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:
Makes about 8 small cakes
3 tbsp water with a few drops rose water dissolved in it, plus additional water
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.