Of Cakes and Kings (With their Heads on or Otherwise…)

Guest post by Hannah Methwell

Bosse. The Pastry Shop, 1632

Now I am a somewhat bloody-minded historical novelist. I write about a rather ruffianly troop of Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry, all very rough and manly, and they spend a deal of their fictional career engaged in violent mayhem. 

Which is all very well, but when not smiting the heathen hip and thigh, what would an Ironside officer, circa 1642, do with himself at home? 

In the case of Captain Holofernes Babbitt, the answer is – hang around the kitchen hoping for cake. Known for it. Every time his good lady appears in those books, she’s either trying to feed him, or fatten up somebody else in his troop. Het Babbitt is a lady after my own heart. 

But what? Parliamentarians? Puritans? With cake

Cakes. Custard tarts. Fruit pies. Biscuits. Cheesecake. You betcha. 

Cake in the seventeenth century did not, on the whole, come as a snack, but rather, as part of a course at dinner in which multiple dishes would be set forth. A menu from a 1594 recipe book, “The Good Huswife’s Handmaid for the Kitchen”, gives the somewhat exotic guidance for a two-course dinner as: 

Brawne and Mustard. Capons stewed in white broth: a pestle of Uenison vpon brewes: A chine of Beefe, and a breast of Mutton boyled: Chewets or Pies of fine Mutton: three greene Geese in a dish, Sorrell sauce. For a stubble Goose, mustard and Uinigar: after Alhallowen day a Swanne, sauce Chaudron: A Pigge: A double ribbe of Beefe roasted. Sauce Pepper and Uinigar. A loyne of Ueale or breast, sauce Orenges: Halfe a Lambe or a Kid: Two Capons roasted, Sauce Wine and salt, Ale and salt, except it be vpon sops: Two pasties of fallow Deere in a dish: a Custard: A dish of Leash. 

The second course. 
Jellie, Peacockes, sauce Wine and Salte: Two Connies, or halfe a dozen Rabbets, sauce Mustard and Sugar: halfe a dozen of Pigions, Mallard, Toyle, sauce Mustard and Uergious: Gulles, Storke, Heronshew, Crab, sauce Galantine: Curlew, Bitture, Bustard, Feasant, sauce Water and Salt, with Onions sliced: Halfe a dozen Woodcockes, sauce Mustarde and Sugar: Halfe a dozen Teales, sauced as the Feasants: A dozen of Quailes: a dish of Larkes: Two Pasties of red Deare in a dish: Tarte, Ginger bread, Fritters

Pieter Claesz. Still Life With Turkey Pie, 1627


Fruit, both candied and fresh, would be a given at this type of formal dinner. As we can tell, the “sweet” dishes are a minority, but expected as part of both courses. (Leash – if you’re curious – is leche lombard, another kind of spiced baked custard.) 

But back to the cake thing. Without baking powder, and thus without self-raising flour, the “sponge” cake didn’t arrive until way after the 17th century. Het Babbitt’s baked cakes would have been sweetened, enriched bread doughs – possibly, but not necessarily, baked in cake hoops, wooden or metal versions of our modern cake tins which stood on a plank in the oven. A 1617 recipe book, “A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlemen”, gives the following recipe for sugar cake: 

Bake a pound of finewheat flower in a pipkin close couered, put thereto halfe a pound of fine Sugar, foure yolkes and one white of egs, Pepper and Nutmegs, straine them with clouted creame, and with a little new Ale yeast, make it in past, as it were for a Manchet, bake it in a quicke ouen with a breath fire in the ouens mouth, but beware of burning them. 

(I feel your pain regarding the burning. Every time…) 

Rosewater, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves were popular flavourings in period cakes. What is interesting is that honey as a sweet ingredient in confectionery doesn’t seem to appear in any of the period recipe books I’ve consulted, apart from in one recipe for apple and orange tart where the orange peel is stewed in water sweetened with honey before it’s added to the apple puree. There’s a lot of talk of strewing with sugar, and a deal of sweetening with same, but I have as yet been unable to find an authenticated recipe using honey, apart from an uncooked gingerbread recipe from Gervase Markham’s “English Housewife” (1614): 

 A Seventeenth Century Cookbook


Take a quart of honey clarified, and seethe it till it be brown, and if it be thick put to it a dish of water; then take fine crumbs of white bread grated, and put to it, and stir it well, and when it is almost cold, put to it powder of ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and a little liquorice and aniseeds; then knead it, and put it into moulds and print it; some use to put to it also a little pepper, but that is according to taste and pleasure.

Hannah Methwell
Read more of Hannah’s posts and find her books on her blog, An Uncivil War