Barmy baking

How do you make a cake rise? Many of us would run to the store cupboard for baking powder or bicarbonate of soda. But without these modern raising agents, how did the eighteenth-century cook make their cakes light and airy and not sink like a stone? Today’s recipes from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies offer two contrasting solutions.

The first, for plain cakes or barm (‘barren’) brack, uses the fermenting froth that forms on the top of brewing ale. This froth, known as barm, would be skimmed off and either used straight-away, or stored in sealed jars under the ground.

Barm brack is known across the world in the form of the Irish celebratory loaf báirín breac, famously eaten at New Year’s Eve and Hallowe’en. However, this cake mixture is not fruited as we would expect barm brack to be today.

Barren Brack or Plain Cakes, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Barren Brack or Plain Cakes, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

To Make Plain Cakes or Barm Brack (modernised text)

Take six quarts of flour. Put to it a pint of good barm. Wet it like dough for bread and leave it to rise before the fire. Take a pound of butter rolled in flour as if to put in pastry, and a pound of sugar, an ounce of caraway seeds and a little brandy. Work them in to it with a whole grated nutmeg.

Our second recipe is simply titled ‘To make a cake without barm’

Recipe for making a cake without barm from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Recipe for making a cake without barm from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Take 4 pounds of flour, 4 of currants, 4 of white sugar, 4 of fresh butter without salt, 30 eggs well beaten with a whisk. Let the flour be well dried before the fire. 1 pint of sack or brandy, an ounce of cloves, mace, nutmegs. In all, beat the butter till it cream. With your hand, the sugar must be put to the butter by little and little, and so all the rest. The currants must be the last you put in, for it must not stand long after they are in. Put in a quarter of sliced almonds and sweet meats if you have them. Let it stand in the oven 3 hours.

The alternative to barm is… lots and lots of eggs!

If you feel your cholesterol levels rising at the thought of 30 eggs, it is worth remembering that the eggs used were a lot smaller than the ones we buy in the supermarket today. Eighteenth century eggs were roughly equivalent to bantam eggs in size. So, if you’d like to make up the recipe in your own kitchen, 10 eggs should suffice. For sweetmeats you could choose any dried or candied fruits – figs, dates or candied peel would go well.

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