Sunday 7 April 2013

Seed Cake

"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


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  2. Emma, as soon as I saw this post I was reminded of the 'seed cake' Miss Temple gives to the hungry Jane and Helen, and it was by this that they made a feast which satisfied their 'famished appetites on delicate fare she liberally supplied', in Jane Eyre. My eye always lingers on any mention of foods in novels and what it says about the time in which I'm reading...
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  5. I love your connections between food and literature, writings from different eras open a sensory portal into that time - the food fashions, the ingredients available and their social context. I haven't baked with caraway before, but am particularly partial to the Dutch cheese "Leidse Kaas", a semi-hard cheese with caraway seeds in it from Leiden. I think a piece of this cake would go well with some sort of mature cheese on the side - looking forward to trying it.

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  10. We always had cake in the house when I was growing up. It was often seed cake and as children we moaned...but still ate it. I've actually been thinking about it a lot recently and having a little craving for the medicinal taste of the caraway and the sugary top. Perfect timing for the recipe Emma. PS I would to read your recommendations on how to stop cake mixture from curdling - I've tried everything.

  11. Having studied history at uni, I'm loving all your historical pudding posts! I've never tried seed cake but am intrigued by how it would taste.

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  14. poiresauchocolat8 April 2013 at 09:43

    Jane Eyre! I haven't read it in absolutely ages, thank you for pointing it out. I'll have to find my copy and have a look when I get back to Oxford on Friday. & thank you for you kind words, I'm so pleased you like the site.

  15. poiresauchocolat8 April 2013 at 09:46

    Leidse Kaas sounds fascinating, I might have to ask if they have any at the cheese shop. Is it widely known outside Leiden? I think the richer sponge in particular would be lovely with a bit of cheese on the side.

  16. I'm another who thought of Jane Eyre on reading the title. How fascinating to see the history of the cake too.

  17. poiresauchocolat8 April 2013 at 09:56

    How lovely - we always had cake or something sweet too, though never seed cake. Interesting that you say it tasted medicinal - that's the word a few recipes used to describe it when you add a bit too much caraway. As far as curdling goes, I tried making sure the ingredients were all totally room temperature with no chill, adding the egg literally drip by drip (having beaten lightly together before), creaming the butter and sugar until very fluffy, adding the odd tablespoon of flour and probably a few things I've forgotten. Who knows, it's just didn't want to stay creamy. So frustrating!

  18. poiresauchocolat8 April 2013 at 09:58

    Thanks Kate - I didn't know (or have forgotten...) that you studied history. I think I'll give it a rest for a few posts now as I doubt it's to everyone's tastes, but I really enjoy writing and researching them.

  19. poiresauchocolat8 April 2013 at 10:00

    I'm definitely going to have a read when I get back. I've also realised that Bilbo makes seed cakes in The Hobbit - I'm sure there are many other references. Glad you enjoyed the history.

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  21. Louise Campbell8 April 2013 at 11:39

    Seeds! Yes - I love them too. I went through a phase of sprinkling them on everything - salads, pastas, you name it. That moment has passed (for the time being) but I still love seedy cakes. I did some mini honey seed muffins using sunflower seeds and sesame seeds both in and on the cakes a wee while back if you fancy taking a look. :-D

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  23. You can find something similar in comprehensive cheese shops, usually called something generic like 'Dutch spiced gouda', most commonly flavoured with whole cumin seeds (which is delicious itself) but hopefully you will find it with caraway because it's quite different. Otherwise you might just have to visit Holland. My husband (from Oxford) suggests trying the Covered Market. I look forward to giving the richer sponge a go!

  24. poiresauchocolat8 April 2013 at 12:10

    I was thinking of the Covered Market cheese shop - I'll drop by and ask when I'm next in town. Do you live in Holland then? Hope the sponge goes well.

  25. poiresauchocolat8 April 2013 at 12:58

    Your muffins look lovely, especially with the honey. Have you seen these Sesame Wafers I made years ago? They were delicious.

  26. I live in Melbourne, my father is Dutch and all the rest of his family still lives in Holland so I have spent quite a lot of time there - mainly trying as many different foods as possible!

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  28. thebestdressup8 April 2013 at 16:09

    ciao! making this recipe. thanks.

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  30. poiresauchocolat8 April 2013 at 18:12

    Glad you like it - do let me know how it goes.

  31. poiresauchocolat8 April 2013 at 18:14

    Ah, I see. I've never been to Holland, maybe I should make a food trip. Melbourne is meant to amazing for food too, right? My mum lived there for a year before I was born and loved it.

  32. I'm really enjoying these historical posts, I may even have to try making a seed cake, it's not something I've ever really thought about or come across before.

  33. you've got me at the core: food, history and literature! :) this was fabulous!

  34. Another fascinating, well researched and well written post with a great recipe to boot. I will be adding caraway seeds to cake in the near future! All thanks to you!

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  37. poiresauchocolat9 April 2013 at 20:04

    I'm so pleased you like the historical stuff - I love writing it. I guess if you think about poppy seeds, we don't think they're unusual in baking.

  38. poiresauchocolat9 April 2013 at 20:05

    So glad you liked it! They're three of my favourite things too :)

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  40. poiresauchocolat9 April 2013 at 20:07

    I'm glad I've converted you! Thank you for your kind words - they're much appreciated.

  41. Julie@nicholsonsGF10 April 2013 at 03:54

    This cake looks delicious, very light and beautiful pictures! Love the quotes and stories behind the cake :)

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  47. I love caraway! It's such a unique, warm flavor. I've never thought of adding it to sweets though. Sounds wonderful. I also love the look of this cake. So simply beautiful!

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  50. poiresauchocolat17 April 2013 at 09:04

    Thanks Julie, I'm glad you like it :)

  51. poiresauchocolat17 April 2013 at 09:05

    It's funny how some spices get stuck in savoury or sweet but others are happily used in both - I hope you get around to trying caraway in something sweet soon.

  52. A lovely post to revisit. And such beautiful contemplative photos as always. I wonder how fennel seeds would work, or fennel pods with their rich sweet nuttiness. I love the idea of the seed cake: plain, undeniably, but then the little explosions within. And thank you for the quotes. And for reminding me about Deborah Madison. Must root her out. Sophie

  53. poiresauchocolat23 October 2013 at 13:47

    I'm so pleased you like it, Sophie. Fennel sounds like a really interesting idea, I'd love to know how that goes if you try it.


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