New Recipe: Saluting Susan B. Anthony – The Ellsworth AmericanThe Ellsworth American

Suffragist made a light, airy sponge cake

Special to The Ellsworth American

The 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was a long time coming. First proposed in Congress in 1878, a women’s suffrage amendment finally was approved and sent to the states for ratification in 1919. By the time it became law, having been ratified by the 36th state in 1920, all of the first-generation women’s suffrage leaders had died. They did live long enough, however, to see incremental progress in state laws governing women’s rights. Women first won voting rights in Western states, starting with the territory of Wyoming in 1869.

The battle over women’s suffrage was so protracted because it involved the very definition of womanhood. In flowery prose, 19th-century politicians continually extolled the virtues of the ideal woman as a pious, self-effacing domestic goddess of “sweet dependency” who existed only to serve the needs of her husband and family. Such a woman did not need any political identity. To feel comfortable with the idea of universal suffrage, men would have to think differently about women’s roles and be less frightened by the prospect of them in the workplace.


It is revealing to compare orations by men about ideal womanhood during times of peace and times of war. Apparently, nobody wanted a clinging vine or a decorative ninny during the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, when women were needed to staff hospitals, raise money for wounded soldiers, run farms, and feed the army.

In the early decades of the 1800s, women were active in various reform movements. Most of those who led the campaign for women’s rights first served in leadership roles in the abolition and temperance movements. Susan B. Anthony was no exception. She was born into a Quaker family in Adams, Mass., and grew up in an atmosphere of social reform. Her work as a schoolteacher made her acutely conscious of the gross discrepancy in pay between men and women performing the same job. Joining Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others in the first national organization to promote woman suffrage, she became the primary organizer and an indefatigable lobbyist.

After the Civil War, suffrage leaders split over political strategy. Anthony and Stanton refused to support the 15th Amendment because it granted the vote only to black men. Insisting on an equal rights amendment for universal suffrage, they formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe and other women who supported the 15th Amendment formed a competing organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association. Not until 1890 did the two factions rejoin.

Frederick Douglass had been a lifelong friend of Anthony and her family, but he opposed the equal-rights platform because it was an obstacle in the path to achieving suffrage for black men. Anthony debated him over the amendment’s exclusion of woman suffrage. Douglass asked her if granting women the right to vote “would change anything — in respect to the nature of our sexes.” She replied, “It will change the nature of one thing very much, and that is the pecuniary nature of woman. It will place her in a position in which she can earn her own bread, so that she can go out into the world on equal competition in the struggle for life, so that she shall not be compelled to take such positions as men choose to accord … and then take such pay as men choose to give her.” 

Although the public believed Stone to be a better public speaker, and Anthony herself acknowledged that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a better writer, no one gave more time, thought and energy to the suffrage movement than Anthony. Dedicating her life to lecturing, travel, writing, and lobbying for the cause, she kept herself healthy by walking daily and eating sparingly.

Nevertheless, in 1898, she did respond to some college girls who asked for her favorite cake recipe. Sending them her sponge cake recipe, she capped her directions with the following advice, “It matters not how good the recipe or the ingredients may be, the cake will not be good unless there is a lot of common sense mixed in with the stir of the spoon!”

Susan B. Anthony’s Sponge Cake

Most modern sponge cake recipes call for baking powder or baking soda plus cream of tartar to provide extra rising power. Anthony’s traditional recipe relies solely on beaten egg whites for leavening. It does call for confectioners’ sugar, which contains cornstarch, which helps to stabilize the foam. Later versions of sponge cake, such as hot milk sponge, added milk and or butter for additional moisture. 

Susan B. Anthony’s cake was flavored with a little almond extract. Apparently, she served it plain, with no indication that it should be improved with frosting. Sponge cake alone has a light, airy texture, but it is rather dry. It is a perfect base for trifle, for charlotte russe, or for the following extravaganza of whipped cream and fresh berries. 

Sponge Cake

6 large eggs, separated

1¾ cups powdered sugar, divided

1¼ cups cake flour, sifted twice

½ tsp. almond extract or lemon extract 

pinch of salt

For flavored syrup:

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 cup water

1/3 cup raspberries or strawberries, fresh or frozen

For stabilized whipped cream:

1 tsp. unflavored gelatin powder

1 Tbsp. cold water

1½ cups heavy whipping cream

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Berries for filling and topping:

1 lb. total, fresh raspberries and strawberries

Eggs separate best while they are still cold from the refrigerator. Let them warm to room temperature before starting the cake batter.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of a 9-inch tube pan with parchment; do not grease the pan.

Beat the eggs on medium high speed for 3 minutes with 1½ cups of the powdered sugar and the extract.

In a separate, pristine bowl, beat the egg whites with the whisk attachment until light. (The tiniest speck of egg yolk or fat in the bowl will prevent egg whites from whipping into a foam.) Add the remaining ¼ cup of sugar while beating on medium speed. When the sugar is fully incorporated and the egg whites are foamy, increase the speed to high. Beat just until stiff peaks form; do not overbeat. With a rubber spatula, gently fold one third of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture to lighten it. Then fold the remaining egg white foam into the batter until barely incorporated. Pour the batter into the tube pan. Do not overdo the folding or smooth the batter. Immediately put the pan in the oven. 

Bake 35 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the top is lightly browned (not just golden brown). Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then use a thin knife to free the cake from the pan. Peel the parchment off the bottom. Allow the cake to cool completely on a wire rack before cutting it. The sponge cake can be wrapped and refrigerated for one day or frozen at this point.

The syrup: Dissolve the 1 cup sugar in ¼ water over medium heat, stirring constantly. When the sugar has dissolved, add the 1/3 cup berries. Cook 5 minutes over medium low heat. Let the syrup cool a little, then strain out the berries with a sieve. The syrup can be made ahead of time and refrigerated.

Stabilized whipped cream: Refrigerate the mixing bowl and whisk beater from a stand mixer. Sprinkle 1 tsp. of gelatin over 1 Tbsp. of cool water in a cup and let it sit for 5 minutes. Set the gelatin over low heat, stirring constantly until it becomes clear and non-grainy. Let the gelatin cool while you prepare the whipped cream. At medium speed, mix the cream and the remaining ¼ cup of sugar until it starts to thicken. With the mixer running, add the gelatin and vanilla extract to the cream. At high speed, whip the cream until stiff peaks form. 

Assemble the Cake: Rinse the berries and let them dry. If you are using strawberries, slice the ones that you will use in the filling. With a bread knife, slice the thoroughly cooled cake horizontally into two layers. Put the bottom piece on a serving plate and brush the exposed top with berry syrup. Then spread a layer of whipped cream and top with sliced strawberries or whole berries. Top with the second layer and repeat the syrup and whipped cream. Arrange berries artistically on the top layer.

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