Tiger Nut Cake: c. 1400 B.C.

Right, hello, I’m back again.

My seating plans are done, the classrooms are laid out in Victorian front facing style and there are lines of yellow tape marked around my desk to maintain a safe 1m distance between me and the students during lessons. Of course, this means that I can’t get to anyone at the back who may or may not be copying out their maths homework instead of analysing timelines of William’s conquest of England, but such is life now. On the plus side, I can legitimately throw things at kids and pretend it’s because I’m not allowed to hand things to them, rather than because they were annoying me (and if my headteacher happens to stumble on this blog, I’m joking. Ignore whatever Fred tells you.)

My first lesson back was to a class of fresh-faced year 7’s. With an alarmingly high level of energy I have no way of maintaining to next week, let alone Christmas, I started by asking them the age old question ‘what is history?’

“Stuff in the past.”

Okay, good start, I said. Any advances on “stuff”?

“The Tudors.” “The Victorians.” “My mum says we’re living through history right now.” Silently, I crossed off the last statement on my ‘first-day-back-post-lockdown’ bingo card. I would go on to hear the same sentence three times again that day. Truly, everyone’s mum is a history teacher now.

All great suggestions, I told them. I was clearly in a room with experts. But no one had quite answered the question yet: what is history?

Truth be told, I was stalling. The projector had packed in – shocked to death when I started it up after 5 months of inactivity – and I needed to reboot the system. While we waited, I overenthusiastically prompted them a bit more. Was history just the study of events and people? Was it just about reading accounts of things that happened a long time ago? And, that most golden of all nuggets: if history is about reading accounts of the past, who gets to decide what is and isn’t worth recording? Put ‘history’ on trial, kids, I said. Question it. Always look for the source of information and think: what is the real message here and why do they want me to know it?

And so, as their little eyes glazed over and they shared worried glances with each as if to say “trust us to get the mad one”, the projector sputtered back to life. A blurry photo of Tollund Man – our first lesson – appeared on the board, but upside down and in shocking fluorescent pink. I gave up and told them to turn to page 4 while I contacted IT support. A great start back.

Oh my God, what is the point of all this?

The point is I inspired myself that day, if no one else, to think about the aspects of history that are harder to define. This is where today’s experiment – a weird combination of historical sources – comes in: recipe, inventory, memorial, biography and art work all rolled into one. It is, of course, tiger nut cake from the iconography on the tomb of Rekhmire, an ancient Egyptian noble and official.

I don’t know loads about ancient Egypt. I signed up to a class in my first year of uni because I thought it would make me look clever and cool if I could decipher hieroglyphs and I dropped out of it when I realised that I was neither (at least, not enough to keep up with the others.) A low point was when we were handed a small section of text to decipher and the only thing I could do was draw moustaches and hats on all the figures whilst those around me made expressive noises of wonder and revelation. Apparently, once translated, it was meant to be a poem or something but all I’d managed to do was transport Hercule Poirot back to the age of the Sphinx.

Anyway, Rekhmire belonged to the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt, A.K.A. the 1st dynasty of the New Kingdom (c. 1550 – 1077 BC) – a relatively late period in ancient Egyptian history. The New Kingdom followed the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – 2181 BC “the Age of the Pyramids”) and the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050 – 1710 BC) and is known for its pharaohs. Tutankhamun and Akhenaten and his wife queen Nefertiti all belonged to the 18th dynasty, with Ramesses I (A.K.A. Ramesses the Great) following in the 19th. The New Kingdom can also boast the most famous of all Egyptians: Imhotep of Universal’s The Mummy fame (sorry not sorry to any genuine Egyptologists.)

It took several hours to make this when I should have been marking.

Rekhmire

We know a lot about Rekhmire from his tomb; almost every inch of the walls inside are covered with carvings depicting scenes of his life and administration. As well as being an official, it appears he was also a high priest of Heliopolis, amassing great wealth and prestige during his lifetime which explains why he was able to afford his own tomb. Despite the name, however, there’s no burial chamber inside and therefore no body – Rekhmire’s final resting place remains so far undiscovered. (Any intrepid explorers who fancy themselves as the heroes of a real life The Mummy can just wait until 2020 is over before they go poking around ancient Egyptian burial sites, thank you very much.)

Unfortunately for Rekhmire it seems he was deposed towards the end of his life, though we aren’t fully certain why; the scenes on his tomb unsurprisingly don’t tell us too much about that part of his life. What some of the pictures do show us, however, are scenes of cooking and it’s these scenes I was most interested in.

Egyptian cooking

There are no recipes from ancient Egypt. Anything we know about cooking comes from archaeological evidence – pots, grains, wall paintings or hieroglyphs and fragments of documents. Some of those documents are official records (detailing the cost of bread, or the purchase of meat for example) but many are more narrative accounts of Egyptian life, which historians have carefully analysed. On Rekhmire’s tomb there’s one scene depicting people making some type of cake or bread.

Having already spent most of the day constructing a timeline I will never use again and working out how to put fancy borders round the pictures, I didn’t have the time (or the ability) to analyse the hieroglyphs and paintings myself. Most of them would have ended up getting the Poirot treatment after a few minutes anyway. Luckily, Rekhmire’s tomb had already attracted the attention of people far more qualified than me who had done the intellectual heavy lifting. The brilliant Ancient Recipes blog explained that the first scene on the walls of the tomb depicted workers piling tiger nuts and pounding them into flour which was then mixed with a liquid – most likely honey given the image of a honeycomb on the same wall. Fat was then added, such as olive oil.

Drawing by Norman de Garis Davies. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1943. From Ancient Recipes.

Tiger nuts were not something I’d come across before. I had to order them online specially for the recipe. They aren’t actually nuts but tubers, and are one of the oldest cultivated plants in ancient Egypt. Tiger nuts are still used in cuisines around the world today, for example in the Spanish drink horchata de chufa.

I began by blitzing 150g of tiger nuts in a blender – ignoring the judgemental expressions of the workers in the picture of Rekhmire’s tomb who were having to pound the nuts by hand. It took a while as they were very hard, despite being pre-soaked in warm water. I ended up having to blitz them in batches until they were the consistency of ground hazelnuts. I sifted them to ensure as fine a flour as I could get and added 75g of honey and 35g of olive oil to them to create a thick and coarse paste.

It’s worth pointing out here that I bought a special type of honey for this as well. Ancient Recipes advised using raw sidr honey, a monofloral honey made from the sidr tree. Sidr trees were common in ancient Egypt and there is evidence of these trees being planted near temples and palaces. As most bees in ancient Egypt were kept near temples and tended to by temple beekeepers, it’s likely much of the honey in ancient Egypt was sidr honey, made by these temple bees collecting pollen from the nearby sidr trees. It was a bit expensive so if anyone wants to make these cakes for themselves rest assured that they’ll also work well with whatever local honey you can get.

To bake or not to bake, that is the question…

The next image on the tomb shows the baking (or not) of the tiger nut cakes.

Drawing by Norman de Garis Davies. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1943. From Ancient Recipes.

