter, formed.

Sure, why not?

Good news – these were delicious!!

I could see how a hospital kitchen might churn out tons of these and get affordable nutrition to patients on a grand scale.

Much more like a “johnny cake,” a kind of griddled corn pancake. The grittiness was gone, and the corn cake was soft and begging for a splash of maple syrup.

Of course I obliged, and indulged – these were so yummy! I love when corn is integrated into sweeter dishes (it’s CORN!), and the flavor here was great.

I doubt that 19th-century military hospitals had access to the Costco-sized bottle of maple syrup that I keep in my fridge, but I hope they had some kind of syrup!

This was so fun to experiment with and learn from. I encourage you to explore our collections of cookbooks and herbals, and find recipes that pique your interest. Test them out, and you might discover something truly great. I’ll be making these corn cakes for breakfast again in the future!

Obligatory photo of my Rare Book School apron. Thanks for following along with us, and can’t wait for next year’s Great Rare Books Bake Off!

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