"I cut and handed the sweet seed-cake - the little sisters had a bird-like fondness for picking up seeds and pecking at sugar; Miss Lavinia looked on with benignant patronage, as if our happy love were all her work; and we were perfectly contented with ourselves and one another."
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, Chapter 42, 'Mischief', published 1850.
Since coming across this tender scene while reading in preparation for my first term at university, I've found seed cake in several other books and always wanted to try it. As I was already on a history kick with my Hot Cross Buns and Lemon Posset, I decided to see what I could find.
According to the OED, seed cake was first mentioned in 1570 by Thomas Tusser in an new edition of A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (I can only find the later Five Hundreth Good Pointes Of Husbandry online). He writes:
"Wife, some time this weeke if that all thing go cleare,
an ende of wheat sowing we make for this yeare.
Remember you therefore, though I do it not,
the Seede Cake, the Pasties, and Furmentie pot."
The feast to celebrate the end of sowing fell on St Martin's Day, the 11th of November. Originally, the forty day fast for advent started the next day, so it would have been an occasion to use up and enjoy rich and special foods (just like Pancake Day before Lent). Over time this association with St Martin's Day seems to have faded and seed cakes became popular all year round.
(Also - on the subject of fasting - BBC Radio 4's Food Programme broadcasted an wonderful discussion on Easter Sunday about fasting from a historical, religious and current 5:2 perspective - you can listen to it here.)
But what is a seed cake? Nicola Humble notes in her book on the history of Cake that the following recipe from 1631 is the earliest recorded for a no-yeast sponge-style cake. It also contains aniseeds and coriander seeds. I've transcribed this from digital images of the edition I found through the Bod, preserving the spelling and capitalisation, though not the long s and other typography (I'd have loved to show you the images but the permissions were a bit complex).
"To make Bisket-bread, take a pound of fine flower & a pound of sugar finely beaten and fearfed, and mixe them together; Then take eight egges and put foure yolks and beate them very well together; then throw in your flower and sug it as you are beating of it, by a little at once, it will take very neere an houres beating then take halfe an ounce of Aniseedes and Coriander seeds and let them be dried and rubbed very cleane, and put them in; then rub your Bisket pans with cold sweet butter as thin as you can, and so put it in and bake it in an oven."
From The English House-wifes, Gervase Markham, 3rd edition, printed in London in 1631, p.125-6.
The recipe continues on to describe how to make thin cakes with the same mixture, which, interestingly, are then called 'Cakes' instead of 'Bisket-bread'. It's also noteworthy that most of the beating takes place after the flour has been added - I imagine it would make a very tough cake (as well as tough arms after nearly an hour of beating...).
I also looked at some later recipes from 1732. Eliza Smith has two recipes for seed cake - one is yeast risen and the another is for a richer sponge with butter, sack (a fortified white wine) citrus and sugar-coated caraway seeds. I've transcribed the second one for you (in a similar way to above):
"A good Seed Cake
Take five pounds of fine Flour well dried and four pounds of single-refined Sugar beaten and sifted; mix the Sugar and Flour together, and sift them through a Hair-sieve; then wash four pounds of Butter in eight spoonfuls of Rose or Orange-flower water; you must work the butter with your Hand, till 'tis like Cream; beat twenty Eggs, half the whites, and put to them six spoonfuls of Sack; then put in your Flour a little at a time, keeping stirring with your Hand all the time; you must not begin mixing it till the Oven is almost hot; you must let it lie a little while before you put your cake into the Hoop; when you are ready to put it into the Oven, put into it eight ounces of candied Orange-peel sliced, and as much Citron, and a pound and half of Carraway-comfits; mix all well together, and put it in the Hoop, which must be prepared at bottom, and buttered, the oven must be quick: it will take two or three hours baking. You may ice it if you please."
From The Compleat Housewife, Eliza Smith, 5th edition, printed in 1732 , p.132-3.
Though the seeds change between recipes, caraway seeds seem to be the most popular choice. Conversely, caraway seeds aren't actually seeds - they're fruits that look similar to cumin and taste a bit like anise. Eliza's recipe appears to have a huge amount of seeds - a pound and a half to five pounds of flour - but I think that's because they're sugar coated comfits. Gervase's half an ounce to a pound of flour seems much more normal. Modern cakes are much smaller - depending on the weight of the pound (there were several systems at the time) five pounds of flour would weigh around two kilos, making an enormous cake - so you just need a pinch or two.
I've tried making two styles of seed cake. They're quite different, both in taste and texture, but I liked the caraway in both. The first recipe I tried was Fergus Henderson's, which is a buttery, rich sponge that is vaguely like Eliza's. I found it impossible to stop the mixture curdling (even after trying every trick I could think of and adjusting the ingredients a few times) but it still rose well and tasted good. I've also spotted a similar-ish caraway seed cake in the beautiful Vegetable Literacy, though I haven't tried it yet.
Finally, and as pictured, I tried adapting my family Old Fashioned Sponge Cake recipe by adding a big pinch of crushed caraway seeds to the mix and sprinkling another pinch of whole ones over the top along with a teaspoon of caster sugar. I made a three egg mix (so the flour is divided by 3 and multiplied by 1.6) and I didn't replace the self-raising with baking powder (as it doesn't really need the extra boost and it seemed more traditional that way). It took 35 minutes to bake instead of 40-45. This version bears more of a resemblance to Gervase Markham's recipe.
I think it's a shame that people stopped adding seeds to cakes - up until the end of the nineteenth century they were in almost every non-fruited recipe, yet now they're a curiosity. It's worth trying a pinch in your favourite plain sponge - if only as a simple way to evoke the past.
P.S. I'm very touched - and a little flabbergasted - at the response to the Four Years post. I'm going to work my way through the comments replying to each in the next two days. If you'd like to enter the draw for one of the four presents to celebrate Poires' forth birthday, then please click over here and leave a comment before the 9th. Thank you, once again.
Three more posts about simple cakes:
Brown Butter Pound Cake
Pear and Chocolate Loaf 2.0
Ginger Root Bundt Cake