To have fried cakes good, it is necessary that the fat should be of the right heat. When it is hot enough, it will cease to bubble, and be perfectly still. It is best to try it with a little bit of the cake to be fried. If the heat is right, the dough will rise in a few seconds to the top, and occasion a bubbling in the fat; it will swell, and the under-side quickly become brown. It should then be turned over. Cakes should be turned two or three times. The time necessary to fry them, depends on their thickness; if about as thick as the little finger, they will be done in seven or eight minutes. It is best to break open one, in order to judge.
When done, drain them well with a skimmer. If the fat is too hot, the outside will be burned before the centre is cooked at all; if too cool, they will become fat-soaked, which makes them very unhealthy and disagreeable. The fire must be carefully regulated. A person who fries cakes must attend to nothing else; the cakes, the fat, and the fire will occupy every minute. The use of many eggs prevents cakes from absorbing much fat. But they can be so made without eggs, as not to take up much fat.
From The Young Housekeeper’s Friend by Mrs. [M. H.] Cornelius, Boston, 1863
Comment: Anyone fond of Navajo fry bread, or the various and sundry fried-dough items sold at carnivals and fairs, should read this directive carefully. Mrs. Cornelius does not give us a specific temperature to which the fat should be heated, because in the 19th century thermometers of such range were rare and expensive instruments found only in the laboratories of science, not cheap items found in every kitchen drawer. Following her instructions, though, will produce the same results even without the tool, and illustrate how practice and experience enabled cooks of an earlier time to produce results we would today consider entirely impossible.