The Joys of 18th Century Baking: Small Cakes

Ever since I was a boy, on my Birthday I have most looked forward to my birthday cake, my affinity for my mother’s home-baked, Victoria Sponge cake, with homemade strawberry jam and cream center can only be rivaled for my passion for History. This year, I have decided to give my beloved mum a break from this task because, after 24 years of baking for her little prince, I believe she has earned a day off. This had left me with a predicament, with my mum kicking back on the sofa watching “Harry Potter” this year, the burden of making a birthday cake falls on my shoulders. Conveniently, I needed an idea for this blog post, therefore I decided to combine my two troubles together an eliminate them at once. Therefore for my 24th Birthday, I would be eating my birthday cake, 18th-century style!

Preparation:

The preparation for this certain project starts, unlike most recipes, as for this birthday cake one must decipher 18th century English and transcribe the recipe in order to prepare and plan out the bake. By using Dromio, I had selected my desired cake to blow my candles with. 

Ingredient’s used for the bake:

As a historian, I have tended to focus my career and talents upon the study of the past and analysis of historical literature, therefore my talents have never expanded to baking. With this considered, I had decided to go in the direction of ‘Small Cakes’ to fully take advantage of my limited baking knowledge.

Combining my experience with transcribing with my basic skills as a baker, transcribing this recipe did prove to be a trial. For example, whilst transcribing I was met with the word “Sack”. Due to my evident inexperience with the kitchen, I was dumbfounded at this term, and why I needed 4 spoon fulls of this unknown ingredient. I first believed that I had transcribed the word incorrectly, but after a quick consultancy with my peers, I exhaled knowing that I had indeed, completed my contribution as a historian correctly. Therefore, I had to deduce what a “sack” is. A swift search on Oxford English Dictionary soon sent me in the direction I needed: sack was a sweet wine derived in the Spanish regions, nowadays known as Sherry.

With the recipe correctly understood and transcribed, it was now time to get my hands dirty (literally) and bake my Birthday cake.

Method:

The method behind the bake was one thing I had to make alternations for since I do not own a brick oven or a stone-lined bread oven which is what most households in the 18th century would have used to cook their food. This meant I had to adjust the baking time to correspond to the heat of my oven.

I am fortunate to have use of an AGA, a cast-iron oven that retains its heat and burns continuously. I decided to use the AGA as it’s suggested to be alike to a baker’s brick oven which would mean I could yield more accurate results whilst keeping somewhat true to the methodology of the bake.

I first decided to half the recipe, because I wasn’t positive on my baking ability. Keeping true to the recipe, I used my hands to mix in the butter and flour together. This was exceptionally messy and sticky work, as at this juncture, the recipes full amount of butter was combined with half of the recipe’s flour.

With all aspects of the ingredients added, the mixture yielded a thick dough texture

After beating the eggs separately, I added them to the mixture. I decided to go with an electric whisk to speed up the process, this yielded interesting results as the mixture became a sticky dough-like texture, which after adding the rest of the flour, the Rum (the closest thing I had to sack in my cupboards) and the currants, resembled a bread dough. This initially made me question my baking talent once again as I was sure I must have gone wrong somewhere. But keeping true to the recipe allowed me to see results of which I had not expected.

Results & Final Thoughts.

Fresh out of the Oven…

Due to the bread-like texture and the use of 4 eggs, the cakes rose and were delicious. These cakes hail a somewhat scone-like texture but were incredibly sweet. Upon serving these cakes to a, admittedly reluctant, family, my mum suggested that these cakes would be brilliant with a serving of custard. Overall everybody seemed to be impressed that such a simple recipe could yield results so satisfying, the cakes buttery sweet taste combined with the hint of rum and fruitiness of the currants allowed this recipe to fill us up upon our taste test. This is not surprising, as baking within the 18th century typically showed a stodgier bake instead of the lighter bakes we typically associate with cakes to this day.

Would I do this again and would I serve these cakes again? Yes, I believe that this easy to follow recipe can yield results which can be the centerpiece to any afternoon tea, I would hasten to suggest to any avid baker/historian reading this that the butter can be overpowering, so I would alter the amount of butter you use for this recipe as it can affect the bake and devour the delightful flavours that the recipe incorporates. But even for a novice, this recipe is easy to re-create and has room for interpretation which could allow one’s creative side to flourish. But overall the cakes allow the person eating them to actually taste a bit of history, which in my opinion made this year’s birthday unforgettable

A scone like texture which works perfectly as a sweet snack!

8 thoughts on “The Joys of 18th Century Baking: Small Cakes

  1. These look like a great attempt at making cupcakes Ben well done! I’ve noticed that you mentioned that the next time you make these you would alter the butter content, is there anything else you would change?

  2. I’ve had a lot of difficulties with recreating recipes myself, how did you find making a recipe with no clear end goal in sight?

    1. Very difficult indeed!
      The closest modern-day relative to this recipe is a pound cake, so I used this as an example. The results were surprising but I would suggest to anybody looking to recreate this recipe to try these cakes with a bit of custard! They are incredibly sweet and buttery!

  3. Very nice! Really interesting to see how a centuries old recipe can still be used today and be just as good. Were there any other stranger cake recipes that looked like they might not be as easy to do in this modern age?

  4. I like how you connected your family’s birthday/baking tradition to your studies! The end result looked lovely, it makes me want to recreate it as well! What other recipes did you consider as options before settling on small cakes?

  5. I like how you tried this for your own birthday cake and attempted to half the recipe as you admit you are a basic baker! It seems like you did a great job though, has this made you want to attempt other cake recipes?

  6. I liked this, it’s almost like you’re following this family’s tradition while altering the cake to your own taste as the next generation might have. I must ask though (as Victoria sponge is the favourite with myself), were these cakes a worthy rival?

    1. They weren’t to my taste particularly.
      I love a sponge cake and i will probably be quicker to bake one of those sooner than this! But don’t let that dissuade you from having a go!

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