Munchie Monday: May Barrett’s Historic Baking Recipe for Composition Cake

Louisa Macculloch (1785-1863) has several baking recipes for composition cake in her historic family cookbook. Some composition cake recipes include wine or brandy and spices as ingredients. May Barrett’s recipe, which Louisa recorded and presumably used, does not. In The Every-Day Cook-Book and Encyclopedia of Practice Recipes for Family Use, published in 1889, Miss E. Neill lists flour, butter, sugar, milk, eggs, baking soda and “fruit as you please, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove to taste” in her composition cake recipe.

Composition cake dates to the turn of the 19th century, when Washington cake also became popular. Composition cakes usually contain currants, raisins, and brandy and date to early 19th century America. Some composition cake recipes are even referred to as Washington cakes which were made to honor George Washington. Cakes and Wine, painted by Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) in 1813, attests to the popularity of composition cakes especially in Philadelphia where Raphaelle Peale lived with his family.

Original Recipe—May Barrett’s Composition Cake

1 ¼ lb. sugar

¾ lb. butter

1 ¾ lb. flour

1 pt. sour cream

6 eggs

2 lbs. currants or 1 lb. raisins & 1 lb. currants

1 teaspoonful soda dissolved in the milk  

Adapted Recipe—May Barrett’s Composition Cake

1 ½ cups sugar

1 ½ sticks of butter (3/4 cups), softened 2 ¾ cup (2 ½ cups for batter; ¼ cup mix with currants before adding to cake batter)

1 cup of sour cream

3 eggs

3 cups of currants or (1 ½ cup of raisins and 1 ½ cup of currants)

1 tsp. baking soda

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Stir baking soda into sour cream and set aside. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time until well combined. Add sour cream mixture. Sift flour and add dry ingredients to wet ingredients. Stir in currants covered with ¼ cup flour, to prevent currants and raisins from sticking together. Pour batter into a greased tube pan. Bake for 65-70 minutes or until inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool on rack in pan for 10 minutes then remove cake from pan. Let cake cool thoroughly, another 30 minutes.

To learn more about Composition Cake and Washington Cake:

Two slices of cake with currants arranged on a china plate with a blue and white pattern of birds and flowers.

Topic: Munchie Monday
Age / Level: 1, Primary, Elementary, Life Long Learner