Black History Month Cupcakes from the Bakehouse

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews

A recipe inspired by the first cookbook published by an American Black woman

These great new cupcakes hit the counter at the Bakeshop just last week. In truth, I would suggest that we might really see every month as Black History Month—there is clearly no meaningful and authentic American history without the contributions, insight, beauty, hard work, and wonderful inspiration of Black people. The cupcakes are just part of our collective work to honor Black History Month. One of a series of things we’re doing for our Whole Community Cakes initiative, these new cupcakes offer a bite-sized way to celebrate the diverse community that we’re proudly a part of, one that’s celebrating its bicentennial this year!

The recipe comes from the work of Malinda Russell, who, in the town of Paw Paw, Michigan, back in 1866, 100 or so miles to the west of Washtenaw County, was the first African American to publish a cookbook. Entitled Domestic Cookbook, it came out a year after the end of the Civil War and two years before the passing of the 14th Amendment. Thanks to the work of the much-loved culinary historian Jan Longone, an original copy sits in the Longone Collection in the Hatcher Library on the University of Michigan’s campus. Jan passed away in August of 2022, and her husband Dan sadly passed away last week. They were in love up until the end of their lives. Dan was, by training, a chemistry professor at U of M, but he was also the behind-the-scenes support for Jan’s culinary history work. The couple spent their 48th anniversary traveling the Middle South trying to find out more about Malinda Russell’s story.

The recipe is a uniquely wonderful one. Delicate, light buttermilk cupcakes that have been stuffed with the Bakehouse’s lovely lemon curd and topped with coconut ermine frosting. Ermine is an old-fashioned frosting that whips together a cooked flour roux, butter, and sugar. It’s less sweet than a typical buttercream and boasts a delightfully silky texture—closer to whipped cream than would be typical for most frostings, it’s creamy, tender, and terrific. It’s also known as “roux frosting” or “boiled milk frosting.” Best I can tell, the frosting called for on a traditional Red Velvet cake. Little known now, it was far more popular back in Ms. Russell’s day.

Ms. Russell I should add, is featured in the center of one of the panels of Patrick-Earl Barnes’ art piece at the Roadhouse. Born in Tennessee, she tried to emigrate to Liberia but was robbed, en route to the coast in Virginia. She took a job as a cook, married, and had a son who, she shares in the book, was born with a series of disabilities. Four years later her husband died, and she moved back to Tennessee to run a boarding house and pastry shop. Again, she was robbed in a race-based attack, and then, in 1864, decided to move to Paw Paw, Michigan for peace and safety, since at the time the town was known as “The Garden of the Midwest.” Russell, it seems, owned a pastry shop for six years, and I would imagine a comparable version of these cupcakes could have been one of the featured items!

The Black History Month cupcakes will be available at the Deli, the Roadhouse, Miss Kim, and, of course, in the Bakeshop throughout February. At the end of the month, we’ll join forces and donate 10% of the proceeds to the Washtenaw County Black Farmers Fund, whose goal is to build a more equitable food system by investing in Black farmers.