There seemed to be some disagreement online about how these were cooked and prepared. Some people suggested the cakes were baked, whilst others pointed to evidence of them being fried. Furthermore, some suggested the cakes were conical whilst others thought they were triangular. Both sets of people pointed to the images in the top and bottom centre of the drawing which showed four triangular shapes with bevelled edges as proof of the final cone/triangle shape.

I decided to try two methods in an effort to placate both camps. Firstly, I moulded half of the mixture into four triangles about 1.5cm in thickness and heated them in a frying pan over a low heat for about 20 minutes, turning each side over regularly until they were evenly browned. The kitchen smelled of honey and bread, which was nice if a little surprising given the lack of wheat in these.

The second cooking method was more involved, but arguably more fun. Ancient Egyptians had many ways of baking and these methods developed over time as new ideas and techniques were discovered. One of the most well known baking methods from throughout ancient Egypt involved baking bread in conical clay moulds. In the bottom of the second drawing of Rekhmire’s tomb, next to the finished triangular shapes, are images of what appears to be conical moulds stacked on top of each other. It was time to get creative…

Imagine how annoyed you’d be if you only got the tip and someone else got the end slice…
Credit here.

I didn’t have any ready made clay moulds or anything that could stand in for one, like a tagine lid. So, like a teacher trying to fill time as she waits for the broken projector to restart, I improvised. I fashioned a couple of cylinders out of folded tin foil which I greased with olive oil and packed the other half of the (uncooked) nut mixture into. Then I used the lid of an egg poaching pan balanced on a panettone tin as a frame to hold the cones upright. It wasn’t what you’d call authentic, as the picture below shows, but hey, if you wanted truly accurate Egyptian baking you should have gone to Seamus Blackley.

Not a method seen on Rekhmire’s tomb but just as effective.

After 20-30 minutes of baking the cones were done. I let them cool in the oven for another hour or so and then gently unpeeled them, pleased to see that they held their shape well.

Conclusion

The fried cakes were a more appetising colour – golden brown with clear markings where the heat had hit them, whereas the conical ones looked a little anemic in comparison. Despite this, there was little difference in terms of taste between the two – perhaps these popular cakes were prepared and cooked both ways in ancient Egypt?!

These were soft but very crumbly, and not as sticky as you might expect. The first flavour was a deeply intense honey that had a buttery almost molasses undertone to it, but still with a bit of a lighter – almost sharp – initial tang. This was down to the sidr honey, which was much darker and deeply flavoured than my usual supermarket bought stuff. The tiger nuts had a subtle flavour, which I could taste once the honey had washed away and reminded me and my husband of brazil nuts. Together the whole effect was like eating very soft, very honeyed nougat. It was surprisingly moreish and though two cones and four triangles was too much to eat in one go, I found myself nibbling at bits of it throughout the rest of the day.

Would I make these again? Yes, actually. Maybe not into cones and triangles (small bite size pieces like sweets would be better), and maybe with easier to obtain ingredients. I’ve seen people suggest that almonds or hazelnuts would work well in place of tiger nuts. Others suggest that the Egyptians may have added extra ingredients such as dates to these and I think this would work well too.

In the end I don’t know how Rekhmire enjoyed his tiger nut cakes, but I found that they went best in small bites with a cup of tea and an episode of Poirot (I recommend ‘Death on the Nile’…) and were so pleasant that I relaxed enough to ignore the pile of marking already stacking up in the corner of the room. It would be future Ellie’s problem; for now, I was just enjoying being back in the world of food history.

E x

Tiger nut cake

150g tiger nuts
75g honey (any type will do)
35g olive oil

  1. Soak the tiger nuts in warm water for 10-20 minutes to soften them.
  2. Blitz them in a blender until they are the consistency of ground almonds. It may take some time and you may need to blend the nuts in batches.
  3. Sift the nuts through a sieve to ensure as fine a texture as possible. Blitz any nuts left in the sieve or pulverize them in a mortar and pestle until they are fine as ground almonds as well.
  4. Add the sifted nuts to a bowl and add the honey and oil. Combine until it forms a coarse paste.
  5. If frying: take a portion of the dough in your palm, about a large walnut size. Roll it into the shape you want, flatten it slightly to allow for even cooking, and fry in a pan over a low heat for 15-20 minutes. Turn the dough over regularly to stop it burning. You should not need to add oil to the pan if you are using a non stick pan.
    If baking: shape your dough into the shapes you want – cone or otherwise. Place on a non stick baking tray and bake at 160 degrees C for 20-25 minutes, until they smell toasted but not burnt.
  6. Drizzle with honey and serve.

Domino Cake: 1898

What’s pink, plump and smells faintly of booze?

Hopefully you’ve given the correct answer – Domino cake – and not the answer that my soon to be ex-husband gave when I asked him: “you”.

What I’m trying to recreate today is probably better known under its modern day name “Battenberg cake”. Or rather, it’s a close variation of it. Or rather rather, it’s the cake that Battenberg cake is based on.

The origins of Battenberg cake are hazy to say the least. An oft-repeated story goes that Battenberg cake was created in 1884 to celebrate the marriage of Prince Louis of Battenberg to the Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria. The novelty cake was supposedly presented to the happy couple with the alternating coloured panes representing the bond and unity between the groom, Prince Louis, and…his other Battenberg brothers. We don’t have a record of Princess Victoria’s reaction to being given a cake celebrating her husband and his family – but not her! – on her own wedding day, but the gift serves as an important reminder that, when it came to royal weddings from the past, the bride wasn’t necessarily the most – or even second most – important person there.

Princesses Irene, Victoria, Elisabeth and Alix: where was their bloody cake?!

Deep seated though this origin story is, there’s actually very little contemporary evidence to support it. Even the eminent food historian Ivan Day (who has written not one but three excellent blog posts about the history of Battenberg cake) could find little in the way of conclusive proof of the provenance of this cake.

Day points out that recipes for cakes with coloured sections wrapped in marzipan were published in England towards the end of the 19th century, but that the earliest cakes going under the name “Battenburg cakes” (with a ‘u’, not an ‘e’), originally had nine panes, which casts the whole four-Battenberg-brothers tale into doubt. Perhaps there were five extra secret brothers history is unaware of – in which case the cake maker should have been recognised as the most important wedding guest (have you ever tried to make an original nine panelled royal wedding cake?!) – but it seems unlikely.

In another blow to fans of the wedding cake theory, these nine sectioned “Battenburg” cakes didn’t appear until 1898 – a full fourteen years after the royal wedding took place. Queen Victoria – grandmother to the newly wedded bride – was considered something of a trend setter in her day. It seems unlikely that a brand new cake, created to honour the marriage between a member of the British royal family and a German prince (and his eight siblings?!) wouldn’t, therefore, have been copied in high society.

Whatever the truth is, the scaled-down four paned Battenberg cakes we’re familiar with today don’t appear to have been produced until the early 20th century when Lyons & Co. began to mass produce them. Again, the oracle Day suggests that the switch from nine panels to four may have been a decision based on what was easier to mass produce.

A four paned cake was going to be tricky enough to recreate in one morning, but nine panes was going to be a challenge. Furthermore, Domino cake wasn’t just content to up the cake content, but included additional ingredients like alcohol – making it a sort of grown-up version of Battenberg.

