As our First Chefs recipe series continues, Marissa Nicosia writes about a 17th-century recipe for seed cake inspired by the farmer poet Thomas Tusser. Nicosia is the author of the blog Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen, where you can find even more information about these adaptations.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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, prepare 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, and wonderfully leavened by the eggs.
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
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.
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.
Di Meo, Michelle and Sara Pennell, eds. Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550-1800. (Manchester University Press, 2013) http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9780719087271/
Laroche, Rebecca and Jennifer Munroe, Shakespeare and Ecofeminist Theory (Bloomsbury, 2017) especially Chapter 4, 105-130. https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/shakespeare-and-ecofeminist-theory-9781472590459
Leong, Elaine. Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England. (University of Chicago, 2018). https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/R/bo28911252.html
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. https://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-8207-0495-1.html
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.