A Recipe from The Victorian Kitchen
This latest recipe from the Victorian Kitchen has a rather unimaginative series of names attached to it. In Eliza Acton’s book, Modern Cookery for Private Families, it is called ‘A Light Luncheon Biscuit or Nursery Cake’! Both these I am sure will hardly make the reader wish to try this. But don’t dismiss it just yet! There is a wealth of history attached to this dish.
Generally, this type of cake was just called a Yeast Cake – another uninspired name but it does explain how it was made. Before the general use of ‘chemical’ raising agents – Bicarbonate of Soda and Baking Powder – there were only two ways of making flour mixtures light –
- Using the natural ability of eggs to trap air. This involved beating the eggs for over an hour. OR
- Using yeast.
These Yeast Cakes are very traditional across many regions of the United Kingdom. Suddenly they become a little more exciting when named as Yorkshire Yeast Cake or Shropshire Yeast Cake. Probably all areas, even towns and villages going back centuries had their own recipe, and all believed that they had the best and most authentic. Many added a range of different spices including – cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, caraway seeds, but some did not.
So does this begin to sound a little more exciting? Let me add another layer of interest.
Way back in 2019 when we hosted a SteamPunk fair at the museum, the Victorian Kitchen included for people’s delights a range of dishes, this was one of them. One of our overseas visitors, from Russia no less, was truly excited by our humble Yeast Cake. The reason for this? It was a taste from her home! Apparently, at important events, including Easter, a cake just such as this is made by the women of the village, not in an ordinary loaf tin like ours but in a much more fancy shaped mould. It is then carried in as the centre piece of their celebration.
So how did this recipe travel to Russia or did it in fact travel the other way? Did the commercial traders from Britain take a taste of home with them when they sailed for the Baltic Sea ports or perhaps, a Jacobite family, seeking escape from persecution by the Hanoverian King George the Second, took the recipe with them. Who knows? Possibly an interesting piece of research for someone to do!
So now from history to a bit more information about the item itself. Many Victorian recipes are a little more dry and slightly more dense than we experience today. Look back at the names given in Eliza Acton’s book – luncheon biscuit and/or nursery cake. These should give you a clue to its texture. They are nevertheless very pleasant . . . . . but different! So, to our modern tastes we might call this a Bun Loaf or Tea Bread rather than terming it a cake, and we would serve it spread with a little butter or even a lot if you prefer, or perhaps toasted and topped with your favourite conserve.
For anyone wanting to make this dish I would suggest that you read all the notes given at the end of the recipe before embarking on this Historical Taste! Not wishing to favour one part of the country over another the recipe given below is one from Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management – But half quantity, and I think it has a more exciting name!
Mrs Bird’s Yeast Cake
- 12oz (350g) strong white flour
- 2 teaspoons ground mixed spice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 sachet fast action dried yeast
- 6 ½ fl.oz (200ml) milk
- 4oz (110g) butter
- 1 medium egg – beaten
- 3½ oz (100g) caster sugar
- 6oz (170g) dried fruit – sultanas, raisins, currants
- 1oz (25g) candied peel
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 2 tablespoons caster sugar
- Sieve flour, mixed spice and salt into a mixing bowl. Stir in dried yeast
- Heat milk and butter in a saucepan until fat has just melted. Do not allow mixture to get too hot, it should be lukewarm when tested. If in doubt cool slightly before using
- Make well in the flour, add beaten egg and almost all the milk and butter liquid
- Mix to a soft smooth dough, add more liquid if necessary to achieve this. Turn out onto a lightly floured table and kread well for about 10 minutes until smooth
- Put into a bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rise until the dough has doubled in size
- Keep the dough in bowl and mix in the dried fruit, candied peel and sugar
- Once all have been well kneaded in, turn out onto a lightly floured table and then – shape into a large round to bake as 1 large cake in a suitably prepared cake tin, or divide into 2 and bake in two greased loaf tins
- Allow the dough to rise again, about ½ hour. Bake at 200°C, 190°C fan, Gas Mark 6 for 15 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 190°C, 180°C fan, Gas Mark 5 for another 20 minutes, longer for the large cake and the temperature might need to be reduced further
- When the loaf or cake sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom put onto a cooling tray and, if used, brush the sticky glaze over the top while cakes are still hot. Allow to cool before slicing
To make the glaze put the ingredients into a saucepan, allow the sugar to dissolve completely by gently heating, then bring the milk to the boil. Boil for a couple of minutes and then use as described above. (This does make the top very sticky – but it is nice!)
