The Ladies' Tea Guild

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Another Regency recipe: Shrewsbury Cakes.

Homemade Shrewsbury Cakes.  Elizabeth Urbach.
San Jose's South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild recently enjoyed afternoon tea at their Regency Tea and costume workshop, with a menu that featured recipes from Jane Austen's lifetime.  Afternoon tea as a codified meal wasn't known in her day, but tea was a very popular beverage just the same.  It was served in the morning with breakfast, after an early dinner at 5 (as part of evening entertainment), or with a late supper (after a ball or late night party).  Antique cookbooks mention many recipes as "good to eat with tea" so these were featured for the tea guild's menu.  While some flavors are an acquired taste today, here is one item that tastes as good to our palates as it did to Jane Austen's: Shrewsbury Cakes.

“To make Shrewsberry Cakes.—Take two pounds of fine flour, put to it a pound and a quarter of butter (rub them very well) a pound and a quarter of fine sugar sifted, grate in a nutmeg, beat in three whites of eggs and two yolks, with a little rose-water, and so knead your paste with it, let it lay an hour, then make it up into cakes, prick them and lay them on papers, wet them with a feather dipt in rose-water, and grate over them a little fine sugar; bake them in a slow oven, either on tins or paper.”
-- from Project Gutenberg's English Housewifery Exemplified, by Elizabeth Moxon (1764)

If you’ve never made Shrewsbury Cakes before, they’re basically sugar cookies, flavored with rose water and spices. The historic recipe will make a few dozen cakes, so when I made them for the South Bay Ladies’ Tea Guild’s Regency Tea, I made a half recipe.  Here is the recipe I came up with:

Shrewsbury Cakes
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar, plus extra for garnish 
1 whole egg
1 ½ tsp. nutmeg
scant ¼ cup rose water

Rub (or cut) the butter into the flour, like for scones.  Add the sugar and nutmeg, then beat the egg in a separate container and stir into the flour mixture.  Drizzle in the rose water and stir the mixture, until the dough comes together into a soft, sticky ball.  Knead gently on a floured board for a few seconds to combine the ingredients thoroughly.  Wrap in plastic and put in a cool place for an hour to firm up.  Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.  Pat or roll the dough to ¼ inch thick and cut into rounds with a biscuit or scone cutter, or the top of a round glass that is 2 inches in diameter.  Place ½ to 1 inch apart on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment (they spread a bit).  Prick each cake 4 or 5 times with a fork, use a pastry brush to spread a drop of rose water on top of each cake, and sprinkle each one with a pinch of sugar. Bake 30 minutes or until lightly browned on the edges and the bottom.  Makes about 2 dozen 2-inch cakes. 

These cakes are very tasty, tasting mostly of rose, with a tiny hint of nutmeg.  They are very buttery and sweet, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.  Delicious with or without a cup of tea!  When I make them again, I will add more nutmeg (or use freshly-grated nutmeg) and cut back on the sugar in the dough.  They really didn’t need to be all that sweet!  Jane Austen, who died 194 years ago, saw many changes during her lifetime, including fashions in food, but tea was one constant that we can still enjoy exactly as she did, with some of the foods she probably enjoyed. 

Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach. 

For more information:
“Tea history: what type of tea did American Founders drink?”
“Tea is good for more than a beverage: historic uses for tea and tea leaves”
“A Regency Tea, fit for Jane Austen herself”
“Teas of Yore: Bohea, Hyson and Congou”
“Boston 1775: tea”
Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson
“A Regency Recipe: Seed Cake”
“To Make An Excellent Cake” Regency recipe from the Jane Austen Centre
“Jane Austen Historic Reciepts”
“Crime novelist claims Jane Austen died of arsenic poisoning”

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)