Monday, September 29, 2014

Excellent Small Cakes, 1669


Iced Excellent Small Cakes or Barnet Sugar Cakes
These 17th century recipe for Excellent Small Cakes, also known as Barnet Sugar Cakes, are quite delicious and very easy to make.  A little history about them before the recipe:

One of the myths I read about in a 2001 article in the The Guardian is that these were the cakes that had been baking in an oven on Pudding Lane in London that caused the Great Fire of London on September 2, 1666.[1]  I really want to believe this story but there just isn't enough evidence to support it--try as I might to find it!

What I can tell you about these cakes is that were named for Barnet which is now a borough of London.  Back in the early days though it was part of Hertfordshire.  In 1199, Barnet was granted a market, and in 1588 it was allowed to hold a fair that over time became very famous.[2]  According to Sir Kenelm Digby who wrote a cookbook published in 1669 (among other accomplishments such as being a privateer, English courtier, diplomat, scientist, and philosopher [3]), iced shortbread-like cakes filled with currants were sold at Barnet.  Here is his recipe for these "Excellent Small Cakes":

EXCELLENT SMALL CAKES

The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight opened, 1669: Newly Edited, with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary by Anne MacDonald; London: Philip Lee Warner, 38 Albermarle Street, 1910.

Take three pound of very fine flower well dryed by the fire, and put to it a pound and half of loaf Sugar sifted in a very fine sieve and dryed; Three pounds of Currants well washed and dryed in a cloth and set by the fire; When your flower is well mixed with the Sugar and Currants, you must put in it a pound and half of unmelted butter, ten spoonfuls of Cream, with the yolks of three new-laid Eggs beat with it, one Nutmeg; and if you please, three spoonfuls of Sack. When you have wrought your paste well, you must put it in a cloth, and set it in a dish before the fire, till it be through warm. Then make them up in little Cakes, and prick them full of holes; you must bake them in a quick oven unclosed. Afterwards Ice them over with Sugar. The Cakes should be about the bigness of a hand-breadth and thin: of the cise [sic] of the Sugar Cakes sold at Barnet.

Transcription (quantity scaled down):


Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2-1 tsp grated nutmeg (depending on your taste)
  • 1 1/2 cups Zante currants (find in the raisin aisle)
  • 1 1/2 sticks softened salted butter
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp heavy cream
  • 1egg yolk (of a large egg)
  • 1 tsp white wine
  • Royal Icing (your favorite recipe)
Directions:
  1. Mix together the flour, nutmeg, and Zante currants. 
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the cream, egg yolks, and wine. 
  3. Add the flour/nutmeg mixture. 
  4. Using floured hands, gather the dough into 2-3 large balls. Wrap each ball in plastic and flatten into disks. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Heat the oven to 400ยบ while the dough is in the fridge.
  5. Roll out the dough and cut in rectangles, circles, hearts, or diamonds. Prick them with a fork to make holes on top. 
  6. Bake until golden, about 12 minutes. 
  7. Remove from oven and sprinkle with granulated sugar immediately or you can drizzle the tops with royal icing after they have cooled.
Yield:  About 45 2.5" round cookies

Notes
1.  http://www.theguardian.com/education/2001/jan/09/schools.theguardian3
2.  http://www.florilegium.org/files/FOOD-SWEETS/Digby-Cakes-art.text
3.  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/163148/Sir-Kenelm-Digby

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