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Cakes: Cooking and the recipe

 

For this recipe I’m going back a little further than usual – the majority of the recipes I cook tend to be mid-17th century, but this one if from the late 16th century. I’m using Thomas Dawson’s The good huswifes jewell (1587) which I don’t think I’ve used before for this blog. This is odd as I am quite familiar with it from my work, and there are some fascinating recipes in there. It’s an interesting book, containing not just recipes but also some information about animal husbandry and some home remedies for various ailments. I think I’ll have to make more of an effort to try out some of Mr Dawson’s recipes in the future – though possibly not his medicines. He also provides the following tip “For to make one slender”:

TAke Fennell, and seeth it in water, a very good quantitie, and wring out the iuyce therof when it is sod, and drinke it first and laste, and it shall swage either him or her.

It seems fad diets and those “weird old diet tips” so beloved of annoying internet ads have a long and proud tradition stretching back hundred of years!

Anyway, here’s the recipe I’ll be cooking today:

To make fine Cakes.

TAke fine flowre and good damaske water you must haue no other liquor but that, then take sweete butter, two or thrée yolkes of egges, and a good quantitie of suger, and afewe cloues, and mace, as your Cookes mouth shall serue him, and a litle saffron, and a litle Gods good about a sponful if you put in too much they shall arise, cut them in squares like vnto trenchers, and pricke them well, and let your ouen be well swept and lay them vpon papers and so set them into the ouen, do not burn them if they be three or foure dayes olde they be the better.

As is often the case, there are few indications of quantities in this recipe, so there is a lot of guesswork involves. As I said in the last post, early modern cakes were more of a “fancy bread” than the sponge cakes we eat today. There is also a clue in the fact that the bread is cut into squares before being baked – clearly this is a kind of dough and not the thick batter that a modern recipe would produce. With this in mind, although this recipe contains all the ingredients of a modern cake (flour, eggs, butter and sugar), I didn’t want to be basing my quantity estimates on a traditional cake mix, but rather I approached this as a bread enriched with sugar, butter and eggs, like brioche or challah. It didn’t turn out much like either though.

Although this cake can’t really be described as a bread, there is some yeast in this recipe – that’s what the “God’s good” is. The etymology is quite interesting. According to the OED, “God’s good” was also used to refer to “property or possessions belonging to God (applied esp. to Church property); also, worldly possessions, food, etc., viewed as the good gift of God”. I would assume that perhaps yeast came to be associated particularly with this as it is a naturally occurring substance, it comes not from man’s intervention but from the “good gift of God”. Whatever the reason, there is yeast in this recipe, but curiously the recipe does not seem to want the cakes to “arise”.

I started by activating some yeast in a small cup. I took 200g flour to which I added 3 tablespoons of water and a few drops of rose water. As I have discussed before, the rose water you can buy today is very strong, and you shouldn’t really use large quantities of it, so it needs to be diluted into normal water. I added 2 egg yolks and 50g each caster sugar and softened butter to the mixture and beat it until it was combined.

I then added a pinch of ground cloves and mace, and then a tablespoon of the foam from the top of the yeast. Sadly I couldn’t get hold of saffron, if you are using it I’d advise steeping it in the tablespoonful of water and then adding it with the rosewater at the beginning.

This makes a stiff dough so you’ll have to get in there and kneed it with your hands. If it won’t quite combine, add a little more water.

At this point, I rolled out the cake and cut it into squares. I then baked it in a medium-hot oven (about 200c) for about 20 minutes.

After letting the cakes cool for a while, I tried one (as did my resident early modern food guinea pig aka husband). They were rather tasty, though not all that much like cakes or even bread for that matter. They are probably best described as a cross between a scone and a biscuit. They were quite sweet, the texture soft crumbly, flaky and a little bit risen. Very tasty, if a little dry. You could, however, ice them which would probably help with this, or spread some jam or other preserve on them to eat.

Fancy making your own early modern cakes? Here’s a recipe:

 

Fine cakes

Makes about 8 small cakes

200g flour

3 tbsp water with a few drops rose water dissolved in it, plus additional water

50g sugar

50g butter, softened

2 egg yolks

Pinch each ground cloves and mace

Saffron, if desired

Dried active yeast

 

If you are using saffron steep it in the water for half an hour (warm the water first), then add the rosewater. Make up the yeast according to packet instructions. This will usually involve dissolving it with sugar in warm water and waiting for some foam to form on top. While the yeast is activating, put the flour in a large bowl with the sugar. Make a well in the centre and add the butter, water with rosewater and egg yolks. Stir to combine. Add the spices with a tablespoonful of the yeasty water, then kneed until the bread comes together. You might have to add more water.

