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