Walk, Don't Run: Gold Rush Cake

I recently received a wonderful gift: a vintage cookbook containing all 1000 recipes from the first ten Pillsbury Bake-Off contests (1949-1958). My friend unearthed this gem while sorting through items in preparation for a garage sale and she thoughtfully set it aside for me. Pillsbury's Best 1000 Recipes: Best of the Bake-Off Collection was published in 1959, and my copy is in pristine condition.

Flipping through this cookbook is fascinating. The first thing I noticed is that all of the recipes are quite terse. I'm not sure if this is the way they were written by contestants, or if they were edited down to the bare minimum to fit into the book (which is over 600 pages). Or perhaps the recipes are streamlined because cooks in the 1950s knew what they were doing and didn't need a lot of hand holding.

There are no separate ingredient lists; ingredients and their quantities are only mentioned within the recipe directions. The detailed descriptions and explanations typically found in modern cookbooks are also absent. For instance, the cake recipes simply give you a time and temperature for baking; there is no specific guidance as to how you know when the cake is done (e.g., what color should the cake be, should it spring back lightly when pressed, will a toothpick come out clean). Likewise, there are no instructions on how long you can keep the finished products or how you should store them (e.g., do they require refrigeration).

And of course, the recipes are interesting! All of the recipes from these early Bake-Offs had to use at least one-half cup of Pillsbury flour, but that requirement still allows for a tremendous amount of flexibility and variety. Plus, everything in these recipes is made from scratch -- there are no premade pie crusts, tubes of cookie dough, or cans of biscuits here!

The present day Pillsbury Bake-Off contest, and the types of recipes that are eligible for entry, are quite different. In the modern era, the rules for the Bake-Offs are much more complicated and can change significantly from contest to contest. For instance, for the 46th Bake-Off that will take place in Las Vegas next month, recipes must fall into one of three specific categories ("Amazing Doable Dinners," Simple Sweets and Starters," and "Quick Rise and Shine Breakfasts,"), contain seven ingredients or less, be prepared in 30 minutes or less (not including cooking or baking time), and use specified quantities of two enumerated eligible products made by Pillsbury, Smuckers, Jif, Crisco, Eagle Brand, or Green Giant. In short, the recipes from the 1959 cookbook wouldn't cut it today.

I decided to try was the "Gold Rush Cake" that was submitted by Mrs. Vava M. Blackburn. It was a "Best of Class Winner" in the third Bake-Off (1951), and it is described as "An extra high, luscious and fine-textured gold cake with swirls of fluffy orange frosting." To make the batter, you cream together shortening and sugar; add in 2/3 cup of egg yolks (this was 10 eggs for me) that have been beaten until thick and light colored; and alternately add in the sifted dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking soda) and liquid ingredients (buttermilk, vanilla, lemon zest). The recipe says to bake the batter in two 8-inch or 9-inch pans that have been buttered and floured, for 30-35 minutes.

I used 8-inch cake pans and the cakes were definitely done after 30 minutes. After the cakes were cool, I leveled the layers and filled and frosted them with a "Fluffy Orange Frosting" that you make by beating together sugar, corn syrup, egg whites, orange juice, orange zest, and cream of tartar in a double boiler until still peaks form.

The frosting was basically orange-flavored marshmallow; while it was glossy and easy to spread while it was still warm, the frosting set quickly as it cooled and then became very sticky. I liked the way the cake looked; to me the fluffy frosting had a retro feel, but I might have been predisposed to think that since I knew the recipe was from the early 1950s.

Even though the frosting was sticky, I was able to cut neat slices. The cake (especially in conjunction with the frosting) had a light and pleasant citrus flavor. But I was disappointed -- especially given that this recipe was not just a finalist, but one of the prize winners in the Bake-Off. The cake was dry (although I'm wondering if perhaps this is because it was overbaked) and it definitely needed frosting. Although the cookbook promised a "gold cake" that is "extra high," it was neither. The color was a sallow yellow, and the cake did not rise particularly high, especially given that I baked it in 8-inch pans (if I had used 9-inch pans, the layers would have been even shorter).

I couldn't help comparing this cake to Joanne Chang's yellow cake recipe. Hers is superior in every way: texture, moistness, appearance, height, flavor. Still, when I brought the gold rush cake over to our friends Jim and Colleen shortly after the arrival of their new baby, everyone finished their cake, including their two older daughters. Since the preschool set can be finicky, I consider that a success.

I'm still looking forward to trying other recipes from this cookbook! And if you would like to do the same, a reproduction of the 1959 cookbook was published a few years ago, and it is completely true to the original. I hope to take many wonderful (and hopefully delicious) trips down memory lane!

Recipe: "Gold Rush Cake" by Mrs. Vava M. Blackburn of Walla Walla, Washington, and "Fluffy Orange Frosting" from the Third Pillsbury Bake-Off (1951); recipes available in Pillsbury's Best 1000 Recipes: Best of the Bake-Off Collection.

Previous Post: "Liam Turns Three: Yellow Birthday Cake with Fluffy Chocolate Ganache Frosting," August 9, 2012.


Louise said…
I'm sure you don't remember when, in 1982, Gourmet Magazine changed it's recipe format from a conversational style such as you describe which had the ingredients within the the directions. It previously assumed that its readers were accomplished cooks and verbal shorthand was fine. Instructions were always terse in older cookbooks.