The Ladies' Tea Guild

Friday, April 6, 2018

Historic Cooking: Hannah Glasse's Rich Cake from 1774.

Hannah Glasse's Rich Cake from
The Art of Cookery, 1774.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
The Redone Challenge: #21: Party Foods (October 7 - October 20, 2016) If there’s a party, there has to be food! Pick a dish meant to be served to a crowd, or at a festive gathering, and show your work! 

At the school where I work, the 5th-grade classes spend a whole school day studying the Revolutionary War history of the United States, with a day of living history activities called Colonial Day.  The students rotate through a list of different activities ranging from candle dipping and writing with a quill and ink, to learning about the Boston Tea Party and enjoying a “party” at the “Governor’s Palace” in Williamsburg, VA.   The previous librarian used to assist with the Boston Tea Party activity, and I inherited that job when I took her place in the school library. My love for tea and history prepared me to coordinate the “party” part of the activity, as well as make the tea, and teach about tea and etiquette in the 18th century.
18th century Rich Cake/Great Cake, iced.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach

While the students’ parents were supposed to sign up to bring the treats for the “tea party”, only a few promised to bring food (although several things turned up unannounced on the day of the event), so I decided to bake something so that there would be enough for every student to have at least one piece of cake or one cookie.  Although the parents had previously brought 20th-century treats like banana bread and scones with frosting on them, I wanted to increase the historical accuracy of the activity.

Still life with tea service,
artist unknown,18th century.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
While 18th-century paintings and other period images show little, if any, food being served with tea, accounts from the Colonies, especially regarding holiday, wedding, and other large-scale entertaining, mention dining room tables set out with a cold collation for the visitors, to accompany tea, punch, and wine.  One of the recurring items mentioned at these events is cake, more specifically, a “great cake”, containing rich and expensive ingredients, baked in a large round hoop in order to serve many guests.  Twelfth Night or New Year’s Cake (which later became Christmas Cake in the Victorian era) started as “Rich Cake,” “Fruit Cake,” or “Great Cake” in earlier recipes which call for multiple pounds (or even pecks or bushels) of flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and other ingredients.  

I had been wanting to bake a Twelfth Night Cake for about a year, but couldn’t make it happen in time for January 6th this year; I was, therefore, thrilled to have another opportunity of baking a similar cake!  Twelfth Night Cakes always have a bean in them, for determining the “Bean King” to rule the Twelfth Night feast (whoever gets the bean in their piece of cake is the “Bean King”), but without the bean, the cake is essentially one of the large, rich, fruit-filled Great Cakes.  These cakes were baked in advance (multiple cakes at a time, thus the large amounts of ingredients in the recipes) and iced, to seal them from the air and keep them from going stale.  I bought a cake hoop from Townsends, and some baking parchment and kitchen twine, gathered my ingredients, and got to work.

The Recipes:
ingredients for Hannah Glasse's Rich Cake.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.

To make a rich cake. TAKE four pounds of flour well dried and sifted, seven pounds of currants washed and rubbed, six pounds of the best fresh butter, two pounds of Jordan almonds blanched, and beaten with orange-flower water and sack till they are fine, then take four pounds of eggs, put half the whites away, three pounds of double-refined sugar beaten and sifted, a quarter of an ounce of mace, the same of cloves and cinnamon, three large nutmegs, all beaten fine, a little ginger, half a pint of sack, half a pint of right French brandy, sweet-meats to your liking, they must be orange, lemon, and citron.  Work your butter to a cream with your hands, before any of your ingredients are in, then put in your sugar and mix it well together; let your eggs be well beat and strained through a sieve, work in your almonds first, then put in your eggs, beat them all together till they look white and thick, then put in your sack, brandy and spices, shake your flour in by degree, and when your oven is ready, put in your currants and sweet-meats as you put it in your hoop.  It will take four hours baking in a quick oven.  You must keep it beating with your hand all the while you are mixing of it, and when your currants are well washed and cleaned, let them be kept before the fire, so that they may go warm into your cake.  This quantity will bake best in two hoops.
--from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse, 1774.

Icing for Great Cake/Bride Cake
ingredients.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
To ice a great Cake. TAKE two pound of the finest double-refin'd sugar, beat and sift it very fine, and likewise beat and sift a little starch and mix with it ; then beat six whites of eggs to a froth, and put to it some gum-water, the gum must be steeped in orange-flower-water ; then mix and beat all these together two hours, and put it on your cake ; when 'tis baked, set it in the oven a quarter of an hour.
--from The Compleat Housewife, 1767. 

To make Sugar Icing for the Bride Cake. Beat two pounds of double-refined sugar with two ounces of fine starch, sift it through a gauze sieve. Then beat the whites of five eggs with a knife upon a pewter dish half an hour. Beat in your sugar a little at a time, or it will make the eggs fall and will not be so very good a colour. When you have put in all your sugar beat it half an hour longer, then lay it on your almond icing and spread it even with a knife. If it be put on as soon as the cake comes out of the oven, it will be hard by that time the cake is cold.
---The Experienced English Housekeeper, Elizabeth Raffald [c. 1769], with an introduction by Roy Shipperbottom [Southover Press:East Sussex] 1997 (p. 135), from the Food Timeline.

The Date/Year and Region: London and the English colonies in North America, 1774. 

Creaming the sugar, butter, and eggs.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
How Did You Make It: I found a scaled-down version of Hannah Glasse’s rich cake recipe on the Colonial Williamsburg historic cooking blog, and used that, but left out the ground almonds, used rose water and hard apple cider instead of the sherry and brandy (I was going to serve this to children, after all) and used all-purpose flour (a smaller amount, well-sifted) instead of the cake flour. I also baked the cake in a reproduction cake hoop lined with buttered paper, instead of a Bundt cake pan. 

Flour and spices.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
To make a rich cake. 
1 lb. cake flour [I used all-purpose]
1 lb. eggs [I used 6]
1 lb. sugar
1 lb. butter
½ cup each candied orange peel, lemon peel, citron, currants
¼ cup ground almonds [I left those out]
1 tsp. each nutmeg, mace [ground]
1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
¼ tsp. cloves
¼ cup each sherry and brandy [I substituted hard apple cider and rose water]
3 egg whites
1 ½ c. confectioner’s sugar (added 2 T. at a time)
1 tsp. lemon peel, grated
2 T. orange-flower water

Adding the sweetmeats.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
Preheat the oven to 350˚F.  Grease a 10-inch Bundt pan and set aside.  Cream the butter, then add the sugar & beat until fluffy.  Gradually add the eggs, beating gently until they are thoroughly combined, scraping the bowl.  In a separate bowl, sift the flour, then add the spices and almond flour.  Gradually fold the flour mixture into the butter mixture; fold in the remaining ingredients.  

Batter in the hoop, which is buttered
and lined with buttered paper.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake on the middle rack, about 50 min. to an hour, or until the cake tests “done” with a toothpick.  Cool in pan for 30 minutes, then remove to a rack to finish cooling completely. 

I decided to ice the cake, as it would have been presented at a holiday party in 1775, and used a modern adaptation of a recipe from The Compleat Housewife, with part of the method taken from Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper.  I flavored it with rosewater instead of lemon and orange-flower water, and I iced the cake immediately after I took it out of the oven and removed it from its hoop, and let it sit overnight, uncovered, to cool and harden, rather than returning it to the oven to dry the icing. 

Icing: beaten egg whites, sugar, and
rose water.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
18th century Cake Icing.
Beat together for 3 minutes:
3 egg whites
1 ½ c. confectioner’s sugar (added 2 T. at a time)

Then add:
1 tsp. lemon peel, grated
2 T. orange-flower water

Beat until the icing is stiff enough to stay parted when a knife cuts through it.  Smooth it onto the top and sides of a cake.  Let it dry and harden in a cool oven for 1 hour [or, spread it on a hot cake and let them cool and set together]. 
--from “The Cake Lady: Welcome at the Office” by Melissa Gray on the Kitchen Window blog from NPR
Rich Cake baked and freed from the
hoop or ring that it was baked in.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.

Time to Complete: 3 to 3 ½ hours to assemble, bake, and ice the cake, and over-night for cooling. 

Total Cost: estimated $40 to $45 

How Successful Was It?: The cake and icing were delicious, in the end, but not entirely successful.  The cake, being baked in one large hoop instead of a Bundt pan, needed 1 hour and 30 minutes to bake, and I increased the heat to 425 for the last half hour of baking.  Even though it tested “done” at that point, I discovered that the center of the cake hadn’t completely cooked, and was still soft enough to collapse, as it cooled.  Note to self: next time, bake it at 425 for the hour and a half, or bake it at 350 for a full 2 hours.  Even though the ingredients are about a quarter of the originals, quartering the cooking time did not work for this cake. 

Wrapping the cake hoop with parchment paper and tying it
on tightly, to turn the hoop into a cake pan = the most
difficult and fiddly part of the entire project!
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
The icing was essentially rosewater-flavored marshmallow, and no matter how long I beat it, I was never able to get it stiff enough to “stay parted when a knife cuts through it” as the recipe says, once I added the rosewater.  It was very soft and even runny, and if I hadn’t run out of confectioner’s sugar I would have added more than the 1 ½ cups called for, to adjust for the 2 tablespoons of rosewater.  The icing was really sticky and hard to work with, while I was icing the cake, and it hadn’t lost its extreme stickiness by the next morning; it stuck to the waxed paper that I had to wrap it with in order to transport the cake to school, and when I unwrapped it, most of the icing stuck to the paper and came off of the cake!  Note #2 to self: dry the icing in the oven next time! 

The cake was very moist and rich, though, and there was only one slice left at the end of the day, for me to take home and taste.  I couldn’t taste the rosewater or hard cider in the cake at all, even in the little bit of icing that adhered to the cake!  However, like I said, many of the students tried a slice of the cake, and the parents and other visitors who took part in the activities ate the rest of it, and I got several requests for the recipe.  

Rich Cake, iced and sliced.  You can see how it collapsed in
the middle.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
How Accurate Is It?: Apart from the ingredient substitutions mentioned above, I used an electric whisk to cream the butter, and to beat the eggs for the cake and beat the egg whites for the icing.  Of course, I used an electric oven to bake the cake, as well, but apart from that, I kept as closely as possible to the adaptations of the recipes that I was using.  The adaptations, however, omitted a few ingredients, namely the Gum Arabic and starch called for in the original icing recipes.  The Gum Arabic, in particular, would have made a difference in the stiffness of the finished icing, and it might well have held its shape when whipped if it had had some flavored gum-water or some starch in it.  All in all, I’d say this rendition of a Great Cake, or a Rich Cake, is about 75% historically-correct, and I intend to make it again at some point, to see if I can improve it and bring it even closer to 100%. It’s a tasty cake, though, even at 75%! 

“Martha Washington’s Great Cake” from A Taste of History blog  
“Great Cake” from the Mount Vernon Digital Encyclopedia 
“Martha Washington’s Great Cake” from the Revolutionary Pie blog 
“Time to bake your Rich Cake for Twelfth Night” from Two Nerdy History Girls blog 
“To Make a Rich Cake” from the Colonial Williamsburg historic cooking blog 
“Colonial Wedding Feast” from the Food Timeline 


Bernideen said...

How totally wonderful that you did this project. The nice thing is now you have an experience that you learned many things from. This was so lovely that the children could say they actually had this special cake!! They may not say so but will remember this for the rest of their lives. I am actually from Yorktown, Virginia where Cornwallis surrendered. My friend and I used to sun on the beach right there next to cave he hid in!

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

Wow! I can only imagine what it would have been like to grow up to historic sites that were still accessible in their original condition; almost all of the 18th to mid 19th-century historic buildings in my area have been torn down, and the other historic spots (like caves, campsites of the explorers, etc.) have been built over.

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)