On page 164 of the 1805 edition of The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, I discover this simple(?) recipe for Seed Cake.
To make a rich Seed Cake called the Nun’s Cake
You must take four pounds of the finest flour, and three pounds of double refined sugar beaten and sifted; mix them together, and dry them by the fire till you prepare the other materials.
Take four pounds of butter, beat it with your hand till it is soft like cream; then beat thirty-five eggs, leave out sixteen whites, strain off your eggs from the threads, and beat them and the butter together till all appears like butter. Put in four or five spoonfuls of rose or orange flower water, and beat again; then take your flour and sugar with six ounces of caraway seeds, and strew them in by degres, beating it up all the time for two hours together. You may put in as much tincture of cinnamon or ambergrease as you please; butter your hopp, and let it stand three hours in a moderate oven.
You must observe always in beating of butter, to do it with a cool hand, and beat always one way in a deep earthen dish.
Why so many eggs? Because that is the only leavening available, except for cakes that called for using the yeast from making ale. You will notice in the photo of the magazine ad at the top, baking powder substitutes for all that lengthy incorporation of air by beating.
Four pounds of the finest flour: 4 1/2 cups of cake flour.
Beat the butter with your hand: Obviously since electric mixers had not been invented, this is not the same as our instructions today to “beat by hand”, meaning use a spoon. Would somebody tell me if this really means just using your bare hands?? I have to believe that is what it means, since she warns that you must have cool hands.
“Strain off the threads” of eggs: I learned something here. If you Google ‘Strained eggs,’ you will learn that after beating eggs, if you strain them, you will get airier omelets and smoother puddings!
Ambergrease nowadays is spelled ambergris. It is an extremely rare substance which maintains its mystery. Since it derives from the protected sperm whale and carries a exorbitantly high price tag, you’re probably not going to use ambergris in your recreation of nun’s cake.
Unfortunately, Hannah does not tell us how large a hoop to use for the seed cake, but it should not be more than 3/4 full, so use that as a guide.
And after beating the butter, then beating the 35 eggs, then beating everything for two hours, you may skip your visit to the gym today.
Try a Smaller Seed Cake
If you are intimidated by the size of this recipe, consider cutting it down to size as I have done with my Emily Dickinson Black Cake Recipe. I have not had time to try this recipe for Seed Cake yet, but I might try a 1/4 size recipe which would call for
- One pound flour
- 1 1/3 pounds sugar
- 1 pound of butter
- 5 whole eggs plus 4 egg yolks
- one spooful of rose or orange flower water (or orange zest, orange flavoring or orange liqueur)
- 1 1/2 oz caraway seeds
- Cinnamon to taste
Combine these ingredients with an electric mixer, bake at 350 for an hour and a half–or until a toothpick/broomstraw inserted in the center comes out clean. Adjusting the ingredients makes the whole things sounds doable and delicious.
Let me know if you try it before I do. (Or try the Williamsburg version of seed cake, here.)