17 January 2014

Sylvia Plath's Heavenly Sponge Cake

Kate Moses in 2003P.H. Davies in 2012, Elizabeth Street, and Graywolf Press, among others, have made Sylvia Plath's "Tomato Soup Cake." I am with Graywolf here on this, finding the concept "simultaneously repulsive and appealing". I will try it one day, I am sure... However, this blog post is about another Sylvia Plath recipe.

In a letter Sylvia Plath wrote to her sister-in-law Olwyn Hughes from May 1959, she included a recipe for her heavenly sponge cake. Plath recommends making the cake in a funneled high cake pan, which my wife tells me is like a angel food cake pan (also known as a tube pan. If you are a fan of a certain Plath scholar you can use a bundt pan and achieve ... wait for it ... Bundt-zen! Sorry.). Plath even includes a drawing of the pan in the left margin of her typed letter.

Being wholly culinarily uncoordinated, I begged (it was not pretty) my wife to try the recipe out.

The ingredients you will need are:
6 separated eggs;
1½ cups sifted sugar;
1½ cups cake flour;
1½ teaspoons baking powder;
¼ teaspoon salt;
6 tablespoons water;
½ teaspoon lemon extract; and
1 teaspoon vanilla.

And maybe a new exercise regime!

Plath includes pretty detailed instructions for making the cake. Not being able to quote them I will paraphrase…

Beat egg yolks together until they are lemon-colored adding sugar as you go;
Add water and the flavorings;
Beat while adding the cake flour;
Beat egg whites to a froth (can you just imagine the joy this gave Plath?);
Add in the baking powder and salt to the frothed egg whites;
Continue beating until very firm;
Fold this gently and thoroughly into the egg yolk stuff;
Add in granulated sugar over the top before placing in oven;
Oven should be at 325° and it bakes for one hour;
Wait until the cake pan is cold before removing.

Plath instructs her sister-in-law to sift the sugar; but granulated sugar does not need sifting. We did sift the cake flour ("Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus, / Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.") and feel that Plath may have put the sift part in the wrong place… Who knows, it might have been an act of unconscious, devilish cake sabotage? And, we cheated, using our pink mod cons rather than doing stuff by hand... She ends the letter wishing Olwyn some happy times with her eating. This letter is held by the British Library in the Olwyn Hughes Correspondence: ADD Ms 88948/1/1.

This is not a cake for everyone. If you are vegan, this recipe by Charlotte White from the Food Network UK might help you if you want to try it without eggs.

The cake turned out nicely, very light (though heavier and more dense than angel food cake) with a scrumptiously crispy sugary top and a nice flavor of lemon throughout, which surprised us as there is really so little in there. We recommend cutting large portions and serving with a hot beverage (tea or mocha, perhaps) and your favorite book by or about Sylvia Plath.

Here are some pictures!

Whipping the eggs

Sifting the cake flour

Ready to fold

Folded & sugared

Done baking - mmmmm - & cookies, too!
I do not wonder why
I have gained weight

Close-up & personal

I see you looking while I was "quiet at my cooking"...
(and shameless self-promotion)

Plath made various sponge cakes in her time: some lemon, some orange, and likely some other. She made a sponge cake several times in North Tawton. One time she made it for the Tyrer's, but she ended up serving it to Rose Key over tea as the Tyrer's did not show up. She called it her "big fancy sponge cake made with 6 eggs" (Journals 665). Rose Key (wisely) praised it. The journal entry is undated, but it might have been circa 3 February 1962 as the words "cake -- sponge" appear in her 1962 Lett's calendar (housed at Smith College). In a 7 February 1962 letter to her mother, Plath writes about making Aunt Dotty's 6-egg sponge that week. She later made a sponge cake on 21 April 1962 (also on her Letts calendar, and two days after she wrote "Elm"). This time she served it to Marjorie and Nicola Tyrer and was told how Nicola's underwear had been caught in their charwoman's hoover. And on that note...

If you have not already, please read David Trinidad's wonderful poem "The Sylvia Plath Cake Cookbook".

All links accessed 16 January 2014.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I bought all the ingredients for the Tomato Soup Cake, and then chickened out. While I try to tell myself that it must be something like carrot cake, my knowledge of all the chemicals that go into a can of soup make me resistant.

I did once make her lemon pudding tarts. They were not as pretty as I had hoped, but quite delicious.

Plain sponge cake is so entirely British! My British Nana made them all the time, and they usually never had icing as we Americans do, although she often had a strip of jam and/or butter cream between two layers.

Thanks for sharing.

The Plath Diaries said...

Love love love this! And thank you for supplying the recipe!! I know how I'll be spending my Saturday!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Maeve - I certainly hope the cake turns out nicely! Do let us know.

You can make your own homemade tomato soup, perhaps, Julia?


A Piece of Plathery said...

Thank you very much, next time I need to bake I will try this :) the touch if lemon sounds lovely.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Plathery! Yes, but since the oven has to be on so long, you might enjoy it more when it isn't so sweltering hot outside.

Nick Smart said...

This is brilliant. My wife runs a small cake baking business. I may be begging her to try this as you begged your wife!

Anna said...

I'm definitely going to try this out as soon as possible! Have been planning to try Sylvia's reciped for ages!
Thank you Peter!

Carl Rollyson said...

Since I bake and have all the equipment the recipe is no problem for me. We ought to organize a party using Sylvia Plath's recipes.

Anonymous said...

In a US recipe sifted sugar = granulated sugar in the UK so it sounds as if Sylvia hadn't quite translated her American recipe fully into English. US kitchens don't usually have domestic scales so everything's measured in cups. Interesting she uses 'cake flour' rather than the usual 'all-purpose flour' to mean self-raising flour.

Maddy said...

This post inspired me to finally bake the tomato soup cake. It was DELCIOUS! A little like carrot, but better! YUM! You must try!

Anna said...

I would really love to try the tomato soup cake, but I have no clue about the soup, since I don't live in the USA or the UK and we don't have Heinz or Campbell's. Are there special herbs or ingridiens that should or should not be in the soup?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Anna: This is my wife's recipe for homemade tomato soup, which might be a decent alternative to store bought soup.

Measurements are American but I trust you can find appropriate conversions online:

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cans (14 1/2 ounces each) chicken (or vegetable) broth
2 cans (28 ounces each) whole peeled tomatoes in juice

In a 5-quart saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat; add oil, and season with salt and pepper. Stir in flour and tomato paste; cook 1 minute.

To saucepan, add broth and tomatoes, breaking up tomatoes with your fingers. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, 30 minutes.

Using an immersion blender, puree soup in pot, leaving a fair amount of the tomatoes in chunks. Or, working in several batches, puree half (5 cups) of the soup in a conventional blender until smooth; return to pot. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, or let cool to room temperature before dividing among airtight containers (leaving 1 inch of space at the top) and freezing.

Anna said...

Dear Peter! Thank you sooooooooooo much! This is truly amazing! I'm definitely trying this out! :)

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.