Seed Cake inspired by Thomas Tusser

 

This post presents the fourth and final recipe from a series of updated recipes that I developed for the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019). You can also find a version of this post on the Folger’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog.

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Photo by Teresa Wood

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night the uptight steward Malvolio breaks up Uncle Toby Belch’s midnight revelry and Toby protests with the question, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” or, in other words, do you think you can really put a stop to all celebratory eating and drinking? (II.iii113). The answer is clearly no. As Julia Reinhard Lupton writes in an essay on Shakespeare and dessert: “To eat cake is to refuse to live by bread alone” (223). Cake was not an everyday food in early modern Britain, and it probably isn’t (or shouldn’t be) for us. Cakes were reserved for celebrations, large or small.

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An example of these special occasion cakes was a “seed cake,” as Thomas Tusser wrote in his wildly popular verse work on farming, husbandry, and housekeeping, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573), in which he advises the British housewife to prepare a seed cake at the harvest.

Wife sometime this weeke, if the weather hold clere,
an end of wheat sowing, we make for this yere.
Remember you therfore, though I Do it not:
The seede Cake, the Pasties, and Furmenty pot. Xjv

After the agricultural benchmark of sowing wheat is completed, likely in September, the housewife should make a seed cake or a pasty (or hand-held pie) or furmenty (a fortified porridge) to mark the moment.

Now for all the agricultural and household information in Tusser’s book, he does not actually include recipes. Thus the great hunt for the perfect seed cake began! Instead of turning to printed sources as I did for Hughes’s Hot Chocolate, May’s Brisket, and Woolley’s Marmalade, I dove into recipe manuscripts. The Folger has the largest collection of manuscript recipe books in the world. These manuscripts are fun, unruly, and the main source of recipes that I’ve updated for Cooking in the Archives. They were compendia of culinary and medicinal recipes kept in early modern households. These books were often used by a family for a century or more and usually reveal a mix of different handwriting and priorities for different generations. Learn more about recipe books as knowledge repositories on The Recipes Project.

When I found this recipe in Folger manuscript V.a.430, Cookery and medicinal recipes of the Granville family, I was excited. Although this recipe book was used between 1640-1750, and thus the seed cake recipe is likely from a hundred years or more after Tusser first published Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, it contains other compelling features that make it a truly delicious find.

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Mrs Berkers Receipt
To Make a seed Cake
Take a pound of Butter, wash it in Rose Water,
then work it with your hand till ’tis as thin as
Cream, then take a pound of flower well Dry’d,
and a pound of double refind sugar finely beaten
Two Ounces of Carraway Seeds, three thimbles
full of pounded mace, Mix all the dry things
together and put them by degrees into the
Butter then mix them well togather then beat
9 Eggs, half the Whites, and 3 or four spoonfuls
of Sack Put these into the other Ingredients, beat
it all well with your hands, having your Oven
ready put your Cake into the hoop and have
a double paper Butter’d to put over it if there
is Occasion
One hour will bake it.

First, it relies on whipped egg whites as a rising agent. Other seed cake recipes are leavened with ale barm, the yeast that collects on the top of freshly brewed beer. Brewing and baking were intimately interconnected, and the seed cake that Tusser was thinking about may well have been leavened this way. Even though I bake with a sourdough starter every week, adapting recipes that call for ale barm is especially tricky business. Instead, this seed cake shows what incredible things eggs can do.

This recipe also calls for caraway seeds and rosewater, two ingredients that were widely used in sweet and savory dishes in the early modern period and could have been produced close to home. Caraway grows in the Northern European climate, and householders distilled the petals of their roses into rosewater and used this flavoring in many dishes where we would now use vanilla extract. As Rebecca Laroche and Jennifer Munroe explore in their ecofeminist scholarship on Shakespeare and recipe books, early modern gardens were dynamic sites and recipe writers and users were aware of what was available and in season (112).

 

Tusser advises his ideal housewife to make a seed cake to mark the harvest, and, as the proliferation of seed cake recipes in the manuscript and printed recipe archive attests, housewives didprepare seed cakes, to mark the harvest or other occasions. Seed cake is a rich buttery treat, scented with rosewater and sack (sweet Spanish wine), spiced with caraway and mace, and best served with a cup of warm tea (in my opinion). The ingredients for this delicious recipe are local – (rosewater, caraway, flour, butter, eggs – as well as imported – mace, sugar, and sack. The caraway in it is potent, but totally delightful. The other flavors give it a wonderful scent. It’s sweet, but not too sweet, rich with butter, and wonderfully leavened by the eggs. Tusser inspired a delicious celebration.

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INGREDIENTS

1 cup flour
7 teaspoons caraway seeds
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon mace
1 stick butter, room temperature (8T)
1 teaspoon rosewater
1⁄2 cup sugar
3 eggs (1 whole, 2 whites separated from yolks)
1 tablespoon sherry

PREPARATION

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch springform pan and line with parchment. Stir together flour, caraway seeds, salt, and mace. Set aside. In a large bowl, cream butter, rosewater, and sugar, either by hand or with a mixer. Stir in the whole egg and sherry, then add the flour and spice mixture. Set aside. Using a mixer, whisk the egg whites until they hold their form. Fold the whites into the cake batter very gently, maintaining the fluffiness of the whites even if it means the batter looks clumpy. Pour the batter into your prepared pan. Place it on a baking sheet in the middle of the oven. Bake for 40 minutes until golden and set in the middle. A cake tester will come out clean when it is completely cooked. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before removing from the springform pan.

NOTES

Serve warm or room temperature with tea, coffee, fresh fruit, or preserves. This recipe is easy to double. You can also prepare smaller cakes by baking in a greased muffin pan and adjusting your baking time to 15 minutes.

 

Learn More

Di Meo, Michelle and Sara Pennell, eds. Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550-1800. (Manchester University Press, 2013)

Laroche, Rebecca and Jennifer Munroe, Shakespeare and Ecofeminist Theory (Bloomsbury, 2017) especially Chapter 4, 105-130.

Leong, Elaine. Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England. (University of Chicago, 2018).

Lupton, Julia Reinhard. “Room for Dessert: Sugared Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Dwelling.” in Culinary Shakespeare: Staging Food and Drink in Early Modern England, eds. David B. Goldstein and Amy L. Tigner (Duquesne University Press 2016), 199-224.

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Photo by Teresa Wood

This recipe was developed by Marissa Nicosia for the Folger exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019), produced in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute.

Special thanks to Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe for their help.

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To make a seed cake

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.

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The Recipe

seed cakes

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 /

Our Recipe
(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!

The Results

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.

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