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Let Them Eat Seed-Cake

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Let Them Eat Seed-Cake

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  Being A Research Project In Period Foodstuffs, And Totally Not A Way To Avoid Writing  

Currently, in my WIP, Archie is introducing Horatio to Lady Clarke, his Aunt Sophia, his mother's sister, who raised him from the time he was orphaned at the age of five. It's not long after The Frogs and the Lobsters, so call it 1798. This was several decades before the custom of afternoon tea was established, but after the fashionable dinner-hour had moved far later than the naval one, so they still definitely needed a bit of refreshment. What might Aunt Sophia have offered them? Why, Madeira and seed-cake, of course!

There was just one little problem: I had been reading about seed-cake since I first picked up The Hobbit when I was seven years old, and Balin declined Bilbo's offer of a cup of tea in favor of beer and cake - "seed-cake, if you have any." But I'd never had it.

The need to finally experience seed-cake grew more and more imperative, pushing out all thoughts of writing, until I decided to look for some recipes. My first thought was to go to my reproduction copy of Hannah Glasse's Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747, although mine's a facsimile of the 1805 edition.

As you can see, I've used it before. However, having done so, I know it's a royal pain in the arse to sort out a modern recipe from her instructions, particularly for baking. So I figured I'd look in my copy of Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, just in case the authors had done the work for me.

Luckily for me, they had!

The initial recipe was enormous, calling for six cups of flour. That's about as much as goes into a standard recipe for two loaves of bread. Hannah Glasse's was even bigger, calling for a quarter of a peck of flour, which was something I'd have had to look up, and a pound and a half of butter, which was far more immediately obvious. The six-cup recipe was asking for half a pound of butter, for comparison. I did not need that much seed-cake.

Let me pause for a second to say how convenient it is to be American and therefore to have grown up with the old-fashioned measurements, instead of metric like the rest of the civilized world. It makes trying historical recipes so much easier.

In any case, I decided that half the Lobscouse modernized recipe was what I'd try. Here's what went into it:

3 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 ounce compressed or 3/4 tsp active dry yeast (yeah, good luck finding compressed)
1 cup warm milk
2 eggs (the full called for three, splitting an egg is a thankless task, in a rich cake more egg is better than less)
1 1/2 tablespoons caraway seeds
(The recipe mentioned optional cardamom and coriander seeds. I elected to leave them out, as I'm not wild about coriander seeds, and I'd just bitten down on a whole cardamom pod in the leftover mushroom mattar I'd had for lunch, and that was quite enough cardamom for the week, thank you. Maybe another time.)
1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, melted
1 tablespoon brandy
4 drops rose water
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Pinch of saffron
Dash of turmeric (full called for 1/8 teaspoon, catch me trying to halve that; I just gave the jar a quick shake)

It also called for Caraway Comfits (recipe also in the book) for garnish. More about those later.

I would like to point out that I had every ingredient called for in the house, except the yeast. This probably says something about me.

The first step was to combine the flour and sugar in a large bowl, make a well in the center, and put in the yeast.

So far so good. Pour in half the warm milk...

Oops. I forgot, and dumped it all in at once. Figured it was unlikely to make a difference, so I didn't start over.

Cover with a damp cloth, and set it in a warm place until it is bubbly (about 15 minutes, they said).

My house is not well supplied with warm places, as heating oil is expensive. When I was kitchen manager for a bakery cafe, I used to stick bowls of dough on top of the deck ovens to proof - cooler than inside the oven, but definitely warm enough to make the yeast happy. I settled for sticking the bowl in the turned-off oven, which would at least keep the drafts off.

While it was doing that, I did all the other stuff, like melting the butter, and beating the eggs and the brandy and the rosewater together, and mixing all the spices together. Which involved grating the nutmeg:

I include this picture mostly to prove that I did it, instead of using already-ground nutmeg. Fear my Microplane!
The damned thing is, I had a half-used nutmeg SOMEWHERE near my stove, but couldn't find it, so I had to start a new one.

The next instruction was "Add all the remaining ingredients except the Comfits, mix well, cover again with the cloth, and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour)."

Add all the remaining ingredients...

Mix well...