Domino Cake

The original recipe can be found in the Victorian magazine The Table, which was edited by Mrs Agnes Marshall: “Queen of Ices” and author of four highly successful books dedicated to the production of ice cream (which sort of makes it a shame she didn’t pick the better nickname “Ice Queen” instead.) As well as publishing cookbooks, Mrs Marshall was an successful entrepreneur and inventor, patenting a design for a machine which could freeze cream in five minutes and starting a business with her husband selling cookery products. Food historian Emma Kay called Marshall “one of the fiercest, most ambitious and successful women of her generation” and Robin Weir placed her on a par with other celebrity chefs of her time.

Despite her moniker, public knowledge of Mrs Marshall’s works is slim. This is partly because when she died in 1905 the rights to her works were bought by Ward Lock, the company that published Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This publishing house was, unsurprisingly, not interested in publishing another Victorian cookbook and jeopardizing the lucrative market they’d cornered by promoting Mrs B’s relatively bland offerings at the expense of other 19th century cooks, so they let the collective works of Mrs Marshall fall into obscurity. The final nail in the coffin for Mrs Marshall’s reputation came in the 1950s, when a fire destroyed the archival collection of her works.

In the July 1898 edition of The Table, the recipe for Domino cake is under the fancy French name “Gateau à la Domino” and it appears to be an original Marshall creation, long before the time of mass produced cakes from Lyons & Co.

Mrs Marshall’s cake featured the classic nine paned pattern wrapped in marzipan, but it was decidedly more upmarket than similar “Battenburgs” of the time. For one thing, the marzipan contained maraschino and vanilla essence. The quantity and quality of ingredients were also greater than the average Battenberg, with lemon peel and almond essence being incorporated into the genoese sponge and an extra sweet apricot glace (rather than bog standard apricot jam) being used to hold the cake sections together.

I began by making the sponges, which Mrs Marshall called Genoise Paste. First, I mixed butter and lemon peel together then hand beat the mixture with sugar for ten minutes, or until my arm fell off. I added five eggs, baking powder, almond essence and 8oz of plain flour to the batter before dividing it into half and colouring one half red. Mrs Marshall called for “carmine” to be used to colour the mix red, which during her time would have been from the cochineal beetle. Despite my most lacklustre efforts, I couldn’t find enough beetles to squeeze a really good measure of liquid from and a promisingly juicy worm turned out to be an old pink shoelace. I had to use “Red Red” food colouring instead which was, in fairness, more red than any beetle could have produced anyway. And less…crunchy.

Once the batter was baking in the oven I started work on the marzipan – or almond paste, as Mrs Marshall referred to it. This was pretty straightforward but after ten minutes of vigorous butter-beating my arm was tingling in a peculiar way and I could hear my wrist click with every gesture, so I snorted at Mrs M’s suggestion to hand knead ground almonds (as a true entrepreneur, she advised using her own brand of ground almonds), icing sugar, maraschino and egg white into a stiff paste, and bunged it all into the blender.

When the cakes were cool, I cut them into 6×1 inch rectangles: four pink and five white. This meant we had a bit of spare cake left over, but I’m not sure anyone in my household saw that as a problem. At least, not one that wasn’t easily overcome.

The moment you need a tape measure to make a cake is the moment you have gone too far.

With the cake rectangles arranged in a checkerboard pattern on top of the rolled out marzipan, I heated half a jar of apricot jam with 2oz of caster sugar and a little water until all the sugar had dissolved and pushed the mixture through a sieve. This was the apricot glace which would stick the cake bits together.

Once each cake piece had been given a coating of glace, the marzipan was gently rolled up the sides of the cake and smoothed down. The edges were trimmed off – Mrs M was very insistent that the ends of the cake should not be covered – and the whole thing was given a light dusting of icing sugar.

Actually, not a bad wedding gift after all.

I stepped back. It actually looked like something resembling a Battenberg cake! In fact, it looked better than a Battenberg cake because of the extra five panes and for a mad minute I thought about applying to Bake Off; after all, hadn’t they used Battenberg as a technical challenge before? And here I was more than doubling the amount of squares like it was no big deal.

“Yeah, but that was a celebrity Bake Off,” my husband informed me. “It’s like the pre-school version of Bake Off where you get marks just for knowing how to use a spatula.”

Celeb Bake Off or not, I reckon Paul would have given me a handshake for this one; it had nine identifiable and pretty much identical squares, the marzipan was of an even thickness and, most importantly, there was no trace of a soggy bottom.

Though it looked very much like a pimped up Battenberg, the taste and texture was a little different. Despite containing sugar, icing sugar and sweetened jam it was still far less sweet than I was used to which I suppose just goes to show how sugar laden mass produced cakes can be. I was a bit worried the cake would be dry, but the apricot glace helped prevent that and the sweet apricot flavour went well with the other fruit and nut flavours.

What I was most surprised by was the marzipan, which was far less almondy than I expected. Instead, the primary flavour was a sort of bitter cherry thanks to the maraschino – not at all unpleasant, but not what I was used to. I found myself picking off the marzipan coating and eating it without the cake to try and pinpoint the exact flavours.

Overall, for a cake that required the use of a measuring tape, this wasn’t as complicated to make as I thought it would be. It was also really interesting to make something that looked so similar to a modern day favourite, but with just enough differences to make it slightly unfamiliar – it was like looking at another piece of a puzzle you thought you’d already completed.

In the end I have to take back my earlier, snarky comments about this being a wedding present. I don’t know how Princess Victoria might have felt upon receiving a cake celebrating her husband and his eight brothers on her wedding day, but if it had been me I wouldn’t have cared at all – as long as I didn’t have to share it with them.

Domino Cake

225g butter
225g plain flour
225g caster sugar
5 eggs
Lemon peel
Almond essence
Baking powder
Red food colouring

For the marzipan:
1 egg white
280g icing sugar
140g ground almonds
Vanilla essence
Dessert spoon of maraschino

For the apricot glace:
150g apricot jam
50g sugar
Dessert spoon of water

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
  2. In a bowl, mix butter and lemon peel until smooth and white.
  3. Add the sugar and beat well.
  4. Add the eggs, baking powder and flour, a little at a time, and incorporate.
  5. Add 8 drops of almond essence and mix.
  6. Divide the batter into two halves. Leave one half plain and colour the other half red with a few drops of food colouring.
  7. Portion the batter into two small baking trays (I used 25x17cm) and bake for 15-20 minutes.
  8. Place the ingredients for the marzipan into a blender and blend until they form a stiff paste.
  9. Place the marzipan into the fridge to firm up.
  10. Once the cakes are baked, allow them to cool and the slice them into rectangles 6x1inch. You need 5 white and 4 red.
  11. Heat the apricot jam with the sugar and water and when it is dissolved, push the mixture through a sieve.
  12. Roll the marzipan out into a sheet about 1cm thick and brush a little apricot glace onto the centre of it.
  13. Arrange the first layer of cake on top of the apricot glazed marzipan: white, red, white.
  14. Brush the sides and top of the cake layer with apricot glace and arrange the second layer: red, white, red.
  15. Brush the sides and top of the cake layer with apricot glace and arrange the second layer: white, red, white.
  16. Brush the sides and top and then roll the marzipan up over the cake layers, smoothing it down at the sides until it covers the cake.
  17. Flip the cake over so that the marzipan join is hidden along the bottom and trim off the excess marzipan.
  18. Dust with icing sugar and serve with a cup of tea.

