Victorian Cooking

Victorian Cookbook: Mrs. Beeton’s “Very Good” Seed Cake

Jane Eyre

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

Method:

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.

However:

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.

Mrs. Beeton frowns upon creaming the butter and sugar together. Shame on me!

Sift the flour in, then add the spices:

Back on track!

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.

Seems to be going pretty well so far…

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.

What witchcraft is this?

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.

It smelt like brandy-laced heaven!

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.

Victorian Cooking

Victorian Cookbook: Syllabub

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…

Mrs. Beeton, author of “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Houehold Management” (1860)

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

The Method:

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.

Perfectly good Prosecco now adulterated with nutmeg and sugar 🙁

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:

Mrs. Beeton inspired white wine syllabubs

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.

Verdict:

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.

Victorian Cooking

Victorian Cookbook: Curds and Whey

Little Miss Muffet by Arthur Rackham

Curds and whey seem like a neat step up from Workhouse Gruel. They’re almost as simple but way more nutritious. You can eat them outdoors while sitting on a tuffet or, if you’re the heroine of an historical romance, from your sickbed as a medicinal posset. If you’re the hero of said novel, eat them sitting up in bed as you recover from a flesh wound. Don’t forget to mutter manfully about “sickroom pap” while downplaying the severity of your injury.

The recipe I used is from Victorian chef Charles Francatelli’s “A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes.” If you’ve ever made your own cheese, you’re probably familiar with the process, but lots of people (me included) only know the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet.” Our practical experience of curds and whey is nil.

But that’s all about to change. (Are you excited yet? I’m excited!)

For Curds and Whey, you will need:

200ml of milk,

25ml of white wine,

Sugar to taste

Method:

Boil the milk in a small saucepan.

Add the wine and allow the milk to boil up like this:

Curds and Whey separating = witchcraft!

Once the curds and whey have separated, strain them into a glass until you have something that looks like this:

Curds and Whey

Do the curds resemble very thick porridge/baby vomit?

They do? Excellent! Then it’s time to present them to your test subjects.

Here we have (from the bottom): one small ramekin of curds with sugar sprinkled on top, one small ramekin of curds and whey like in “Little Miss Muffet,” a small glass of whey, and one ramekin containing two ginger biscuits in case you need to bribe your test subjects.

Smorgasbord

Verdict:

Whey: No one liked this much, though Mr. Bennet said he could “acquire the taste.” Fortunately, it makes an excellent, nutrient rich plant food, so I fed it to our geranium.

Curds and whey without sugar: “Perfectly pleasant” according to Mr. B, but 15 yr old grimaced and said they’d be better cold. 8 yr old begged to be excused and not even the promise of a biscuit could move him.

Sugared curds: Actually quite nice, if a bit bland as befits “sickroom fare.” Everyone liked them, except 8 yr old who only ate one speck. He said it was “a bit horrible” but that he still loved me.

So, that’s reassuring.

If you try curds and whey, I hope you’ll let me know how you got on.

Next time: Syllabub!

#History, Victorian Cooking

Victorian Cookbook: Workhouse Gruel

Welcome to what might be the first in a series of posts on Victorian recipes. I hope most of them will taste nicer than this one for workhouse gruel, but this seemed like a nice simple recipe to begin with.

Ingredients:

3 dessert spoons of oats

1 pint of water

Salt to taste

Method:

Mix the oatmeal with a little of the water until it looks like the image to the right. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited.

Put the rest of the water in a pan and add the oat mixture. Boil for ten minutes.

This may or may not be how wallpaper paste was invented.

If it looks like dirty washing up water, you’re doing it right.

Add salt to finished gruel and allow to grow tepid.

By this stage, the gruel should look like despair. Specifically, the despair of Victorian orphans.

Next, you’ll need some test subjects.

Because I’ll do anything in pursuit of my art, I sampled this and, let me tell you, it looks like it tastes. The salt doesn’t seem to aid the flavour unless you like the taste of bilge water.

Test subject 1 (age 40) described it as “inoffensive” but I found it highly offensive. His nickname from now on will be Mr. Bumble.

Test subject 2 (age 15) said “Good grief” when he tried it. He now sympathises even more with the Victorian poor.

Test subject 3 (age 8) consented to have his photo taken:

But he wouldn’t actually eat the gruel.

If you make this, let me know how it went in the comments. Next time, I’ll try to make something you might actually enjoy eating.