Rufus Estes’ Sunshine Cake

Rufus Estes’ Sunshine Cake

Recipes from the Past

A little while ago, my good friend Alicia gave me an amazing cookbook called Rufus Estes’ Good Things to Eat. It’s a copy of the first cookbook by an African-American Chef. It seemed a wonderful choice for the first week of Black History Month, and many of the recipes look amazing! The book was first published in 1911 by the author himself under the title Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus. Sadly, over the years, his legacy and accomplishments haven’t had the exposure they deserve, so I figured I would share some of his history since it’s so very interesting.

Born a slave in Maury County, TN in 1857, Rufus was the youngest of nine children. When he was ten, he moved with his mother to Nashville where he attended a single term in school. He worked to provide for his family, sometimes for as little as two dollars a month. When he was sixteen, he was hired at a restaurant where he began to learn his trade, and in 1881, he moved to Chicago. He worked as a Pullman chef, serving some of the most prominent people in history. You can read more about his amazing accomplishments here .Estes’ book contains 600 recipes for everything from Lamb Curry and Roast Duck to Pineapple Sorbet and today’s recipe, Sunshine Cake.

Each of Rufus’s recipes are written in paragraph form as he had written them. Oven temperatures are given as “moderate” and “cool” so I had to do a little research to find a modern equivalent. I’ll write out his recipe as he wrote it, and then in the modern way for those who find it easier to read and follow along. Many of my cookbooks written prior to 1940 are written as paragraphs, so sometimes it takes restructuring for ease sake.

Sunshine cake–Cream one cup of butter, add two cups of sugar and beat, add one cup of milk, the yolks of eleven eggs beaten until very light and smooth, and three cups of flour sifted with four teaspoons of baking powder three times to make it very light. Turn into a tube pan and bake three quarters of an hour in a moderate oven.

Rufus Estes, 1911

A few field notes before I begin, I did read a little into sunshine cakes and realized they’re very close to an angel food cake, except Rufus’ is made with egg yolks and no egg whites. So I followed protocol with angel food cake method just to be on the safe side. He makes it very clear that he wants everything very light, so cooling the cake upside down in an ungreased pan seemed consistent. If your tube pan doesn’t have the feet on it to allow for air to circulate while the cake cools, you can elevate it by balancing it on a full wine bottle inserting the neck into the center tube. Also, because we are not greasing the pan, please don’t attempt to bake this in a bundt pan or you’ll have lots of tears in the crust.

Also, I chose to make a simple glaze of dried strawberries, confectioner’s sugar and milk, but there are a handful of other recipes that would work well on this cake and I may attempt one of those when I have those ingredients available.

Anyway, the cake itself was incredibly moist and flavorful, despite not calling for any salt or added flavorings. It’s wonderful as is, and could also serve as a blank canvas for maybe a little zest or something if you wanted to try a variation. Bottom line, definitely make this cake and tell me what you think!


1 cup butter (salted)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup milk (I used whole)
11 egg yolks
3 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder

  1. Heat oven to 350
  2. Cream together butter and sugar in a stand mixer, beating until light and fluffy.
  3. Beat egg yolks until light and smooth. Add yolks and milk to butter & sugar and beat until consistency is light and fluffy.
  4. Sift together flour and baking powder three times so it’s very light.
  5. Add flour mixture to mixer and mix until just combined. You want as much air to remain as possible.
  6. Pour batter into an ungreased tube pan (angel food cake pan) and bake for 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean and cake springs back when pressed.
  7. Cool cake upside down on a rack until completely cool and then run a knife around sides and tube to release cake from pan.
  8. Place cake on a serving plate and decorate with your choice of frosting or enjoy plain.

Let me know if you tried making this cake! And if you’d like to see something else (perhaps savory) made from this book, please let me know and I would be happy to try that too!


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