So, I chose to make this particular recipe because 1) I had all the ingredients on hand, and 2) it looked easy. I admit it – no loftier goals than that. But isn’t ease and convenience how we often choose recipes? And perhaps the same applied for this cake’s original cooks. After all, we don’t always have the inclination (or eggs) to make a “rich cake” that requires 24 eggs. But a simple cake that requires only four ingredients? No wonder Catherine Cotton included this recipe in her book.
This “seed cake” comes from one of our favorite volumes, Catherine Cotton’s UPenn Ms. Codex 214. We’ve seen seed cakes come up in other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century recipe books, so it seems safe to say that seed cake was probably fairly common at the time. Interestingly, this recipe would have yielded quite a large cake: halved, it more than filled an 8″ round, so this would have been cake for a crowd.
To make a seed cake
Take the whites of 8 eggs beat them very well then
put the yolks to them & beat them very well together then
put to it a pound of sugar beat & sifted very fine & beat
it for half an hour then make it a little warm over the
fire & after that put in 3 quarters of a pound of flower
very well dryed a quarter of an ounce of carraway seeds
stirr it well together & put it into the pan it will take 3
quarters of a hour to bake it /
(halved from the original)
4 eggs, separated
1 heaping c. (1/2 lb.) sugar
1 1/4 c. (6 oz. or 3/8 lb.) flour
1.5 tsp. (1/8 oz.) caraway seeds
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9″ round pan or other baking dish.*
In a standing mixer or with a handheld mixer, beat eggs whites until stiff but not dry. Then add egg yolks and beat until mixture is uniformly yellow and still fluffy. Add sugar and beat at medium speed for about 10 mins., or until light and shiny.* Scrape down bowl and stir in flour and caraway seeds with a spatula.
Bake for 45-50 mins., until top is dry and firm to the touch. Cool in pan 10 mins., then run a knife around the edges to loosen it and turn cake out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
*Note: I used an 8″ round pan and, as you can see, barely escaped a cake batter overflow disaster. 9″ would be safer.
**Note: I actually forgot the next step, to “make it a little warm over the fire”! This didn’t seem to detract from the final outcome, but you might set the mixing bowl briefly over a double boiler if you’d like to be thorough!
I’m always curious to try a recipe that we see come up, with minor variations, across multiple recipe books. But I didn’t have extraordinarily high hopes for this cake – eggs + sugar + flour + caraway seeds? I expected something blandly palatable, mildly sweet, perhaps dense and a little dry.
Instead, I ended up with something between a pound cake and an angel food cake: sweet without being cloying, moist, nicely chewy, with a sweet crackly crust. Hello, seed cake! Welcome to the rotation – I’ll be making this one again. And while the simplicity of the recipe is part of its charm, it also means that there’s plenty of room for experimentation with extracts, zest, different seeds in different amounts, perhaps even finely chopped dried fruit or miniature chocolate chips. Wrapped well, it stayed moist for several days. And it’s a lovely cake to have with tea or coffee.