“You must thank Miss Norvell for her nice cake. I . . . assembled all the young gentlemen around it & though I told them it was a present from a beautiful young lady, they did not leave a crumb.”
And in Mrs. Robert E. Lee’s family cookbook is a recipe titled “Spice Cake Norvell.” Was this the recipe for the cake she sent to General Lee’s headquarters at Petersburg, Virginia?
Miss Norvell Caskie, a fashionable young lady living in Richmond during the war, befriended the Lee girls or at least influenced their fashion choices. Multiple letters reference Mildred and Agnes Lee comparing their evening gowns to Miss Caskie’s attire and having great satisfaction when they were a step ahead of her in style.
If I could pick anything to bake on a rainy day, it would probably be bread or cake. I really enjoy making cakes, and it’s been weird to not bake many this year since there haven’t really been parties, church picnics, or other large gatherings. It didn’t take much mental persuasion to add this cake to the list of historical cooking experiments.
I’ve baked historical cakes before and had only found one recipe worth keeping up to that point. Usually I find historical cakes very dense. I like a cake with substance, but not feeling like I ate a rock after enjoying a piece.
I had made a bargain with the Mackowskis for an ingredient in exchange for a big slice of cake, so the challenge was on. Make an authentic and good historical cake!
The recipe did not require beating egg whites into peaks, so I decided to mix the batter entirely by hand. I had this theory that an electric mixer might be too rough and maybe that had been my trouble with historic cakes in the past.
After mixing the spices, flour, brown sugar, butter, brandy, eggs, soda, and sour milk in the precise order directed in the recipe, I ran into a little trouble. The batter was supposed to be divided into four cake pans (all the same size) and it specifically says not to let the mixed batter sit around, presumably it would have a bad effect on the rising agents. I only have two cake pans, but I had three sturdy, disposable pie pans. (Thanksgiving is coming after-all.) So I decided to use those and just have a three layer cake!
The next morning after a little cake trimming, I whipped up a light brown sugar frosting from an Amish recipe. For a filling between the layers, I mixed a little frosting with chopped walnuts and started “gluing” the whole thing together.
When I finished, the cake rested on a plate from the 19th Century and stood about eight inches tall. A little garnish circle of chopped walnuts finished the cake.
The cake cut extremely well, not sticky but not rock solid either. First bite. Oh my! I will not be losing that recipe, but I might try a different icing next time around. (It also passed muster at the Mackowski homestead.)
Miss Caskie made a statement with that cake. Maybe she was just being kind and sending dessert for the Confederate general? Or did she have motives to show off her baking skills to all those bachelor officers around headquarters? We might never know, but it’s a fun story to enjoy with a dash of imagination and a big slice of spice cake!
Zimmer, Anne Carter. The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book. University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Pages 140-142.