Portland Cakes, Cooking in the Scripps Archives Part 4

This is the fourth and final post featuring a recipe from the Earl of Roden Commonplace Book held at the Scripps College, Denison Library. Read the first post here for information about this manuscript.

Flipping through the Earl of Roden Commonplace Book in the Denison Library at Scripps a few months ago, I paused when I saw a recipe for “Portland Cakes.” They looked so familiar! These buttery, sweet cakes are flavored with rosewater and brandy and dotted with currants, just like the “Potingall/Portugal Cakes” Alyssa wrote about a few months ago. The “Portland Cakes” in the Earl of Roden  fall into the broad category of “Portugal” cakes seasoned with fortified wines like brandy and sack that were imported to the British Isles from the Iberian peninsula.

The Recipe

portland cakes

To make Portland Cakes.

Six ounces of Butter well beaten, six ounces of Loaf Sugar,
the Yolks of two eggs, the white of one, 1/4 of a pound of
currants, two spoonfuls of Rose Water 3/4 of a Pound of
flour, you may add a small quantity of Brandy if
you please. Make them into little cakes and bake them
a quarter of an hour __ When you put them into the
Oven, strew over them some grated Sugar. ___

Our Recipe is basically the same.

6 oz butter, softened
6 oz sugar (additional sugar for sprinkling)
2 egg yolks
1 egg white
1/4 lb currants
2 t rosewater
3/4 lb flour
2 t brandy

Preheat oven to 350F.

Cream together butter and sugar. I used my stand mixer for this recipe, but it could work with a hand mixer or a large bowl and a sturdy spoon.  When the mixture is pale and fluffy, add rosewater and brandy. Separate and beat the eggs before adding them to the mix. Add the flour. When the flour is completely incorporated, add the currants.

Divide the mixture into 12 cakes and bake in a greased muffin tin for 40 minutes. If you’d like to make smaller cakes (I plan to next time) divide the mixture into 18 or 24 parts and bake in two greased muffin tins for approximately 25 minutes, until golden brown.

As you can see from the photos, I completely forgot to dust these with sugar before I put them in the oven, but they were toothsome all the same.

The Results

Portland Cakes are sweet, dense, and fragrant. I enjoyed one hot from the oven with a cup of tea. I brought the rest to a picnic and they were a big hit with adults and kids alike.

Next time I’ll make smaller cakes in a muffin  pan (or even try a Madeline pan like Alyssa) because the crunchy exterior was my favorite part. I might also add a pinch of salt and cut the sugar a bit.

But mostly I think a Potingall/Portugal/Portland Cake bake-off is in order. Alyssa and I are going to arrange a taste-test and let you know which recipe we like best!

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Potingall/Portugal Cakes

This recipe has also been featured in the Washington Post, in Sarah Kaplan’s wonderful article on our project.

Check it out here.

Like the fantastic Desart Cakes, these Potingall Cakes caught my eye because of their intriguing name and relatively simple ingredient list. Unlike the Desart Cakes, which are what we would call cookies, these are little cakes. And pretty tasty ones at that.

This recipe comes from the first volume of UPenn Ms. Codex 631, dated 1730. (This two-volume collection has become one of our favorites.) “Potingall” is probably a stand-in for “Portugal,” since the recipe closely resembles the fairly common recipe for “Portugal cakes” found in many seventeenth- through nineteenth-century cookbooks. Getting “Potingall” from “Portugal” doesn’t seem unreasonable: the two words are visually similar, and the writer copying the recipe into Ms. Codex 631 could have been working from another recipe that was difficult to read or itself mistaken. (Like an eighteenth-century game of telephone!) “Portugal” named a type of orange in the period and might refer to the recipe’s use of orange flower water. However, Portugal cakes’ name more probably relates to one of their ingredients: sack, a sweet, fortified white wine originally produced in Portugal.

The Recipe

potingall cakes

To Make the Potingall Cakes

Take a pound of flower well dryed & a pound of Loafe sugar beat fine searce them
both & mingle them together, then take a pound of Butter & wash it well in rose water
or orange flower water, then work it well in your hand till it be all very soft & then strew
in your sugar & flower by degrees tell (i.e. till) it be half in, still working it with your hand, then put
in 6 yolks of eggs & 5 whites & beat them up with two spoonfulls of sack, then by degrees
worke in the half of the sugar & flower & when your oven is hott, then pick wash & dry a
pound of Currants over the fire, your pans must be ready Buttered, then fill them half full
& scrape double refine sugar on them, Let your oven be pritty hot & set up the Lead

Our Recipe

[Note: I halved the recipe because these cakes taste best within one to two days.]

1/2 lb. all-purpose flour

1/2 lb. granulated sugar

pinch of salt

1/2 lb. [2 sticks] unsalted butter

1 tsp. rosewater or orange flower water*

2 whole eggs + 1 egg yolk

1 tbsp. sherry**

scant 1/2 lb. currants

optional: sugar for sprinkling on top

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter, coat with cooking spray, or line your pans.***

Mix together flour, sugar, and salt; set aside.

In a stand mixer or with a hand mixer****, cream the butter and flower water until light and fluffy.

With the mixer running at low speed, blend half of the flour mixture into the butter mixture; scrape down the bowl. Add the eggs and sherry, then mix at low-medium speed until combined; scrape down the bowl again. With the mixer at low speed, add the rest of the flour mixture; mix until the batter looks uniform. Add the currants and mix at low speed until they are distributed evenly.

Spoon batter into your pans (a cookie scoop works nicely here) and even out slightly with a buttered spatula. The cakes won’t rise much during baking but bake best as smaller cakes, so fill madeleine pans to the top, mini-cupcake pans nearly full, and cupcake pans 1/2 to 3/4 full. Optional: lightly sprinkle granulated sugar on top. (This adds a slight sparkle to the cupcakes but isn’t essential to their taste.)

Bake until cakes are firm to the touch at the center and golden brown around the edges. (A toothpick inserted into a cake should come out clean.) This will take around 12-14 mins. for mini-cupcakes, 14-16 mins. for madeleines, and 18 mins. for cupcakes. Let cool in pans for 3-5 mins., then remove onto cooling racks.

NOTES:

*Note on flower water: I tried these with both rosewater and orange flower water; I preferred the rosewater version because the flavor was subtler, but both flavorings played nicely with the currants.

**Note on sherry: I replaced sack (a sweet, fortified white wine) with the similar and more readily-available sherry. If you prefer a non-alcoholic cake, orange juice or white grape juice (or water) would most likely be a fine substitute. Raisins could also substitute for currants in a pinch.

***Note on pans: This recipe works best as small cakes: cupcakes, mini-cupcakes, or madeleines, for example. Use whatever combination of pans you’d like. The recipe yields approx. 18-32 cakes: 12 large madeleines (filled with 3 tbsp. batter each) + 6 cupcakes / 12 small madeleines (filled with 2 tbsp. batter each) + 10 cupcakes / 24 mini-cupcakes + 8 cupcakes.

****Note on mixing: In the spirit of updating this recipe to modern kitchens, I used a stand mixer rather than blending the dough by hand. However, the original method would also work – and be satisfyingly messy.

The Results

These are not light and fluffy cakes. They’re moist and dense, like a weightier muffin, with a rich flavor from the flower water, sherry, and currants. I liked them best as madeleines because that shape provides the highest edge-per-bite ratio – the crisply browned edges are particularly tasty. They also made an excellent snack alongside our old favorite, carrot pudding.

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