One of my favorite cakes is a Lemon Jelly Cake — yellow cake layers with lemon filling in between them and on top. No fussy, too-sugary icing (or Seven-minute Frosting). Just plain, buttery cake and a sweet, tart jelly.
The recipe for the lemon jelly comes from my great grandmother, Ada Rowell, and I found a handwritten copy of it in Granny’s high school home economics book, Principles of Cooking by Emma Conley. Granny graduated in 1919, and wrote in the front of the book that she had used it from 1915 – 1917, when domestic science was just beginning to be taught in schools. Now, a hundred years later, the covers are held on the book by a random piece of selvage someone tied around it and the pages are stained and brittle, but it still contains information that useful to this very day.
It’s a fascinating thing to look through, and I’ve included some highlights from its pages in the slide show above. One of the first things it talks about is making fires. Now I don’t know about you, but having to build a fire is something I’ve never thought about as I go about my daily cooking. But then, electric stoves were not very common and electricity was rare and expensive. One of the last is how to teach domestic science in rural areas (like Citronelle) where resources might be limited and the whole school might consist of only one or two rooms.
The book also talks about the reasons for cooking (it kills bacteria, which is important) and methods of cooking. It illustrates the makeup of different foods. What percentage is protein, fat, water, carbohydrate, etc. There are diagrams of different cuts of meat, one superimposed over the picture of a sheep, which is mutton when it’s on your plate. There are what appear to be etchings showing different scenes of where food comes from.
It starts with the basics like how to make toast and fry bacon. Then moves on to white sauce, which, as you know, I consider to be the basis for just about everything there is to be cooked. There are menus for different types of meals you might have — a luncheon, a breakfast, a dinner. There are diagrams to show you how to set a table. Just about everything a young woman would need to know to successfully run her household, or at least feed it.
This cookbook was the only cookbook Granny ever had, and, like most people, she’d made some little notes in it and stuck a few cut-out recipes and handwritten recipes in it. Which brings me back to her mama’s lemon jelly. This filling is similar to lemon curd, but not quite as opaque. It’s sweet and tart and sticky in a good way. As Granny wrote it, the recipe is really just a list of ingredients, so some of our kitchen knowledge has to come into play when we make it.
Ingredients (as Granny wrote them with my notes in parentheses)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 lemon juice (I take this to be the juice of one lemon.)
- Lump of butter (Probably about a tablespoon.)
Combine all ingredients in a double boiler and cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar has melted and the mixture coats the back of a spoon well. Spread between layers of your favorite yellow cake and spoon some over the top.