Bake artful 19th-century recipes, courtesy the New-York Historical Society

Bake artful 19th-century recipes, courtesy the New-York Historical Society

Struggling to find inspiration in the kitchen? Take a recipe card from the carefully preserved manuscripts at the New-York Historical Society.

While the museum’s physical archives may be locked away (for now), the team unearthed some highlights from its historical recipe collection to launch a new weekly series. True to form, the initiative, dubbed “Recipe of the Week,” aims to spark the imagination of those cooking at home by creating a window into the lives of those in the past. The recipes, transcribed from looping cursive, will be sent out each week to subscribers of the New-York Historical Society’s free newsletter and will also be available on the museum’s website.

“Recipes from the past offer an intimate glimpse into the lives of those who came before us,” President and CEO Louise Mirrer said. “The women who wrote down these recipes lived through cholera outbreaks and the Civil War, all the while carrying out a wide range of domestic responsibilities, including cooking for their families. We hope these recipes can provide a measure of solace and inspiration during these trying times.”

Lemon cake recipe. New-York Historical Society.
Lemon cake recipe. New-York Historical Society.

The recipes are culled from the Duane family cookbooks, which date back to the 1800s. The collection contains six digitized volumes and suggests what a monied 19th-century kitchen might look like. Drawn from hand-written sheets, the ingredients, while familiar, sometimes err on the extreme. One recipe for a plum cake, for example, calls for 60 eggs, while an entry for potato pudding necessitates one pound each of potatoes, sugar and butter (a very heavy meal!).

The series kicked off with the Duane’s Civil War-era lemon cake. The recipe lists out the simple ingredients (measurements are in “tumblers,” which equate to about a cup in modern standards), as well as some basic instructions. But as handy as these guides are, cooks will have to trust their intuition and taste buds to figure out how long and at what temperature to bake the cake.

Lemon Cake

2 1/2 tumblers of powdered sugar
3/4 of butter
3 eggs
1 tumbler of milk
4 of flour
1 teaspoon of soda dissolved in milk
1 lemon juice & peel added last

The Duane family lived in New York City and were descendants of much-decorated James Duane (whose resume includes being a delegate to the First Continental Congress and the 44th mayor of New York City). The cookbooks in the museum’s collection have been attributed to Eliza Duane, Mary Wells and Fanny T. Wells.

You can see the lemon cake recipe on this page, which will be updated as more selections are shared.

[Looking for more art-inspired recipes? Explore memorable meals in literature in this episode of “It’s Lit!”]