Replicate, Authenticate, and Reconstruct

The idea of replicating and reproducing a 300-year-old recipe is one that intrigued me whilst I was transcribing Baker’s books. Could I, a 21-year-old History student, be able to replicate a recipe as accurately to the one Baker would have? Does the 300 year gap really make that much of a difference when your reproducing quite a (what I thought was simple) recipe? Or is it challenging to precisely reconstruct an old recipe, and produce an exact, authentic piece of food without corrupting it with 21st century behaviours? The answer of that is of the latter; of course I wasn’t going to be able to make an authentic cake, the sugar I used was out of a packet, as was the flour and the cream, and the egg wasn’t freshly laid. Could we really communicate effortlessly with early modern cookery, and imitate an exact recipe to produce an exactly similar outcome, unchanged despite the 300 years between us?

sugar-cakes-recipe-picture
The recipe ‘for suger cakes’, which I would be reconstructing.

I faced a number of problems before I started making my suger cakes, Baker weighed her food in pounds, and I had a scale that weighed in grams – (luckily a quick click on Google allowed me to figure out the grams easily). On top of this I had to guess the temperature to put my oven on, and I had to guess how long to have my bake in the oven for – this was tricky in itself. I sat next to my oven for over 20 minutes peering through the window until my sugar cakes looked baked. 17th century housewives did not have electric ovens where you simply turn the dial to the temperature you want – you had to be alert and patient. That was an initial trouble I faced, “what temperature do I set the oven to?, were these cakes meant to be hard and crispy? Or soft and spongy?” These recipes lacked in these descriptions because they themselves knew exactly what a ‘suger cake’ should look, feel, and taste like; if only I knew the same 300 years later. Ovens, hearths, open fires or spits would have been in an early modern household and who knows whether the same sugar cakes produced then, would be the same as my sugar cakes I produce now. 17th century techniques may have baked these foods entirely different to how my 21st century oven would have – suddenly I realised that reconstruction of this recipe wasn’t as easy as it initially seemed.

 

cookies-mix
Dough-like consistency of the ‘suger cake’ mixture

Like a lab experiment, everything had to be controlled, these factors hindered me from making an truthful replica of the cake which Baker would have made. This made me question the finishing product, was this even what Baker took out of the oven, or was it something that looked entirely different? I soon came to realise that even the early modern use of names and labels were just another obstacle preventing me from an accurate outcome. From reading the recipe ‘for suger cakes’, I assumed I was baking something similar to a fairy cake. Yet after mixing all the ingredients together, and finding myself kneading the mixture more than beating it, thinking it felt more like cookie dough, I started to become confused. However, I wanted to carry on with the ‘cake’ I was making – so I placed them in the cake cases, into the oven and took to the Internet for some assurance. “The earliest English cakes were virtually bread, their main distinguishing characteristics being their shape –round and flat-”¹ was something which caught my eye, I wasn’t meant to be making cakes as we know it today, but round and flat sugar cakes!

misunderstanding-cookies
Miscommunication – Before understanding the definition of a ‘cake’ could also be flat and round.

The definition of a cake is: “a flat, thin, mass of bread, especially unlevened bread”² and the definition of a cookie: “a small cake made from stiff, sweet dough rolled and sliced or dropped by spoonfuls on a large, flat pan and baked”³. The glue-like, thick consistency of the dough made sense, I was essentially making a cookie, not a cake. After taking my first batch of ‘cakes’ out of the oven (which looked like mini scones), I put in another batch, this time aiming for a cookie-looking outcome.
Its interesting how such a little word can lead to such a huge miscommunication – Initially I was making something which was not a suger cake, but instead more like a sweet, small, scone.

 

I understood how beautifully stripped Early Modern cooking was, it was about wholesome ingredients, and the care and time which was put into it. However, after trying to make a recipe as close to that of 300 years ago, and reading a chapter on authenticity (link), It is impossible for me, a modern day 21 year old, to replicate the recipe with such precision. Looking at this as a History student, someone who has to use entirely correct facts, knowledge and historiography in order to create a valid argument or essay; One cannot help but understand, in my own academic OCD, that there is no way a 21st century reconstruction will ever validate and authenticate a dish cooked 300 years prior. The lack of similarity in atmosphere, utensils, ingredients, communications, recipes and even interpretation, highlights the limitations of reconstruction. 21st century customs seems to be an obstacle of the wholesomeness art of early modern baking, and as a result restricts the question of authenticity.

cookies
The final product! ‘Suger Cakes’.

Florence Hearn

Bibliography

[1] John Ayto, The Diner’s Dictionary: World Origins of Food and Drink, (2012). p.57.

[2]www.dictionary.com/browse/cake

[3]www.dictionary.com/browse/cookie


4 thoughts on “Replicate, Authenticate, and Reconstruct

  1. Well done on the reconstruction! I too find the idea of replicating a 300 year old recipe intriguing and hope to be able to do this at some point over the course. You seem to have done a really good job as the finish product looked delicious! I wonder how did they taste?

    The questions that you raise (“what temperature do I set the oven to?, were these cakes meant to be hard and crispy? Or soft and spongy?”) highlight the importance of implied knowledge in Baker’s recipes. The implied knowledge makes it so hard for modern day readers to fully grasp her recipes so I would, like you, conclude that it is impossible for us to replicate a recipe exactly.

    It is interesting to see Bakers idea of a cake being so different to what we think of today. We wouldn’t have even known that Baker’s cakes were more scone-like without your experiment!

  2. I, like you Florence had actually thought that suger cakes would be like fairy cakes. When I think of a cake I think of something sponge like and sweet. The fact that Baker uses the term ‘cake’ is interesting as you have found out that she was actually giving a recipe for something which was more like what we would know as a scone. It is therefore interesting to think about what 17th century ‘cakes’ really were. Were all sweet biscuit/cookie/scones/cake known as cake or were 17th century ‘cakes’ all like the scone type which you have reconstructed?
    If all cakes were as you have baked them then maybe this was because of the cooking facilities and tools available at the time. Like you point out there were no electric or gas ovens in the 17th century and most cooking would have been done over a fire, could this be why the ‘cakes’ were different to how we know them today?

  3. First, I think Congratulations are in order for attempting to reproduce one of Bakers recipes! Secondly, your honesty in describing the difficulties you faced were an eye-opener. Baker does, in some recipes, stipulate how long something should be cooked for but you demonstrated the difficulty in that assessment when you said you sat by the oven peering through the door not quite sure what you were waiting for, and how it should look. That is the problem with trying to replicate something from 300 years ago…often, exactly how things should be done, at what temperature and for how long, is not evident. It’s as if you were supposed to know. I suppose if you were making it in its own time period you may well have.

    But it was a very useful experiment, as it showed there was no sharing of some vital bits of information. One thought occurred to me when you said that you had no idea of the temperature to cook the sugar cakes at and again for how long? If I forget when I put something in the oven (as I usually do) and am not sure when it’s cooked I can usually rely on how it smells. Perhaps humans have an in-built intuition for things giving off the correct smell when done, or we rely on recognising a ‘done’ smell from a previous attempt. You could not even rely on tapping into the ‘knowing’ of what to expect, in other words the cultural knowledge that was part of process of reproducing it. I think you are right to conclude that making a 300 hundred year old recipe is not as easy as it appears, but the end result did look very tasty!

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