History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

03 March 2008

Regency Refreshments: Seed Cake

This is the first in a series of posts all on the same topic: Regency (or Georgian) refreshments. I recently decided to give a workshop on this topic this summer, so I need to do some experimenting . . . and since I’m a hands-on kind of researcher, this means some time in the kitchen. The three cookery books I’m focusing on are as follows:

The English Art of Cookery, according to the Present Practice; being a Complete Guide to all Housekeepers, on a Plan Entirely New; consisting of Thirty-eight Chapters (1788) by Richard Briggs, “many years cook at The Globe Tavern, Fleet-Street, The While Hart Tavern, Holborn, and Now at The Temple Coffee-House.”

The Universal Cook; And City and Country Housekeeper (1806) by Francis Collinwood and John Wooliams, “principal cooks at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand—late from the London Tavern.”

A Complete System of Cookery, On A Plan Entirely New; Consisting of an Extensive and Original Collection of Receipts, in Cookery, Confectionary, etc. (1816) by John Simpson, “cook to the late and present Marquis of Buckingham.”

My first “experiment” was Seed Cake. It seemed just different enough from the ubiquitous pound cake that it was worth making on its own. The variations I found are also quite different from one another. The 1788 one calls for yeast and allspice, while the 1806 one is leavened only with eggs and has spices similar to those in the pound cake recipes. The 1816 book has no recipe for “seed cake”, but it does have one for “savory cake” which is very similar in its general make up, except that it does not call for any spices or seeds.

The English Art of Cookery (1788) recipe:

From what I’ve been able to gather, it seems to have been common in the 18th century for cakes to be leavened with yeast, but during the later part of the century and the early 19th century beaten egg whites begin to dominate the recipes, at least for the “rich” or “fancy” versions. Yeast-leavened cakes continue to be represented as the “common” or “plain” versions though. This makes a certain amount of sense, as a yeast-leavened cake is much less labor intensive than an egg-leavened one, and would have been easier for a housewife who did her own baking to produce.

The Universal Cook (1806):

Since I have a modern kitchen with a Kitchen-Aid Mixer®, I chose to make a “rich” version. It also seemed to me that this version would be the most dissimilar to the pound cake in texture. I made this cake up following the directions from 1806 to beat the egg whites and egg yolks separately. It appeared that all this beating in of air would add loft to the cake (as with a sponge cake). What I missed in my initial reading was the fact that after you’ve gone to all the trouble of beating in air, you beat the batter some more when you combine the eggs with the butter and sugar, and then some more when you add the flour. All that beating knocks the air right out of the egg whites.

Just for comparison’s sake, I made up a second batch which I mixed in a more “pound cake-like” manner (cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs one at a time, add everything else and call it a day). It came out exactly the same as the one I took all the trouble to do in stages. So the recipe I’ll share with you is the easy version:

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 cups flour (not self-rising)
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs
1 TBL allspice
1 oz caraway seeds

Preheat oven to 350° F. Coat your pan (almost any kind of baking dish from a bunt to a spring mold will work) with a LOT of Baker’s Pam® or similar product.

Beat together butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low and add half of flour. Add the allspice and caraway seeds. Then add all of the remaining flour. Beat for 3-5 minutes, until well combined and satiny. Pour batter into pan and rap pan against work surface once or twice to eliminate air bubbles.

Bake until golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in middle of cake comes out with a few crumbs adhering (about 1 hour). Remove from oven and invert onto the rack to cool.

Serve with a period sauce (wine sauce is great with it) or with something like Devon triple cream. It needs something to give it a little moisture. It goes great with an digestif wine like sherry, port, or Madeira.

My friends' reactions:

They really ran the gamut. One loved it. He loved it so much he kept all of the cake that was left. His wife thought it would have been better with poppy seeds or cardamom* (and I agree, those flavors would have suited a modern palate much better than the caraway seeds). My sister thought it tasted too much of anise (which she hates). I thought it had a slightly medicinal flavor, but wasn’t unpleasant, especially with a glass of sherry. The guy who loved it reports that it tastes even better the next morning and goes great with a cup of tea.

The bottom line is that it turned out to be a slightly dry, very dense, not too sweet, caraway-flavored, cake.

*I do find cardamom used in period recipes, but never in cakes. It always seems to be in cordials and like for the sick room. Same with poppy seeds.

So, what foods have you seen in books that made you wish you were there to sample them? What foods made you happy it was only a book? Have you ever attempted to create something you read about? And if so, what were the results? Or have you maybe stumbled across something at a shop or event that you had to try because you’d read about it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Interesting article. I'd like to know more about the types of sauces they poured over the cakes. Also, were fairy cakes eaten in the Regency period? I tasted fairy cakes at Fortnum & Mason. Also, were scones eaten during Regency period? I'm definitely interested in your workshop!