Turn out onto a floured surface and roll out. I rolled mine out to around the thickness of 2 pound coins. Once it it rolled, cut into squares, put onto a greased baking sheet, prick all over with a skewer, and bake in the oven on a medium-hot heat, about 200g. Check after 20 minutes, remove if they seem cooked, leave them in a bit more if not.

 

Enjoy your early modern cakes! They are best when they are warm. If anyone tries this recipe please let me know how you got on in the comments.

 

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Cakes: History and background

Stacked Books Tassles by ChicosMom, found on www.cakecentral.com. Click the picture to head over there and have a look if you want to look at lots of amazing cakes and lose several hours of your life!

Finally, a new post! I’m afraid the lack of blog posts is not due to me jetting off on some kind of holiday in August, but because I have been trying to write a chapter. The chapter focuses on alcoholic drinks, so aside from the buttered beer I haven’t come across much in my reading that I can write about here. Today, however, I thought I might do a little baking, and I figured that while I was at it I might as well bake something for the blog too. So, I shall be making some early modern cakes, and here you shall find a little bit of background on them. I am still wading through books on alcohol and allegories and trying to pull a chapter together, so I don’t have time to really get into the history of cakes, but here are a few tidbits to whet your appetite before I post the recipe in a few days:

Thou bel amy, thou Pardoner,’ he seyde,
‘Tel us som mirthe or Iapes right anon.’
‘It shall be doon,’ quod he, ‘by seint Ronyon!
But first,’ quod he, ‘heer at this ale-stake
I wol both drinke, and eten of a cake.’

The Canterbury Tales. 317-328

I’ve gone back a little further than usual looking for references with this one. Cakes are mentioned several times in the tales but I’ve gone for this quote from the Pardoner. As characters in the Canterbury Tales go, the Pardoner is one of the least appealing, and his eating and drinking here seems to me to be suggestive of greed.

What did cake mean in the early modern and medieval world? Well, according to the OED it had two  meanings. The first, originating from an earlier time, was “a baked mass of bread or substance of similar kind, distinguished from a loaf or other ordinary bread, either by its form or by its composition”. The cake would be smaller than a loaf of bread, “round, oval, or otherwise regularly shaped, and usually baked hard on both sides by being turned during the process”. I suppose this would be somewhat similar to what you would call a roll, bun or batch today (depending on which part of the country you live in). Anyway, it seems that a cake need not be something sweet, as it usually is today (excepting things like potato cakes, I suppose). Another meaning which ran alongside the first but came to prominence during the 16th and particularly the 17th centuries was that which eventually lead to the modern sense, “fancy bread, and sweetened or flavoured”. Now, of course, we see cake as a different substance to bread – the latter being as a rule risen with yeast and made of flour and water, and the former being made of flour, butter, sugar and eggs (6oz each of the first three and then 3 eggs – or at least that’s what my mother taught me).

It’s also worth mentioning that “cake” could also refer to a type of “thin hard-baked brittle species of oaten-bread” which was eaten in Scotland and the north. In Edward Sharpham’s The Fleire (1607), the titular character says: Send her an Oten cake, t’is a good Northern token”, illustrating this point.

I’ve seen “Court cakebreads” mentioned in a few plays, and I think these might be the “fancy bread” referred to above – court food is, as I’ve discussed before, usually described as being fancy and embellished in some way. Cakebreads seem to go hand in hand with custards, you’ll see they are mentioned in a few of the quotes I used in my post about custard.

Now, I said this wouldn’t be a very long post, so I’ve just got one mention of cake from a play that I thought was interesting. As it happens, there is a copy of this play in the collection I’m studying.

In Richard Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches, wedding cake, or “bride-cake” has a role to play. At a wedding feast, some revelers wait with the bride cake to “cracke and crumble upon her crowne” – this seems to be some kind of wedding tradition. However, there is a spirit in the house, and he turns the cake to bran, prompting a cry of “the divell of crum is here, but bran; nothing but bran!”. As the play is set in Lancashire, perhaps this is a reference to the “oat-cakes” mentioned earlier? It’s also interesting to see that wedding cakes have apparently been around for a while, though I am glad that they don’t get crumbled on people’s heads anymore. Having said that, there is a growing tradition, mainly in America, I believe, of brides and grooms squashing cake into each other’s faces, so perhaps this is coming back!

And finally, here’s some wisdom from a 16th century book of proverbs:

Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?

John Heywood, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue (1546)

Doesn’t it just make so much more sense that way around? I never understood why it was a bad thing to want to have your cake and eat it – surely that’s what you do when you have a cake?! But yes, it would be silly to want to eat it and then have it back again.

Anyway, that’s all for now, I shall be back soon with a recipe for 16th century cakes!

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