October Recipe of the Month: Cider Cake

Opening lines of an 18th century poem about cider
John Phillips 1676-1709; Cyder, a Poem in Two Books

October is upon us, the month of apples...and what's more, the month of cider.  

To most modern Americans, apple cider means an unfermented beverage, not too different from apple juice. But to our ancestors those words meant something distinctly alcoholic, fermented to various degrees of potency – what we now distinguish with the appellation "hard cider"

Most of us know the legend of John Chapman – Johnny Appleseed – who traveled around the country planting apple trees. But what many don't know is that his peregrinations and plantings were for the purpose of providing the country with cider….cider that was nothing like the liquid found in those little cardboard boxes in lunch pails..

Apple juice shared the fate of apples generally during the last third of the 20th century and underwent an unfortunate period of homogenization and bland-ification.  Happily, it’s now increasingly possible to find heirloom varieties such as the Cherry Cox, the Belle de Boskoop, and even the elusive but delicious Esopus Spitzenburg which, according to The Apples of New York,  was the parent apple of such popular varieties as the Jonathan

What's more, one can find more and more Michigan hard apple ciders on the market. Some are varietal, some more or less successful experiments – such as those aged in oak – some tried-and-true favorites like Uncle John’s, and most are at least worth sampling.

Which brings us, in a somewhat roundabout fashion, to October’s Recipe of the Month: Cider Cake.

We have numerous cider cake recipes, in The American Frugal Housewife (1838), Mrs. Ellis's Housekeeping Made Easy (1843), Mackenzie's Ten Thousand Receipts (1866), The New Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy (1872, apparently copied verbatim from The American Frugal Housewife), The Successful Housekeeper (1883), and others. This recipe is modified from two in The American Matron of 1851, held by the William L. Clements Library and available from Hathi Trust here.

The combination of apple cider (use something full flavored, not too dry) nutmeg, cloves and rosewater gives a result a little different from what the 21st century palate is used to. This concatenation of flavors suggests that cider cake (at least as it comes down to us through 19th century American cookbooks) dates from the 18th century. The cake stands well on its own, although a brush of boiled cider (apple cider boiled down to a thin syrup) just as the cake comes out of the oven is also very pleasant.

The 1851 recipes:

Cider Cake recipes from The American Matron - 1851

Cider Cake. Three pounds of flour; two pounds of sugar; one pound of butter; five gills of cider; six eggs ; two nutmegs; a spoonful of cloves; wine glass of rose water; raisins and citron if you please.

Cider Cake. Three cups of flour; two cups of sugar; one cup of butter; four eggs; one cup of cider; tea-spoonful of saleratus.

The 2012 recipe:

  • 1c butter
  • 2c sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1c hard cider
  • 3 Tblsp rosewater
  • 3c flour
  • 1tsp baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 3/8 tsp cloves
  • 1 1/2c raisins (optional)
  • 1/2c candied citron (optional)    
  1. Butter and lightly flour a 9” x 13” pyrex or stoneware pan.  
  2. Preheat the oven to 350°
  3. Chop the citron fine. Toss the citron and raisins with a little of the flour and set aside.
  4. Whisk the baking soda and spices into the rest of the flour and set aside.
  5. Cream the butter and sugar till light and fluffy.
  6. Add eggs one at a time and beat until very light and fluffy.
  7. Beat in the rosewater.
  8. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, and beat again briefly.
  9. Add the cider and the flour alternately, in several additions, beginning and ending with the flour.
  10. After the flour is all in, scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, add the raisins and citron, and beat again briefly.
  11. Bake approximately 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.