Here were are in the midst of another holiday season, albeit a strange one. A winter storm is coming and it’s time to bake and eat delicious decadent desserts like this incredible chocolate cake (recipe at bottom of page). While you’re decorating your house this year, here are a few fun facts about New England Christmas.
Given what we experience today, it’s hard to believe that Christmas was outright banned in Puritan New England. Considered pagan and materialistic, a large fine was imposed on anyone found to be celebrating the Christmas holiday. If you can imagine, New Englanders didn’t see their first Christmas tree until 1850. This is why it’s all the more amazing that New Englanders wrote many of the Christmas carols we know and love today.
Here are a few things we never knew. Abolitionist Reverend Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear at his church in Wayland, Massachusetts. His poem was set to music in 1850.
In 1857, Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jr., the first Episcopal bishop of Vermont wrote We Three Kings and set the poem to music for a college performance.
If you’ve visited the Trinity Church in Boston, you’re probably familiar with Reverend Phillips Brooks. Reverend Brooks travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve in 1865. Two years later, when reflecting upon the experience, he wrote, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.
Of course, there’s also the happy tune that we now know as Jingle Bells, which was written by the unemployed wanderer James Lord Pierpont at a boarding house in Medford, Massachusetts. The song was originally entitled One Horse Open Sleigh and describes the sleigh races held on Pleasant Street in old Medford Square.
Much later, in 1948, the orchestral piece Sleigh Ride was written by Cambridge, Massachusetts native, Leroy Anderson, and was recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1949.
If you’re a lover of Christmas bells, the Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Company began making Christmas bells in East Hampton, Connecticut. Sadly, a fire in May 2012, requiring 200 firefighters, completely destroyed the 19th century factory which had been in the family for six generations. No worries. They’re still making jingle bells and you can buy them online. In fact, we have an entire article dedicated to where you can but New England holiday decor.
Speaking of bells, of all the Christmas carols written in New England, perhaps the most heart-wrenching is the poem, Christmas Bells by poet and abolitionist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The story is a bit depressing but serves as a good reminder that those who came before us also lived through trying times.
Here’s the story: While preserving a lock of their 7 year old daughter’s hair in wax (customary in the 1800’s – as were large dresses with hoop skirts) the dress of Henry’s beloved wife Fanny caught fire and engulfed her in flames. Henry threw himself on his wife in an attempt to extinguish the flames, burning his face, neck and arms. She died the next day and was buried on their wedding anniversary. Henry was too badly burned to attend the funeral. A year later, his son suffered a life-threatening injury fighting in the American Civil War.
In deep despair, on December 25, 1864, Henry wrote,
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
As you can imagine, his original writing is a bit different from the lyrics you hear today but this by far is the most heartfelt interpretation of the song we could find.
Traditions link us to the past and provide us with a bit of understanding about who we are today. Learning a little about history makes the holidays much more interesting – even when we know they’ll be virtual!
While your playing your New England Christmas carols, consider giving this cake a try. We call it Vintage Chocolate Cake because it tastes like something we wish someone’s grandmother would make. It’s a simple recipe and tastes so good that we ate the whole thing in three days.
We also want to mention that the outdoor photographs were taken at the beautiful Crane Estate in Ipswich, Massachusetts on the day of their holiday open house a few years ago.
We do hope you enjoy the cake. And, whatever you’re celebrating this season, we hope it’s happy, healthful, and safe.
Vintage Chocolate Cake
1 1/2 c (165 g) cake flour
1/2 c (60 g) good quality cocoa powder
2 tsp (10 g) baking powder
1 tsp (2 g) salt
1/4 c (55 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 c (285 g) cane sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp (4 g) vanilla extract
4 oz. melted chocolate, cooled
1 1/2 c (350 ml) milk
2 egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar
1/2 c (95 g) cane sugar
Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C)
Grease and flour two 9″ cake pans or two 7″ spring form pans if you like the cake tall (as pictured).
Sift together dry ingredients and set aside. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar. Mix in egg yolks, vanilla, and melted chocolate. Stir in milk alternately with dry ingredients. Set aside.
Whisk together egg whites with cream of tartar until the mixture starts to hold it’s shape. Gradually whip in sugar. The mixture will form peaks when you pull the whisk away from the bowl. It will be thick, like a light marshmallow creme. Fold the mixture into the cake batter. Bake until 3-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Once cool, carefully trim off any skin on top and tough edges on sides with a serrated knife. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator. Chill for up to 3 days.
Vanilla Frosting (see note below before proceeding)
26 tbs (375 g), unsalted butter, slightly softened
2 c (220 g) powdered sugar, sifted (add more to taste)
3 tbs (45 ml) milk
3 tbs (5 ml) vanilla extract
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, whip butter for 5 minutes on medium speed.
Add remaining ingredients and mix on low speed for 1 minute, then on medium speed for about 4 minutes. You may need to add more milk or sugar as you go to get the consistency that you want.
Note: We’re home bakers, not professionals. Because of this, we often have difficulty adding frosting to the chocolate cake – sometimes chocolate cake crumbs get into the frosting.
Here’s our solution to the problem: Double the frosting recipe. Separate out about 1/3 of the frosting into a separate bowl. From that separate bowl, apply a thin layer of frosting to the completely cooled cake as a crumb coat. Basically, the crumb coat is an ugly thin layer of frosting where chocolate crumbs may get into the white frosting. It helps contain the crumbs. Just make sure you keep the crumb coat bowl of frosting separate from the clean frosting without crumbs. Refrigerate the cake with the crumb coat until it the frosting begins to harden on the cake (about 3-5 hours).
Remove the cake and apply a fresh top coat of room temperature frosting from the larger bowl of frosting you set aside earlier. It may be overkill but this is how we prevent chocolate crumbs in the frosting. You may be more experienced and in that case, one batch of frosting may be sufficient for your needs. Hope this helps.