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The perils of pewter: to make almond cake

This simple recipe for little almond cakes highlights some of the challenges that faced the 18th century home baker.

An 18th century recipe for little almond cakes, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

An 18th century recipe for little almond cakes, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

To Make an Almond Cake

Take two eggs, with one of the yolks & beat them up thick with sugar & a little orange flower water, 2 spoon fulls of flower. Half a pound of blanchd almonds & slice them very thin. Mix them with the other ingredients. Then take pewter plates & butter them & drop a cuple of small cakes on every plate. Let yr oven be indifferent hot & as the cake begins to bake, prick up your almonds at one end with a pin or a knife from one plate to another.   

Issue number one: cooking equipment.

Pewter is an alloy of tin and other metals and, in the 18th century, England was the world centre for pewter production. A soft alloy, it could be easily beaten into shapes or cast in moulds to form dishes and utensils. Widely available and easy to craft, it is little wonder that English households started using pewter cookware in their kitchens.

However, pewter was not without problems. The alloy has a low melting temperature – around 232ºC. Without any accurate means of judging or controlling oven temperatures, the cook would need to draw on their experience to tell when the oven was cool enough.

There were also long-term health risks attached to baking with pewter. In the early 18th century, lead was included in the alloy as a hardener.

Then there was the challenge of achieving an ‘even bake’. To ensure they’re all equally browned in the oven, we’re instructed to move the almonds from cake to cake with a pin or knife. Fiddly, and frankly a bit dangerous!

Luckily, with modern cookware and effective oven controls, this almond cake recipe is now far easier to follow! Pop spoonfuls of your cake mixture onto a greased baking tray, and pop it in an oven at 180ºC until the cakes are golden brown and a skewer comes out clean.

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3 thoughts on “The perils of pewter: to make almond cake

  1. I’ve noted that many of the baking recipes call for infused waters such as orange flower water or lavender water. How did they prepare the waters, what is the significance of them in baking, Is there any value in using them?

  2. Flower waters were very popular flavourings in the 18th century. In several of our Cookbook’s recipes, orange blossom water or rosewater is added to the pestle and mortar when almonds are being pounded, to prevent the nuts from turning oily.

    Roses and lavender grow well in Britain, and so these flavoured waters could be distilled locally; however, the more exotic orange blossom water would have been imported, probably from France or the Iberian peninsula.

    Although floral waters have fallen out of favour in modern British baking, orange flower water and rosewater are available from many Indian food stores.

  3. Pingback: More lemon creams | The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

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