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Retro Recipes: Harlequin Cake

Living in the 21st century we tend to forget just how privileged we are when it comes to accessing certain foods—especially when it comes to pastries and frozen treats. Before the 20th century, ingredients such as sugar, salt and even ice were somewhat of a rare commodity, and were, in large part, reserved for the wealthy. In this installment of Retro Recipes, I will be making a Harlequin cake--very similar to what we might recognize as Neapolitan cake, and delving into the origins of a related dessert, ice cream, specifically looking into Neapolitan ice cream. The cake recipe comes from an item in the Museum’s collection, Home Helps: A Pure Food Cook Book, published in 1910.

A brief history of Ice Cream

Before people could make ice in their own freezers, ice needed to be harvested during the winter from snow-packed areas or frozen lakes. The ice was then stored in an ice house, and delivered to people's homes. This process was quite expensive before the invention of the commercial ice cutter in 1827. On top of that, if one wanted to properly and conveniently store their ice, an underground cellar, or later, an icebox (also known as a cold closet) was necessary. For these reasons it’s easy to see why ice was originally reserved for the upper class.

By the mid 19th century a more modern icebox was built due in part to the rising ice harvesting industry. These early refrigerators were cheaper then previous models, which lead to its massive surge in popularity. By the beginning of the 20th century nearly 81% of families living in New York City were found to possess "refrigerators" either in the form of ice stored in a tub or iceboxes.

Before refrigerators fully ran on electricity or gas, ice was what kept an icebox cold. The icebox was able to store foods like milk, butter and other perishables that needed to be cold to be kept fresh. Use of the icebox lead to an overall improvement in health, due to access to fresh foods that were safe to consume. Ice was also used in order to make ice creams and sorbets. Unsurprisingly, treats such as these became very sought after by the upper classes in the early days of icey treats. Once ice became more affordable and easier to store, ice cream and flavored ices became more available for everyone.

The exact origins of ice cream are uncertain, though several accounts about its history exist. The earliest claims of its origins say that it came from Persia as far back as 550 BC, while other accounts name the Mongol Empire c.13th-14th century as its creator. What we do know is that the first recipe for flavored ices appeared in France, and was created by François Massialot. His recipe can be found in Nouvelle Instruction pour les Confitures, les Liqueurs, et les Fruits, and was published in 1692.

Neapolitan ice cream

Neapolitan ice cream is likely what influenced this retro cake recipe. It is unique in that it was the first ice cream to consist of three different flavors combined. The most popular flavors during the time of introduction in the USA were vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate. It is believed this is the reason why these three flavors became the standard when making Neapolitan ice cream.

It is presumed Neapolitan ice cream originally came from the third largest city in Italy, Naples. "Neapolitan" is the name of the Romance language that is spoken in Naples. The Naples flag during the early 1800s had three bars. colored white, red, and black-- just like the ice cream we know, except black is now chocolate. The exact origins aren’t fully known, but the first recorded recipe for Neapolitan ice cream was created by the Royal Prussian family's head chef, Louis Ferdinand Jungius in 1839.

There are a few variations of Neapolitan ice cream, one of which is known as Harlequin ice cream. This variation is just like Neapolitan, but has four layers of ice cream instead of three. The fourth layer is colored green, while the flavor is generally either pistachio or almond. Spumone, another Neapolitan style ice cream, was introduced to the United States by Italian immigrants in the 1860s. Instead of using ice cream, spumone is a molded gelato that typically consists of three different colored layers, each color being a different flavor, and usually contains candied fruits and nuts.

Review of Neapolitan Cake:

When preparing this dish I ended up using two recipes from two different cookbooks in our collection. One for the cake and one for the icing, both from the early 20th century.

The recipe for Harlequin cake was very straightforward and easy to follow. It only took me about 30 minutes to prepare the batter, which is referred to as ‘dough’ in the recipe. The recipe also calls for Cottolene, I simply used Crisco in its place. When it came to coloring the batter I divided it into four equal parts. Each part had a little more than a cup of batter and was placed into its own bowl. The recipe says to leave two parts uncolored, but I wanted to make my cake look more like harlequin ice, so I decided to make one of the layers green.

When it came to baking the four cake layers, since I didn’t have a Washington pie plate, I used 8x2 cake tins instead. I lined the tins with parchment paper and greased the rim before putting the batter in, which allowed for the cakes to glide out of the tins in one piece. The oven was set at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and I baked the layers for 15 minutes. Once they layers were baked I let them cool and started making the lemon jelly.

Mixing the different colored batters

The recipe I used for making the lemon jelly was one I found by Googling “homemade lemon jelly recipe”. I would suggest if you are making the jelly from scratch to make it before creating the cake. The method I used required the jelly to sit for multiple hours to allow it to come to the right consistency. Since I didn’t know this going in, my jelly didn’t have time to sit, and I had to skip spreading it in-between the cake layers. I ended up just putting some jelly on my plate and to dip my cake into it.

Once the cake was assembled, the final step I had was making the frosting. I decided to make a boiled frosting using the recipe that I found in the New Perfection Cook Book. This cook book is in the Loudoun Museum's collection, and was referenced in the Retro Recipes: Macaroni and Cheese post.

I had a bit of a challenge making the frosting. When baking I like to use Truvia in place of regular granulated sugar, and I believe this is what was giving me trouble. The recipe says to “…boil until the syrup threads from the spoon.” I was never able to get the syrup to create threads, and I tried three times. Eventually I looked up a tutorial on YouTube and saw that I was doing everything right, but still no threads formed. So I would suggest to use regular granulated sugar when making this frosting. In the end I just heated up the sugar and water until it was heavily bubbling, making sure not to burn it. I then removed it from the flame and poured the liquid sugar into the bowl that held the heavily beaten egg white and cream of tartar. I quickly mixed it all together, and immediately spread the frosting onto the top layer. My frosting ended up tasting like a toasted marshmallow, it was delicious.

Overall I was very happy with how this dish turned out. I was sad that I wasn’t able to layer the jelly in with the cake, but having it on the side and dipping the cake in it worked just fine. Personally, I think the lemon jelly and cake combination makes for a nice treat during the hot summer days. The tanginess of the chilled jelly just made me think about how wonderful this would be on a muggy day.

I haven’t decided on what recipe I will be trying next. We recently came across a few Ladies Home Journals in our storage. I’m hopeful that I will be able to find some fun or interesting recipes that I can share with my readers. Until then be sure to check out my previous installments, and I hope you join me again for my next Retro Recipe!


Adina. "Harlequin Cake Recipe – Romanian Layered Cake." Nov 20, 2020.

Bixler Reber, Patricia. "Neopolitan or Harlequin Ice Cream." Researching Food History. July 23, 2018.

Bixler Reber, Patricia. "Neopolitan Cakes." Researching Food History. July 30, 2018.

Flexner, Stuart Berg. I Hear America Talking. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979. pp. 191

"The Neapolitan Pastiera: History and Symbolism." Yourelais.

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