Libum: 160 B.C.

Who likes cheesecake?

Because I don’t want to live in a world the alternative is true, I’m going to assume that most of you said you did – good. Well, you’re in luck: today’s recipe from Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura could be seen as a type of blueprint cheesecake – one of the very earliest forms.

Before you get excited I should quickly read you the small print because there are a couple of caveats to this cheesecake recipe. For one: does it look like cheesecake? No. Does it smell or taste like a cheesecake? Also no. Essentially what we’re dealing with is a cheesecake in the sense that it has cheese in it and is shaped like a cake but really that’s where the similarities end. Libum may translate as ‘cake’ but rather than matching our modern day idea of cake as something sweet, the notion of ‘cake’ here just relates to the round shape. Some people (my husband is one of them) still use the term cake in this way today – a cake of soap, for example, which is why my toddler spent most of the night hiccuping up bubbles.

That’s not to say that ancient cakes couldn’t be sweet – far from it. Liba may not have contained any sweeteners in the dough, but that didn’t stop people serving them drowned in honey or pomegranate syrup. The Greek writer Athenaeus, writing some 350 years after Cato wrote the recipe for Libum also tells of basynias – boiled dough filled with a honey and date stuffing – and elaphos – dough shaped like deers cooked with honey and sesame – for the festival of elaphebolia.

Back in Cato’s De Agri Cultura we find a large number of different cakes listed, included the alarming entitled ‘placenta’ cake – but his concern with listing these cakes isn’t frivolous. In fact, as Nicola Humble points out in a book that encapsulates my two greatest loves with frightening precision – ‘Cake: A Global History‘ – Cato’s preoccupation with cake in a work that is otherwise serious and instructive shows how culturally significant it was to the ancients.

Libum fits in perfectly with this assessment of the seriousness of cake. Rather than be baked to be eaten (although of course they were also used for this), Libums primary function was as a sacrificial offering to the household gods of ancient Rome. Each household would have had an altar upon which one or two of these cakes would be offered to give thanks to the gods. Is there a link with the word ‘libations’, which seems to be only associated with liquid offerings to the gods? I don’t know – opinions and guesses are welcome! Someone who specialises in Roman food and who made much better Liba than I, Farrell Monaco, sheds some light onto the religious function of these cakes. Go and read her post on Libum for much more accurate history and baking than I can provide!

Copy of De Agri Cultura at the Laurentian Library. Credit here.

Cake for the gods? Must be pretty fancy.

Er…

The thing about sacrificing food to the gods in the ancient world is that people often, um, cheated. They didn’t see it as cheating, obviously, but the foods that were offered were usually not what we’d call the cream of the crop.

Take the ancient Greeks. If you know your Odyssey or your Illiad (*scoff* and who doesn’t?!) you’ll know that men of ancient epics quite frequently cook and offer up food as sacrifices to the gods. It happens fairly often – in fact, Odysseus could probably have been home a lot sooner if he hadn’t dilly-dallied around with “burnt offerings” as much as he did. And what were the offerings of choice? Why, thigh bones wrapped in fat and roasted to a crisp, just like mum used to make. Yummy!

The ancient Egyptians were little better – oh sure, they might make a show of offering their gods fruits, breads, wine, fatty meats and rich cheeses up to three times a day, but once the prayers had been said the altar was cleared before the gods could tuck in and the food was taken home to be eaten by the priests (who later died of blocked arteries – true story.)

And finally, the Persians. Herodotus tells us they had no temples to their gods as they believed altars to be “a folly” but when they felt the need to do some praying they stuck with good old fashioned human sacrifice. Even with this unconventional offering the gods might not get long to enjoy the meal; the butchered victim later had his flesh carried away by a holy man (Magi) to make “whatever use of it he may please.” Hmm. Whether or not we trust Herodotus’ account of human sacrifice – notorious anti-Persian sensationalist that he was – is of course another matter.

Engraving dating from 500-475 BC possibly of Persian king Xerxes killing Spartan king Leonidas to make a tasty kebab with later (also possibly not.)

All of which is meant to say: humans are greedy and don’t like sharing. Why offer Zeus an actual saddle of lamb when you can just burn some bones and say that the gods appreciate the smell of burning fat more than the taste of meat? Why allow cheese and meat to fester away on an altar to Osiris when you, a priest, can just eat it and claim that your actions were divinely inspired? Why sacrifice something as useful as a cow to Ahura Mazda when you can kill a potential criminal and ask for a successful harvest in one go?

Liba were no different. No one was going to stuff them with expensive spices or insist they be filled with precious honey just to be left at the altar to some god of lost car keys or getting red wine out of the carpet. Of course, if one were to make enough Liba for the gods to take their share and for everyone else to enjoy then that was another matter. Then all sorts of toppings and additions could be added.

So what’s in them?

Ricotta, spelt flour and egg. They could not be simpler!

The recipe is as follows:

Make libum by this method. Break up two pounds of cheese well in a mortar. When they will have been well broken up, put in a pound of wheat flour or, if you wish it to be more delicate, half a pound of fine flour and mix it well together with the cheese. Add one egg and mix together well. Then make into bread, places leaves beneath, and cook slowly on a hot hearth under an earthen pot.

Cato, De Agri Cultura

I used wholemeal spelt flour because 1) spelt was a very common grain in ancient Rome, 2) we already had it in, and 3) like any good victimarius before me I wasn’t about to waste my best quality plain flour in a time of flour shortages.

I mixed all the ingredients together until a sticky and quite wet dough formed. Although I kneaded it for a few minutes I found that there was only so much it would actually stiffen up, so turned quite quickly to the baking of it.

I greased a cake tin with olive oil and made a bed of bay leaves which I placed my wet dough, rounded to perfection by my own fair hands, onto, and placed the pan into the oven. Cato stated that the dough should be cooked “under an earthen pot”, which panicked me slightly because I imagined the steam would only make my already damp dough damper, which could hamper the dough de-dampening – d’oh! Nevertheless, I complied and in lieu of an authentic earthen Roman pot, I placed a stoneware lasagne dish over the pan and left it to cook for an hour.

After an hour the Libum was firmer but still felt a bit undercooked. It lacked any sort of brownness, so I put it back under the lasagne dish for another thirty minutes and crossed my fingers that I wasn’t about to give our household gods indigestion from under baked dough. After half an hour it looked much better and was ready to offer up to the goddess of house and hearthside, Vesta.

Before we placed it on our household altar, though, we thought we should probably try it. Cato’s original recipe was somewhat plain but would probably have been embellished with all sorts of additions. For authenticity I chose not to add any of these additions to the actual dough, but instead heated honey and toasted pine nuts, both very common features of Roman kitchens, to have as accompaniments.

Eaten alone, Libum was perfectly pleasant. Both my husband and I struggled to equate it to a modern day food – it didn’t taste cheesy but there was a creaminess to it that was thanks to the ricotta. The base of the cake where it had been sat on the bay leaves was particularly delicious and fragrant. I’d never really tasted bay before, not having a palate sophisticated enough to pick up on bay in stews or casseroles, but here it was unmistakable. The spelt was also a great choice of flour as it provided additional texture that fine white flour wouldn’t, as well as a contrasting nuttiness that worked very nicely. The Libum was dense – very dense – but not exactly heavy or stodgy, and it cut beautifully. It wasn’t, however, like a cheesecake. There was no light moussiness or whipped quality to it.

So far, so good. Of all the things I’ve tried to cook, this felt like something that was as close to the original as I could make it – it tasted ‘old’ and looked authentically simple. One Libum fit comfortably in the palm of a hand and I could imagine a young girl laying a couple of these at the household altar and munching absentmindedly on one for herself as she made her way back to the kitchen.

With honey was where Libum really shone, however. I drizzled a little, then a lot, over a slice and sprinkled it with pine nuts. It was glorious. I would now consider honey and multiple little Liba an essential on any cheeseboard, if I were the sort of person who was fancy enough to serve cheeseboards after dinner, or pick them instead of cheesecake for pudding at a restaurant. In fact, if I’d ordered a cheesecake for dessert and a slice of Libum with honey arrived instead, I don’t think I’d send it back.

Cheesecake it isn’t, however. Libum is much closer to bread than cheesecake and there can be no doubt that like most bread, Libum performs best when warm and fresh from the oven.

Unfortunately, this morning I realised we’d run out of bread (fresh or otherwise) for our morning toast and wondered whether leftover Libum would work instead. Cato may have argued that the best Liba were the ones that were offered to the gods, but what he might have been pleased to know is that a day old Libum, slathered with lemon curd and eaten on a rainy morning in front of the TV also holds up well, with or without the gods’ blessings.

E x

Libum (makes 1 cake)

250g ricotta
125g spelt flour or wholemeal plain flour
1 egg
Bay leaves

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees c.
  2. Break up the ricotta in a large bowl to a rough paste.
  3. Add the flour and egg to the ricotta and combine thoroughly.
  4. Grease a round cake pan with olive oil and make a bed of bay leaves in the bottom. You want enough bay leaves to completely cover the base of the dough.
  5. Shape the dough into a round disk, about the size of a hand.
  6. Place the dough on the bay leaves in the cake pan and place in the oven. If you have an ovenproof dish to cover the pan and help create steam you can place it over the dough. If not, don’t worry and just bake as you would a normal cake but check on it after 1 hour.
  7. After 1.5 hours if baking under a pot (and after 1 hour if baking as normal) check on the cake. It should be golden brown on top and the edges and firm to touch, like bread. If not, bake for another 5-10 minutes and check again.
  8. Take the cake out of the oven and while it is cooling, place some pine nuts in a dry frying pan and toast for a couple of minutes. Keep an eye on them as they turn quickly and you don’t want them to burn.
  9. Heat some honey in a microwave or add it to the frying pan with the pine nuts if you want to combine the two and heat until runny.
  10. Serve the Libum on a dish and honey and pine nuts in a jug or plate to dip slices into.

Seed Cake: 1928

There’s something so comforting about the idea of afternoon tea, isn’t there? Like a scene straight out of an Agatha Christie novel; dainty ladies of a certain age in floppy hats and charmingly flowery dresses sitting outdoors, sipping tea out of china cups and chatting about the Church fundraiser. Maids laying delicate slices of loaf cake on three tiered cake stands already groaning with scones and cucumber sandwiches while men play croquet in the background. You know, just before the murder starts.

Very comforting indeed. And I realised, as I gazed at my own wasteland garden with its pigeon-poo-pebble-dashed picnic table, so very, very unobtainable.

For one, I didn’t own any proper china. Most of my cups are of the novelty, chunkier than a brick kind and none of them will ever match unless I happen to be given two of the same sets of hot chocolate kits for Christmas.

Secondly (and I really can’t stress this enough) I will never be dainty, delicate or charming enough to fit in with the quintessential afternoon-tea-on-the-lawn set. How do they not descend into animal grunts every time they bite into an eclair? Why must they wear those restrictive (but still charmingly flowery) dresses when a bin bag with a hole in it would cover one’s modesty whilst allowing for maximum bloat and serve as a ready made ‘take home’ bag if there are any cakes left at the end. Which, let’s face it, there would be. There are always cakes left over at those sorts of afternoon tea parties; hundred of cakes to choose from yet people only ever select one and then spend the whole afternoon taking sparrow-like pecks at it. Because apparently it’s not “decent” to slide an entire plate of fondant fancies into your handbag, or “socially acceptable” to stand by the buffet table windmilling shortbread into your mouth and trying to roundhouse kick anyone who approaches you with a plate of their own and laughably optimistic views about the notion of ‘sharing’.

It wasn’t my finest hour and no, I’m not expecting any more invitations to my grandma’s afternoon tea parties.

I have nothing in common with this girl.

Catherine Ives’ recipe

Today’s experiment is an attempt to conjure up some of that classic nostalgia that surrounds a good Marple-esque afternoon tea. Seed cake was a classic guest of vintage tea parties. Its presence at village fetes and W.I. meetings was as guaranteed and cliched as finding out that yet again the murderer was the doctor (butlers of the world rejoice; it’s always the doctor now.)

The recipe I’m using is from Catherine Ives’ 1928 book When The Cook Is Away – a handy companion aimed at alleviating pressure on a whole generation (and class) of women who had suddenly found themselves cook-less and somewhat unwillingly independent following the end of World War One some ten years previous. Ives’ recipe was re-printed in Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food which focused on recipes from the interwar period. Boxer highlighted that after WW1 the heavy, bloated Edwardian dining habits of the middle and upper classes ended thanks to the fact no-one could afford to pay for a full set of household staff. A whole host of well dressed, well spoken, well helpless women were suddenly faced with an unimaginable prospect: learning to cook for themselves. Catherine Ives’ When The Cook Is Away was therefore aimed at young aristocratic women with little prior experience in the kitchen who needed a few tips (although in reality many of these women were able to continue employing at least one member of staff who might help out with cooking.)

Boxer also argued that the 20 years or so between WW1 and WW2 were largely forgotten about, food wise. With stodgy Edwardian puddings at one end and strict rationing at the other, the interwar period had quietly slipped out of society’s recollection. Thanks to the work of historians like Annie Gray, the whole scope of 20th century food is coming back into focus, but Seed cake remains one of those ‘forgotten’ dishes, occasionally remembered by a nostalgic relative or Nigel Slater.

It’s not even an interwar creation, which makes the fact it’s been consigned to the dusty corners of kitchen memory even more upsetting (I imagine; I don’t know all the emotions cakes have.)

