A piece of cake

Most early modern recipe books contain one or more ways of making cake, but they are quite different from the modern Victoria sponge. Take this recipe for ‘Common Cakes’ from ‘Mrs Raikes’s Cook’:

a pound of currants 3 lb of flour ½ a lb of butter & half a pound of sugar season it with a nutmeg rub them well together mix them into a light paste with warm milk & 3 spoonfulls of yest roll them thin as a common cake lay them on paper well dridged with flour & bake them in a slow oven (British Library, Add MS 69509)

Here the raising agent is yeast and there are no eggs, as well as what seems like a large quantity of flour, so they would have been quite dense, more like an Eccles cake.

Miss Crosfield’s recipe for ‘An ordinary plumb cake’ appears to be less heavy and makes one cake rather than several, and although there is little information on what to bake it in, at least some indication is given of the length of time:

a pd of flour well dried a pd of currans 2 penny worth of mace the same quantity of cinnamon four spoonfuls of yest a gill of cream and half a pound of butter melt the butter in the cream then mix all together into a light paste an hour will bake it (British Library, Add MS 69509)

More useful in this regard is Mary Bent’s late seventeenth-century recipe ‘To Make a Cake without Easte [yeast]’, with its vast quantities of ingredients:

Recipe for cake without yeast

Image © Wellcome Collection

Take 4 pound of fresh butter bake it to Cream then take two pound of white suger dry it well and beate it small mix the suger and butter well together then take four pounds of flower dryed mixt it with the butter and suger put in one point [pint] of sack then take eight eggs to each one pound of flower the youlkes and whites beat severaly whip the whites to a curd which will take half an hour att least mix the whites first with other things then the youlkes take four pound of currant well washed and dryed before the fire and mix them hot have ready one pound of almonds blanhed and cut long ways as thin as you can and mix them with haff an ounce of mace and as much nuttmeggs pounded smale then you may put in whatt sweet meates you please this is to be done in the same order as it is written and take care that every think be exactly weighed before any be mixed beating them up then the are to put in to the hoope and put two or three sheets of brown paper in the bottom to keep it from runing out after it is risen and colloured cover it with a sheete of brown paper before you stop your oven let it ly two or three hours (Wellcome Collection, MS 1127)

Recipe for cake without yeast

Image © Wellcome Collection

This indicates the use of a metal hoop and brown paper, the precursor to the modern lined cake tin. The recipe uses the air in the whipped egg whites to make the cake rise, although at this period eggs were probably smaller than they are today, so the 32 eggs used here are not to be translated literally for modern use. A better idea may be provided by this recipe for fatless lemon cakes, which helpfully uses the weight of the eggs as a guide:

4 new laid eggs, their weight in sugar pounded, & sifted, half their weight in flour, the peel of one Lemon chop’d very small, mix the peel among the Flour, set the Flour & sugar before the fire to warm, whisk the whites of the eggs to a very stiff froth with a knife, put in the sugar, & whisk it well together, then put in the yolks, & whisk them to mix them altogether. put in the Flour, stir it together gently with a spoon; put them in tin pans butter’d, & flour’d, shake a little sugar over them before they are put into the oven, a quarter of an hour bakes them, it must be a quick oven. (British Library Add MS 69409)

Notice again the buttered and floured cake tins. These delights appear to be much smaller then the previous recipe would produce, and may be an eighteenth-century equivalent of fairy cakes!

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