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.

#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.

history

Eminent Victorians: Kate and Maggie Fox

Kate and Maggie Fox, via Pinterest.

The heroine of my next book (The Ruin of Evangeline Jones, coming soon from Entangled Publishing) is a charlatan medium. To tell her story, I researched the Victorian spiritualist movement, which is how I found out about Kate and Maggie Fox. These two sisters are in large part responsible for starting the entire 19th century spiritualist craze.

It all began in the 1840s when they were still children. According to the PSI Encyclopedia, “Maggie and Kate Fox were at the centre of a poltergeist-type disturbance in 1848 that led to the emergence of Spiritualism, a religion based on communication with spirits of the dead.”

The sisters claimed to hear strange knocking and rapping sounds through which they could communicate with the spirit of a murdered peddler haunting their home. Spookily enough, searches under the house revealed bone fragments. Tables moved, doors shut spontaneously and the spirit (whom the girls nicknamed Mr. Splitfoot after the devil) urged the sisters to hold public meetings to spread the word about life after death. Visitors descended on their house and eventually, since the spirit seemed to follow the girls wherever they went, they took their show on the road, joined by their older sister Leah (the entrepreneur of the family).

They became a sensation, attracting many famous admirers and, because of their many imitators, spawned a new religion. Not bad for three ordinary Victorian women from a tiny hamlet in New York state.

The Fox sisters in later life: Leah (1814–1890), Margaretta (also called Maggie) (1833–1893) and Catherine (also called Kate ) (1837–1892).

To this day, many believe the sisters to be genuine mediums despite the fact that Kate and Maggie both took to the stage in 1888 to reveal how they accomplished the fraud. The rapping was nothing more than the cracking of toe and ankle joints. At the same time, both denounced the spiritualist movement as a whole and their now estranged sister Leah in particular. Perhaps those who continued to believe in Mr. Splitfoot put this down to a family quarrel that got out of hand and, to be fair, Maggie and Kate, both in dire need of cash, later resumed giving seances. Maggie also renounced her confession.

Even though I think the sisters were charlatans, I can’t help but admire what they accomplished at a time when women had few career options. They attained a level of success few achieved and sparked a movement that took the western world by storm. What may have started as an innocent prank when they were children still colors people’s beliefs to this day.

history

A new figure for a healthier more attractive you? The S-bend Corset.

So, five minutes ago, I discovered that s-bend (also known as swan bill) corsets were a thing. Apparently, they were invented in the 1890s by Inès Gaches-Sarraute (a medical doctor) as a healthier alternative to regular v-shaped corsets (that is, corsets designed to give women the desirable v shape at the waist), the idea being that it didn’t put so much pressure on the abdomen. They were all the rage from about 1900 and into the early 1910s.

As for what the the corsets looked like…

S-bend corset, 1905, Victorian and Albert Museum, via Pinterest.

So pretty!

Below, you can see the finished effect and how the s-bend got its name.

The straight busque forces the pelvis backwards and the bust forwards. Despite the good doctor/corsetiere’s intentions, the health benefits were minimal, given the extreme strain placed on the back.

And, just like the old-style corset, high fashion often dictated ridiculously tight lacing:

Fortunately, in the 1910s, waist lines rose to pretty much regency height (think Rose in Titanic) and women’s backs and waists were safe for a while. I’d laugh except that, more than a hundred years later, we still torture ourselves for fashion. Stilettos, anyone?