Pilgrim Seasonings

Plymouth Colony Foodways: Notes and Recipes from a 17th Century Kitchen


July 11th, 2012 by KM Wall

Joris Hoefnagel, Wedding Fete at Bermondsey c. 1569


This day, my Julia, thou must make
For Mistress Bride the wedding-cake:
Knead but the dough, and it will be
To paste of almonds turn’d by thee;
Or kiss it thou but once or twice,
And for the bride-cake there’ll be spice.

Robert Herrick

The 1627 Village will be the site of a wedding on Saturday July 14th. It’s a 1627 wedding, or more properly, a bride-ale. And what’s a bride-ale without cake?

Bride-cake is simply the cake served at a wedding feast. There is no particular kind of cake that is served at weddings ONLY. The same sorts of cakes that are served at weddings are also served at christenings, wakes, and Christmas.   Most cakes, that is grand cakes (which are different from little cakes or what we now call cookies) are made from fine wheat flour, yeast, sugar, butter, eggs or cream or both, maybe some ground almonds, spices (which might include saffron, as well as the more usual cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, mace) and most often dried fruit – currants, raisins, even dates. Flavorings could include rosewater, musk, ambergris and Sack.

In the cookbooks these cakes are often called Spice Cakes. Spice cakes are also the basis for Oxfordshire Cakes and Banbury Cakes. Banbury is a town in Oxfordshire.

“A mock ‘country bride-ale’ held in 1575 at Kenilworth Castle for the amusement of Elizabeth I included a procession of maidens carrying “three speciall spicecakes of a bushel of wheat”

In 1655, spice cakes were still being used at bride-ales. This is also the first cake recipe that is specifically baked for a wedding:

The Countess of Rutlands Receipt of making the rare Banbury Cake, which was so much praised at her Daughters (the Right Honourable the Lady Chadworths) Wedding.

- 1656. W.M. The Compleat Cook. London;  pp. 109-11.

These are all different from modern (20th and 21st century) Banbury Cakes, which are masses of spiced and sugared raisins and currants in puff pastry. These Elizabethan cakes cakes made  with masses of raisins and currants and spice in a plain piece of their own base dough. This gives the finished cake a smooth appearance, as if it were plain bread or perhaps a pie. The cakes in the Hoefnagel painting “A Wedding Feast at Bermondsey” are also very large, the size as if they had  been made with a peck of flour, and could very well be Banbury Cakes.

But sometimes the bride-cakes were smaller, and stacked on each other.

John Aubrey (1629-1697), who was born in Wiltshire and educated at Oxford, recalls,

“ When I was a little boy (back before the Civill warres) I have seen (according to the custom then) the Bride and Bride-groome kiss over the Bride-cakes at the table: it was about the latter-end of dinner: and the cakes were layd upon one another, like the picture of the Sew-bread in the old Bibles: The Bride-groome wayted [on the guest] all dinner time”

The Sew-bread is mentioned in Exodus. In the Geneva edition of the Bible, the favorite edition of the Plymouth settlers, there is an illustration of the sew-bread, and there are six flattish loaves stacked up on each of two plates.

For  our 1627 bride-ale on Saturday I made the smaller, sew-breadish version of cakes – they’ll be stacked on each other at the table on Saturday (did I mention the festivities are on SATURDAY?)

Here’s the period recipe that they’re based on:

To make a very good great Oxfordshire Cake.

Take a peck of flour by weight, and dry it a little, and a pound and a half of sugar, and ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of Nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of Mace & Cloves, a good spoonful of Salt, beat your Salt and Spice very fine, and searce it and mix it with your flour and sugar; then take three pound of butter and work it in the flour, it will take three hours working ; then take a quart of Ale-yeast, two quarts of Cream, half a pint of Sack, six grains of Amebergreece dissolved into it, half a pint of Rosewater, sixteen Eggs, eight of the whites, mix these with the flowr, and knead them well together, then let it lie warm by your fire till your Oven be hot, which must be a little hotter then for manchet, when you make it ready for your oven, put to your Cake six pound of currans, two pound of Raisins of the Sun stoned and minced, so make up your cake, and set it in your Oven stopt close; it will take three hours baking ; when baked, take it out and frost it over with the white of an Egg, and Rosewater well beat together, and strew fine sugar upon it, and then set it again into the oven, that it may ice.

-         1656. W.M. The Compleat Cook. London. pp. 13-4.


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3 Responses to “Bride-cake”

  1. Julia D. says:

    This is so exciting! How neat to read about the recipes…I’m hoping to be able to come see the ceremony Saturday! Been enjoying the blog~thanks for all the insight!

  2. KM Wall says:

    Looking forward to meeting you!I’ll be Mistress Warren on Saturday…the mother of the bride.

  3. Julia D. says:

    How great! Congratulations to the Warren household! :)

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