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I was recently inspired by a piece from Sarah Lohman of Four Pounds Flour about her attempt to make a perfumed cake with vintage baking expert Jessica Reed. In a nutshell, they discovered it’s best not to bake with actual perfume (extract is a nice alternative) but what a delightful trip. Read more about their adventures below–in the meantime, here’s where it led me.

Dream about Victorian cakes (and trifles)

I quickly ordered a copy of Caroline B. King’s classic Victorian Cakes referenced in the article and decided to make a tea cake for my son’s fourth birthday (local pastry genius Michael from my much-loved Charlotte Patisserie in Greenpoint also made him a glorious strawberry-mango layer cake topped with marzipan figurines of a stegosaurus, triceratops & pterodactyl.) I love that he suggested strawberry-mango as a seasonal flavor for early March since most New Yorkers need something fun and surprising after such a long winter. I thought it’d be sweet to make it a low-key sort of dinosaur tea party (not sure anyone noticed this but me) and went about making a bundt cake with magnolia essential oil and blackcurrant tea extract. More on that in a bit.

Victorian Cakes is charming romp about growing up in 1880s Chicago, filled with anecdotes about family life and food (the author wrote for many of the leading magazines of her day such as Ladies Home Journal, Country Gentleman and The Saturday Evening Post. Next on my list is Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management–well known and often consulted by Victorian housewives. Mrs. Beeton reminded me that  as a little girl in suburban New Jersey I actually made a traditional British trifle–with ladyfingers, custard and raspberry jam–for a school presentation about different cultures. I think trifle-making may also be in my near future…

The great cake experiment: It must first be noted that the smell of Herbal Alchemy’s blackcurrant tea extract is as intoxicating as any drug. I took a perfume-blending class with the lovely Julianne Zaleta earlier this year and am still mooning over so many little gems she shared with us from samples of French fougeres to the mysteries of hydrosols and a sparkling soda made with flower water. High on my list is her violet leaf tincture, which I must acquire as soon as possible to keep in my pocket during New York City subway rushhour. But back to the extract–a must for tea lovers and bakers of all ages.


Sprinkle in Mandy Aftel’s magnolia flower oil and the results are sublime (yes, I mixed them for a dreamlike near-spring concoction.) I have a small tin of Aftelier cooking essences, which add a bit of magic to pretty much any dish. (I like using lime oil in simple black bean and peppers and even added a dash of cepes (mushrooms) to a very modern and entirely made-up-by-me take on St. Patrick’s Day Irish stew with red cabbage, carrots, potatoes and vegan sausage.)  In yesterday’s mail arrived her much-longed-for and cherished violet spray (more from me on all things violet in the next issue of http://www.sensibilitea.co) For now, be seduced by magnolia flower essence in anticipation of the blossoms hitting New York’s streets in a few weeks.


Did I mention that I added rose petals to the cake? My mother-in-law didn’t quite know what to make of them. My husband appreciated the roses and most graciously said the cake was “subtle, but intense.” I quite enjoyed it–the cake itself was a bit dry (not enough butter, I think) but the flavor was lovely and tasted just perfect to me with Shan Lin Xi winter harvest oolong from Camellia Sinensis. It’s hard to go wrong with oolongs and cake.


I feel compelled to offer one more domestic tip in honor of Mrs. Beeton. I bought this bottle of Kristin Omdhal’s Jasmine Wrapture detergent from Green Mountain Spinnery on a knitting binge in Putney, Vermont a few years ago and recently found it in my linen closet. What a discovery. Made with essential oil of night bloom jasmine, it calls up Eden for me. I find it refreshing in a world where most detergents smell like chemicals, rather than real flowers. Oddly, it makes me look forward to doing laundry…


Adventures in perfumed cake


Mrs. Beeton and the trifle