Vintage Cakes is the kind of book that should be really appealing to me. Julie Richardson, who owns Baker & Spice Bakery in Portland, Oregon, inherited the contents of an old filing cabinet from the previous bakery that was in the space Baker & Spice now inhabits. As she writes in the introduction to this book, that filing cabinet turned out to be

“a gold mine of baking formulas, journals, and magazines dating back to the 1920s. These were gems from a time when a cup cake was a “cup cake,” a cookie was a “cooky,” and the word “goober” was synonymous with peanut.”

Richardson used the contents of that filing cabinet, plus vintage cookbooks and other old recipes, to come up with the recipes in this book, which are updated for modern kitchens/tastes.

My problem, I guess, is that the recipes are a little too updated. Basically all of them assume you have a stand mixer, which I don’t have, and it’s hard for me to get a sense of which ones would be fine to attempt by hand vs. which ones wouldn’t. (I don’t even have an electric hand mixer, though I do have an immersion blender with a whisk attachment that I can use for whipping cream or egg whites.) “The Cake Baker’s Battery,” at the start of the book, also recommends having “an electronic baking scale” and “lots of mixing bowls, in all sizes” (um – I have two – a big one and a not so big one)—all of which kind of made me feel like this book is for people with suburban kitchens, not me.

The “Hasty Cakes” section starts promisingly, though: Richardson says many of these “don’t even need a mixer or more than one bowl.” But then there are the ingredients: Berry Long Cake with Ginger Crumb is out of the question in New York in November: berries aren’t in season here right now. Rhubarb Pudding Cake won’t do for the same reason. Shoo-Fly Cake is a molasses-and-spice cake that sounds great, but calls for a cup of coffee…and I only drink tea at home. (I guess I could buy a bottle of Stumptown cold-brew and heat it, since the recipe says the coffee can be reheated/not fresh.) Mississippi Mud Cupcakes with Marshmallow Frosting have the same issue. Other cakes in other sections of the book call for pans I don’t have, like a tube pan, or a Bundt pan, or an “angel food cake pan with feet,” whatever that might be. But others would only require a trip to the grocery store for things like buttermilk or sliced almonds or canola oil. Sometimes recipes helpfully offer substitutions for different seasons, but I would have liked it if they’d been more precise: there’s a chocolate apricot upside-down cake, for example, with cocoa and fresh cardamom: it sounds delicious. It uses fresh apricots, but the notes suggest substituting pitted sour cherries or fresh cranberries if apricots aren’t in season. Well, it’s getting to be cranberry season – but how many cranberries? The recipe doesn’t say. I guess as many cranberries as would equate, in volume, to 6 medium apricots sliced into quarters: but it’s a little intimidating to be trying to estimate that on my own.

The book itself is visually appealing, with great color photography and food styling—my local library only has this as an ebook, so I read it on my computer, and I suspect the pictures probably look even better on paper. And the recipes that didn’t call for pans I didn’t have or out-of-season fruits sounded good, sometimes really good. There’s a layer cake that involves burnt-sugar syrup, maple syrup in the cake, and maple cream cheese frosting—mmm. By the time I finished the book, I’d noted down 21 different cakes (out of just over 50 cake recipes) that I might want to make, ranging from ones that sound pretty easy (Wacky Cake, Lazy Daisy Oatmeal Cake, Blueberry Cornmeal Skillet Cake, Ozark Pudding Cake) to kind of complicated (Double Dip Caramel Cake, Blackout Cake, that aforementioned maple cream cheese concoction). But I didn’t actually bake any of them, which is more a problem of timing on my part rather than a failure of the book to inspire. (Among other things: I finished this book right before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. Standing in the 10-items-or-fewer line at the grocery store on Saturday was bad enough; buying cake ingredients would have pushed me into the non-express lines, and, well, no.) I might check this book out again in the future, and maybe next time I’ll even bake something from it.

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