There are references to Seed Cakes throughout pre-20th century literature: Miss Temple dazzles Jane Eyre with a “good-sized seed cake” in 1847, David Copperfield shares a “sweet seed-cake” with Miss Clarissa and Miss Lavinia in 1850 and as far back as 1573 the poet Thomas Tusser used not at all annoying rhyming couplets to advise wives that the best time to prepare seed cake was during the harvest.

Recipe books mention cakes and tarts containing caraway seeds as far back as 1591, such as A. W’s ‘Tarte of Prunes’ in Book of Cookrye. But the beginning of seed cake’s heyday was the 1700’s where it appeared in Hannah Glasse’s 1784 edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy multiple times: “A Cheap Seed-Cake”, “A Fine Seed Cake”, “A Rich Seed Cake”.

Reassured that seed cake’s withdrawal from common society was an unexpected consequence of the outbreak of WW2, given its previous popularity, and not because it was a disgusting waste of sugar, I set about recreating my own from Ives’ recipe. “We’ll see who’s a “disgrace to polite society” when they see this”, I muttered (or I would have, if I’d been a real murder mystery character.)

Firstly, I beat butter into a cream and added sugar. I used a hand held mixer for this but it woke my daughter, who sleeps in the room above the kitchen, and my husband assured me that if I didn’t stop making noise he’d add “thief of domestic harmony” to my list of cake-based crimes. Also that I would have to do all of the subsequent nighttime settling if she woke for good, which was the bigger incentive to stop, to be honest.

Butter and sugar combined, I added half the flour and one egg, stirred it in and then added the rest of the flour and another egg. Catherine Ives then said to add between 1/2 and 1 tablespoons of caraway seeds (I chose 1/2) and the rind of 1/2 a large orange, which we didn’t have. What we did have, though, was Tropicana With Bits – so I spent 10 minutes sieving juice into a jug and scraping out the pulp into the cake, much to my husband’s exasperation.

“Just say you used an orange – who’s going to know?”

I said people would, because I’d tell them. He said I was cutting off my nose to spite my face so I said he wouldn’t be saying that once it was baked and he wanted a slice. He told me that with the length of time it was taking to get enough pulp, I’d never get round to baking the damn thing anyway and I replied that I’d be sure to include this exchange as part of the blog so people could see how unsupportive he was being. So there you go.

The next part of the cake was physically demanding. I didn’t expect it to be because, well, it’s a cake. It’s literally the food of people who aren’t good at physically demanding things. I had to beat the mixture for 10 minutes by hand because of my bat-eared toddler and because it was lacked any liquid it was a very dough like batter and not very pliable at all. There was a huge disparity in the ratio of dry ingredients to wet ingredients and it was like beating cement. I managed about three minutes before I limped back to my husband sweating profusely and gasping for air, and begged for help.

Like the gentleman he is really, he obliged and spent the next seven minutes huffing and puffing as he walked round the living room stirring and complaining about the bowl “too flimsy!”, the handle of the spoon “too sharp!” and the speed of time in general “too slow! There were four minutes left when I asked three minutes ago!” Finally, after about 12 minutes (sorry darling, but I was still a bit annoyed with you) it was done. The mixture was less solid but still very dense. I spooned it into a loaf tin and baked it for 1 hour.

I had high hopes for this cake; it was no longer a simple, humble seed cake in my opinion but had taken on a more significant meaning. In its making it had caused a minor rift in my marriage and helped me drop a dress size. With its completion I anticipated my triumphant return to tea party society where I would resume my rightful place at the buffet table and no one would dare come near me or the shortbreads again.

WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, GRANDMA?

I hate liquorice, which I know caraway can be reminiscent of, but when I tasted this cake I was very surprised. Yes, there was an aniseed hint there but it was very subtle rather a flavour that shone through. Mainly the flavour was mild and creamy – there was a hit of almond that I couldn’t work out since there was no almond in the recipe. The cake was also surprisingly light given its dense appearance pre-baking, and quite dry, but not unpleasantly. For all its simplicity of appearance it tasted and felt rich and buttery; I began to wonder whether grandma would even need shortbread at her next tea party if she had this.

But therein lies seed cake’s biggest problem (other than getting bits of caraway seed stuck in your teeth): it’s not pretty. It isn’t attractive like a fondant fancy or sugary sweet like Battenberg. It lacks the gleam of ganache on fudge cake, the call of caramel in millionaire’s shortbread, the appeal of apple in a tart (and so on, and so on. Have fun making your own up.) Yes it tasted great, but it has to convince people to actually choose to eat it before they realise that it tastes great, and when faced with a scone topped with cream and jam or a slice of plain seed cake, I know which one I’d go for.

Still, we enjoyed our seed cake – my husband, daughter and I. Sat among weeds and wildflowers on furniture that had seen better days, sipping out of a Sports Direct mug fighting over the last few slices – there was no other tea party I’d rather be at. And since there weren’t any Christie-inspired doctors invited to our tea party, no one ended up murdered which was an added bonus.

E x

P.S. By the way – since this is a tea party cake and I haven’t mentioned any tea I recommend a variation of masala chai without the heat of the peppercorns or cloves (recipe below). Its combination of mild spices and sweetness perfectly matches the creamy notes (who do I think I am?!) of the seed cake. Try it – you won’t regret it.

Seed Cake

180g unsalted butter
120g caster sugar
2 large eggs
225g self raising flour
1/2 to 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
Grated rind of 1/2 large orange

  1. Set the oven to 160 degrees C.
  2. Beat butter to a cream, add the sugar and cream both.
  3. Beat in one egg and half the flour and combine.
  4. Beat in the second egg and the rest of the flour and combine.
  5. Add the caraway seeds and orange rind.
  6. Mix the mixture by hand for 10 minutes (or blend with a handheld mixer/food processor for 2 or 3 minutes.)
  7. Pour mixture into a loaf tin and bake for 1 hour or a little longer, until the the cake is set and golden brown on top.

Masala Chai

Almond sized piece of fresh ginger
3 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons of black tea (or 2 teabags if you don’t have loose tea)
Milk
Sugar to your taste (or honey, maple syrup, agave syrup etc)

  1. Fill a medium saucepan 3/4 of the way with water and bring to boil.
  2. Crush or grate the ginger into the water.
  3. Crush the cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks and drop into water.
  4. Allow the spices to boil in the water for 3 or 4 minutes before adding the tea.
  5. Once the tea has been added, turn the heat off and allow tea to infuse into water. You want a strong brew, not a weak one. Wait about 5-10 minutes.
  6. Pour milk into a cup – just under 1/2 of the way up.
  7. Strain the tea and spices and pour into the cup of milk.
  8. Add sugar to your taste – though I think the sweeter the better.

Trench Cake: 1914

I’m teaching trench warfare to year 9 at the moment. I really like my year 9’s; they’re funny and inquisitive and (fortunately) have never had to live through anything more distressing than the wi-fi going down. So it’s really hard for them to grasp just how grim conditions in the trenches would have been. We’ve gasped at images of trench foot (seriously, only click on that if you’re done eating), analysed maps and images showing the position of trenches and groaned at the futility of going over the top, just to be cut to shreds by machine gun fire. And yet, they still don’t quite get it. How can they? I can pinpoint the exact moment they lost their ability to relate to the situation on the Western Front and that moment is called the Somme:

“I just wouldn’t go over the top, miss, I’d just refuse and tell the C.O. to do one.”

