With my own fair hands

7 Jan

Today I spent my birthday making my own cake, which I haven’t even had the chance to try yet!  This however, was no ordinary birthday cake, but Elizabeth Cleland’s 1755 recipe for ‘a seed cake, very rich’ (on p158 of this link)from her cookery book A New and Easy Method of Cookery.  Appropriately since I was born in the Outer Hebrides, Elizabeth Cleland was a Scottish cook and her rich seed cake contains a pound each of butter, flour and sugar, as well as ten egg yolks, six egg whites and a gill (a quarter pint and pronounced ‘jill’) of brandy.  The seeds in the cake are caraway seeds, a popular flavouring for cakes and biscuits (they were the flavour of the cattern cakes made by lacemakers to celebrate their patron saint’s day, St Catherine’s Day on 25 November, for example) On this snowy January morning I was once again at Fort York to join some of its team of historic cooks for a day of historic recipe making and experimentation.

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A snowy Fort York for a twelfth night birthday

With 8 cooks the kitchens, both the officers’ mess early 19th century kitchen and the preparation kitchen, were hives of activity.  Mya, leading the session, explained to me that I’d be preparing the seed cake by hand, quite literally.  The Fort York cooks make sure that anything used in the officers’ mess kitchen is authentic to the time so that when visitors enter the space it’s as close as possible to the way it might have looked in the 19th century (although my outfit of jeans and a jersey top clearly fell well behind these standards of historical authenticity).  So I was going to mix all of the ingredients using my hands, beginning with creaming the butter until it was fluffy and yellowish white.  As people pointed out to me the butter was a great hand moisturiser and I now have a right hand significantly softer than the left (next time I’ll remember to swap them over more efficiently).

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The ingredients for Elizabeth Cleland’s ‘seed cake, very rich’; from top to bottom, a gill of brandy, eggs, butter, sugar, some pound cake for sustenance (not part of ingredients!), caraway seeds

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creaming butter by hand; quite tough on the right forearm, but beautifully soft and strangely satisfying

Once the butter was sufficiently creamed the sugar was added gradually, once again worked in by hand.  Then the eggs were beaten, yolks and whites separately, until they were thick and stiff.  For this we did use a balloon whisk.  I was expecting it to be tough with the whites but it was actually the yolks that took longer, even with considerable help from my fellow cooks.  Gradually however the yolks evolved from a liquid orangey yellow to a soft pale yellow, falling in gentle peaks.  The yolks were added to the butter and sugar mixture, then the flour and brandy alternately, before the caraway seeds and then the whites folded in last of all.

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Mark with the egg yolks which he kindly whisked to perfection; not the lovely buttermilk colour and the ribbon trail it leaves as it pours

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me and the egg whites; I’m practising using my left arm for whisking too, otherwise it will be the right arm that gets all the exercise; note that we’re using a copper bowl for egg whisking

Mya and Catherine had already kindly prepared for me the baking tray which was simple a metal hoop – round baking tins with a base did not arrive until later in the 19th century, with baking paper tied around it and then lined with baking paper.  Mya and Catherine make it look very simple but when I tried helping Brenda with preparing the tin for her gingerbread it seemed much more complicated.

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preparing the hoop for baking; metal hoop wrapped in brown paper, so that the paper forms a base, tied round with string and plenty of extra paper at the top to help stop the cake from burning. 

 With the tin ready the mixture was spooned in, by hand, and then placed in a 350°F oven.  It’s a slow-cooking cake so it stayed in for just shy of two hours.  Since it only came out of the oven at the very end of our session I’m going to have to wait until Tuesday to taste it.

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The finished seed cake, just out of the prep kitchen oven

 While I was busy concentrating on the seed cake a wealth of other recipes were being tested and preparing, from Mya and Elizabeth’s transparent biscuits filled with currants, Brenda’s 1831 gingerbread (dating from a time when the first artificial raising agent, pearlash, had become available), Mark’s Jumbles, which he twisted into shapes following 17th century illustrations, Amy’s Black Bun and Cherie’s Oliver biscuits; a super plain biscuit developed by Dr Oliver in the 18th century for people taking the nasty sulphur water in Bath, to nibble and take away the taste.  One of the elements of the cookery which I think is so impressive at Fort York is the level of experimentation in order to recreate the recipes as authentically as possible.  It means that even if a recipe doesn’t turn out quite as expected it all becomes part of the learning process.  Mark’s jumbles were a good example; the 17th century illustration showed these spiced biscuits in a whole range of interlaced and twisted shapes; clearly depicting how their name developed from ’gemmel’, the name of as double finger ring.  The recipe had called for plenty of butter and then flour to make the dough workable, which it was but it was also incredible delicate and my attempts and the double bow shape were far from elegant.  I then stuck to trying the reef knot shapes which still looked a little rough and ready in comparison with Mark’s beautiful twisted rings, but when the shapes reached the oven the high butter content meant that they lost their shape really quickly.  Definitely a case for more flour next time, both to make the dough easier to work and to help retain the shape.  It was also fascinating seeing how they fared in the three different ovens; the ones cooked in the officers’ mess bake oven retained their shape most successfully, those in the convection oven were the next best and those in the conventional oven were the flattest.  They all tasted delicious though.

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from Peter Brears, Food and Cooking in Seventeenth Century Britain, p11

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My attempts at the reef knot shape; I’m not sure I really improved (I was working left to right in vertical rows) but by the end I did have a better technique for using the right amount of dough. 

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The final jumbles, which do look a bit of a jumble after their time in the oven; you can see how differently they all fared, the smaller ones in the top left were Mark’s twisted rings which were cooked in the bake oven and the ones to the front of the picture his slightly larger twisted rings cooked in the normal modern oven

Meanwhile Catherine was concentrating on our lunch; a white fish roasted by the fire, scalloped potatoes (except we couldn’t find the scallop shells so we made do with shallow tins) and stewed carrots.  The breadcrumbs on the potatoes which were mashed and then sat by the fire in the officers’ mess kitchen, were browned by the use of a salamander, a thick disk of metal on a stick, which was heated in the fire and then used to brown the breadcrumbs.  It was remarkably effective on the first dish of potatoes but lost its heat quite quickly so that the second dish took a little longer to brown.

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Catherine scraping carrots for the carrot stew with the white fish awaiting his fate

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The white fish roasting by the fire

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Mya browning the scalloped potatoes with the salamander, as per 1769   E. Raffald Experienced Eng. Housekeeper (1778) 253   ‘Hold a hot salamander over it till it is very brown’.

I might not have been able to sample the seed cake before I left but there were plenty of other treats that had been cooked over the day to try, from Amy’s black bun, which was very similar to hot cross buns and Brenda’s rich and currant studded gingerbread.  When I go back on Tuesday I’m looking forward to finding out how my hand made birthday cake has turned out.

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Brenda and her gingerbread

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Amy and her black bun

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Cherie’s Oliver Biscuits

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2 Responses to “With my own fair hands”

  1. that Sara Logan January 8, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    now that Tuesday has arrived, fair Alex, do tell how the seed cake tasted! Was it rich and crumbly, or did so many eggs give a springy texture? Amateur modern bakersawait your judgment with bated breath!

  2. Sarah B. Hood March 1, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    It was nice to meet you last night. I really like reading about the historic cooking at Fort York on somebody else’s blog (as opposed to my own), and I like the rest of your blog a lot too.

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