Cooking with the Silent Stars: Billie Dove’s Feather Cake

Welcome back! I’m cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook and I’m inviting you to follow me on this journey of culinary discovery, for better or worse. Today, we’ll be testing out a cake from the American Beauty.

(You can catch up on all my taste tests here.)

Billie Dove is pretty much known today for two things: The Black Pirate and Howard Hughes. Since I’m not reviewing The Black Pirate until next month and I try to avoid all unnecessary discussions of affairs and whatnot, I shall instead share a GIF from Dove’s 1929 part-talkie, The Man and the Moment, in which she wears a smashing hat:

So now we have the big question: we know Billie was a charming silent star but could she also bake a cake that lives up to its lightweight name?

This is also the first recipe in this series that I actually thought would cause me grievous bodily harm. Yay?

Before we begin I should mention that the American perspective of cake texture has undergone a massive change since the cake mix boom of post-WWII and the chiffon cake fad that took place around the same time. The exact preferred lightness of cake varies depending on where you are in the world but people in the United States tend to prefer things on the moist and fluffy side. (Countries like Korea and Japan like cakes that practically float off the plate and my Ukrainian classmate constantly complained that American baked goods had no heft. It’s all about what you’re used to and, frankly, I’m never going to turn down cake.)

My point in all this is that this is not an angel food cake recipe (it has more in common with this Victoria Sponge recipe) and the perception of lightness was different when this recipe was published. So don’t be disappointed if it seems a bit too dense to be called a Feather Cake.

The recipe calls for fine cake flour and I used Swan’s Down brand because it’s what my local market carries and because it was actually around when this recipe was first published.

Butter!

I sifted together the flour and baking powder, along with a quarter teaspoon of salt. The recipe doesn’t call for it but I felt weird leaving it out. Next, I creamed the butter for a bit in my stand mixer and gradually added the sugar. I mixed the eggs and added them gradually to the mixer, beating the whole thing to a fluff.

Fluff!

I gradually added the dry ingredients interspersed with the milk and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. (The recipe says to flavor to taste. Almond extract would also be a period correct option.)

Batter!

I cut out rounds of parchment paper, greases three 8″ cake pans and spread the batter with an offset spatula. This recipe will either yield three skinny cakes or two fatter ones in 8″ pans. I don’t think it will work as well in 9″ or 10″ pans.

Flattened cake batter.

Because I didn’t want to lose too much cake to domed tops, I used my cake strips. They’re oven-proof padded fabric strips that you soak and wrap around your pans. I know that some people don’t like them but they always work like a charm for me and I hate trimming domed cakes, so there you have it.

Cake strips engaged!
Ta-da! Flat cake!

I baked the cakes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 minutes but you’ll want to keep an eye on yours the first time out.

And now we come to the point where I feared for my life. (About time!) The frosting recipe is what I have always known as boiled icing. Basically, you make syrup and then pour it over beaten egg whites while stirring like crazy.

You have to understand that I am terrified of this sort of thing. I received severe burns all over my body in a kitchen accident as a child (no scars, I’m happy to say) and have never been able to deal with hot syrups, candy making or deep frying. (The accident involved a coffeemaker. Yes, I still can drink coffee but my family used instant from that day forward.)

And this recipe is asking me to pour 235-degree sugar syrup into a moving mixer? Good lord!

So (gulp!) I did it. I got the syrup to 235 per my instant read thermometer and I pour it into the mixer. And… I ended up with white goo. I think in my haste to get this over with, I poured in the syrup while it was too hot. But I tasted the frosting and it was… okay. Kind of like marshmallow fluff. Certainly not worth a nervous breakdown.

So, I waited until I was done shaking, drank some lavender tea and then I made some whipped cream frosting instead, slid some sliced strawberries between the layers, took it to a party and called it a night.

Verdict: 3 out of 5. The cake itself is quite tasty. It uses a fair amount of baking powder, which gives it a biscuit-like flavor and despite the sugar, it’s not overly sweet. The texture is pretty airy, though hardly feather-like. I would say that it’s the flavor and not the texture that sets this cake apart.

Excuse the paper plate, I didn’t feel like doing more dishes.

I’m not likely to attempt the sugar syrup experiment any time soon but I can see myself using this cake as a base for strawberry shortcake. The tasters were enthusiastic and devoured the thing.

Not my finest hour in the kitchen but the result wasn’t half bad and I wasn’t horrendously burned. A victory all around, I think.

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5 Replies to “Cooking with the Silent Stars: Billie Dove’s Feather Cake”

  1. What a lovely .gif of Billie Dove!

    Really like what you did with the whipped cream frosting/filling, always a great go-to for its springy lightness. Fresh fruit only does a good turn to any icing, frosting, or glaze, doesn’t it.

    I’ve never had a really serious kitchen accident, but one of my sisters has. My complete sympathies for the childhood trauma- sister Elyse was a teenager (14) and still remembers vividly how badly she cut herself (recently turned 46). And they say garages and workshops with all their saws, tools, and chemicals are dangerous places…a kitchen is more than equal in hazards!

    On an unrelated note: Ben Model’s crowd-funded When Knighthood Was in Flower arrived in the post box today. Huzzah! 😀

    1. Thank you!

      Yes, I don’t have any memory of the accident or its aftermath but I have never been comfortable with liquids other than water above a simmer. I’ll have to enlist help for some of the later recipes, methinks. So sorry to hear about your sister. The kitchen is a death trap! (Says the person who loves to cook.)

      Yay! Mine should arrive in a day or two then. 😀

  2. Interesting cake and will definitely give it a try. So, I have to whip out some kitchen advice here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been burned, or cut, and I have an uneasy relationship with my electric oven (we hate each other). I think the worst burn I ever got was from hot water on my arm while draining spaghetti, and that was miserable for several weeks. I just wish I had known then what I know now. If you get a burn (other than extremely serious with charred skin), stick the burned spot under cold water for a second or two and then pour on vanilla, straight from the bottle, and don’t wash it off just let it dry. It has to be the real stuff, worth it to me for cooking and treating burns, but it doesn’t matter what kind. I have actually used this on some serious burns recently. It cools the burn down, leaves little or no pain and best of all, no scarring. If you can’t use it, then plain yellow mustard will work, but you don’t smell as good afterwards. i have tried both and I prefer the vanilla. I keep a bottle just for that near the sink now. i know it won’t make you feel better about getting burned, but having it there for emergency minor burns might help otherwise. It sounds stupid and i didn’t believe it until one night the oven got me good on my hand. And personally, skip the boiled icing, always tasted nasty to me and buttercream is easier to make, and on your nerves.

    1. Thanks! My issues are more based on blind terror than anything else. I find that toothpaste is my secret weapon for little oil splatters. (I know, I know, we’re not supposed to use it but it works for me!)

      1. Blind terror I can really sympathize with, don’t get me started on my feelings about heights above a foot off the ground! Toothpaste is a new one for me and I will file it in my “other uses for things file”! I use plain white toothpaste for cleaning silver and silver plate. it’s gentle and easy to rinse off. The other kitchen thing is black pepper for cuts. Those annoying and painful little finger cuts that bleed like the dickens. It doesn’t always work for me because I tend to take too much aspirin, but it’s better than bleeding on everything. i actually had to get stitches on two of my fingers this year, two different times, worse yet. And my first stitches in forty years of cooking. That is what inattention and a sharp knife will get you.

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