18th century Plumb Cake
On 08 August 2016, a group of home bakers gathered at HALS for the launch of the Historic Bake Off. This first session was an introduction to cooking from old recipes by Dr Heather Falvey (editor of ‘Baroness Dimsdale’s Receipt Book, 1800) and gave lots of helpful hints about the differences between old and modern recipes. She told us, for example, eggs used to be much smaller, so don’t be alarmed by recipes calling for 17 of them! A teaspoon was the spoon used to decant tea leaves from a canister and was much larger (about the size of a tablespoon) than the one we use today.
After the introduction, we looked the original version of Baroness Dimsdale’s recipe book, as well as other recipes from the 18th – mid 20th centuries. The Dimsdale recipes had all been neatly written up book, with no greasy, floury marks on it. We wondered how this was and Heather explained that it had been compiled towards the end of the Baroness’ life. It demonstrated her huge culinary knowledge, but, as was typical of the time, she did not include very much information about timings, temperatures and so on. This was quite daunting, but exciting too – a chance to experiment!
During the week, I looked up a 18th century recipe for Plumb Cake and set about trying to get hold of some of the more rare ingredients, such as orange flower water and mace. On Saturday morning, I was very excited to start something new. I am not a baker by any stretch of the imagination, but I was curious to stand in the shoes of Georgian cooks and use methods and ingredients that they knew. One bonus was that with everything being done by hand, there would be no noisy kitchen gadgets to wake my sleeping husband!
I started by gathering together the ingredients. I hadn’t been able to get hold of orange flower water, but I thought rose water would have a similar effect. Similarly, mace is not widely available and so a quick online search for alternatives, showed that 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/4 -1/5 tsp cloves and a pinch of ginger would be a reasonable substitute. Finally, I chose not to include candied fruit as I have always disliked them. After mixing these together, there was a wonderful aroma of spices in the kitchen and I was beginning to feel very 18th century and perhaps in need of some kind of suitable costume.
The first instruction asked you to beat the butter to a cream. I gave myself a little head start by cutting it into smaller pieces and then bashing it with a fork. Modern recipes seem to combine this stage with the adding of the sugar, but this was not good enough for the Georgians! What was interesting was that in doing this by hand, I had a very clear sense of how soft the butter was becoming – something which you can only judge by eye or timing if using a electric whisk. I wasn’t sure how long to do this for, but after 3-4 minutes, it was very light and soft.
I added the sugar and was instructed to “beat until pale” (me or the mixture?). This was much harder work and I found I needed a lower working height than a worktop in order to beat it well. This was very tiring but nothing like as bad as beating the eggs. I did this for about 10 minutes, initially with a fork, but then checked online and discovered the Georgians had whisks so dug around in the back of the cupboard and was delighted to find a hand whisk. This improved matters, but I’m not sure I beat the eggs for long enough. Some recipes talk of beating for 1 or 2 hours…!
I mixed the eggs with the butter and sugar and the mixture appeared to split, so I beat it harder and hoped for the best. Adding in the flour and spices seemed to right it and it began to look like modern cake mixture at the same point. The currants gave a brilliantly historic look. I don’t cook anything with currants in. Slightly worryingly though, the spoon now stood up in the mixture. However, after adding the rosewater and brandy it relaxed. I didn’t put the full amount of either in as it seemed to be getting very slack.
I put it in the oven at 180 for about half an hour. I didn’t like to peak but I wish I had about five minutes earlier as it was getting a little burnt around the edges by the time I looked. I whipped it straight out, did the skewer test and left it cool.
My husband and I tried the cake out in the afternoon. By then, despite having been in a tin, I could easily pick it up with out any harm coming to it all. It seemed quite solid! Once cut, I could see that it was barely aerated. The taste was good, but the texture was rather heavy and moist. The spices reminded one of a tea cake, but there the similarity ended. Clearly, I needed to beat the eggs for much, much longer. Then again, maybe not. It’s not called Plumb Cake for nothing!
If you fancy, trying this recipe yourself, you can find it here. NB: It’s for making 10 cakes so you have to remember to divide the quantities back down! On my second attempt at cooking this cake I used 3 full eggs and a little baking powder. My currants sank this time as the mixture was much lighter and I was advised by the more advanced cooks in the group that I should have dusted them with flour before adding them to the mixture would have avoided this. I reduced the temperature to 160C for our fan oven and checked the cake from about 25 minutes. In the end I think it took about 35-40 minutes before the skewer came out clean.
Do please share your experiences here. We’d love to hear how you got on.