“Dost thou thinke because thou art vertuous, there shall be no more
Shakespeare, William. Twelfe Night, or, What you will. Act II, scene 3.
Christmas wasn’t just a day in the seventeenth century, it was twelve! And
the evening of the last day was the begin of Misrule, where a bean found in
a would determine who would be king. It was a world upside
down, which seems to be another way to say far too much drinking. In Plimoth
in the first years of the colony they had nothing to drink but water, so
drunkenness seems to have been kept to a minimum. They had planted barley
(to make malt for beer) but it grew “indifferent good”. And turning the
ground over by hand for barley is a great deal of work. In 1623 some of the
newcomers of the Anne and James complained about the lack of beer in
Back to cake – this Twelfth Night cake tradition continues. In New Orleans
they make King Cake, which is a cake made with yeast, has a bean hidden
inside and has icing colored green, purple and yellow. The saffron in this
cake will give it a yellow color.
To make excellent spice cakes, take half a peck of very fine ;
take almost one pound of sweet butter, and some good milk and cream mixed
together; set it on the fire, and put in your butter, and a good deal of
sugar, and let it melt together: the strain safron into your milk a good
quantity; then take seven or eight spoonfuls of good ale barm, and eight
eggs with two yolks and mix them together, then put your milk to it when
somewhat cold, and into your flour put salt, aniseeds bruised, cloves, and
mace, and a good deal of cinnamon: then work all together good and stiff,
that you need not work in any flour after; then put in a little rose-water
cold, then rub it well in the thing you knead it in, and work it thoroughly;
if it be not sweet enough, scrape in a little more sugar, and pull it all in
pieces, and hurl in a good quantity of currents, and so work all together
again, and bake your cake as you see cause in a gentle warm oven.” -
Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife, Best, ed. p. 115.
A peck is sixteen pounds, so a half peck is eight pound. If you figure
(roughly) one pound of flour (modern, all purpose, from the grocery store)
is about three and a half cups to the pound, that’s a whopping 28 cups of
flour. That’s a lotta cake! I’ll break it down for a quarter batch:
7 cups flour
1 stick (1/4 pound) of butter, preferably unsalted
yeast, 2 packages (this takes the place of the ale barm although if you have
ale barm, go ahead and use it – and then call me to share some!)
2 eggs and 1 yolk
sugar (maybe a half cup)
saffron, a few threads
milk (use about a cup to soak the saffron in)
salt (about a teaspoon)
spices: cloves, mace, cinnamon
rosewater (This is the flavoring, there’s no vanilla this early on. If you
don’t have food grade rosewater [available in our Gift Shops!] consider
anise extract over vanilla).
1 or 2 cups of raisins (sometimes cakes have as much fruit as dough by
Preheat your oven to 375.
If you have a baking stone (one that you probably use for pizza) you could
bake the cake right on that. Or you can bake it in a greased casserole dish.
Or you could bake it in two greased cake pans.
Melt the butter in the milk. Add the saffron and put aside. Add the yeast to
1/2 cup of warm water. Let dissolve completely, about 4 minutes. It will
Take you flour and add the sugar, salt, aniseeds, cloves, mace and cinnamon.
Beat the 2 eggs and the egg yolk into the now cooled milk. Add 1/2 cup
cream. Add this liquid, as well as the dissolved yeast into the flour
mixture. Beat it well. Now you have to use your judgment – is there enough
spice (does it smell good to you? Do you want some more cinnamon? Maybe a
little more sugar? Does it need more liquid – I’d go for the richness of the
cream,,,, It should pretty well hold together as a piece, more doughy then a
batter bread, softer then ordinary bread dough.
Add your flavoring – a teaspoon, and if that’s not enough for you, then
another. Keep kneading it. Starting to feel the texture get more velvety?
It’s almost cake.
Hurl in your raisins! You may have to take smaller lumps and work the
raisins in. All of this handling is helping the gluten to form, and you
really get to work out your arms!
Form it into a ball (or two, depending on how you’re going to bake it).
Put it in the oven and turn the oven down to 350. This is the falling oven
effect that a wood fired oven would have. Check it after 45 minutes. If the
top is getting very brown (which it might, depending on how much sugar you
used) drop the heat to 325. After an hour look to see that it is risen and
golden brown, then thump in the bottom to hear if it sounds hollow. If it is
still sqiggy or otherwise not done, keep it in and keep checking it. I let
my nose tell me – it smells not wet.
Let it cool (and pick off any burnt raisins) before you enjoy.
Kathleen M. Wall
Colonial Foodways Manager