“Yeah, what would they do if the whole trench didn’t go over?”

“I’d run away back to England. D’you think I’d get to keep the gun, though?”

I did my best Mary Poppins-esque smile of charitable patience, even though we’d covered these exact scenarios every single bloody lesson so far.

“You think you could swim the English Channel in full military uniform, do you Finn?” I queried in what I hoped were calming non judgmental tones to hide my inner eye roll. “You must have just been pretending you didn’t have the stamina to do the 800 metre race at sports day, hmm? And Robbie – realistically what do you think might happen if you told a 6 foot something man with a gun who’s also out of his mind with fear to ‘do one’?”

We agreed (yet again!) that none of us knew what we’d really do if faced with similar circumstances to the men who fought in the trenches of World War One. It was an incomprehensible time – in everything I’ve taught, nothing comes close to matching the futility and horror of trench warfare and the impossibility of how people coped with it. Take Herbert Burden, a soldier who fled the battlefield after seeing the carnage and massacre at Bellwarde Ridge (1915), where over 1000 men were slaughtered in a 1/2 mile square battlefield in 12 hours. Aged just 16, he was still 2 years too young to have officially and legally signed up to the war but he had lied about his age – like many others, he had been swept along in the propaganda campaigns promising excitement and adventure. Still didn’t stop him getting executed by firing squad for desertion, though.

My students’ repeated inability to accept what happened in the trenches is a clear indication of how awful the reality must have been for a lot of men when the fighting was happening. Even when there was no fighting and boredom was the predominant emotion, it was still boredom mixed with mud, rats and the risk of an unexpected bullet hole in the head if you happened to stand in the wrong place at the wrong time. That year 9 can’t accept the realities of trench warfare, but instead come up with incredulous scenarios they’d try in order to escape the trenches every lesson, shows how out of the ordinary the situation was.

Imagine, if you can, you are a young man fighting in World War One. You’ve just got back from a gruelling week on the front line. You haven’t taken your boots off for days, you’ve only slept curled up in a dug out and it’s been pissing it down constantly because the climate of Northern France doesn’t give a damn about making this war easier for you. And that’s one of the ‘better’ front line experiences. You get back to the rest camp for 4 days’ break before returning to the front line again and after a mandatory wash and shave (this is the British army after all – got to keep those personal standards up, even if the water’s grey and the towel smells like feet) you are handed a package. Something from your family, to keep your spirits up: a cake.

Now, people back home during World War One weren’t totally ignorant of the realities of the war. They would have seen men returning bandaged and broken, unable to speak of their experiences and worked out that maybe this war wasn’t the jolly 20th century Butlin’s holiday it had been billed as. Soldiers also wrote home to their families to tell them of their experiences. The only problem with this was that at the start of the war, every letter sent from the battlefields was opened and read by a junior officer and then read again at Home Depot in Regent’s Park (the Post Office sorting office, not the home improvement shop) to make sure it contained no classified information that might fall into enemy hands. If it did, or if it contained information that wasn’t classified but was deemed too graphic or likely to lower morale, that section could be deleted or crossed out.

So I can only think that people back home were aware of the guns and general ‘ugh’-ness of the war and trenches, but must not have realised the true extent of the reality; the mud, lice, blood, despair and boredom, when they named the cake in honour of them. Also, as a side note, if you know that your husband’s having a bit of a hard time fighting in less than ideal conditions, why would you send him a gift named after the very thing he’s struggling with? “Made you this cake, darling, know how much you’re hating it out there so I’ve called it trench cake to remind you that you can never escape. Toodle-oo!”

It’s astounding that in the depths of war, the Post Office still managed to deliver 12 million parcels and letters every week to men at the Western Front. Among the lipstick marked envelopes and perfume scented photos, some of those packages contained Trench Cake baked by the wives, sisters and mothers of men fighting to keep their spirits up and serve as a welcome break to the unrelenting front line diet of bully beef and bread.

Although rationing wasn’t introduced until the end of the war in 1918, some traditional cake ingredients were still hard to come by as import shortages occurred and prices rose. In order to get to France in one piece and be enjoyed properly, Trench Cake had to be the cake equivalent of Lord Kitchener himself: robust, a patriotic reminder of England and able to keep without being wrapped in brown paper or stored in an airtight container (I’m assuming – but what Lord Kitchener got up to in his own time is his private business.)

Following the re-released recipe, I mixed margarine, brown sugar, flour, currants, spices, lemon rind and cocoa together. It smelt lovely and reminded me of a light version of a Christmas cake. Surely any man would be delighted to get this? The recipe then said I should add milk, mixed with a teaspoon of vinegar with 1/2 a teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in it. Hmm… I guess the vinegar and soda were supposed to react to make bubbles and cause the cake to rise, but in my case it just led to a jug of funky smelling liquid after I mixed it with the milk. I added all the ingredients together and baked it at 180 degrees for 1 and a half hours. The recipe called for it to bake for 2 hours, but after 1 and a half the edges had started to burn and it was most definitely cooked through.

Shiny, shiny vinegar cake

First impressions were that if it didn’t taste great it could at least serve as a back up weapon, maybe a bludgeon or missile, in a tight spot. It was very, very dense and very, very dry. If I was sending this cake today it would have cost me over £5 to get it to France and I would also have to label it in capital letters “PERISHABLE”, which might have been one ironic morale booster too far for front line troops.

Turns out, it probably wouldn’t have ever made it to France for the simple reason that it was actually pretty decent. Sorry, imaginary front line soldier, but you’re going to have to get through another tin of corned beef without dessert this time.

Because there wasn’t any white sugar in the recipe it wasn’t very sweet – I had to go back and check I’d actually added any sugar at all. As the sweetner used had been light brown sugar (and not an abundant quantity at that), the flavour was more treacle-y, made slightly sweeter by the currants, but definitely not like modern cakes at all. The ginger and nutmeg spices weren’t obvious, except in that sort of subtle warming way TV chefs mention and that up to this point I’ve had no idea how to recreate properly. You’d miss them if they weren’t in the cake, but you didn’t notice their individual presence. I gave my sister – who has developed an uncanny ability to always appear at times of culinary triumphs and disappears at times of despair – a slice. She said she could taste the cocoa very well and could she take half of the cake home, please?

Looks like a cake, tastes like a cake, sits in your stomach like a cannon ball

In all seriousness, this was a success. I can absolutely see how men would be delighted to receive this and how their loved ones at home would have enjoyed the process of carefully measuring and weighing ingredients out, knowing their act of love would bring happiness to their man abroad and perhaps a welcome distraction from their imminent return to the front line.

Next week, year 9 will be watching Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (hey, it’s the end of term and one of the perks of being a History teacher is the prerogative to watch historical films in the name of education.) As we watch and comment on what the students can see and hear, and how the genuine front line footage supports what they know about trench warfare, I think we might all be eating a slice of trench cake too. That, or hiding under the tables if Robbie and Finn decide to tell me, their commanding officer, to ‘do one’ and use it as a missile instead.

