Welcome back! I’m cooking my way through the 1929 edition of the Photoplay Cookbook and you’re invited to tag along. (You can catch up on all my past taste tests here.) Today, we’re going to be testing a recipe from one of the loveliest funny ladies of the screen.
Poor Thelma Todd’s death has overshadowed her brilliant comedy career. Pre-Code cinema provided Todd with the perfect backdrop against which to perfect her sexy/funny routine. Like many other comedians, she divided her time between starring roles in shorts and supporting roles in feature films. Being a huge Hal Roach fan, I was familiar with Todd’s work supporting Laurel and Hardy but I really fell for her in Horse Feathers. Her baby-talking vamp very nearly steals the show from Groucho Marx and we all know how challenging that is!
If you want to see Todd in a more serious role, you can check out the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, in which she plays Iva Archer. (And then turn it off and watch the Humphrey Bogart version instead because, pew, what a stinker!)
Todd’s silent career was more of a mixed bag as she tried to establish a foothold in the industry. She played everything from leads to supporting parts in westerns, crime comedies and Irish family pictures. When people talk about sound destroying careers, Thelma Todd springs to mind as someone who benefited from the talkies. Her snappy delivery and versatile vocalization proved to be just the thing for the world of sound films.
We know that Todd was a talented comedian but do her baking chops stand up as well? We’re about to find out.
Miss Todd opts for a recipe that dates from at least the eighteenth century, the dreaded Scripture Cake.
Photoplay found the cake’s gimmick to be clever. Basically, instead of proper ingredients, you are given a pile of scriptures and you must look them up to discover which item is to be added to the cake.
Well, it’s “clever” for three scriptures. The problem is that each one mentions multiple items that could be used as ingredients. If you enjoy long and sadistic games of Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button, then be my guest. Since I like you, dear readers, I am just going to eliminate the guessing game and give you the ingredients. Todd’s version is particularly annoying as it lists the scriptures in long form (II Chronicles, 9th chapter, 9th verse) instead of the more streamlined 2 Chronicles 9:9 that we moderns prefer.
In researching this cake, I found quite a few people advocating it as an ideal project for kids. Look, I was a nerdy little kid. If you asked me to research the foods of the biblical world or wanted me to try to recreate a recipe from, say, Jerusalem circa 50 BC, I would have been all over it like a duck on a June bug. But this recipe? Yeah, pretty sure there wasn’t any baking soda in the Bible.
This recipe is the sort of thing your smug aunt inflicts on you when she babysits you. And then she wonders why you never visit when you grow up. (Entirely hypothetical.) The gimmick is tedious, dull and it doesn’t actually teach much other than the fact that, yes, raisins are biblical. I consider anyone who forces this on children to be in direct violation of Ephesians 6:4.
Okay, let’s translate this recipe into the heathen tongue:
4 1/2 cups flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup milk (Judges 5:25 mentions both milk AND butter. The cake batter was resembling modeling clay so I opted to include both.)
2 cups sugar
2 cups raisins (I used golden raisins for contrast but any seedless raisins will work)
The recipe calls for 2 cups figs (fresh figs are hard to obtain and dried figs are kinda meh and pricey too, so I opted for 1 cup of dried apricots and 1 cup of pomegranate-flavored Craisins)
2 cups sliced or slivered almonds
2 TB honey
A pinch of salt (1/4 tsp for me)
2 tsp of baking powder
The final scripture just mentions spices in general and the recipe says to add them to taste. I’m a spicy kinda gal, so here’s what I used:
1 tsp ground ginger (crystallized would have been even better but I was lazy)
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
A few grinds of fresh pepper (pepper is a great way to kick up spices in baked goods)
So, under all the scripture stuff, what we really have is a golden fruitcake. Yes, I have brought up the dreaded fruitcake. (For those of you unfamiliar with this, fruitcakes have a horrendous reputation in the United States. Commercial fruitcakes were common holiday gifts a few decades back but most people find them nasty. They’re dense, aged cakes with lots of sickly sweet candied fruit in unnatural neon shades. Every once in a while, some internet scold will tut-tut us for disliking the things but the American commercial fruitcake’s reputation is basically beyond repair.)
I creamed the room temperature butter with the sugar and then traded off adding the dry ingredients and the eggs. I had been wondering whether the recipe meant milk or butter but used butter because fat is essential in a baked good. However, the batter was so thick that I ended up adding a cup of milk as well.
I reserved a little bit of flour and tossed the fruits in it before mixing them in. I hear this prevents them from sinking. (I don’t know if it’s true or not but the fruit did indeed remain suspended in the middle of the cake.) Then I realized I forgot the honey and added that too. Once the batter was mixed, I added in the fruits and nuts.
Some versions of this recipe recommend separating the eggs and beating up the whites folding them in to lighten things. However, the batter is so thick that I’m not exactly sure how this is to be managed. I just added the whole eggs. (Well, sans shells.)
I spread the batter (dough?) into my trusty 12-cup Nordic Ware Bundt pan (I don’t work for them but I am a fanatic loyalist), evened the top with a spatula and slid it into a pre-heated 350-degree oven. Be prepared for the long haul as it took a full 90 minutes for the cake to finish baking. If you wants a shorter baking time, I recommend mini Bundt pans or mini loaf pans. By the way, I melted a tablespoon of butter and mixed in a tablespoon of flour and then painted the inside of my pan with a pastry brush before adding the batter. It’s a no-fail way of assuring that your Bundt pan will release.
Once it was finished baking, I let it cool for a bit before inverting it onto a wire rack to finish its cooldown.
The recipe calls for caramel sauce but doesn’t include instructions. I just bought some at the store. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone. I also purchased decadent heavy cream, sweetened it with 2 tsp of sugar and whipped it. Or would flogging it be more appropriate?
Taste Test Score: 4 out of 5. This is an old fashioned cake, dense and rich and intensely flavored with nuts and fruits and spices. This ain’t no Betty Crocker Funfetti cake and there is no fluff to be had. The Scripture Cake mocks your modern fluffy cakes!
You can see from the pictures that the cake is dense (it’s still a fruitcake) but boy is it ever good! The caramel sauce got lost under all the deliciousness inside the cake and can be safely eliminated but I consider whipped cream to be a must. Cool, fresh cream is the perfect counterpoint to this deeply flavored cake.
My panel of six tasters (seven if you include me) all agreed that the cake was pretty darn tasty. My mother, a veteran of the infamous commercial fruitcakes of yore, told me that even though this is technically a fruitcake, it has nothing in common with the terrible, candied fruit-laced confections that used to show up around the holidays. (She described them as being simultaneously damp and dry. Weird.) So, please don’t be scared off by the fruitcake label as this is a whole other animal.
I can see this cake also working soaked in brandy or rum (in the fruitcake tradition) or some milk. Or perhaps dunked into a nice cup of chai or other milky beverage.
This recipe is pretty versatile and you have quite a bit of play when it comes to fruits and spices. I can see dates and walnuts being amazing in this recipe. I highly recommend trying it with cardamom, as I did. My cake turned out pretty spicy by American standards but, as the recipe says, it’s a matter of taste and so use amounts that make sense for your palate. (Do share any fruit/nut/spice combos you think would be tasty.)