The Ladies' Tea Guild

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Regency recipe: Seed Cake

Mrs. Raffald's Rich Seed Cake.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
This is the Georgian/Regency version of the Victorian Seed Cake recipe in an earlier post.  I made a half recipe of this cake for the South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild's Regency Tea this month.  Here is the text of the recipe as I received it: it's been slightly redacted for modern cooks.

Rich Seed Cake
Caraway seeds were enormously popular in the later eighteenth century.  This rich cake would be eaten at breakfast or afternoon tea among the gentry and middle classes.  It was thought the longer cakes were beaten the better—Mrs. Raffald recommends beating this cake for 2 hours.  Modern baking powder was not invented until the mid-nineteenth century, so the success of a cake like this lies in its very careful technique.  All ingredients and bowls must be slightly warmer than room temperature.  Assemble all the ingredients before you begin, prepare the tin and preheat the oven.

8 oz. plain [all-purpose] flour
1 tsp. grated nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 oz. caraway seeds
8 oz. unsalted butter, softened
8 oz. caster [granulated] sugar
4 eggs, separated, tepid

Line and grease an 8 inch diameter, 3 inch deep cake tin.  Sift the flour and spices into a bowl, and add the caraway seeds.  Make sure your mixing bowl is big enough, and slightly warm.  Cream the butter and sugar in it very thoroughly, scraping the sides of the bowl.  In a warm jug, beat the tepid yolks very well, then add to the creamed mixture gradually, beating very well after each addition.  With a scrupulously clean beater, beat the whites stiff but not dry.  Using a metal tablespoon fold the beaten whites and the flour into the creamed mixture, about a fifth at a time; fold in by slicing the spoon edge gently down the middle, lifting and turning as lightly as possible, at the same time turning the bowl slowly with your other hand.  The flour should be shaken in from a height.  Stop as soon as the mixture appears amalgamated.  Empty gently into the prepared tin and fork roughly level.  Bake in the middle of the oven at 325 degrees F for 1 ½ hours.  Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn on to a wire rack and remove the papers.  The cake will be delicately crisp on the outside, and inside will have a light crumbly texture.
-- source: The Experienced Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald (18th century), re-printed in Food & Cooking in 18th Century Britain: History & Recipes by Jennifer Stead, English Heritage, 1985.

This version of the recipe makes enough batter to fill an 8-inch diameter round cake pan.  The only change I made to this recipe was to add half the amount of caraway seeds that the recipe calls for.  I had a pre-measured half ounce package of caraways, and a larger container, and didn't feel like measuring out the other half ounce from the larger container, so I just put in the half ounce and didn't bother with the rest.  I think half an ounce of caraway seeds in this cake is plenty!  The cake only took 1 hour to bake at 325 degrees in my oven.  Despite all the egg beating, folding in of egg whites, sifting and folding in the dry ingredients, the cake didn't rise much at all when baking, and is very dense in texture.  It has a crisp, dry crust on the outside, and is crumbly on the inside.  You really need a cup of tea or coffee with this cake! 

I think this is one of those historic recipes that doesn't have the same effect on modern palates as it evidently did when the recipe was first printed.  Caraway seeds have a bitter flavor, almost like dill (I think), and tasted strange, to me, in this cake.  I have seen other recipes for similar cakes, that contain anise seeds as an option instead of caraway seeds, and I think I would like them better if I were to make this recipe again.  I would also substitute currants or raisins for the caraways.  Also, I recommend to anyone who wants to bake this cake, that they add more spices -- maybe double the amount the recipe calls for -- and make sure to use an electric egg beater or mixer to beat the egg yolks and whites.  It's a real pain (literally!) to do it by hand; I couldn't get the whites even close to "stiff peaks" without a machine!  


Rosemary said...

Another interesting recipe! Beat the cake for 2 hours... wow!

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

Yes, I used an electric egg beater instead! I don't have the arm strength to beat egg whites to stiff peaks, much less beat the cake batter for 2 hours. That is the kind of cake that needs a kitchen full of staff to make, just so people can trade off beating the eggs and batter!

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)