A batter made of eggs and flour and rolled thin. Pieces are fried in hot lard until puffed and golden brown. — Martha Quiner Carpenter, 1925
They were called vanity cakes because there was nothing to them. – Letter from Martha Carpenter to Laura Ingalls Wilder
One of my favorite Little House foods to think about has always been Vanity Cakes (see On the Banks of Plum Creek, Chapter 23, “Country Party”). Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a letter to her Aunt Martha Quiner Carpenter (Ma’s sister) around 1925, asking her for the recipe, if she knew it. A portion of Aunt Martha’s reply to LIW is below:
I don’t fry, and I’ve only eaten vanity cakes once when a friend made them one year at Rocky Ridge Day in Mansfield. I do make popovers.
My father loved to cook (he died in 1988), and one of the things he often made for breakfast after he retired reminds me a bit of vanity cakes in taste. It’s called Golden Lamb’s Pancake, which I suspect was a recipe he copied out of an Early American Life magazine, which he was always trying recipes from. The Golden Lamb is Ohio’s oldest inn, and the recipe may be one of theirs, although I don’t know for sure.
Unlike fried vanity cakes, this pancake contains a little milk in addition to the eggs and flour. Poured into a well-greased and piping hot iron skillet and placed in a hot oven, it rises in air-filled puffs that will remain crispy if you don’t add the lime juice at the end (I almost never do, and I rarely add the brandy). It’s a pretty breakfast or dessert pancake, and a really easy batter to prepare. Serve with fruit or maple syrup; you can pull pieces off or slice into wedges. I made the pancake in the photo while I was writing this blog entry!
After posting this entry, I had several comments that my pancake is exactly like a Dutch Baby – or German pancake, which I’d never heard of. It is! Thanks!
Vanity Cakes. This recipe appeared in the Iroquois Herald, a Kingsbury County newspaper, in 1882. It is very similar to the recipe for vanity cakes found in Barbara Walker’s The Little House Cookbook:
Recipe for PUFFS, which are nice made for tea, call for one pint of sweet milk, six ounces of sifted flour, four eggs, a good pinch of salt. The milk must be scalded, and then be allowed to cool a little, then stir the flour in, not leaving a single lump. Beat the eggs till they are very light, then add the milk and flour. Fry these in hot lard, dropping a spoonful at a time, as you do for fritters. By taking pains you can make these puffs as round as balls. Do not let them string from the spoon, but, holding it down close to the lard, cut the batter off with a knife. Sift powdered sugar over them just before sending them to the table.
This recipe is from the Kasson (Minnesota) Telegraph in 1874, hometown paper of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s friend, Mary Power:
Spanish Puffs– Put into a saucepan a teacupful of water, a teaspoon of powdered sugar, half a teaspoonful of salt, and two ounces of butter. While boiling add sufficient flour for it to leave the saucepan; stir in one by one the yolks of four eggs, drop a teaspoonful at a time into boiling lard, fry them a light brown, and pour white wine and melted butter over them.
vanity cakes (BPC 23)