Yes, I have mixed things entirely by hand in the past, in pursuit of authenticity. It didn't seem worth making my shoulder sore to do it this time. We can pretend that it was a kitchen(m)aid. *ducks*

This time I put a kettle full of boiling water into another bowl and left it in the oven along with the dough, just to keep it a little warmer.

While it was doing that, I went and looked up the comfits.

The book helpfully said that they were usually made commercially, since the process involved dipping individual seeds up to twelve times in sugar syrup. Right. Totally not doing that. Neither were they; they recommended putting seeds and sugar into a small heavy saucepan, cooking until the sugar turned golden, and then dipping a fork in the mixture and flicking drops of it onto a greased cookie sheet, and letting them cool.

Right. I know a few things about sugar work, and I could tell already that I wasn't going to like this much. First of all, what they're talking about is a dry method caramel, and I MUCH prefer wet, where you dissolve the sugar in water, bring that mixture to a boil WHILE COVERED, leaving the cover on for a good five minutes so the steam washes down any sugar crystals that might be lurking on the sides of the pan, and then you uncover it and don't stir it AT ALL while the water boils off and the caramel cooks to the desired color. I was really tempted to do it my way, but I wasn't sure how it'd work with the seeds in, so I did it theirs:

With dry-method caramel, you have to stir it ALL THE TIME, or it scorches. The stirring, of course, is an invitation for the stuff to crystallize on you. Luckily, this is more of a problem if you intend to make a cream-and-butter-enriched caramel SAUCE; this stuff was meant to crystallize into candy anyway.

The other problem was that bit about the fork and the droplets. It said "working quickly." Let me tell you, there is no "quickly" enough to get a third of a cup of caramelized sugar out by DROPLETS before the whole thing hardens. So I wound up scraping most of it out with a silicone spatula:

Also, to hell with "greased cookie sheet." I didn't really want to have to scrub stuck caramel and seeds off one, so I greased a piece of aluminum foil instead. I'd have used a Silpat, but the one I had got stuck in a drawer with some skewers a while back, and now I don't have one any more. Aluminum foil is fine for the purpose. I figured I'd crush it into smaller pieces once it hardened.

When the batter had risen, the instructions were to preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (yes, I remembered to take the dough out first!), and stir the batter down with a wooden spoon. Pour it into a well-greased springform pan

and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (about 40 minutes). I checked it at 30, since it was a smaller volume, but it wasn't done, and I left it in for 45 minutes all told. Pro tip: with a yeasted dough like this, it's safer to overbake a little rather than underbake it. If it goes a little too long, the crust might brown more, or be a tiny bit thicker. If you take it out too soon, you have a gluey mess inside. Don't underbake.

Their instructions said "Sprinkle immediately with Comfits (the heat of the cake will melt the sugar just enough to make the comfits stick)."


Not really.

Maybe a little.

This instruction wasn't in Hannah Glasse, either. Maybe it was in one of their other sources. Next time, I will consult my own baking knowledge, and sprinkle the unbaked cake's top with both seeds and large Demerara crystals, which stay fairly unmelted in baking and make a nice crunchy sweet garnish. Comfit crumbs rolling off the cake is stupid.

Cool on a rack:

Well, an upturned pie tin with vents in the bottom. My cooling rack takes up a lot of counter space and I didn't want to drag it out. Air circulation, that's the key.

Once it was cool, it was time to try a slice:

And, the finished seed-cake, with accompanying Madeira:

Now! Before you get all up on me about the fork! I went and looked it up afterwards, and learned that it would certainly not have been served with forks. However, just cooled, it seemed crumbly, so, having been brought up that fingers are only for bite-sized goodies, I served it out with forks.

I wasn't certain I liked it much, given that caraway has a musty flavor that I love in rye bread but don't really think of as a sweet. It did seem to match up nicely with the madeira, though. And I quite liked THAT.

There is a thing the books failed to mention about seed-cake, although I have a funny feeling I'd encountered it in another source - maybe Anne of Green Gables? In any case it's this: it improves with keeping. Two days later, the structure is a little more solid, it's easier to cut and much more easily eaten with the fingers, and the sweet flavors of the cinnamon and nutmeg and allspice are balancing out the caraway flavor much more agreeably.

It is not a flavor instantly appealing to a modern palate accustomed to "cake" being something chocolate or vanilla and covered in creamy frosting. But it has a certain charm.

And it STILL goes well with madeira.
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