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November’s Recipe from the Victorian Kitchen – Cattern Cakes

A Recipe from The Victorian Kitchen for St Catherine’s Day

25th November is St. Catherine’s Day and she is the patron saint of lacemakers. On this day special rituals happened and special food was cooked.

So, who exactly was Catherine of Alexandria? Well, there are numerous legends and stories about her. The generally held view is that she was a Christian and was martyred for her faith on a spiked wheel by order of a Roman Emperor around 310AD. Whatever the truth, if there is one, she is certainly a very busy saint! Not only does she look after lacemakers but she has a firework named after her and the round windows in many churches are often called Catherine Windows. As if this were not enough, she is also the patron saint of spinners, rope makers, wheel-rights, milliners, knife sharpeners and is the protector of young unmarried women!

Cattern Cakes
Cattern Cakes

On this day, centuries later, another Catherine was feted. This was Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. It was while she was ‘imprisoned’ at Ampthill in Bedfordshire, so the story goes, that she heard of the plight of the lacemakers – they were starving. The story continues that to help them she ordered all of her lace to be burnt so that new had to be bought, thus saving the local lacemakers and their cottage industry.

The celebrations for St Catherine’s feast day actually started the evening before the big day. Traditionally on that eve the candle block and the glass globes were washed in readiness for them being used on the first work day following the feast.

Candles were expensive and so were only used on the darkest days of winter to illuminate work. This candle block was like a tall, three-legged stool. Holes around the edge of the ‘stool’ allowed the large water filled globes to be inserted and once the candle was lit in the middle, light was magnified through the globes onto the work of as many as eighteen lacemakers arranged in a circle around this one source of light. The most experienced lacemakers sat nearest the light therefore getting the benefit of the brightest illumination of their work. The least experienced doing perhaps some of the more mundane tasks were seated at the rear of the circle. Also, the most experienced possibly were the oldest lacemakers whose eyesight could require this brighter light. Who knows.

Lacemakers working in their own home would have smaller candle blocks which could be used by individuals.

The water in these globes had to be clean and pure in order to give off a good light. Melted snow is reported to give off the best!

These candle blocks were used until Candlemas – 2nd February – when they were put away for another year. It has to be said that these dates cannot be arbitrary as there were many factors involved in determining when and for how long artificial light should be used.

On the actual feast day some kind of rabbit stew or pottage was served along with Cattern Cakes and Hot Pot, a mixture of rum, beer and eggs. Cattern by the way is a corruption of Catherine.

All of these activities were initially carried out by the bobbin lacemakers of Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. However, when Nottingham became the centre for machine made lace, they adopted the day and many of the traditions as their own.  A lot of the finishing tasks of this lace industry were done by outworkers in their own homes; on dark winter days they, like the bobbin lacemakers, would have to light their work. The Nottingham framework knitters had already used candle blocks and globes for this purpose, so it is highly likely that this method was also used by workers in this new industry.

The Cattern Cakes on offer at the museum had many of the ingredients used in much earlier Tudor times – ground almonds, cinnamon and Caraway seeds. The way these were made also gives a nod to St Catherine’s emblem – a wheel. So, any lacemakers among our visitors sampling these cakes are continuing a long tradition of ‘Keeping Cattern’.

So now onto the dish itself. Remember the word cake does not have the same meaning as that of today. Cake could be to do with size as well as shape. This is actually more like a biscuit or cookie. For anyone wishing to make these there are some notes at the end of the recipe which might be helpful.

Cattern Cakes

9oz (275g) self raising flour

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1oz (25g) currants

2oz (50g) ground almonds

2 teaspoons caraway seeds

7oz (200g) caster sugar

4oz (100g) melted butter – cooled

1 large egg – beaten


Little extra cinnamon and caster sugar

  1. Sieve the flour and cinnamon into a bowl
  2. Stir in the caraway seeds, currants, ground almonds and caster sugar. Make sure all is well mixed
  3. Add the cooled melted butter and the egg. Mix to a soft dough with a knife.
  4. Roll out on a floured table to a shape roughly 12” (30cm) square
  5. Brush with water and sprinkle over the extra caster sugar and cinnamon
  6. Roll up like a Swiss roll and cut into 3/4” (2cm) slices
  7. Put these onto a greased or silicon lined baking tray, some distance apart as they can spread
  8. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes at 200°C, 180°C fan, Gas Mark 6. The actual time will depend on size – see one of the notes at the end
  9. Transfer carefully onto a cooling tray, sprinkle with a little extra caster sugar and caraway seeds if liked


For anyone who does not want to use the ground almonds then the recipe works by just omitting them. I found adding an extra 1oz (25g) flour was all that was needed.

If the dough does not seem to be coming together then A LITTLE milk could be added. Do take great care as too much will make this a very sticky dough to handle. Try kneading the dough firmly, it won’t harm by doing this.

If the dough is too sticky then wrap in cling and put into the fridge for 10 – 15 minutes. This should help.

I find rolling out half the dough at a time is easier to manage and as the dough is quite fragile, trying to move the larger piece can be difficult. However, do remember to roll out to only half the size given in the method!

When sprinkling the extra caster sugar and cinnamon over the dampened dough it is not always easy to see where you have sprinkled! Mix the cinnamon and sugar together in a small bowl. The dark cinnamon shows up on the dough; an easy way to check for coverage. Try ½  teaspoon cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar as a start. Do not be tempted to add too much sugar as rolling up the dough like a Swiss roll is not easy and this extra sugar affects the cooking time. If there is any cinnamon and sugar not used, then it can be sprinkled on the top of the hot biscuits when they come out of the oven. For a darker swirl effect in the finished cake add more cinnamon to taste.

A word has to be said about the cooking! This recipe has been one of the most difficult to gauge cooking time. The recipe states that they should be cooked for 10 minutes. In all the batches made they have never been cooked in this time. I made 16 Cattern Cakes out of the mixture and they cooked for about 15 minutes. After the ten minutes given in the recipe they were not cooked at all so another 3 – 5 minutes worked fine. They are a typical biscuit mixture in that they are soft when they first come out of the oven but harden up if left for a couple of minutes before transferring to a cooling tray. I’m sorry, but this is one recipe when you will have to use your knowledge about your own oven as to the exact baking time. Another determinant is the thickness the cakes are cut. You will just have to experiment!

These freeze well but also keep for several days in an airtight tin.

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