Cooking With Chloe: Ma’s Vanity Cakes

Laura Ingalls Wilder fans likely remember the description of Vanity Cakes in By The Banks Of Plum Creek:

(Ma) made them with beaten eggs and white flour. She dropped them into a kettle of sizzling fat. Each one came up bobbing, and floated till it turned itself over, lifting up its honey-brown, puffy bottom. Then it swelled underneath till it was round, and Ma lifted it out with a fork. She put every one of those cakes in the cupboard.  They were for the party.

They sound deceptively simple, but Laura never learned to make Vanity Cakes.  After the success of her first books, she tried to rediscover the secret. On June 22, 1925, she wrote to her Aunt Martha asking for the recipe:

(Excerpt; original letter in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

(Excerpt; original letter in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

Mother used to make what she called “Vanity Cakes” years ago. They were mostly egg and they were fried in deep fat. When done they were simply bubbles, usually with a hollow center and they were crisp around the edges.  …I would so much like to have the recipe.

Aunt Martha responded:

(Excerpt; original letter in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

(Excerpt; original letter in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

The vanity cake that you ask about is just made out of egg (someone penciled in “one or two”) and flour, a pinch of salt; pinch (off) in little pieces and rolled out as thin as you can and fried in hot lard.  …They were called vanity cakes because there was nothing to them.

If you search the internet for “Vanity Cakes,” you’ll find a lot of blog posts written by people who have tried to make them, most with less than stellar results.

At a program last fall two readers, Kami J. and her mom Sharon, volunteered to make Vanity Cakes and report back. They too were disappointed with the results. (I don’t usually post recipes unless test bakers/cooks are happy with the finished product, but so many people are curious about Vanity Cakes that I’m making an exception.)

Here’s the recipe.

The recipe on this vintage card

The recipe on this vintage card is still available at some of the homesites. (No additional credit provided on this card.)

Note that it does not call for rolling out the dough thinly, as Laura’s aunt instructed.

Kami reported, We ended up adding more than 3 oz. of flour.  The first picture shows the better with that amount.

vanity cakes

There was no way we would have been able to make them into small pancakes without more flour. We added about double the specified amount.

vanity cakes

vanity cakes

We fried them, and rolled them in powdered sugar.

vanity cakes

They tasted OK, but were not very flavorful.

vanity cakes

I checked my copy of The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories, by Barbara M. Walker (Harper & Row, 1979).

The Little House Cookbook

Her recipe for 6 Vanity Cakes calls for 1-2 pounds of lard (for frying), 1 large egg, a pinch of salt, 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour, and a shakerful of powdered sugar—almost identical to the printed card.

She notes in the introduction:  …Not all dishes will be greeted with enthusiasm at the table; some are admittedly historic, rather than taste sensations.  But all are revealing in one way or another.

Perhaps Vanity Cakes were simply a novelty for children used to very simple fare. As Laura’s aunt said in the letter, We did not have many receipts (i.e., recipes) (in) those days for we did not have anything to do with (I interpret this to mean they had few supplies to work with.) We used to make them for a change.

If you’re interested in learning more, I do highly recommend The Little House Cookbook.

Have you tried making Vanity Cakes?  If so, I’d love to hear about your experience!

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17 Responses to “Cooking With Chloe: Ma’s Vanity Cakes”

  1. Lois Scorgie Says:

    When I read this recipe it reminded me of the Scandanavian recipe, in Norwegian FATTIGMAN. I have never made it but I certainly ate it a great deal, only at Christmas, when I was growing up. Yes, some of the ingredients are flour, butter, eggs…..then recipes change. The process of preparing FATTIGMAN is very close to vANITY CAKES. You can find many entries on the internet and I know Westerheim would have more information.
    I know the Ingalls were English but recipes move from country to country and through the areas.

    The fried pieces of dough were delicious, especially after being dipped in sugar.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Lois, thanks for sharing. I agree, in times when fancy ingredients weren’t available, shaping something simple in a different way–and ooh, dipping in sugar–would be a treat just about anywhere. It would be fun to look for all the examples across ethnicities. Do Fattigman have hollow centers? I know I’ve tried it (at Vesterheim!) but I don’t recall. I think that’s the feature that vexes most cooks.

  2. Marlene Says:

    It seems frying the cakes is what made them special and different from ordinary bread. The description in the book made me think of donuts without sugar.

  3. Lois Scorgie Says:

    No, I do not recall fattigmann having a hollow center. What I remember is a thin piece of dough cut in a rectangle twisted in center, fried, dipped in sugar.

  4. Angela Says:

    I just discovered your blog today, and I’m loving it!

    I’ve always wondered about Vanity Cakes. Laura makes them sound so good in the books, but when you look at the ingredients involved, they don’t sound very good. I’m glad you tried them out so I wouldn’t have to keep wondering!

    The only Little House recipe I’ve tried is the one for that ginger water (I can’t remember the name of it) that Ma used to make for Pa when he was working in the fields. It was awful. Really awful.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Angela – glad you found the blog! We obviously have a lot in common. :>)

      When I worked in the historic sites world I tried switchel, which is basically the same thing–water mixed with vinegar and ginger, perhaps sweetened with a bit of molasses or maple syrup. I thought it was awful too. But on a very hot day I suppose it would have been a welcome treat. It’s often called “haymakers’ switchel,” so I picture a group of thirsty, sweaty, dusty field workers.

  5. Angela Lukehart Says:

    I made this recipe a few years ago for the same reason as everyone else–I wanted to try Ma’s vanity cakes! Like many other readers, I was a bit disappointed in the lack of flavor, but I know that pioneer women did not have many seasoning to work with. Add some cinnamon to the powdered sugar and a bit of vanilla to the dough, and it is a delicious treat. I’m sure if Ma would’ve had these ingredients, she would have used them!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Angela! I think you’re right–baking vanity cakes is a reminder to keep the historic context in mind. Something with a bit of cinnamon would have seemed like a real treat.

  6. Holly Says:

    I always wonder what Nellie thought of the vanity cakes. For someone who got sugary cake and lemonade at her party little bits of bland fried dough must not have appealed much to her!

  7. ceciliabedilia Says:

    I was curious about vanity cakes the other day, having had a memory of reading (and re-reading, and re-reading…) this book, and this passage in particular, with such interest as a child. It occurs to me that the closest recipe I can think of to obtain the desired outcome would be something similar to “chiacchiere,” also known accross Eastern Europe by various different names. It’s essentially flour, some baking powder or bicarbonate, a small amount of lard/butter/oil, and eggs, mixed into a stiff dough, rolled flat, cut into shapes, and fried. They puff up exactly as described, like little crisp bubbles of nothing. In case anyone happens upon this blog post, as I did, curious about whether anyone else had solved the mystery, I thought I would leave a record of my own ideas. Thanks so much for allowing me the pleasure!

  8. Helena Says:

    I wonder how many bloggers actually used lard and not oil.
    It makes a difference when you e.g. fey eggs, so maybe also in this case?

  9. peaceatthelake Says:

    We were just reading about the vanity cakes tonight. Reading through Aunt Martha’s recipe above, she is missing an ingredient in the listing. My husband suggested that she meant butter and I think he is probably right because she says “…a pinch of in little pieces…” That would make it a little more flavorful and probably make it crisp up better.

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