A few notes about making this Yeast Cake.
Isabella Beeton’s original recipe used only currants as the dried fruit but I know that these are not as popular now as they were in Victorian times, which is why I have suggested that a mixture of dried fruits can be used. It all depends on what you have usually in your store cupboard.
The method given above is for making the dough by hand, the old-fashioned way. Using a free-standing mixer or a food processor with the dough attachment is perfectly acceptable. After all if these had been around in the 19th century I’m sure Eliza Acton would have embraced them with open arms! Or if you want you can . . . . . .
Use the dough cycle of a bread maker and follow the method suggested in the hand book. However, allow the dough to cool slightly before adding the sugar, dried fruit and candied peel. If the dough is too warm the sugar starts to dissolve and the dough is rather sticky to work with.
When mixing in the sugar and dried fruit it is advisable to do this in a bowl, otherwise the dried fruit goes everywhere! Take care not to over mix this stage. Only mix enough to combine the fruit and sugar with the risen dough. Over mixing will make the mixture very sticky.
Once the dough has risen and the extra ingredients added it can be a very soft dough which needs gentle handling. I find that cooking it in 2 x 2lb loaf tins more successful than the large cake. I shape half the dough into roughly a torpedo shape before dropping it carefully into the prepared loaf tin before repeating with the other half. I allow the mixture to rise to the top of the tin before baking but this is my preference, others might prefer a closer textured cake.
Getting the dough to rise initially, and then before baking can be rather a challenge on a cold day! I have found that setting the oven to a very low temperature, around 50°C, and then turning it off makes a very effective proving oven. This seems to kick start the whole process. This is quite a rich dough – butter, eggs and milk make the yeast rather slow to start working. It just needs a little helping hand! Do take care if you choose to use this method as too hot a temperature can kill the yeast.
It does freeze well so you don’t have to eat it all in one sitting! I slice mine before freezing, so I can then take out only a few slices at a time to use for a breakfast or tea time treat.
I have included the Victorian recipes if anyone would like to see the amount of mixture regularly made by our female ancestors and to read the original ways of doing things!
A Nice Yeast Cake – Isabella Beeton
1½ lbs of flour, ½ lb of butter, ½ pt of milk, 1½ tablespoons of good yeast, 3 eggs, ¾ lb of currants, ½ lb of moist white sugar, 2oz of candied peel
Mode: Put the milk and butter into a saucepan, and shake it around over a fire until the butter is melted, but do not allow the milk to get very hot. Put the flour into a basin, stir to it the milk and butter, the yeast and eggs, which should be well beaten and form the whole into a smooth dough. Let it stand in a warm place, covered with a cloth, to rise, and when sufficiently risen, add the currants, sugar and candied peel cut into thin slices. When all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, line 2 moderate sized cake tins with buttered paper, which should be about 6” higher than the tin, pour in the mixture, let it stand to rise again for another half hour, and then bake the cakes in a brisk oven for about 1-1½ hours. If the tops of the cakes become too brown, cover them with paper until they are done through.
A few drops of essence of lemon or a little grated nutmeg may be added when the flavour is liked.
Brush with apricot jam or a glaze.
Average cost for the two cakes – 2/- (10p)
A Very Cheap Luncheon Biscuit or Nursery Cake – Eliza Acton’s Recipe
Two or three pounds of white dough taken when ready for the oven, will make a good light biscuit if well managed, with the addition of from half to three-quarters of a pound of sugar, a very small quantity of butter, and a few currants, or caraway seeds, or a teaspoonful of mixed spices. The dough should be rather firm, the butter should first be kneaded into it in small portions, then the sugar added in the same way, and next the currants or spice. The whole should be perfectly and equally mingled, flour being slightly dredged upon it as it is worked, if needful. It must then be allowed to rise until it is very light, when it should again be kneaded down but not so heavily; and when it has once more risen, it should be sent without delay to the oven. An ounce of butter to the pound of dough will be sufficient for it. Much richer cakes can be made thus, and they will be extremely good if care be taken to let them rise sufficiently before they are baked. We regret that we cannot multiply our receipts for these. Sultana raisins are an excellent substitute for currants in these and other common cakes.