Posts Tagged ‘The Little House Cookbook’

Cooking With Chloe: Ma’s Vanity Cakes

March 9, 2016

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!