New Year’s in Old Albany – Let Them Eat Cake

In Dutch colonial Albany New Year’s Day began with ringing of church bells and shooting guns, then off to church and home again to visit with neighbors. (One legend persists – the bullet hole in the rooster weathervane that currently sits atop of the First Reformed Church on N. Pearl St. occurred during one of those New Year celebrations.) The shooting stopped; finally, in 1785 NYS laws banned the firing of guns on certain days, including New Year’s, but the friendly visiting rapidly turned into a set of a traditions that lasted almost 250 years up to the beginning of the 20th century.

The men of Albany traveled from house to house, while the ladies stayed at home, waiting for the gentlemen callers to arrive, after preparing a feast for the expected visitors. A hallmark of the feast was a special cake. The “neiuwjaarskoeken” (New Year’s cake) was a holiday tradition brought to the New World along with doughnut balls (called ollibollen), and waffle and spice cookies. Food historians surmise the latter two morphed in to what became known as “Dutch New Year’s Cake”.8.JPG

Women vied to produce the best cake; recipes were guarded and kept as a family secret, handed down to successive generations. The recipe was made in huge quantities so vast amounts of small cakes could be produced. The first recipe that appears in print was from our old friend Amelia Simmons, whose “American Cookery” was printed in Albany by the Webster Bros, whose print shop was located at the corner of State and Pearl in 1796. (A Citizen’s Bank is there today.)

Amelia’s recipe was designed to make the little New Year’s cakes in quantity:
“Take 14 pound flour, to which add one pint milk and one quart yeast, put these together over night and let it lie in the sponge until morning, 5 pound sugar and 4 pound butter, dissolve these together, 6 eggs well beat and caraway seed; put the whole together and when light bake them in cakes, similar to a breakfast biscuit. 20 minutes.”

The demand for New Year’s Cake became great as the Yankees who flocked to Albany after the Revolution adopted the tradition of New Year’s calling and cake. Commercial bakers got into the act into the early 1800s. Albany bakers advertised they made best and most genuine Dutch New Year’s Cakes. There were as many different recipes for Dutch New Year’s cake as there were bakers; the one thing that had in common was caraway seed. But the Dutch housewives of Albany continued to use their heirloom molds and cake board stamps for the New Year’s cake they made for their family.3 1864.JPG4.JPG

The tradition continued. In 1840 Governor William Seward (later to become Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln) was living in the Kane Mansion (there was not an official Governor’s Mansion on Eagle St. until 1879) at the intersection of Trinity Place and Westerlo St.*

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Here’s a recollection of New Year’s Day of that year. (This is probably how the custom of an open house on New Year’s Day at the Governor’s Mansion came to be.)

“New Year’s Day 1840 opened like its predecessor in 1839, with a midnight serenade and a bountiful collation for all comers, spread in the hall of the Executive Mansion. The old Dutch customs of New Year hospitality, visits and good wishes were nowhere more carefully observed than at the State capital. Immediately after sunrise children began to perambulate the streets, to ring or a knock at each door, wishing the inmates a “happy new year” and receive in return a New Year’s cake stamped with “pictures”. Many of thrifty housewives had a basket of these standing in the hall, to supply the juvenile demands. Before noon ever lady was expected to be in her parlor, to receive gentlemen, who, making the rounds of their acquaintances, were calling in rapid succession during the day; the call consisting usually of a hasty interchange of New Year’s greetings and good-wishes, the visitors having no time to sit down. A table loaded with refreshments often sat in the back-parlor. Every visitor was invited and expected to take at least glass of wine and a New Year’s Cake. Before his peregrinations were over, if the former had not filled his head, the latter had filled his pockets or had so accumulated in his sleigh, that he could have the pleasure of sending a bagful to the Orphan asylum, or of bestowing them on the street-urchins who were ever ready for more. Though shops and stores were closed for the Holiday, the streets presented an unusual activity and animation, for the walks were thronged with pedestrians, while the jingle of the bells of the sleighs and the laughter of their occupants added to the gayety of the hour. At the Governor’s house the throng was great, those orderly and less boisterous than the year before. All passed off with a systematic arrangement. Barrels of New Year’s cakes stood at the door, to be handed out to children. The great hall and all the parlors were thrown open to accommodate the crowd.”

(In the previous year the throng had been so large that there was no room in the Mansion and hams and turkeys from the tables in the back parlor were passed through open windows to the crowd outside.)

The custom of the New Year’s Cake was so important that financial records of the superintendents of the Albany alms house and penitentiary show expenses for providing New Year’s Cake into the 20th century.

Beside bakers (one writer called it the “Greatest Day of Cake”), other Albany businesses advertised their services for New Year’s Day. Young women need to be suitably attired, young men well-turned out; engravers sold calling cards; new cake plates and new rugs were advertised. The aforementioned young men needed spiffy sleighs with all the bells. Caterers offered to handle the whole shebang – additional tables, flowers, servers and linen, besides food.

By the 1890s the custom of New Year’s calling and cake had been largely abandoned. It had resulted in inebriated young dandies careening around the streets, as the belles of society competed to see who would have the largest number of male callers on New Year’s Day. The streets were thronged and gentlemen would think nothing of calling on 50 or 60 young women in 8 hours, clogging the streets well into the night. Gas and electric lighting made it easier to hold New Year’s Eve parties; they became a “thing” and rising in time for New Year’s Day calls after a night at a ball was much less appealing.

But the tradition of the Dutch New Year’s Cake flourished, and spread across the country. By the 1840s recipes started to appear in all sorts of cook books and magazines for New Year’s cake and cookies. In Albany there came to be a special recipe, lost to time, for a cake made to the recipe of Wiliam Pruyn who lived on Lumber St. (now called Livingston Ave).

Come the 20th century even the tradition of the Dutch New Year’s cake fell out in Albany, although a large bakery, Hageman’s located on north side of Madison Ave, between Ontario and Partridge was still making New Year’s cookies in 1940.

The last known commercial bakery to make the cakes was Otto’s at 70 Third Ave. It was owned by Otto Theibe who continued the tradition in his own bakery until just before he died in 1967. The recipe was provided to food historian Peter G. Rose, by Otto’s daughter, Efrieda Textores.**

The recipe makes 12 dozen cookies; be prepared for lots of New Year’s Day callers.

1 lb. sifted light brown sugar (or use granulated brown sugar)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 egg lightly beaten
1 1/4 cups margarine
8 ½ cups flour
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons Caraway seed

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl combine sugar, baking soda, salt and egg and stir to dissolve sugar making sure no lumps remain. Set aside. In another bowl use pastry blender to cut margarine into flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Slowly stir milk into sugar mixtures and put through a sieve into flour and butter. Add caraway seed. Let the dough rest before rolling out. Roll dough out as thin as possible to less than 1/4 inch. Cut with 4″ oval cookie cutter or cut into 4″ rounds and place on greased baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes until cookies are pale.

We need to bring the tradition of the Dutch New Year’s Cake in Albany; cake is good.

* The Kane Mansion was demolished in 1864 for the Ash Grove Methodist Church. In turn, that was demolished to build School 14 in 1913. School 14 was modified in 1934 to create Philip Schuyler High School; that building now houses condos.

** “Foods of the Hudson”, Peter G. Rose, Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Woodstock, NY, 1993.

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Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor