After playing a game of tennis in a corset and heavy skirts, who wouldn’t want to eat cake?
Modern lawn tennis developed in Britain during the 1860s and 1870s and was introduced to the United States by 1874. The sport quickly became popular, especially because it was one of the few sports that women were encouraged to play. Men and women could socialize together at tennis parties, which often featured elaborately decorated tennis cakes for participants to eat while watching the games. Those not athletically inclined may have appreciated the opportunity to show off their baking skills. In a short story published in 1908, Owen Oliver wrote of one character: “she was ripping at making tennis-cake; but she couldn’t play a bit.”
Recipes for tennis cakes varied, although they almost always included a mix of ingredients such as candied fruit or peel, currants, raisins, and almonds. The most important feature of tennis cakes was their elaborate decoration. The cakes were usually embellished with more candied fruit and royal icing, often in the shape of tennis rackets or balls. While earlier cakes were round or square, later tennis cakes were sometimes made to look like miniature tennis courts. There were endless opportunities for a tennis party hostess to show off her prowess in baking and decorating.
For my tennis cake, I used an 1885 recipe from Mary Davies’ The Menu Cookery Book. Her book is subtitled “for moderate people with moderate incomes.” If her book is really meant for people with moderate incomes, dried fruit and nuts must have been cheap in the 1880s; her tennis cake recipe is about 50% fruit and almonds by weight!
I used a 9 inch round cake pan, and baked the cake at 325 degrees for about an hour and a half. The almond “icing” is actually an almond paste; it needs to be rolled out in a circle and then placed on top of the cake.
Since Mary Davies doesn’t give any design for decorating the tennis cake, I borrowed the suggested decoration scheme from another cookbook, Cookery Up-to-Date by Mrs. Humphry. I followed her suggestions to flavor the royal icing with almond extract and to decorate the cake with a wreath made of candied fruit (yes, more fruit!).
Mrs. Humphry also says to pipe two tennis rackets in the middle of the cake with royal icing. I attempted this…and failed miserably. Apparently I need to brush up on my piping skills before I can host a tennis party! I covered up my sad, lumpy tennis rackets with more fruit and icing. After all, that’s the Victorian way: when in doubt, add more decoration!
Anyway, while tennis-themed designs on tennis cakes were popular, they aren’t strictly necessary in order for it to be a tennis cake. You can see from the selection of tennis cake designs below that only some of them feature tennis equipment:
As one would expect from the amount of fruit involved, this was an extremely dense cake! It was a bit dry, so probably should be served with lemonade or iced tea to quench the thirst of worn-out tennis players.
I was surprised that despite the almonds in the cake, the almond paste, and the almond flavoring in the icing, the cake still didn’t taste much like almonds. There was just a very subtle almond flavor, slightly stronger when eating the actual almond paste. I also didn’t taste the candied citron much; I wonder if it might be better to use fresh citron or lemon peel to get a more present citrus flavor.
It’s hard to say what it did taste like; mostly sugar and raisins, along with the candied cherries and pineapple from the topping. I liked it – but it was an awful lot of work for one cake! I think I would rather just play tennis.
Davidson, A. (2006). Tennis Cake. In A. Davidson & T. Jaine (Eds.), The Oxford companion to food (p. 791). Oxford: Oxford University Press
Davies, M. (1885). The menu cookery book. London: Richard Bentley & Son. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Menu_Cookery_Book/lGYDAAAAQAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
Djata, S. (2011). Tennis. In S. Reiss, Sports in America from colonial times to the twenty-first century: An encyclopedia (pp. 894-897). Taylor & Francis Group.
Humphry, M. (1896). Cookery up-to-date. London: Chapman & Hall. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Cookery_Up_to_date/4v8YAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
Oliver, O. (1908). The school-mother. McBride’s Magazine, 82. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/McBride_s_Magazine/887UAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0