Historic Recipe: Seed Cake (1938)

Source: Home Management; A Comprehensive Guide-book to the Management of the Household, containing authorative contributions by Experts, compiled and edited by Margaret Garth and Mrs Stanley Wrench (1938)

This post is a mash-up of three of my favourite things, Angela Brazil, Home Management and cake.

The cake is fairly self-explanatory and I’ve talked about why I’m a fan of Home Management before (here for instance). Angela Brazil (pronounced Brazzle, because reasons involving a mythological island) is a different matter. Writing between 1904 and 1946 she was an incredibly prolific author of girls’ school stories and basically invented the genre as we know it today, pre-empting (and influencing) authors such as Elinor Brent-Dyer and Enid Blyton. She was also difficult, snobby and had a thing about fairies. I love her so much I once wrote a play about her.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing some vaguely academic research into her books, charting the massive number of food references in them and looking at how she reflects contemporary events with her descriptions of food. She clearly has a bit of a thing for seed cake and it crops up in a number of her books, so I thought I would have a go at making it. Seed cake is a sponge flavoured with caraway seeds and it can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century and probably much earlier. This recipe is period-appropriate for Brazil, although the instructions for making seed cake changed very little throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, apart from the addition of baking powder once it became widely available from the 1860s-ish.

Ingredients – 3 eggs, 3oz butter, 2 teaspoonfuls caraway seeds, 4oz flour, 4oz sugar, 1 small half-teaspoonful baking powder

Method – Beat the butter to a cream, then add the sugar, the yolk of one egg, and a third of the flour and baking powder sieved together. Then add another yolk and some more flour, and so on till all the flour is in. Whisk up the whites to a stiff froth and fold them in at the end. Put the mixture into a prepared cake-tin and bake in a moderate oven.

Apart from the fact that the recipe did not, at any point, mention adding the caraway seeds (I put them in at the end when I was folding in the egg whites) this was all pretty easy until the last sentence.

Let’s start with what sort of cake tin. Most of the modern seedcake recipes I’ve found make it as a loaf rather than a cake. This is curious as, historically, it seems to have been baked round. Elizabeth Raffald (1769) tells you to place the mixture “in the hoop and bake it too hours in a quick oven” and in The Hobbit (1937), Tolkien describes Bilbo’s “two beautiful round seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon for his after-supper morsel” (you might have started to notice that seed cake is quite the literary trope, see also Jane Eyre). I pulled out my standard 9” cake tin, greased and lined it and stuck the mixture in. It didn’t look like a lot, but I optimistically assumed it would rise quite a bit. I set to oven to 170oC (that’s moderate, right?) and popped it in. I have absolutely no idea how long I left it (maybe 40 minutes, give or take?) because I got distracted, but I pulled it out when the top was a nice shade of golden brown and a skewer came out clean.

When I turned it out it had risen, but not sufficiently to look like a cake. I ended up cutting two smaller circles from the larger whole and layering it like a Victoria sponge. I decorated it following an Angela Brazil description in The Girls of St Cyprians (1914)

“I made it myself last Saturday,” boasted Freda. “Yes, I did, and sat over it while it was baking, for fear it should burn. And I iced it afterwards, and put the pieces of candied apricot on the top.”

It turns out that candied apricots are difficult to get hold of, but really easy to make, so now I have a lot of them. I imagine they’ll be making a reappearance in future posts.

The result was rustic-looking, but tasty. Caraway is quite an unusual flavour today and it takes a little adjusting to, but is really very pleasant and the cake was moist and not too dense. I taste tested it on a couple of my colleagues, who also seemed to approve.

Suggested alterations: Make it in a 7” tin and bake it longer (and possibly in a slighter cooler oven)

Final verdict: A very respectable 8/10, I will be making this again.


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