E x

Trench Cake

225g plain flour
115g margarine
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 pint of milk
85g brown sugar
85g currants
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
nutmeg
ground ginger
grated lemon rind

  1. Grease a round cake tin and pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees.
  2. Rub margarine into the flour.
  3. Add dry ingredients to the flour and margarine. Mix well.
  4. Dissolve the soda in the vinegar and mix. Add the milk.
  5. Add milk, vinegar and soda mix to the dry ingredients and stir well.
  6. Turn into the cake tin and bake for between 1 1/2 hours and 2 hours.

Cabinet Pudding: 1895

If you’ve bumped into any good history teachers today they may have bored you with the information that Queen Victoria died on this day 1901. As any BBC docudrama will tell you: she reigned from 1837, becoming queen at the age of just 18, until her death 64 years later which at the time made her the longest reigning monarch in British history. At the time of her death it was said that Britain had an empire “on which the sun never set”. Which all sounds very impressive if you imagine David Starkey animatedly frothing about it with something by Elgar playing in the background, but doesn’t really mean anything on its own; are we supposed to praise her for being fortunate enough to afford decent medical care and comfort to aid her long reign when at the same time approximately 25% of the population in lived in poverty? Or is it that if you’re the sort of person who believes the positives of the empire outweigh the negatives, we should laud her for personally hitching up her skirts and striding across India to plant the flag and introduce the ever so grateful natives to civilisation because apparently those 1000 year old languages and temples don’t count?

That’s not to say she doesn’t deserve her status as Golden Girl of the Royal Family. She patronised many new inventions and supported rapid industrialisation which made Britain wealthy beyond measure. Likewise, her decision to open Buckingham Palace up for public events whilst still being used as a family home in an attempt to connect with her people (as long as they weren’t too smelly and dirty), was nothing short of revolutionary and her modifications are still used today to help bring the nation together. She may have been known for being a bit dour and hard to amuse in public, but her wit and warm nature (spoken of by those who knew her well) helped form strong international links with countries in Europe, even through times of great political uncertainty. It’s telling that she appears to have had some kind of influence in creating an uneasy peace between her two grandsons Wilhelm II of Germany and George V, as Wilhelm lamented after the outbreak of WW1 that if she’d still been alive she would never have allowed George and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (also one of her relations through marriage) to form an alliance which would help lead to war. He did keep quiet about what she might have thought about Germany’s own alliance system and its contribution to the war, though.

It’s therefore a bit frustrating when you Google Queen Vic and, other than a dodgy pub in London, the first things that come up are clinical facts dressed up as personal hard-won achievements. With this in mind, then, I present to you Cabinet Pudding – a dish I can find no account of Queen Victoria particularly enjoying, nor one that takes its name from her. But it happened to be created in her era and so by Google standards that’s close enough.

Also known as Chancellor’s Pudding, Cabinet Pudding is something that some people might have heard of but aren’t quite sure what it is. This recipe is from Mary Beale’s Wholesome Cookery which was published in 1895 and which I found in this book. Apparently it was on the menu along with another Victorian fave, Charlotte Russe, at a dinner at Erddig in December 1914. By all accounts the whole evening was a delight, “notwithstanding poor Philip’s gout”, as one guest wrote, but I heard he was putting it on for attention.

It quickly became apparent that it was lucky I had the day off. Now I understood why cooks in period dramas always seemed so angry and fraught – I swear at one point I was meant to be simultaneously straining custard whilst stirring something else, chopping fruit, juggling rolling pins and fending off the advances of the footman*.

My first job was to butter an oven proof bowl and “ornament the bottom and sides with pieces of preserved fruit”. That was it. Let me tell you: I’m still angry at how such a monumentally difficult task was disguised as being so simple in one short sentence. I don’t know what kind of butter they must have been using 100 years ago but I’m certain Pritt Stick would be interested in the recipe.

I picked glace cherries, sultanas, tinned apricots and tinned peaches as my fruits because thanks to the invention of canning in 1810, they were all used in the Victorian era and I thought would work well together.

Since starting this blog it’s become a theme that my expectations don’t match reality: I had imagined the inside of the bowl becoming a stained glass window of jewels glistening with ruby and amber hues. In actuality, every piece of the damn fruit peeled itself from the side and slumped to the bottom in a heap of brown.

This was about the time I began to question whether superglue would really cause that much internal damage

Once I’d built the fruit back up to about 1/3 of the way of the bowl and decided to quit while I was ahead, I found I had to add some stale slices of cake and alternate with crushed ratafia biscuits. If the fruit shenanigans hadn’t immediately proven it for me, it was now apparent that Mary Beale was a woman who had lost her grip on reality if she thought ordinary people were letting their cakes sit around long enough for them to get stale. I made a basic sponge cake in 15 minutes (humble brag, don’t care) and left it in the oven for a bit longer to dry out so it would mimic the dryness of these imaginary uneaten treats Mary wrote about. Having no idea how to throw together a ratafia biscuit I consulted the Victorian powerhouse that was Mrs Beeton.

In her Book of Household Management, Mrs Beeton talks about these being small, round almond biscuits but what’s more important is that she also says cooks should just as well buy these from a good shop as make them themselves. Guilt free, I bought a packet of the first Amaretti biscuits I could find.

I made layers in the bowl of alternating cake and ratafia biscuits, separated with spoons of apricot jam, (the original recipe also says cooks could use “lumps of guava jelly” – thanks, empire!) and then turned to the custard.

No idea why the idea of making a custard from scratch scared me because it was quite simple, (apart from the twenty hands needed bit at the end), but I had visions of scrambled egg, so was put off. I heated 450ml of whole milk with the rind of 1 lemon very slowly until it was almost but not quite boiling. In the meantime, I whisked 4 eggs together with 1 tablespoon of caster sugar. When the milk was hot enough, I strained it over the eggs, whisking continuously. It sounds easier than it was, so don’t look like that. The recipe also calls for a wine glass of brandy to be added to this at this point, which I forgot to do, but which would have been a good addition.

Once it was all mixed it had to be very carefully poured over the bowl of cake and fruit. The quantities were perfect and even once my fake-stale cake had absorbed it there was still liquid on top. Then it was wrapped in buttered greaseproof paper and foil and steamed in a pan for 1 hour.

“Why have you made a fruity brain?” my husband cowered as I held it triumphantly above my head

Ok. Let’s just cut to the chase: it looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in a neurosurgeon’s lecture room as an example of rare and unusual brain diseases. But! It didn’t taste like that. (I think. Who knows – maybe brain is delicious?!)

Because of the mish mash of ingredients in this, every bite was different. One moment I was mostly getting almond and then the next cherry. The whole thing was very soft and melt in the mouth, even the dry cake and drier ratafia biscuits just dissolved. Because of the tiny amount of sugar in it, the custard wasn’t particularly sweet but just sort of mild and creamy – more of an eggy background to the nuttiness of the cakes and syrupiness of the fruit. The recipe advised to serve with custard that had been topped up with yet another glass of brandy, but I found it rich enough on its own.

E x

*Not really. But I can dream.