8:54 AM  
Blogger Courtney Milan said...

Sounds fantastic!

I'm going to put on my chef's hat for a few seconds, though, and make a case for slightly less modernity.

First, the eggs. Believe it or not, the source of the egg is crucially important. The fresher the egg, the less the albumin has denatured and the more soluble it is in water. Back in the day, they didn't have to worry about crappy eggs as much as we do today--no refrigeration meant that (at least in the Big Houses) eggs were eaten super-fresh, and came from free-range hens.

The standard stuff from grocery stores sucks to bake with. In a pinch, the free range stuff in the refrigerated section will do. But ideally, if you're baking, you want to use just-laid eggs. You can generally find them at farmer's markets, although you may need to ask to verify quality.

I make no claims as to health effects, but if you want to use eggs as leavening, you should probably use super fresh eggs.

Second, the mixer. Once you've whipped the eggs, you shouldn't be using the mixer--or if you do, you should be using a flat beater rather than a whisk, and using only low speeds. But hand-mixing is better.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Vicky, I do find references to both fairy cakes (a single one from 1815) and scones, but no recipes.It's entirely likely that they just had a different name (or some obscure spelling).

As for sauces, there are tons of recipes, everything from Creme Anglaise to Hard Sauce to Wine Sauce. I didn't make a sauce for the Seed Cake, but I'm sure to attempt a few of them for future recipes (maybe when I make the Royal Cakes).

9:15 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Yes, CM, all of that is true, but I was following the period directions, and they don't call for careful folding. They call for long periods of beating. *shrug* The period recipes even tell you to mix in the beaten egg whites and then let them sit for 30 minutes while you beat the yolks and then mix those in. All the folding in the world won't keep those egg whites fluffy.

If I was making it to suit my taste I'd use cardamom and I'd FOLD the egg whites in last (and I only buy eggs fresh from the farmers market, the store-bought ones freak me out!).

Trust me, I made this cake several times, in different ways, and it came out the same every time (even when I creamed and beat things separately then hand mixed them together.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kalen, this is wonderful. I'm still wrapping my brain around the original recipe: Beat first the whites and then the yolks for a half hour each?! Imagine how tired your arm would get!

And ... I love you a bushel, but how much is a peck (this Bronx girl who only knows those measurements from buying apples in the fall, and has lousy math skills, doesn't know how much a peck of flour translates to these days.

The modern version of the seed cake seems more like a contemporary rye bread. Try it toasted with butter. Or a schmear. :)

Because of TOO GREAT A LADY, I bought a dinner "parlor game" which I've yet to play but it has period recipes that serve 8 for dinner with Nelson and Emma Hamilton aboard the Victory (whose decks in real life she never set a slipper on -- but why, say I, let the truth ruin a perfectly good dinner party?). The game contains music, trivia questions and the recipes, including "silver salver of seaweed with butter and oranges" and "Loundes Pudding" (described as a moulded custard cream with redcurrant jelly). Other of the recipes are more straightforward like "Turbot with rich anchovy sauce." It's an 8-course meal, not including the potables, of course.

One of these days I'll just have to host the party ...

10:44 AM  
Blogger Courtney Milan said...

Interesting. So maybe it's not the eggs.

I was going to ask why they would make people go to such ridiculous lengths if it didn't make a difference--but then I remembered this is England and their collective national cooking skills are maybe not up to modern times, and almost certainly not up to the kind of scientific test you performed.

Go figure!

10:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

One of the things I think most re-enactors find the hardest is to not shift knowledge or ideas backwards. The old, well we thought of it, or it seems so obvious, so they must have thought of it too. Sometimes what seems perfectly obvious to us would simply have never occurred to a person hundreds of years ago.

It seems obvious to anyone who bakes that you'd fold in the beaten whites to make the cake light, but I don't think they had quite grasped this yet. To test my theory, I looked up Sponge Cake (which we all know, today, would be carefully folded). It doesn't sound like it would be very spongy: beat the yolks with the flour, and the whites alone, to a very stiff froth: then by degrees mix the whites and the flour with the other ingredients, and beat them well half an hour. All that work for nothing. *sigh*

11:33 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Amanda, love the idea of a TOO GREAT A LADY party. Maybe next time I'm in NY we can join forces . . .

11:54 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I love seed cake!

I'd like an answer to the scone question, too, because I've always thought they were essentially a Scottish poverty food. They weren't chock full of eggs and cream, as many recipes are now, and you didn't "waste" too many raisins in them (according to my mother who was quite shocked that I used eggs in mine). I've wondered whether it's a sort of knee jerk reaction on the part of writers: this is England and scones are English, so let's have h/h eating them.

