In period movies and TV, white cakes mean rich people.
Surely you wouldn’t expect them to serve anything as crude as brown sugar on Downton Abbey, would you?
That’s mostly because, until the 20th century, using white sugar for baking cakes was not a simple process. Actually, cane sugar in general was kind of a pain. A longer history of sugar production is available here, but here’s the process in brief.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re standing in a field of sugar cane in 1880 and you want to make a white cake. What do you do next? I’m going to assume you know it has something to do with cutting the cane and squeezing it, so you’re off to a good start.
The juice squeezed from cane stalks is mixed with a calcium oxide solution (which lowers the acidity of the juice) and is boiled repeatedly. As it boils, impurities rise and are skimmed off; then, as it cools, the sugar forms crystals suspended in molasses.
The sugar and molasses are packed into barrels with filters in the bottom. After a few weeks, the molasses has drained into other containers (where it would go to be used as molasses or processed into rum) and the barrels are full of brown sugar crystals.
At that point, it might be sold as brown sugar. To make white sugar–which is sort of important, for a white cake–the crystals go to refineries, where they are dissolved in a solution that includes animal protein (egg white, typically) and heated again. As the protein coagulates, it catches impurities, just as it does when making a consommé.
After this step, the sugar is packed into cones, again with a filter at the bottom. In the 19th century, the next step was to pour a saturated sugar solution into the cones. Because the solution was saturated, it wouldn’t dissolve the sugar crystals–it would only wash away the remaining molasses. The loaf would then be baked and dried to eliminate any residual moisture.
Eventually, the resulting sugar would be white and firmly packed in the shape of the cone, with any residual molasses at the very tip of the cone. This would be shaved off, and as a consumer, you’d get this cone of solid sugar crystals, called a sugarloaf, that was about as hard as a sugar cube, except bigger. The consumer size was about 11 pounds and you’d typically then chip, shave, or pound pieces of sugar off as you need it. Stores and bakeries would get much larger containers.
Well, great. But how do you get it into a cake? Our sugar adventure continues in the post for white cake with raisins.
From the box of A.D. from Lutz, Florida, by way of Pennsylvania in the 1940s, and originating in Ohio in the 1920s.
White Layer Cake
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tsp. Royal baking powder
1 tsp. [vanilla] extract
2/3 cup water
2 cups flour
whites of 2 eggs
Cream shortening and sugar until very light. Add water, almost drop by drop, and beat at the same time. Stir in flour and baking powder. Fold in whites of eggs, beaten stiff.
Pour into two greased pans and bake in moderate oven 20 to 25 minutes.