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Old-Fashioned Buttermilk Cake Recipe from 1870

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Slice of buttermilk cake with strawberry sauce on a red china plate on top of a green cloth and strawberries scattered on the table and a bowl of strawberry sauce in the background.

I first came across this recipe for an old-fashioned buttermilk cake when I was searching for a pound cake recipe to try. I was looking for a recipe for a simple cake that would be the perfect complement to a bright, summery flavor like strawberries, and this buttermilk cake ended up being the perfect cake for that.

I discovered this old recipe in an antique recipe pamphlet called “Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Receipt Book for 1870.”

Note: Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Receipt Book was a recipe pamphlet designed to advertise Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for babies – a syrup that actually contained morphine as it’s main ingredient and was sadly associated with infant deaths during this time period. The use of morphine was common in patent medications of the time, and it was also unfortunately quite common for those taking patent medications to have little or no knowledge of the ingredients that those “medicines” contained. Many mothers would have given this syrup to their babies without having any idea that it could end up being addictive or even fatal.

There are many good recipes in the Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Receipt Books and they were most likely collected from bakers who had no knowledge of the potential harms of the soothing syrup. Because of that fact, I am leaving this recipe up on my site. If I find any other good buttermilk cake recipes in the future, though, that don’t have the same associations with such a sad and controversial history, I will add an update here.

This is the text of the original recipe for those who are interested in the historical version of the recipe:

“One cup butter, two cups buttermilk, soda to sweeten the milk, three cups sugar, four eggs, five cups flour.”

Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Receipt Book, page 15

Not exactly a lot of information as far as how to prepare or bake the cake, but that’s pretty typical of a lot of 19th century recipes. This recipe was a bit of an experiment because I was just guessing at how much baking soda I should use to “sweeten the milk” and I decided to go with a standard 350 degree baking temperature and just keep checking it until a toothpick came out clean.

I cut this recipe in half because I didn’t need such a large amount, and I also decided to add just a small amount of salt to the original recipe because I was using unsalted butter, and I am assuming that the butter used for this original recipe back in the 19th century would have been salted butter. You can omit the salt if you are using salted butter, though.

This cake is a very simple and somewhat plain cake, so it doesn’t have a whole lot of strong flavor on its own, but it has a pleasant, slightly sweet flavor, and the edges of the cake have a nice caramelized taste to them. If you wanted to add a bit more flavor to this cake, though, you could add a teaspoon of vanilla or lemon extract if you prefer. I chose to leave the cake plain as it is because I wanted to try to replicate the original recipe and because vanilla wasn’t a common flavoring in the 19th century. Lemon was often used, though, so I might try making this with lemon in the future.

I think that the simplicity of this cake makes it the perfect cake for highlighting stronger flavors such as summer fruit like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, etc. I decided to have some strawberry sauce with my buttermilk cake because that seemed like something that might have been served with this cake back in the 19th century. You could certainly use a modern frosting recipe, though, too, to give this cake some extra sweetness. I also tried this cake with some strawberry buttercream frosting, and it was delicious!

I used store bought buttermilk for this cake, but since this is a 19th century recipe, I’m assuming that the buttermilk the recipe refers to would have actually been the liquid that remains after churning butter from cream. Since I don’t have my own dairy cow, though, and since I’m not churning my own butter at home, I used store bought buttermilk, and the recipe turned out just fine. If I ever did some homemade butter making in the future, though, I’d be curious to try using the buttermilk from that to see if it makes any difference in the recipe at all.

Here’s my modern adaptation of this old-fashioned, 19th century recipe:

Slice of buttermilk cake with strawberry sauce on a red china plate on top of a green cloth and strawberries scattered on the table and a bowl of strawberry sauce in the background.

Old-Fashioned Buttermilk Cake Recipe from 1870

Yield: 1 8x8 inch pan
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

This old-fashioned buttermilk cake recipe from the 19th century comes from "Mrs. Winslow's Domestic Receipt Book for 1870." This simple cake has a soft texture and a pleasantly sweet and mild flavor that makes it the perfect cake for highlighting stronger flavors such as fruit.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt (you can omit if using salted butter.)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 8x8 inch baking pan.
  2. Cream the softened butter together with the sugar.
  3. Add the eggs and the buttermilk and mix well to combine.
  4. Mix the baking soda into the flour to make sure there are no lumps of baking soda, and then add the flour to the wet ingredients, stirring to combine.
  5. Pour the batter into a greased 8x8 inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 50-55 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The top and edges of the cake will look quite brown before the cake is fully done in the center.
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Two different angles of a slice of buttermilk cake with strawberry sauce on a red china plate on top of a green cloth and strawberries scattered on the table and a bowl of strawberry sauce in the background.
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.

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Carrie

Thursday 9th of November 2023

I been looking for this recipe. My aunt used to make this. It was handed down from her mother.

Lori Elliott

Thursday 9th of November 2023

It sounds like you have some good family history with this recipe!

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