The Hitchhiker's Guide to Ancient Cookery

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Alexandre Lerot d'Avigné
Jeff Berry
(Number 29 in the Series, September 2004)

Spice Cakes

So, Stacey has some new cake molds and an idea for making a beehive cake and some bees as a soteltie sometime. I asked what kind of cake and she said she didn't know. I sternly said I hoped it would be something medieval! She said something like, "Sure, get me a recipe." And so it began.

Most of the cake-type recipes I found involved two things: ale barm and lots of currants. They also tended to involve a rise, like bread, before the cooking. I wasn't sure what I was looking for, but I knew I wanted something that would take the molds well. Finally I found something that looked worth taking a stab at. It was in Markham's "The English Hus-wife", from the Of Cookery chapter, and my edition has it marked as recipe 171.

"To make spice cakes.
To make excellent spice cakes, take half a peck of very fine wheat flour; take almost one pound of sweet butter, and some good milk and cream mixed together; set it on the fire, and put in your butter, and a good deal of sugar, and let it melt together: then strain saffron into your milk a good quantity; then take seven or eight spoonfuls of good ale barm, and eight eggs with two yolks and mix them together, then put your milk to it when it is somewhat cold, and into your flour put salt, aniseeds bruised, cloves and mace, and a good deal of cinnamon: then work all together good and stiff, that you need not work in any flour after; then put in a little rose-water cold, then rub it well in the thing you knead it in, and work it thoroughly: if it be not sweet enough, scrape in a little more sugar, and pull it all in pieces, and hurl in a good quantity of currants, and so work all together again, and bake your cake as you see cause in a gentle warm oven."

I had a fleur de lis mold I wanted to use, and it's small so I used math. I decided I was going to make about a much reduced recipe. The flour and butter had measurements given, and were in a ratio of 8:1. So I did some digging through modern recipes to try to decided what that would mean in terms of butter and liquid. After some hemming and hawing, I decided that I would use the following as a base:

In retrospect, I realize that I thought I was making a 1/8 recipe, but used 1/16 the amount of flour. Why is that important, you ask? I'll tell you. I used 1 egg, which is about 1/8 of the amount needed, so my recipe probably has too much egg in it.

I also decided, based on some modern recipes, and party just as a guess, to use 1 tsp of dry yeast instead of eight spoonfuls (divided by 8 or 16) of ale barm.

In any case, I heated the butter, half-and-half and sugar over a low flame and threw in a pinch of saffron. Then I measured my flour and sugar and added in perhaps a tsp of aniseeds, maybe half that in cloves and mace, and twice that in cinnamon. One can adjust the spicing to one's own taste, of course. I beat my egg and added my yeast to that. Then I poured the egg and yeast into the milk stuff (slightly cooled by now) and thence into the flour. I mixed it all up pretty good, then added 1/4 cup or so of raisins (since I didn't have currants handy.) Finally, I added just a few drops of rose water. The whole thing got stuck in a buttered mold and cooked for about an hour at 305F.

The result was not bad. I decided to tweak it slightly. I made another batch, but this time used 1/3 cup half-and-half and added the yeast to the butter mixture rather than the egg (it had clumped up in the egg.) I also made sure to push it well down into the mold and gave it an hour at 315F. It came out better - a little softer than the first go. Stacey approved it, and we were in business.

Mix dry ingredients. Heat butter, sugar, half-and-half and saffron till butter is melted. Remove from heat and add cool slightly. Add one beaten egg and the yeast. Add to dry ingredients and mix well. Add currants and mix well. Add rosewater and mix well. Put in cake pan or buttered molds. Bake for an hour at 315.

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Comments are welcome.
Alexandre Lerot d'Avigné, Jeff Berry,

Copyright Jeff Berry
Originally webbed 8 September 2004
Last modified 8 September 2004