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Shrewsbury Cakes: An Elizabethan Recipe

This is neither a new recipe nor an original recipe. It is also not a cake, as one might think today; rather, it is a small biscuit, i.e., a cookie. In fact, variations on this recipe date back to over 400 years ago, with the first recipes appearing in print in the late 1500s during the reign of Elizabeth 1. The earliest reference I have is from The Good Housewife Handmaid for the Kitchen, printed in 1594 in England, Author Anonymous. However, since the late 1500s, hundreds if not thousands of variations of this recipe exist in print and online.

Thanks to modern translations, this is a very easy recipe to make. And it is egg-free. If you wish to immediately go to my version of this historic recipe, just scroll down to the recipe card . But if you’d like to know a little more about the differences between baking and recipes in the 1500s and today, please enjoy  The Inside Scoop

The Inside Scoop

One of the most pronounced differences between recipes from the 1500s and from today is that, unlike modern recipes, recipes from the 1500s were not broken into “Ingredients” and “Directions.” Rather, recipes were presented in more of a story format, that is, in the way a person would talk about it while making it. For example, in The Good Huswife’s Handmaide for the Kitchin, one is told, (after putting the ingredients together), “worke all these together with your hands as hard as you can for the space of halfe an houre, then roule it in little round Cakes, about the thickness of three shillings one upon another.” In The Compleat Cook of 1658, these same directions read as, “knead all these together till you may rowle the past, then roule it forth the the top of a bowle.” One is also told, “then prick them, with a pin made of wood, or if you have a comb that hath not been used, that will do them quickly.”

Spelling was also highly individualized during the 1500s and 1600s. One may be told to “take a quart of very fine flower, eight ounces of fine sugar beaten and cersed,” “also a little beaten sinamon or some nottmegg greeted and steeped in rose water,” “Bake them on pye plates,” or “if any rise up clap them down with some cleane thing.” And they are done baking when, “they must not looke browne but white, and so draw them foorth and lay them one upon another till they bee could.” In fact, standardized spelling did not occur until the late 1700s and early 1800s and was promoted by printers who needed to have one form of spelling for each word.

The amount of any particular ingredient was also highly individualized. For one bread recipe, the baker is told to “use as much flour as the morning milk will wet.” I don’t know if this milk came from one cow or two! Another recipe states, “Take fine flowre and good Damaske water you must have no other liquor than that, then take sweet butter, two or three yolkes of eggs and a good quantity of sugar and (seasonings) as your Cookes mouth shall serve him……..and a little Gods good about a spoonful.”

Thank goodness  “you may keep them halfe a yeare the new baked are best”!

By the way, no authentic recipe from the pre-1800s will include baking soda or baking powder, as one expects to find in cakes. Soda ash was not discovered until 1791 and baking soda did not become commercially available until 1846.

Typically, Shrewbury Cake recipes from the 1500s call for flour, butter, sugar, rosewater, salt and seasonings. The seasonings may include cinnamon or nutmeg. I have chosen to use freshly grated nutmeg. Bakers during the Renaissance would have used “a Nutmegge grated,” i.e., grated a Nutmeg seed.

In my version, I have tried to stay as true as possible to the types of ingredients that bakers would have had during the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, millers discovered how to separate the endosperm of the flour grain from the germ and bran. This made a fine white flour; however, this was a very expensive process and only the most wealthy could afford to eat fine white breads and cakes. Most people would have made their breads and cakes from whole wheat flours. So in my recipe, I use whole wheat pastry flour, which is a soft flour, low in protein and gluten, and commonly grown in wetter areas of Great Britain. I also use white whole wheat flour, which is a “hard” flour high in protein and gluten and grown in more arid areas of Great Britain.

During the Renaissance, the British became famous throughout Europe for their love of sugar. During Medieval times, foods were primarily sweetened with honey. By the 1500s, sugar, though expensive, was more widely available to bakers throughout Great Britain. This was a fairly coarse sugar that could be “cracked between the teeth like salt.” I have chosen to use raw sugar, typically sold as organic vegan sugar, to represent this coarse sugar. And although the original recipes do not specifically state to do so, I roll the cookie dough in the coarse sugar in homage to the Elizabethans great love of sugar. 

According to the National Geographic website, vanilla was not used as a flavoring for anything other than chocolate until the early 1600s, near the end of Elizabeth 1’s life. (Queen Elizabeth 1 died in 1603.) Instead, rose water was used as a flavoring in most baked goods during the Renaissance. Therefore, for consistency, I used purchased rose water.

I hope you found this brief insight into Renaissance baking interesting. Although modern versions of Shrewsbury cakes may use vanilla, caraway seeds, all-purpose flour, eggs and even rose petals, I hope you enjoy this simple cookie the way people would have who lived during the Renaissance. 

Shrewsbury Cakes: An Elizabethan Recipe

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By Connie Teunis Serves: 15 2-cookie servings
Prep Time: 40 minutes active, 2 hours inactive Cooking Time: 15 minutes

A simple, nutmeg-flavored cookie with origins in England during the 1500s.

Ingredients

  • 226 g./ 2 Sticks Salted Butter, softened
  • 96 g./ ½ c. Organic Vegan Sugar plus more for rolling
  • 1 T. Rosewater
  • 120 g./ 1 c. Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
  • 120 g./ 1 c. White Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1 T. Grated Nutmeg- Approximately 2 Whole Nutmegs
  • ½ t. Salt

Instructions

1

In a small bowl, combine the 2 flours, nutmeg and salt. Stir together so that the nutmeg and salt are distributed evenly throughout the flour. Set aside.

2

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the rosewater; mix until combined.

3

Add the flour mixture to the butter/sugar mix; stir thoroughly to combine.

4

Divide dough into 2 separate balls. Form each ball into a log, approximately 1 ½” in diameter.

5

Sprinkle a thin layer of organic sugar onto a piece of plastic wrap. Roll one of the cookie logs onto the sugar, then use the plastic wrap to wrap the cookie log. Repeat for the second cookie log. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours until the cookie logs are very firm.

6

After 2 + hours, remove cookie logs from the refrigerator.

7

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

8

Using a sharp knife, slice the cookie logs into ¼” slices; place cut-side down onto the baking sheet. If desired, sprinkle the top of the cookie with additional organic sugar.

9

Bake for 12-15 minutes, until cookies are firm but have not begun to brown.

10

Remove from oven; leave on cookie sheet for 15 minutes to cool and become firm.

11

Enjoy!

Yum!

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