Also, Kalen and/or cm--what raising elements, other than yeast, were around? Did they have cream of tartar?

11:57 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I don't know about cream of tartar. None of the recipes I've seen calls for it, I'll have to look it up.

And eggs in scones? I'm with your mother, Janet. Eggs have no place in scones. I make a lemon ginger scone that's pretty much heaven on a plate IMO (and not an egg in sight).

Now I'm obsessed with the scone thing, gotta go do some research . . .

3:57 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a fun and fascinating post! I've had characters eat seed cake in books, but I've never attempted to make one myself (I'm relieved that it sounds as though it's much what I was imagining from what I'd read). The only period food I've tried to prepare myself is spiced wine :-), but if I see something on a menu that sounds like a modern variant on something I've read about in a research book I tend to order it--trifle, sticky pudding with hard sauce, clotted cream, various cheeses. Amanda, you have to try the Nelson & Lady Hamilton dinner--it sounds so fun! So does a sherry party with seed cake...

3:58 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Well, Tracy, we'll have the sherry party with seed cake come hell or high water. LOL! Luckily we live close. Maybe I can tempt you down to Oakland for a dinner party and tasting?

On the scone front, looks like the modern scone is a Victorian invention, but the oatcake variety is very ancient in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. So if you've put one in a book, no need to hyperventilate.

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Oatcake scones? That doesn't sound like the scones at F&M or the Orangery at Kensington Palace. :-( Darn - surely they ate clotted cream??? My hero loves scones with clotted cream (so does his creator). Hmmm.... should I come up with a substitute??? Opinions?

4:46 PM  
Blogger RevMelinda said...

Oh Kalen,
Everything sounds yummy but I can't eat normal baked goods anymore because of my egg and dairy allergies. I am fascinated by the idea of maybe being able to make scones, however. . . thank you, hoydens, for the idea. I have often wondered how poor or isolated families made baked goods in historical times--Laura Ingalls Wilder speaks of cows and chickens, and the associated milk, butter and eggs, as luxury items infrequently available--but also describes Ma doing plenty of baking. How would she have leavened a cake?--with yeast?--or maybe she didn't-- Perhaps this is one reason for the existence of the pie?

Thanks for getting me ruminating,
(involuntarily vegan for baked goods)

9:47 PM  
Blogger Elena Greene said...

I tried making Martha's Gingerbread "Cakes" from The Jane Austen Cookbook, already adapted, but I found the dough very dry and hard to work with and the result was too gingery for my family though I liked it. Now I stick with a modern recipe, using more butter and a bit less ginger.

I also tried adapting a recipe for Banbury Cakes from The Complete Servant. I think something like puff pastry would be more accurate but my attempt resulted in a rich cookie with blackcurrant filling. Very yummy.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Kalen, I'm so impressed! I keep meaning to try to make rout cakes (there's a recipe in the Jane Austen cookbook)-- I particularly curious to see whether the alcohol in them cooks out or if you can still taste the sherry after they bake.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Kalen, your attention to the details of research is amazing -- sometimes an inspiration and other times I'm thrilled that you are doing so much work for me.

As always, I'm looking forward to your workshop.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The workshop sounds wonderful, and I love the fact that things weren't as sweet as they tend to be now. I once read (in a Georgian-set non-romance novel) that the rich had worse teeth than the poor because they had more access to sugar, but I have no idea how true that is.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Are you guys talking about the Tea with Jane Austen book? I have that somewhere around here . . . thanks for reminding me about it!!!

I don't have rout cakes on my list, but I was looking about for a few more items to make. I'll try and add them in, and some sauces for Vicky who's been de-sconed. :(

Scones are my first mea culpa from LORD SCANDAL. Not even on the self yet and I've already discovered a mistake. *sigh* I'm always amazed when authors tell me they don't know of any mistakes in their published books. I always seem to find at least one after "the point of no return" (aka after the galley has been turned in).

12:06 PM  
Blogger Cara King said...

I've made seedcakes from a variety of recipes over the years, and they pretty much all have ranged from hard to very hard, and from dry to very dry. :-)

I love them, though! Especially the caraway kind. One thing that excites me about period recipes (and foreign food, too) is taking an ingredient that we have a stereotype about, and using it in quite a different way.

So the first time I tried a caraway seedcake, the flavor was startling -- caraway nowadays means rye bread, or crackers, and isn't a "sweet" flavor! But it's actually wonderful in sweet things.

My favorite seedcakes are very buttery, slightly sweet, and have lots of caraway. I like with or without spices, but probably prefer without...


12:13 PM  

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