Cake batter, with a bit of lemonReturning, with a letter, which she laid

Upon the kitchen-table while she made
A hasty crock of “float,”-poured thence into
A deep glass dish of iridescent hue
And glint and sparkle, with an overflow
Of froth to crown it, foaming white as snow.-
and then-poundcake, and jelly-cake as rare,
For its delicious complement,-with air
Of Hebe mortalized, she led her can
Of votaries, rounded by The Hired Man.

– Excerpt from James Whitcomb Riley’s “The Child-World.” Read in full here. 

There’s much to read more about our poet laureate James Whitcomb Riley and his Lockerbie home in the Historic Indianapolis archives, so I’ll jump right into this week’s recipe. I chose a traditional jelly cake, which is an old fashioned cake popular in Riley’s time, and referenced in his popular poem set “The Child-World.” Appropriate that the “Child’s Poet,” as Riley was called, would favor such a sweet treat!

The James Whitcomb Riley Cookbook was published by Dorothy June Williams (Curator of the Riley Home in Greenfield) and Diana Williams Hansen, a food editor and consultant, in 1990. They write, “Riley’s poems often mention cake. The poem entitled ‘Granny’ says she ‘fetched a cake for little Jake, And fetched a pie for Nanny, And fetched a pear for all the pack, That runs to kiss their Granny.’ ”

The cookbook contains a mixture of Hoosier specialities and recipes from Riley’s time. Riley was a hobby cook — many recipes from his own family and hometown of Greenfield are included in the cookbook. His poems were full of references to different regional treats.

This recipe features a stacked cake with cooked fruit jelly (in this case, lemon flavored) in between the layers. Another jelly cake variety is the jelly roll — a flat sponge cake with a layer of jelly that was then rolled up.  I prefer the stacked cake, as jelly rolls have a tendency to break. Jelly, in progress


1 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter
2 eggs
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup milk


Cream sugar and butter until smooth; then, beat in eggs, salt, baking powder, vanilla until fluffy. Add flour and milk alternately until just smooth. Pour batter into greased and floured 7 x 1 1 x 2 inch pan and bake for 25 -30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Remove, cool, split cake in two. Spread lemon jelly filling in between layers.

Lemon Jelly Filling: 

1 cup sugar
2 1/2 tbsp flour
grated peel of 2 lemons
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp butter


In saucepan, stir all ingredients together. Cook on low heat, stirring constantly until mixture boils. Remove from heat and let cool before spreading between layers.

Lemon Jelly Cake

Historic Recipe Variation 

I added a bit of grated peel and lemon juice to the cake batter as well. My philosophy: the more lemon the better! I also changed the type of pan recommended, instead choosing to bake in a 8 x 3 loaf pan.

I dusted the top with lemon peel and powdered sugar, served to some grateful friends and read more James Whitcomb Riley!

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