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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Set the oven to 160 degrees C.
- Beat butter to a cream, add the sugar and cream both.
- Beat in one egg and half the flour and combine.
- Beat in the second egg and the rest of the flour and combine.
- Add the caraway seeds and orange rind.
- Mix the mixture by hand for 10 minutes (or blend with a handheld mixer/food processor for 2 or 3 minutes.)
- 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.
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)
Sugar to your taste (or honey, maple syrup, agave syrup etc)
- Fill a medium saucepan 3/4 of the way with water and bring to boil.
- Crush or grate the ginger into the water.
- Crush the cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks and drop into water.
- Allow the spices to boil in the water for 3 or 4 minutes before adding the tea.
- 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.
- Pour milk into a cup – just under 1/2 of the way up.
- Strain the tea and spices and pour into the cup of milk.
- Add sugar to your taste – though I think the sweeter the better.