Retro cakes & a bit of kitchen history

I am currently looking around for a new kitchen. The prices may vary hugely from shop to shop but the basics of the actual kitchen layout stay the same. The kitchen work triangle, a concept that designers still rely on today, was developed in the 1940’s by an extraordinary woman, Lillian Gilbreth.

kitchen plan

Lillian Gilbreth (Moller) was born in 1878. Her father didn’t believe in higher education for women, but she managed to persuade him that she could manage both her studies and duties at home. She was the eldest of 9 children and her mother was often ill leaving her in charge. She got a BA in Literature in 1900 and then continued her studies at Columbia University New York, where she planned to study with a famed critic Brander Matthews, but he didn’t allow women to attend his lectures. Luckily psychologist A.H. Thorndike did and she was able to study with him.

She got married in 1904 to Frank Gilbreth, he encouraged her to study scientific management and she obtained her doctorate in 1915, by which time the couple had four children. Her dissertation was on the importance of human relations in the workplace and the importance of understanding individual differences among workers. She was the pioneer of what is now known as organizational psychology.

Over the next 17 years she had 12 children and set up a successful consulting business with her husband with whom she co-wrote several books.  When he died suddenly in 1924 she became a single mother of a large family. Her business was in jeopardy as some companies refused to do business with a woman. So she set up workshops to train managers from her home in scientific management techniques, which allowed her to be at home for her children and earn money.

In 1929 she developed “Gilbreth’s practical kitchen” based on a motion study of a production line. To test this kitchen they made a cake, as this was the only thing she could cook!  The first cake was made in a typical kitchen of the era and the second in a kitchen with the same utensils and equipment as the other but arranged for efficiency. The results were startling, the number of operations was reduced from 97 to 64 and the actual number of steps taken was reduced from 281 to 45! She referred to this organization as circular routing, which became known as the kitchen work triangle.

People eventually overcame their reluctance to be trained by a woman, and the workshops propelled her back into consultancy work for companies such as Macy’s department store in New York.  When the requests for training from more and more companies started coming in, she began offering training via Universities and colleges. She was the first female professor at Purdue’s engineering school and taught there until her retirement in 1948 at the age of 70.

So it is only right to have a couple of retro cake recipes in honor of Lillian Gilbreth!

Lemon Meringue Pie – serves 8




  • 200g plain flour
  • 50 g sugar
  • 100g cold salted butter in cubes
  • 1 free range egg beaten

Lemon filling

  • 50g cornflour
  • 350 ml cold water
  • 200g sugar
  • 4 lemons zest and juice
  • 1 free range egg and 3 free range egg yolks

Meringue topping

  • 3 free range egg whites
  • 175g caster sugar


  1. Preheat oven to 200°c, grease a 20cm fluted flan tin
  2. Make the pastry by placing flour sugar and butter in food processor and pulse until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, then add beaten egg while motor is gently running and blend until mixture forms a ball. Do not over mix!
  3. Tip onto a floured board, knead briefly, roll out to 5mm in between greaseproof paper or clingfilm. Line your tin, trim edges and prick base with a fork. Chill for 30 mins.
  4. Make filling by putting cornflour in a small bowl, add a little of the water to form a smooth paste. Pour the remaining water into a large saucepan, add sugar, lemon zest and juice (you should have around 225ml of juice). Heat gently until sugar dissolves then bring to the boil. Reduce the heat slightly and quickly stir in cornflour mixture and cook for 3 minutes over a low heat until thick and glossy.
  5. Remove from the heat and cool for 5 mins, then whisk together the egg yolks and egg until smooth, and then whisk vigorously into the sauce. Leave to cool for 25 mins.
  6. Remove pastry case from the fridge, line with baking paper and fill with baking beans, bake for 15 mins. Take out of the oven, remove beans and paper and return to the oven for a further 3-4 mins until the surface of the pastry is dry. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 150°c.
  7. Make the meringue topping by whisking egg whites until stiff then gradually add the sugar.
  8. Put the cooled filling in to the pastry base and cover gently with meringue, starting at the sides. Bake for 25 minutes until the meringue is set and lightly browned. Leave to cool before removing from tin.

Chocolate Roulade – serves 6

chocolate roulade


  • 100g dark chocolate (75%)
  • 4 eggs separated
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 150ml double cream (whipping cream) whipped
  • raspberries


  1. Preheat oven to 180°c and grease and line a swiss roll tin.
  2. Melt chocolate in heatproof bowl over pan of simmering water (bowl should not touch the water). Remove from the pan and put to one side.
  3. Whisk the egg whites until stiff and in another bowl whisk the egg yolks and sugar until pale and creamy.
  4. Add the melted chocolate to egg yolks and sugar mix, but make sure the chocolate is not hot!! Then gently fold in the egg whites trying to keep as much air as possible in the mix.
  5. Pour gently into tin and bake for 20 mins or until risen and the top feels firm. Leave to cool in the tin.
  6. Lay a large sheet of greaseproof paper on work surface and lightly dust with icing sugar. Turn sponge out onto paper and gently peel off the lining paper.
  7. Spread over whipped cream, sprinkle over the raspberries and roll up tightly using the paper to help you, and finish with the join underneath.

 Text and photos by Alison Korter-Lacki, March 2015

Let's hear from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: