A Recipe for Easter from the Victorian Kitchen
Question – When is a cake not a cake?
Answer – When it’s a biscuit!
Intrigued? . . . . . Read on . . . . . .
Visitors to the museum over the Easter period will be able to sample this delicately spiced Easter fare which, even though they look and feel like biscuits, are called Easter Cakes!
This is yet again a recipe whose origins are obscure. They, or similar items, are thought to originate in the West Country and use as a flavouring Cassia oil (similar in taste to cinnamon). As Bristol, the nearest port to this area, was the main importing centre for this product, it is this fact which seems to underpin all the counties of the West Country’s claims to ownership of this dish.
Historically, these Easter Cakes were only served on one day of the year. Like Hot Cross Buns, which were only eaten on Good Friday, these were only eaten on Easter Sunday. Given as presents to family and friends after the church service, tied up in threes with a ribbon, they were a reminder of the Holy Trinity.
To try to explain why these are called cakes is tricky. I can only guess it is to do with their size. They are supposedly to be cut out into 5” (150 mm) rounds; a size akin more to a cake than a biscuit. This is only my idea, you may have other thoughts.
The recipe given below is not from either Eliza Acton’s nor Isabella Beeton‘s books. Neither of these weighty Victorian tomes mention anything like this, associated with Easter or not. Could it be that this custom was mainly a rural one, or had died out with the middle classes? Yet another mystery to investigate.
However, a note about the recipe itself. The “cakes“ I made for the museum were smaller than the traditional ones so the number made and cooking times in the main body of the recipe refer to these. But, of course how large or small you want to make yours, is entirely up to you.
Easter Cakes (or if you prefer) Easter Biscuits!
4½ oz (125g) butter
3oz (85g) caster sugar
2 medium egg yolks
1oz (25g) currants
6oz (170g) plain flour
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon mixed spice
2 egg whites – lightly beaten
- Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy
- Beat in the egg yolks one at a time
- Stir in the currants
- Sieve in the flour and spices and mix gently to form a soft dough
- Roll out the dough to 1/8” (5mm) thickness and cut into rounds with a fluted cutter
- Transfer the rounds to a greased or silicon sheet lined baking tray using a palette knife or similar as the biscuits are very fragile
- Brush the tops with the beaten egg white and sprinkle over the extra caster sugar
- Bake at 180C, 170C fan, Gas Mark 4 for between 12 and 15 minutes. The biscuits should be pale golden and crisp
- Transfer to a cooling tray and allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight tin
A note about making these biscuits –
Remember this is an old recipe – soft margarine did not exist! Use either block margarine or butter. This latter ingredient does give a better flavour but the final choice is of course up to you.
This is a very soft dough so take care not to over mix. Also do not be tempted to add more flour. Bring the dough together by hand in a mixing bowl and if it is rather sticky leave for 15 minutes. It should then be able to be rolled out.
When rolling out use approximately 1/3rd of the dough at a time. It is much easier than trying to cope with the whole amount in one go. Use the rolling pin with short light strokes and a light dusting of flour to stop sticking.
The cooking time given in the recipe is for small biscuits. Large ones will need a longer cooking time, 20 – 25 minutes as a rough guide for the traditional sized ones.
Check if the biscuits are cooked by pushing one gently with the thumb – if it moves on the baking tray, it’s cooked. If there is resistance there, cook for a couple more minutes and test again.
For anyone interested I give below another Easter Cake recipe. This one really is a cake, it looks and tastes like one! It also comes from the West Country. These are sometimes called Somerset Easter Cakes or Sedgemoor Easter Cakes and are “homely” rather than “fancy” fare. They are the kind of item best eaten on the day they are made as the only raising agent to leaven the mixture is that introduced by the skill of the cook . . . . . so don’t think very light and fluffy!
Of course, as with many regional dishes, there is a ‘history’ attached to them, often based on stories or rumour. This is the one associated with this dish –
The Duke of Monmouth, fleeing from the Battle of Sedgemoor, fell into a ditch. A local woman thought he was a peasant, so baked him these cakes to build up his strength.
As the Battle of Sedgemoor, the last one of the Monmouth Rebellion, took place on the 6th July 1685, it is likely that the recipe was in existence long before it became associated with the battle. But – who can tell?
(For those interested in English history a brief footnote about this Rebellion is given at the bottom of the recipe.)
And so to the recipe itself –
Somerset Easter Cakes
8oz (225g) plain flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4oz (110g) butter
4oz (110g) caster sugar
4oz (110g) currants
1 egg – beaten
8 – 10 tablespoons milk to mix
- Sieve flour and cinnamon together into a mixing bowl and rub in the butter with the fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs
- Stir in the sugar and the currants
- Add the beaten egg and enough milk to make a soft dough which is reluctant to drop off the spoon
- Divide the mixture evenly between cake cases
- Bake at 180C, 170C fan, Gas Mark 4 for 20 – 25 minutes
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely on a cooling tray
- Many recipes did not give detailed information about ingredients, as is the case with this one! The amount of milk needed to achieve the correct consistency is dependent on the size of egg used, but I have tried to give a guide to the amount needed.
Now for the historical footnote –
James Scott, the 1st Duke of Monmouth, was Charles II’s eldest illegitimate son. When Charles died his brother James became James II but he was a Roman Catholic and this, to a largely Protestant country, was not acceptable.
A number of leading Protestants wanted this Catholic king ousted and they supported the Duke of Monmouth’s claim to the throne.
The Monmouth Rebellion, also known as the Pitchfork Rebellion (the name gives a clue as to the professionalism of the army) was very short lived.
The Duke of Monmouth’s army was ill prepared, ill equipped, poorly trained and small in number. In only a few weeks all was over, the rebel army was no match for the government forces. King James II was victorious and continued to reign until the Glorious Revolution of 1688.