Just a quick heads up: Entangled are having a massive sale. Almost all their historical romances, including my two books The Madness of Miss Grey and The Ruin of Evangeline Jones, are on sale for 99c each. Snap them up while the price is low!
Regency romance readers will be familiar with ratafia as a drink at balls and parties, a fortified wine made from bitter almonds. Ratafia cakes are like little macaroons or amaretto cookies, and you can whip them up and have them in the oven in under five minutes.
Since bitter almonds contain cyanide and are now banned, I used Pen Vogler’s adapted recipe; almond extract may not be authentic, but at least it’s legal. You can buy Vogler’s book here. Martha Lloyd’s actual Georgian recipe includes “a little orange flower water,” so you could add that too if you want the recipe to be even more authentic.
- 225 g ground almonds
- 225 g confectioner’s sugar
- 3 egg whites
- 2-3 drops almond extract
Preheat the oven to 160C.
In a large bowl, sift the sugar into the ground almonds. I didn’t have icing sugar, so I used caster, which probably changed the texture of the finished cookies. Mix well.
Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Much easier with a modern electric whisk. Beat in the extract. Fold the resulting mixture into the almonds and sugar until you have a smooth (or, if you’re using caster, relatively smooth) paste.
The mix makes between 25 and 30 cookies, so line one or two (depending on the size of your trays) baking sheets with grease-proof paper. Each cookie needs a heaped teaspoon of mix. Press each one into cookie shape, then bake for 15 minutes until golden brown. Since I had to use two baking sheets, the cookies on the lower shelf needed longer.
Allow to cool completely before eating.
Me: I made some biscuits and I want you to try them.
15 yr old: Okay… Wait, are these victorian?
Me: Georgian, actually.
15 yr old: Oh, no.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, this was by far the least controversial recipe I’ve tried. Everybody loved these. They were gorgeous. Particularly awesome with a nice cup of tea but, for the love of god, don’t make the tea in a microwave. My little British heart can’t take it.
Amy has always been my favourite March sister. Yes, I know. How can I, a writer, continue to love her after she burned Jo’s manuscript? But, as a reformed brat myself, I “get” her. Amy March rules.
Except perhaps for her pickled lime obsession.
Apparently all the other girls were into it:
“Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it, too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else….If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime; if she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck.” —Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.
But why? I’ve always had a hell of a job understanding what these children could have been thinking. Perhaps they aren’t really pickled, I thought. Perhaps they’re preserved with sugar like dates. Perhaps they’re a type of sweet.
Nope. Here’s the recipe:
1 sterile 500g glass jar
4 fresh limes
metric fucktonne lot)
Extra lime juice if necessary
And that’s it.
So, not a sweet treat, then. And, since it seemed unlikely these girls just really, really cared about preventing scurvy, I was going to have to try them for myself.
Using a sharp knife, cut the tops and bottoms off the limes, then cut x shapes into each one, but only 3/4 of the way through. Like this:
Pack the Xs with lots and lots of salt until they look like this:
Put the limes into the jar, pressing them until they fit and they release some of their juices. Seal and leave at room temperature for about 12 hours.
When the 12 hours are up, open the jar and press the limes again. Afterward, mine looked like this:
Do this once or twice a day until the limes are covered in juice. After three days, if there still isn’t enough juice, add enough to cover.
Chill in the fridge for a minimum of 1 month before consuming.
The recipe gives no guidance whatsoever about what to do with your limes once the month is up, so I experimented. First, I tried one straight out of the jar, but, as you might expect, it was salty as hell.
Before I go on, allow me to communicate my regret over naming my limes Kermit, because after a month, they really did resemble a jar of dead frogs floating in formaldehyde. I was pretty sure they’d gone off but, after a rinse, they didn’t look too bad.
Next, I tried one rinsed. They were still really salty, so I rinsed them again.
The purpose of the salt is to make them less tart. This worked. They weren’t too sour, but the saltiness was very unpleasant. I think this would work better if the salt was rinsed away after the first day like in modern recipes. Then the limes could be pickled in their own juice.
I can’t imagine little girls enjoying these, even in the Victorian era. I know for a fact there were sugary treats available for a similar price, so what gives? Did they dry them first? Was there a more extensive rinsing process? I wish I knew the answers.
I am reliably informed (by Delia Smith) that you can use pickled limes in small quantities in Asian cuisine, so perhaps that’s the best thing to do with them in this form. We didn’t like them on their own.
Here is a picture of my 8 yr old nearly trying one:
If you try this, if you have better luck or any ideas or theories at all, please let me know in the comments here or on other social media. Until then, the mystery (of why little girls would want to trade pickled limes) remains.
I only know that seed cake exists because of regency romance. Heroines are always eating it at breakfast time. Apparently, it also pops up in Jane Eyre when Miss Temple gives some to Jane and Helen Burns as a treat. I’d totally forgotten this detail, though.
I used a scaled down version of Mrs. Beeton’s recipe but, for fun, here’s the original:
Ingredients for a very good seed cake:
1 lb of butter, 6 eggs, 3/4 lb of sifted sugar, pounded mace to taste, Grated nutmeg to taste, 1 lb flour, 3/4 oz caraway seeds, 1 wine-glassful of brandy
Beat the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour; add the sugar, mace, nutmeg, and caraway seeds, and mix these ingredients well together. Whisk the eggs, stir to them the brandy, and beat the cake again for ten minutes. Put it into a tinned lined with buttered paper. and bake it from 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Mrs Beeton estimates the cost of all this to be 2s. 6d.
Because I wanted to make a smaller cake, I decided to use the measurements and cooking time from this book, which adapts Mrs. Beeton’s recipes for “the modern kitchen,” but still use Mrs. Beeton’s instructions. Spoiler: Mrs. Beeton knows her stuff. This cake is “very good” just as she promised.
Ingredients for “a very good” 1 kg loaf seed cake:
230 g butter,
200g caster sugar
3 medium eggs
75 ml brandy
200 g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp caraway seeds
Pinch of ground mace
Pinch of nutmeg
What to do:
Preheat the oven to 160C.
Cream the butter, but then forgot which method you’re meant to follow and add the sugar next. Sorry, Mrs. Beeton.
Sift the flour in, then add the spices:
In a small bowl, whisk the eggs, then stir in the brandy. Add to the other ingredients.
Beat the cake, though not actually for ten minutes because I forgot which method again. It would have been boring anyway. I stopped as soon as it started looking like cake batter, but feel free to follow Mrs. Beeton’s instructions to the letter. She’s probably watching.
Pour batter into the loaf tin.
Place in the centre of the oven for 40 minutes, then reduce the heat to 150C and bake for a further 25 minutes. Honestly, it looked a “deep, golden brown” at this point, just like the book said, but I got scared, so I covered it in foil and put it back in for another 10 minutes.
I can’t tell you how good this smelt while cooking. The sweet, spicy, boozy fragrance permeated the house. It was so comforting!
We let it cool completely, I cut a slice, and asked Mr. Bennet to take a photo. He misunderstood (ha!), took a massive bite, and proceeded to make a lot of inappropriate noises. He didn’t quite reenact the diner scene from When Harry Met Sally, but it was close.
8 yr old arrived and took a bite. And he…liked it and even wanted more. This is the first Victorian recipe he’s approved of, so that should tell you something.
15 yr old didn’t like it because he dislikes the taste of alcohol, even in cooking. It’s not “his thing.”
I thought it was amazing. I would marry this cake. Seriously, Mrs. Beeton was on to something here.
In short, you should totally try this.
I thought I knew what syllabub was. A cool, creamy dessert usually eaten by historical romance heroines at a ball or rout.
But then I read Mrs. Beeton’s recipe…
1 pint sherry or white wine,
1/2 grated nutmeg
Sugar to taste
1 1/2 pints milk
And, confusingly, she then says:
“clouted cream may be held on the top…and a little brandy may be added to the wine before the milk is put in. …Warm milk may be poured on from a spouted jug…but it must be held very high.”
The penny suddenly dropped. It’s a drink! A sort of cloudy wine punch with a head or layer of cream on top. The dessert version was based on the drink and became popular in the eighteenth century. I just needed to substitute cream for milk.
Here’s what I used:
200 ml of white wine
Pinch of nutmeg
1/8 cup of sugar (I don’t like things too sweet, so you may want to increase this)
300 ml of double cream
Put the wine, nutmeg, and sugar in a bowl. Don’t do what I did and use the prosecco that you think has gone flat only to whimper when you realize it was still fizzy after all and you could have drunk it. Just some words for the wise.
Whisk it, then add the cream, and whisk again for bloody ages until your arm feels like it might fall off and the cream forms soft peaks. Or cheat and use an electric whisk. Mrs. Beeton won’t mind and you’ll be done in about 2 minutes.
Transfer between four or more wine glasses until you end up with about 6 of these:
I don’t know what’s happening because these look quite… nice?
Leave somewhere cool for several hours. Full disclosure, I decided not to get too “method” and stuck mine in the fridge.
When they’re ready, bring in your test subjects.
Well, this was a surprise! My hopes weren’t high but Mr Bennet and I ate all of ours. It’s creamy with a delicate white wine taste at first but, the closer you get to the bottom, the boozier it gets. Extremely yummy. Syllabub for the win!
8 yr old tried a speck and pronounced it disgusting but he shouldn’t be having it anyway.
15 yr old liked this and wants a whole one tomorrow. Might let him, might eat it myself.