Thursday, May 19, 2011

Laura Ingalls Recipes: Vanity Cakes

Mailman Mike (via Amazon) delivered my very own copy of The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker today. Both the library and I are very happy, as I can now return the long-overdue copy that I couldn't bear to part with.

I flipped through and immediately stopped when I got to Vanity Cakes. Remember in By the Banks of Plum Creek when Laura had a birthday party and Ma made these, and then Laura chased Nellie into the water with the leeches in it?

"She made them with beaten eggs and white flour. She dropped them into a kettle of sizzling fat. Each one came up bobbing, and floated till it turned itself over, lifting up its honey-brown, puffy bottom. Then it swelled underneath till it was round, and Ma lifted it out with a fork. She put every one of those cakes in the cupboard. They were for the party."
-Excerpt from By the Banks of Plum Creek

The cookbook mentions a time when Laura was interviewed about vanity cakes, and here's what she said: "Were crunchy, not sweetened, and were so light, really a bubble that they seemed almost nothing in one's mouth. They were a golden color when fried. They simply puffed up when fried until they were nothing but a bubble." The cookbook also mentions the difference between balloons and bombs being dependent on the cook's deep-frying expertise, which I'm proud to say I do not have.

Vanity Cakes
Lard, 1 to 2 pounds (I used Canola oil)
Egg, 1 large
Salt, a pinch
White flour, 1/2 cup all-purpose
Powdered sugar for dusting

Pour oil in a pot to a depth of 3 inches. Heat it to 350 degrees. In the bowl, beat the egg and salt for a full minute. Beat in thoroughly 1/4 cup of flour. Add more flour, one Tbsp. at at a time, until the batter is too stiff for beating but too soft to roll out.

Cover a dinner plate with flour. With a teaspoon, spoon the batter onto the plate in six separate portions. With a knife turn each spoonful of dough over to flour it, then drop it into the hot oil.

Cook each cake for at least 3 1/2 minutes, during which time it may need help in turning. If it darkens quickly, the fat is too hot. Drain cakes on brown paper and dust with powdered sugar.

Oh man...can't wait to cut into these and see how they turned into a bubble!

Dang it!

Janet's Notes: First off, I used a tiny pot because a 3" depth is a heck of a lot of oil. And while I normally don't worry too much about the minor details, I did use a candy thermometer because I wanted balloons, not bombs--turned out it didn't help. Finally, keeping the oil at 350 degrees was difficult. My oil temp soared up to 400 pretty quickly and turning down the flame didn't bring it back down fast enough, so the Vanity Cakes cooked faster than 3 1/2 minutes. I doubt that made the difference though. You put a big lump of dough in the fryer and it all of a sudden magically disappears and turns into a big bubble? I don't buy it.

My guess is that Laura didn't have a lot of delicious food on Plum Creek (they lived in a dugout underground, after all) and this was a treat worthy of a birthday party for her. Another opportunity to let my kids know how spoiled they are, and isn't that what motherhood is all about?

They taste like nothing.
Janet: They taste like a fried cream puff but without anything delicious inside.
Vince and Sean: No thank you.
Elise: (See photo caption above.)
Max: Can I have a popsicle instead?


  1. Awww maaann! You are ruining my Laura Ingalls illusions! (LOL) Actually lard may have made a difference but I doubt it would've been a big one. I read that book numerous times..I was envisioning sort of a fried meringue myself! I guess when you had zero sweets on Plum Creek, these would've tasted great!

  2. Ha ha! I think I need this cookbook... I was a Little House FANATIC, and now trying to share that love with Dear Daughter. She loves to cook, I think she needs this!

  3. Oh man, I could tell by the ingredients that they wouldn't taste like much. That picture of your daughter cracks me up!

  4. I totally remember that scene in the book. I hated Nellie, she was such a brat.

    Sorry that they tasted blah.

  5. I love Elise's comment the best!!! Laura must have had some sort of magic touch, I'll bet. Glad you gave them a try though!

  6. I figured they would be like a round sopapilla. Those are terrific with honey drizzled on them. Same principle. Also, lard is easier to reuse than canola and easier to use that amount of oil. A Fry Daddy would be a good tool for this.

  7. From what I understand, the recipe in the book was just a "guess" and clearly not a very good one. Laura never knew the recipe for vanity cakes, so there's no way to be sure exactly what they were.

    Try a modified beignet recipe and call them vanity cakes. Works like a charm for me. :)

  8. Reading Laura's memories of the cakes ( made mainly of eggs, light and airy, not too sweet) I got the impression these cakes were along the lines of deep fried meringue rather than made from dough like a doughnut. It's too bad she didn't remember the actual recipe. But I agree with the person who put up this blog post in that her diet wouldn't have been that varied so what she would consider a sweet treat probably would taste bland in comparison to what we would consider a sweet treat. I was also interested in what she was referring to when she "set the sponge" for cakes.

  9. I'm a huge LIW fan and have read all of her books hundreds of times and own the cookbook, as well. I also tried several times to create these vanity cakes but was disappointed...after all, it's supposed to be a bubble, right? Until now, that is!

    Have you ever heard of Indian puri? It's basically a fried..bubble. Very thin, not sweet, comes in various sizes. It's two parts flour to one part water with a small amount of salt, rolled out into thin discs and deep fried. This must be closer to what Ma made than any of the other recipes out there. Try doing a Google search or Youtube video search on puri!

  10. I agree!! Vanity cakes = Indian puri.

  11. Pretty sure this can be made with fried pate a choux (cream puff pastry dough)

  12. Pretty sure this can be made with fried pate a choux (cream puff pastry dough)

  13. Yes it can! I tried this out a few months ago after reading about failures online. From what I can gather, vanity cakes were a treat, not something to be had every day. Ma never measured and probably never wrote any recipes down, rather relying on memory. The clue about the missing ingredients from Laura's recipe can be worked out from the text. "Spot (the cow) was giving milk". In other words, they had butter. As far as I can I can tell, the only things that differ from Laura's recipe and choux is butter and water. If Laura didn't have these cakes very often, and Ma didn't write anything down, it's little wonder Laura wouldn't recall the whole recipe decades later. Btw, I made up some choux a few months ago and dropped the batter into my fry daddy. If you leave them a couple minutes to fry on each side, you get puffy, honey-colored cakes that are crispy on the outside and hollow on the inside. Voila! Mystery solved.

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  15. Honestly, I think vanity cakes are fried pate choux pastry dough. It is made with butter, water (the steam during frying allows them to puff up), butter and eggs.It becomes light crisp and airy inside, and is dusted with powdered sugar. Here is what they look like when frying: