Dolly Varden Cake

“As to Dolly, there she was again, the very pink and pattern of good looks, in a smart little cherry-coloured mantle, with a hood of the same drawn over her head, and upon the top of that hood, a little straw hat trimmed with cherry-coloured ribbons, and worn the merest trifle on one side—just enough in short to make it the wickedest and most provoking head-dress that ever malicious milliner devised.” -Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, 1841.

Dolly Varden is a character in Charles Dickens’s 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge, described as good-looking, coquettish, and dressed in colorful clothing. The novel inspired painter William Powell Frith to create several paintings of the fictional character Dolly Varden, one of which (not pictured) was commissioned by and sold to Charles Dickens in 1842.

Dolly Varden, c.1842-49 by William Powell Frith. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00041 This is one of several Dolly Varden paintings by Frith; I couldn’t find a picture of the particular painting owned by Dickens because it is now in a private collection.
Dolly Varden, sheet music cover, c. 1872. https://lccn.loc.gov/2003679801 This sheet music cover depicts a “Dolly Varden dress,” a style of dress named after the character that became popular in the 1870s.

Apart from William Powell Frith, however, most readers were not as impressed with Barnaby Rudge – it was not one of Dickens’s most popular novels. The character of Dolly Varden was largely forgotten until 1870, when Frith’s painting of her in Dickens’s collection was sold one month after Dickens’s death. Newspaper coverage of the auction revived public interest in Dolly Varden, whose painting reportedly sold for over £1000, the highest price of any of the lots.

Suddenly, it seemed as if just about anything and everything was named after Dolly Varden – including dresses, hats, a Colorado silver mine, popular songs, a species of trout, and, of course, cakes. Like the original character’s clothing, this 1877 Dolly Varden cake is colorful and eye-catching, with each layer a different color.

White and Rose part:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 cup flour
  • 5 large egg whites (or 6 small ones), beaten until foamy
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/4 tsp rose water
  • pink food coloring

Chocolate and Yellow part:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 cup flour
  • 5 large egg yolks (or 6 small ones), well beaten
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped or grated chocolate

Frosting (taken from a different cake recipe in the same book):

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • rose water, lemon, or almond flavoring

White and Rose layers:

  1. Cream butter and sugar together.
  2. Add the beaten egg whites, a little at a time.
  3. Sift the flour, baking soda, and cream of tartar together.
  4. Add flour alternately with the milk.
  5. Beat for several minutes until smooth.
  6. Pour half of the batter into an 8 x 8 inch cake pan.
  7. Add pink food coloring and rose extract to the other half, then pour into a second pan.
  8. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10-12 minutes.
  9. Cool on a wire rack.

Yellow and Chocolate layers:

  1. Cream butter and sugar together.
  2. Add the beaten egg yolks, a little at a time.
  3. Sift the flour, baking soda, and cream of tartar together.
  4. Add flour alternately with the milk.
  5. Beat for several minutes until smooth.
  6. Pour half of the batter into an 8 x 8 inch cake pan.
  7. Add chocolate to the other half, then pour into a second pan.
  8. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10-12 minutes.
  9. Cool on a wire rack.
  10. For the frosting, beat the egg white until soft peaks form. Beat in the powdered sugar and flavoring of your choice.
  11. Trim off the edges of all the cake layers, making sure they are the same size.
  12. Spread a thin layer of frosting in between each layer and stack in the following order: chocolate, white, rose, yellow.
  13. Optionally, double the frosting recipe and cover the top and sides of the cake with frosting.
  14. Let frosting set before cutting.

Tasting notes:

For such a showy cake, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this tasted fairly good, too. It was definitely very sweet, especially because I frosted the top and sides of the cake. I chose to do this because the top and sides of my cake turned out a bit messy-looking and I wanted to cover them; it also makes for a more dramatic reveal of the multi-colored layers when the cake is cut. In the original recipe, however, the icing is only used in between the layers, which might help keep the cake from becoming overwhelmingly sweet.

The chocolate layer was by far my favorite layer. Because the chocolate is grated rather than melted or powdered, little chunks of chocolate stay in the cake and make it seem almost like a chocolate chip cookie. The other layers seemed rather flavorless by comparison. I didn’t use very much rose water in the pink layer, so more could be added if you want a stronger flavor. A bit of vanilla in the yellow and white layers might also be nice. Still, although a bit sweet for my taste, the texture of the cake was good, and I was pleased that all four layers came out well.

I think this cake does a good job in capturing the essence of its namesake, Dolly Varden: almost too sugary and sweet, but certainly very pretty.

References:

Committee of the Congregational Society. (1877). Melrose household treasure. Boston: T. W. Ripley. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Melrose_Household_Treasure/DukpAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1

Dickens, C. (1841). Barnaby Rudge. London: Chapman & Hall. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/917/917-h/917-h.htm

Mitchell, R.N. (2021). Victorian faddishness: The Dolly Varden from Dickens to Patience. Journal of Victorian Culture, 26(2), 153-171. https://doi.org/10.1093/jvcult/vcab006

3 thoughts on “Dolly Varden Cake

    • Thanks! The grated chocolate puzzled me at first – at first I thought it might be another way of referring to cocoa powder. But, after looking at several other chocolate cake recipes from the time, many specifically tell you to start with solid chocolate and then grate it. So, it seems like grated chocolate is correct! Definitely very different from modern recipes that almost always use either cocoa powder or melted chocolate.

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