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Hard Times Cake and Bank of Marysville

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

This week's recipe for our Union County Bicentennial Passport project is for Hard Times Cake. With everything going on in 2020, this seemed like an appropriate recipe. We are still in the midst of a pandemic and our supply chains are just now beginning to normalize. In hard times, bakers find creative ways to "make do." While yeast was flying off the shelves faster than it could be restocked the past few months, bakers turned to sourdough. When flour manufacturers could not keep up with the high demand, bakers started making no-bakes using nuts, oats or whatever else was available. Will we see "pandemic cake" recipes showing up in cookbooks soon? What will those recipes look like? (Or maybe it will just be a whole lot of "homemade hand sanitizer" recipes?)

We often associate cakes like "hard times" or "poor man's" cake with the Great Depression or World War II rationing. This recipe happens to be from much earlier - the Centennial Buckeye Cookbook was published in 1876. Interestingly, none of the standard ingredients that we associate with shortages are completely missing from this recipe - flour, eggs, sugar and butter are all used. A lot of the recipes in the Centennial Buckeye Cook Book (and most cookbooks for that matter) probably came from different sources and were modified, adjusted and shared over many years before a particular version was written down - who knows when this recipe actually originated. It is important to note that the women who contributed these recipes were primarily from well-to-do Union County families. The amount of butter used in this recipe is fairly small considering the amount of sugar and flour called for. Less expensive sour cream replaces some of the butter.

Sarah A. Henderson, wife of R.M. Henderson, contributed this Hard Times Cake recipe. R.M. Henderson was the cashier for the Bank of Marysville. The bank was founded in 1854, and, yes, the building still stands at 108 S. Main St. in Marysville. The interior has changed over the years, but the facade remains a great piece of Union County history. I wish I could (and hope I will) dig up some more history on the Bank of Marysville as the recipe project continues.

We chose to use blackcurrant jam for the filling, and here's why: The history of blackcurrants in America in the 19th century is... complicated. The jam is available all over Europe today, but we rarely see it on our grocery store shelves here. Blackcurrant and gooseberry were once two of the most popular jam varieties in the United States. In the early 1900's a nasty tree disease threatened white pines, which were vital to the timber industry in America. Gooseberries and currants were identified as a vector for this disease, and the government subsequently banned their cultivation. The ban was lifted in 1966, and gooseberries and certain types of blackcurrants are now permitted to be grown in Ohio. Hopefully we will see a resurgence in popularity of these tasty little fruits. Maybe we'll even grow some of our own soon!

5" versions of Hard Times Cake filled with blackcurrant jam and dusted with powdered sugar (photo coming soon) will be for sale for $5 at our farm market the weekend of July 11-12. All proceeds benefit the Union County Historical Society. Don't forget to get your Union County Bicentennial Passport stamped!

And since these petite cakes look ready for a fancy tea party, we thought we would repost these tips on hosting the perfect tea, according to an old cookbook found at the historic Shearer house in Marysville.


The Centennial Buckeye Cookbook can be purchased here.

Old photos of Marysville can be found in the City of Marysville's Bicentennial Photo Album.

More information on blackcurrants in Ohio can be found on the OSU College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences' website.

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