The origins of the Shrewsbury cake – or biscuit – are shrouded in mystery. Some believe these buttery biscuits were first baked in the 15th century or so. According to others, the biscuit we know today didn’t appear on the scene until 176o, when a Mr Palin is said to have sold the first batch from his shop by Shrewsbury Castle.
The problem of establishing this history is, to a large extent, one of definitions. What exactly is a Shrewsbury biscuit?
Variations abound, but almost all take the form of a crisp round biscuit with a short crumb. The biscuits are usually flavoured with lemon or orange zest, and often studded with dried fruits.
Our unknown ladies’ recipe for Shrewsbury cakes diverges from this a little. Caraway seeds are incorporated into the mix to provide a hint of aniseed, and rosewater replaces the lemon zest to give the biscuits fresh, floral overtones.
There’s a heavy emphasis on giving the biscuits a ‘correct’ appearance. They are to be patted out, not rolled, and must be cut with a large glass. Before they’re put in the oven, the biscuits are cross-barred with a comb to add a decorative touch:
Take three qrs of a pd of loaf sugar, a pd of flower, 1 ounce of carraway seeds. Mix these together & rub in a pd of fresh butter very small. Make it into a paste with the white of an egg beat to a froth & rose water. Work it well & pat it over with yr hands & fold up. Then patt it out broad & let it be pasted out to the thickness of saffron caks. Then turn down ye bowl of a glass on it to mark it & cut yr caks exactly of that size. It must be a large glass. Bake them on papers well flower’d & butter’d. Mark them with cross barrs with a clean comb. Let yr butter be bare weight. Dont tuch them with a rolling pin.
Fancy a go at these regional treats? Here’s our version:
- 175g caster sugar
- 225g plain flour
- 1-2 tsp caraway seeds (according to taste)
- 225g butter
- 1 small egg
- 1 tbsp rosewater
- Preheat your oven to 180ºC
- Line a baking tray with grease-proof paper
- In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, flour and caraway and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs
- Separate the egg and beat the white to a froth
- Add the egg white and rosewater to the other ingredients and mix to form a dough. Add more rosewater if necessary
- Use your hands to roll the dough into a ball
- On a clean and lightly floured work surface, pat out the dough until it is approximately 1.5 cm in thickness
- Use a tumbler or a large round pastry cutter to cut out your biscuits
- Place the biscuits on your lined baking tray
- Use a knife to cross hatch the top of each biscuit
- Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes until a light golden brown