Saturday, July 19, 2014

Kossuth Cakes: An Historic Maryland Dessert?

Kossuth Cake with Chocolate Icing
Kossuth Cake with Strawberry Icing

Are you a Marylander but have never heard of a Kossuth Cake?  Don't worry, you are not alone in your ignorance of this delectable dessert!

A quick look at Louis Kossuth, the Man: 

  • Hungarian revolutionary, Louis Kossuth, led a revolt against Austrian rule in 1848. 
  • For a time, Hungary achieved its independence and Kossuth was its governor; however, with the aid of imperial Russia, Austria regained control of Hungary. 
  • Kossuth was imprisoned temporarily and, upon his release, accepted an invitation to visit the United States in 1851. He was hailed as a popular hero and champion of freedom. 
  • Kossuth visited the US, particularly Baltimore, to raise both awareness for his cause and to raise money to return to Hungary and stage a new revolt.  Kossuth only raised $25.00 on his American trip.
  • This dessert was created in 1851 by an East Baltimore Street confectioner on the occasion of Kossuth's visit to Baltimore.
  • While Kossuth did not complete the goals he set for himself for his visit to the US, raising awareness and funds for his cause, he did gain the support of one Baltimore baker who endowed a delicious confection with his name! 
Kossuth, The Cake:
  • The Kossuth Cake is supposedly a version of a Charlotte Russe. 
  • What's a Charlotte Russe, you ask?
    • A moulded dessert made of lady fingers and Bavarian cream.
    • Attributed to French chef Antonin Careme in 1802.
    • Growing up near New York City, I knew it as a sponge cake layered with whipped cream and topped with a cherry or sprinkles; it was served in a paper cup with a bottom that could be pushed up to expose more of the cake.  I think this cup is why I really liked this cake as a kid!
Here is an early 19th c. recipe for a Charlotte Russe:

A Charlotte a la Parisienne. [1845]
This dish is sometimes called in England a Vienna cake; and it is known here also, we believe, as a Gateaux de Bordeax. Cut horizontally into half-inch slices a savoy or sponge cake, and cover each slice with a different kind of preserve; replace them in their original form, and spread equally over the cake an icing made with whites of three eggs, and four ounces of the finest pounded sugar; sift more sugar over it in every part, and put it into a very gentle oven to dry. The eggs should be whisked to snow before they are used. One kind of preserve, instead of several, can be used for this dish; and a rice or a pound cake may supply the place of the Savoy or sponge biscuit.
---Modern Cookery for Private Families. Eliza Acton, facsimile 1845 
reprint with an introduction by Elizabeth Ray [Southover Press:East Sussex] 1993 (p. 405-6)

So, what type of Charlotte Russe is a Kossuth Cake?
There is very little information about how the original Kossuth Cake was made because few recipes were recorded. Luckily, the author of The Amiable Baltimoreans, Francis Beirne, gives a good description of the Kossuth Cake.  He describes it as a sponge cake about three inches in diameter and two inches high that was hallowed out and filled with thick whipped cream. The whipped cream was topped off with chocolate or strawberry icing. Each Kossuth cake was made to sit in a pleated paper cup and was served slightly chilled. This clearly sounds more like the New York style Charlotte Russe as opposed to the original 19th c. style one made with lady fingers and Bavarian cream or the 1845 Charlotte a la Parisienne referenced above. 

The Cake Seem Delicious, So Why Isn't the Kossuth Cake More Popular Today?
Beirne wrote "No local cookbooks mention Kossuth cakes which obviously have been the monopoly of the confectioners and caterers." As a Maryland food historian who has searched dozens of Maryland cookbooks and recipe manuscripts, I agree, with one exception which I will get to soon, that recipes for these cakes are hard to find. Furthermore, Beirne goes on to say that even in his day (writing in 1951), Kossuth Cakes could only be found in a couple of Baltimore bakeries. Therefore, even on a commercial level, it seems that the popularity of the cake may have been on the wane even by the middle of the 20th c.  It is very hard to know why the cakes did not continue to sell well enough for bakeries to keep making them. Without the bakeries making them, and with few recipes floating around for them, it's not hard to see how they fell out of fashion.

While Kossuth Cakes may not be a common confection around Maryland, there are a few instances where they can still be found:
  • There is a mid 20th c. recipe for Kossuth Cakes in Maryland’s Way, The Hammond Harwood House Cook Book, 1963. (see recipe below)
  • Internet searches reveal a few recipes for variations of the cakes, but not many.
  • It has been a long-standing 20th century tradition to eat Kossuth Cakes at St. Timothy’s School in Baltimore after the annual Basketball competition against the girls of the Bryn Mawr school.  However, it no longer appears that this is a functioning tradition there anymore.
  • In 2014, the University of Maryland commissioned a custom Maryland ice cream to commemorate the school's entrance into the Big 10 Conference.  The ice cream included pieces of Kossuth Cake.
Kossuth Cake Batter

Kossuth Cakes, The Recipe:

This recipe, found in Maryland’s Way, The Hammond Harwood House Cook Book, 1963 reflects Beirne's description of the dessert. The recipe makes enough for 12 regular cupcake sized cakes.

Here it is:

Ingredients for the Cake:
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 ¾ cups pastry flour
 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup milk
½ tsp vanilla

(Have everything at room temperature)

Cream butter and sugar well, add beaten eggs, and fold in flour, baking powder and salt (sifted together), alternately with the milk. Add the vanilla. Bake at 350° in muffin pans [for 16-18 minutes]. When done, cool, cut almost in half, fill with sweetened whipped cream and ice top of cakes.

Chocolate Icing: 
Mixing Chocolate Icing

2 ½ squares [ounces] of chocolate
¼ cup butter
½ pound confectioner’s sugar
2 egg yolks

Melt chocolate and butter, add sugar and a little hot water until just soft enough to spread, then beat in egg yolks and add a pinch of salt and a little vanilla. Makes a soft icing.

Strawberry Icing

10 ripe strawberries
½ tsp lemon juice
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
Mixing Strawberry Icing

Mash berries with a fork, add lemon juice. Gradually add sugar until stiff enough to spread, yet soft enough to run over top of cream-filled cakes which have been placed in low compotes or on individual dessert plates, ready to serve. [I found this recipe to be too thin so I added more sugar]

Whether you've heard of Kossuth Cake or not, if you try the recipe you will undoubtedly agree that it is a confection that should be given a second look, and a dessert any Marylander would be proud to claim.  Bon Appetit!

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