Nfld. & Labrador

Risking abduction by fairies to modernize a 1905 Newfoundland blueberry cake

Chef Andie Bulman has been spending rainy afternoons in the archives, searching for old Newfoundland recipes from the early 1900s that she can recreate.

Ancient Newfoundland recipes use long-forgotten measurements and a drop of fairy lore

Chef Andie Bulman set out to recreate a blueberry cake recipe that first appeared in 1905. (Lisa Gushue/CBC)

Lately, I've been spending my rainy afternoons in the archives, searching for old Newfoundland recipes from the early 1900s to recreate. These tomes can be fascinating to modern readers like me, containing words and knowledge and units of measurement that have all but disappeared.

Cookbooks can function as a snapshot of times gone by, giving us insight into folklore, myth, and the economic reality of a moment in history.

But they also need to evolve. You can see this in any family cookbook: your grandmother has written the recipe, but your mom and dad have added their own notes.

Blueberry recipes punctuate old Newfoundland cookbooks because berry picking and preserving the berry harvest was an important part of surviving a winter here.

Whole families spent their autumns wandering the barrens, picking their fill, and selling to those who couldn't.

Myths and lore can also be connected to these recipes. Fairy stories in particular seem to be linked to berry picking, and served almost as fables, warning children against wandering alone in the woods.

Children were told not to stray too far or "the fairies might get ya!"

The recipe below first appeared in a cookbook in 1905, written by Mrs. G. Milligina. 

Blueberry cake: One coffee cup of sugar, one-third cup of butter, 1½ cups of sifted flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, three eggs beaten separately, half teaspoon of lemon flavouring, the cup of blueberries, bake half an hour. While hot, ice with clear icing.

I want to bring these old recipes (and specifically this blueberry cake) into present-day ovens. Now's the time to update them for a modern audience, but the actual recipe itself is bewildering to behold.

Why beat each egg separately? Why is a coffee cup of sugar a measurement? Exactly how big was a coffee cup in 1905?

I'm a millennial who relies on caffeine to endure her six part-time contract jobs. I have to assume that a coffee cup for someone who mainlines caffeine in 2019 is much bigger than the coffee cups of 1905.

Similarly, is "the cup of blueberries" measured with the same coffee cup or a standard cup? What temperature does this cake bake at — that feels like key information to leave out, but it's actually a common omission in older cookbooks. 

As you can see, recreating old recipes involves a great deal of guesswork and conjecture. I did my best to recreate the blueberry cake of 1905, but it fell a bit flat.

Delicious, but too dense.

Save those crumbs… 

I decided to update the recipe by treating the original as a spine, adding my own columns as I made changes that I feel reflect our time period.

Thyme and almonds were added to the cake. Instead of a lemon extract, I added a tablespoon of local birch syrup (maple will work beautifully. Bourbon could also be fun). I played around with the ratios and gave the top a crunchy topping as opposed to vague clear icing listed in the recipe above.

The result is a moist, modern blueberry cake that harkens to way back when.

Oh ... and save the crumbs for your pocket if you're enjoying it in the woods!

Our chef chose to add toasted oats as part of the cake's topping. (Lisa Gushue/CBC)

1. Prepare the cake batter

Here's what you need:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp birch syrup (maple would also work. Bourbon could be fun too!)
  • 1¼ cup all-purpose flour 
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries

2. Make the cake topping 

Here's what you need:

  • ½ cup unsalted brown butter
  • ½ cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 cup of toasted oats (optional)
  • 2 tsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sliced almonds
  • Thyme (to garnish)
  • 1 tbsp heavy cream

3. Recipe prep and baking instructions

Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray a nine-inch springform pan with cooking oil and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper. 

Beat the eggs and sugar together until pale yellow in colour, about five minutes. Add the baking powder and salt and stir in.

In a separate bowl, stir the melted butter, vanilla and birch syrup (if using) together, then add it to the egg mixture. Beat to incorporate, then add the flour and mix until absorbed. Do not over mix! Beating every single lump out of a cake batter will result in too much gluten and a tough cake.

Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan and spread evenly.

Sprinkle the blueberries over the cake batter, then press berries into the batter. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes in oven, or until the cake is puffy in the middle and just starting to turn golden brown on the edges.

Next, you'll want to brown your butter for the topping. Place the butter on the stovetop at a medium heat, keep a close eye on it. You'll want to take it off the heat when the butter releases a nutty smell and is a nice tan colour.

This gorgeous cake will be your reward. (Lisa Gushue/CBC)

Keep the browned butter at room temperature and at about 10 minutes before cake is done, combine all the topping ingredients into a pan and cook on the stovetop on medium high heat until it starts to bubble. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for three minutes, stirring once or twice carefully, trying not to break any of the sliced almonds.

Once the cake is barely done, pull it out of the oven and increase the heat of the oven to 400 F. Carefully spoon the topping ingredients over the cake. Return cake to the oven and bake for an additional 10 minutes.

Let cool in the pan 15-20 minutes before removing from springform pan. Garnish with thyme and serve!

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Andie Bulman

Freelance contributor

Andie Bulman is a chef, writer and comedian in St. John's. She is the author of the book Salt Beef Buckets: A Love Story and writes frequently for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.