Thursday, 21 April 2016

Diet Cake, the Eighteenth-Century Way

Dorothea Repps’ 1703 recipe for ‘Diet Cake’ demonstrates the changing use of language over time. We use the word ‘diet’ when taking about any food or drink stuffs we consume but something advertised as a ‘diet cake’ would now be taken to indicate its’ benefit in helping a person lose weight. Clearly, this was not the intention here, though looking at the instructions more closely, the cook was expected to devote a total of 2 ¾ hours to beating the ingredients - a good workout for the upper arms.

Diet Cake
Take 8 eggs and beat them a quarter of an houre. Then take a pound and a quarter of Refined sugar finely beaten and seared, beat them together a quarter of an houre or more, then take a pound of the best flower and mingle them all together, and beat them 2 houres, then put in halfe an ounce of Aniseeds, and bake them upon a plate, Your Oven must be as hot as will bake a penny loaf.[1]

It is possible to make a sponge cake using only sugar, eggs and flour (no butter or oil) and while modern instructions would be to beat the eggs and sugar well, the flour should be folded in lightly to give a light, fluffy sponge. Beating the mixture for 2 hours would result in a much harder, rubbery texture - this would have been much more of a loaf for slicing, than a cake as we know it.

The volume of ingredients required for Dorethea’s recipes points to batch baking, which was common up until very recent times. Heating a brick or cast-iron oven to the required temperature took time and valuable fuel, so it was more cost-effective to cook in large batches, particularly when baking for a large household. The requirement for seared sugar possibly relates to the need to remove any moisture from the sugar, as a result of damp conditions in the pantry.

By the early 18th century, technical advances meant that the refinement of wheat flour was more highly developed, though restricted by price to the upper classes – leaving the poor to flour made from rye or other unrefined grains.  At the same time, many innovations in our culinary culture resulted from the importation of new foodstuffs and from the New World and the greater availability of refined sugar from the Carribean was of particular significance in the development of cake-making. At the beginning of the modern period, 1 kilogram of sugar was equivalent in price to 100 kilograms of wheat,[2] however, sugar prices began to fall after the discovery of the Americas and sugar became much cheaper. With refined sugar and the ‘best’ flour listed amongst the ingredients for Dorothea’s Diet Cake, we can tell that her recipes were aimed at the richer pocket.

[1] Dorothea Repps’ manuscript (1703) can be found at the Wellcome Library
[2] EGO, Food And Drink, by Gunther Hirschfelder, Manuel Trummer.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Welsh Cakes - The Eighteenth Century Way

Dorothea Repps’ manuscript recipe Book, written in 1703, can be found at the Wellcome Library.[1]
I was interested to see that her manuscript includes a recipe for Welsh Cakes.

Take halfe a peck of fine white flower and Dry it in your Oven, put to it halfe a pound of fine powder sugar, and a little salt, 3 grated Nuttmegs, mingle it together, and put in a pound and a quarter of Currants washed picked and dried in a Cloath, mingle them with flower and make it into a paste with 4 yolks of Eggs, 6 spoonfuls of Ale yest, 2 pound and a half of new Butter melted, When your paste is made cover it and sett it by ye fire, halfe an hour after divide it into 3 pieces, mould them and Rowle them out, and lay them one on the Top of ye other. Lay between them Raisons of the Sunne stoned; garnish the Topp and sides as you please with the same paste. An hour and a halfe will bake it.

The recipe appears at first to be very similar to that for modern Welsh Cakes, a mixture of flour, butter, eggs, sugar and dried fruit with a little spice. However, a modern welsh cake is made by combining the dried goods with cold butter and egg to form a pastry before rolling out into small rounds and baking on an open griddle. Rather, Repps’ method of baking is more akin to that used for a traditional Bara Brith, a spiced fruit loaf baked slowly in a low oven.
A modern baker might not be familiar with the peck weight which has been in use since the early fourteenth century, when it was introduced as a measure for flour. An eighteenth-century guide to weights and measures states that a bushel of flour weighs 56 lbs and, as there are 4 pecks in a bushel, the half-peck of flour required for this recipe would be equivalent to 7 lbs dry weight.[2]  Whereas a modern recipe for a fruit loaf might be based on 1 lb (half a kilo) of flour, Repps recipe would result in very large loaf. The need to dry the flour first would come as a result of damp conditions in the pantry.

Who will be the first person to send me a post saying that they have tried this recipe, though possible using reduced measures?

[2] The London adviser and guide: containing every instruction and information useful and necessary to persons living in London, and coming to reside there, by the Rev. Dr. John Trusler (1735-1820).