When I plucked the cookbook from a Little Free Library, I didn't know that I would find a cake with a story as good as any in the discarded novels stacked there.
Flipping through the "Southern Heritage Cakes Cookbook" (Oxmoor House, 1983), I spotted a recipe for Minnehaha Cake.
Suspecting that there had to be a Minnesota angle baked into this cake, I followed my curiosity. My research led me to a recipe that went viral almost 150 years before such a term existed, a stunner of a scratch layer cake named for a literary character and favored by an early Minnesota-based female food entrepreneur.
Various versions of the wildly popular Minnehaha Cake recipe made the rounds in Minnesota publications perused by our great-great-grandparents. It shows up in numerous church cookbooks of the era held in the vast culinary collection at the Minnesota Historical Society. It was printed in the Aitkin Age newspaper in 1895 and in an 1898 promotional pamphlet given to the customers of a Minneapolis druggist.
The earliest Minnehaha Cake recipe sleuthed out by Minnesota food historian Rae Katherine Eighmey appeared in the Buckeye Centennial Cookbook, authored by Estelle Woods Wilcox and published in 1876.
An Ohio native, Wilcox had taken the lead in editing the charity cookbook in her home state. But when she married Alfred Gould Wilcox, a manager at the Minneapolis Daily Tribune, she moved to Minneapolis, bringing her culinary ambitions with her.
"Estelle was a very clever woman who bought the copyright back and had the second printing done by Tribune Printers in Minneapolis," Eighmey said. "She went on to create a cookbook empire that operated nationally."
From her new home in the Twin Cities, Wilcox and her husband formed Buckeye Publishing Co. She went on to edit and publish a successful women's magazine that collected recipes from readers. She mixed and matched them with others lifted from the Buckeye Cookbook and compiled them into dozens of reworked cookbooks published under various names.
The stunning Minnehaha Cake almost always made the cut, whether in "The Dixie Cookbook," pitched to Southern readers, or an edition printed in German for the sizable dessert-loving immigrant population settled in communities across the country.
In the late 19th century, when Wilcox was inspiring housewives and farmwives, cookbooks didn't spell out directions in the way readers expect today. Various recipes for the Minnehaha Cake icing involved boiling sugar until it was "waxy" or until "it hairs," but included nothing about the size and shape of the cake pans or even the temperature setting on the stove.
"There weren't standardized measuring cups and spoons, but cooks of the day understood ratios. Some recipes from this era call for a coffee cup, which is like a 1 cup measure, or a teacup, which is ¾ cup," explained Eighmey. "They baked by feel and sense, with casual expertise. They could tell how hot the oven was by how long they could hold their hand inside; 10 seconds meant a hot oven, 30 seconds was moderate."
The cake became popular as home cooks grew more eager to show off new sophistication with fancier recipes. The recipe emerged in the era when the Transcontinental Railroad brought mail order catalogs that sold baking tins and gadgets; the newly patented rotary eggbeater efficiently whipped egg whites into peaks for airier cakes. Exotic ingredients, such as the nuts and raisins used as filling in the Minnehaha Cake, also became more widely available.
"The original recipe calls for 'stoned' raisins because at the time, raisins had seeds, or stones. Digging them out would break the skin and expose the pulp of the dried fruit and create a richness of flavor," Eighmey said. "Your recipe that pulses raisins in a food processor achieves the same texture and taste."
Named for a poem
I couldn't find documentation for who originally tagged the cake with the name Minnehaha. The recipe showed up within a decade of the 1855 publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha," which introduced readers to the fictional Minnehaha, the bride of the epic's titular protagonist.
Even today, these lines sound familiar: "On the shores of Gitche Gumee,/ Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,/ Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,/ daughter of the moon, Nokomis …"
That distinctive beat goes on for 22 chapters and 5,314 lines, with a poetic meter that Longfellow reportedly employed for the way it mimicked Native chants.
A chapter of "The Song of Hiawatha" chronicles the feast that Longfellow imagined was served at their wedding. It includes sturgeon and pike, pemmican and buffalo marrow, "wild rice of the river," and, yes, "Yellow cakes of the Mondamin."
It's not too much of a stretch to surmise that particular stanza inspired an anonymous 19th-century baker to name her yellow cake after Minnehaha. In fact, Mondamin is the Native corn spirit and corn is not an ingredient in any version of the recipe. The Minnehaha cake is tinted yellow from the butter and egg yolks.
Although there's a Minneapolis neighborhood named for him, Longfellow himself never visited Minnehaha Falls or even set foot in Minnesota.
As for Estelle Woods Wilcox, she died in 1943 at age 94 after selling an estimated 1 million cookbooks. She is buried next to her husband in Minneapolis' Lakewood Cemetery.
Baking tips for the Minnehaha Cake
As an experienced but strictly amateur baker, I had no trouble following the straightforward directions to make the Minnehaha Cake (see recipe).
But by the time I was done, I had a sink full of dirty dishes after using my stand mixer, my hand mixer (for beating egg whites), my food processor, a saucepan, several bowls and my candy thermometer. I also pulled out the cake pedestal I inherited from my grandmother to show off my handiwork.
I don't believe that I have ever baked a three-layer cake before, so I did not have the requisite round pans in my kitchen cupboard. I purchased a trio of disposable aluminum pans at a grocery store that worked perfectly.
Frankly, I've always been a bit indifferent to raisins, but I found this recipe's technique that folds them into the filling created a taste sensation that I enjoyed far more than I had expected.
Makes a three-layer (8-inch round) cake, or 16 to 18 slices.
Note: This recipe includes many of the historic elements of the Minnehaha Cake, topped off with a rich burnt-sugar frosting. From the "Southern Heritage Cakes Cookbook" (Oxmoor House, 1983).
• 1 c. butter, softened
• 2 c. sugar
• 4 eggs, separated, room temperature
• 3 c. all-purpose flour
• 1 tbsp. baking powder
• Pinch of salt
• 1 c. milk
• 1 1/2 tsp. almond extract
• Minnehaha Cake Frosting (see recipe)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter, then gradually add sugar, beating well. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Add to creamed mixture alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix well after each addition. Stir in almond extract.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form; fold into the batter.
Spoon batter into three greased and floured 8-inch round pans. Bake for 35 minutes or until cake tests done. Cool in pans for 10 minutes; remove layers from pans and let cool completely. Frost before serving.
Minnehaha Cake Frosting
Makes enough for one 3-layer cake.
Note: Monitoring the temperature of the frosting is a key to its success, so using a candy thermometer is highly recommended. From Cook's Country magazine.
• 2 1/2 c. packed dark brown sugar
• 2 sticks (16 tbsp.) unsalted butter, softened, divided
• 2/3 c. heavy cream
• 1 c. sliced almonds, divided
• 2/3 c. raisins
Combine brown sugar, 10 tablespoons butter and cream in saucepan set over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and continue until mixture is slightly thickened and registers 240 degrees on candy thermometer.
Carefully transfer the liquid to the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until cooled to room temperature, about 15 minutes. Beat in remaining 6 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, until well incorporated.
For the filling: Pulse 3/4 cup almonds, raisins and 1 cup frosting in food processor until coarsely ground.
To assemble: Spread half of filling on first cake layer. Top with second cake layer and remaining filling. Top with final cake layer and frost top and sides with remaining plain frosting. Decorate with remaining almonds.
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.