Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A Review of Good Housekeeping’s Picture Cake Making (Fourth Impression, 1953)

Rifling through my late mother’s kitchen in search of ideas for a birthday cake for my son, I came across a pile of cook books bought in the 1950s in almost pristine condition (perhaps a testament to her scorn for domesticity when there are far more interesting things to do). Short of time as usual, I grabbed Good Housekeeping’s Picture Cake Making, picked out the Parcel Cake (page 145) and whipped it up (with a few tweaks—I couldn’t achieve the perfect butter cream writing under pressure so cheated and printed out an address label in a jaunty font instead) for my little cherub’s birthday tea. It was only a couple of weeks later when I had the chance to give it closer inspection that I realised what an absolute gem of a book it is—not just for the domestic goddess but for the sake of nostalgia, social history and the complete mouthwatering experience of 240 pages of cakes, cakes and more cakes…

Its opening gambit gives away its era: ‘Cake-making has an irresistible appeal to most women…Many housewives save up the necessary ingredients in order to give their families the benefit of good home-made cakes and to provide at moderate cost rich and exciting-looking cakes for special tea-parties and other celebrations’. The book was first published in 1952, so just at the tail end of rationing, and this seems to be reflected in the notion that cakes were for treats, and their making a special, almost sacred process.

Flicking through the book, I was impressed by the ingenuity in design of many of the cakes, given that the ingredients were pretty limited at the time: cakes shaped as baskets of flowers, fruit or mushrooms, hedgehogs, boats or cottages, for example. Several recipes suggest recycling stale cake to produce a new cake, indeed the foreword advises that, ‘The book is planned to demonstrate that cake-making is not a difficult art, and that innumerable varieties can be made from simple foundations’. And there’s even a whole section on ‘Economical sandwich cakes’.

The book’s tone is that of an old-fashioned, but encouraging, schoolmistress: ‘The most formal cake, and the most ambitious to make at home, is the tiered wedding cake. This calls for both patience and dexterity, but very satisfactory results can be obtained even by novices in cake decorating if they are prepared to follow instructions closely and carefully’. Despite the assumption that most women had an innate desire to stay at home and make cakes, which may seem slightly queer to us modern gals, the book actually makes you believe that anything is possible…even the notion of a novice baker producing a full-blown, traditional wedding cake!

For some strange reason, I love the level of detail about icing nozzles, with a whole plate depicting 42 examples complete with the icing they produce. Again, in line with the austerity of the age, the text suggests once you’ve practised your design on an upturned plate or saucer, the icing can be scraped off before it hardens, beaten up and used again.

The language is charming: ‘For a family party a jolly snow-scene cake can be quickly made, and will provide a gay decoration for the table’. How times have moved on.

How charming, too, that the cooking guide states that for gas ovens ‘standardised thermostats are not yet universal, so it is impracticable to quote cooking temperatures in terms of gas oven settings’. This statement alone transforms the cake-making process into a matter of alchemy, sixth sense and instinct (although it does also suggest using an oven thermometer to check up on temperatures).

Sweet, too, that the blurb at the back advertises the Good Housekeeping School of Cookery, its courses including ‘a special six-weeks course for brides, which includes choice and service of wines’.

As delightful as the book is, it would be wrong of me to gloss over one of its more startling recipes, the name of which I cannot bring myself to reproduce here. To give you a clue, the said cakes are mainly constructed from balls of cake mixture dipped in melted chocolate with ice cream cones for hats, emulating a dubious form of entertainment which was to enjoy a revival on television during the fifties. ‘These…cakes make excellent individual place cakes at a party; each child’s name can be written in icing on the cap, or if preferred the cones can be gaily decorated with icing and pieces of glacé cherries, etc.’ the author blithely suggests.

If you followed one recipe a day for a year, you still wouldn’t get through the whole book…although it’s an average-sized book, it was produced in the pre-celebrity chef era when a cook book really was a cook book and is packed with practical and creative ideas. And there’s something deliciously indulgent and comforting about leafing through the book late at night…it’s a visual feast, inspirational and aspirational, and, on the whole (but not entirely), packed as full of the charm of a bygone age that us vintage-lovers dream of. My recommendation? Have a rummage through your mother’s drawers and see if you can find a copy for a delectable late-night read!

Have you been amazed or inspired by old books you’ve stumbled upon? Let me know!


  1. Great review, Emma. I like riffling through old books like 'Boys Own Companion' - great drawings. And mysteries for children - kids hiding from smugglers behind rocks, that kind of thing.

  2. Thanks, David. You sound like me - I love old-fashioned children's books - I'm afraid my reading style hasn't matured much past the age of 9!