Little plum cakes

If you’re not a fan of Christmas cake or feel defeated by Christmas pudding, these 18th century plum cakes may be for you!

Plum cakes were often presented at Georgian celebrations, from weddings to Christmas feasts. These lightly-fruited sponges were not wildly different from everyday tea-time treats such as pound cakes and tea breads. However, for special occasions they would be decorated with icing and sweetmeats. 

This recipe suggests making ‘little plumb cakes’ in individual tins or pans. Dividing the batter up into smaller portions does help to reduce the baking time, but the recipe nevertheless demands a great deal of stamina. For the required rise, the cake batter needs an hour’s beating before being baked in the oven:

These recipe should produce lovely lightly-fruited sponges - but you'll need to beat the mixture an hour to get the desired effect!

These recipe should produce lovely lightly-fruited sponges – but you’ll need to beat the mixture an hour to get the desired effect!

To Make Little Plumb Cakes

Take a pnd of flower well dryed, 1 pnd of butter & a pnd of currants well washed &  pickd, 3 qrs of a pound of white sugar well sifted, six yolks and 2 white well beaten. Beat the butter with a little orange flower water with yr hand till it cream, then put in yr corrants & a whole nutmeg. Then beat it again. Then mix the flower & sugar & put it in by handfulls, till all be in. Keep itt beating an hour after and when the oven is hot, butter yr pans. Yr oven must be as hot as for cheesecakes. 

Mrs Townley’s Cake

Our version of Mrs Townley's cake (no icing!)

Our version of Mrs Townley’s cake (no icing!)

Whoever Mrs Townley was, she certainly knew how to bake! This cake recipe produces a light, fatless sponge with lovely fresh notes of lemon and caraway seed.

The original recipe makes a lot of batter, so we halved the quantities of flour, grated lemon rind and sugar, and reduced the number of eggs to five. We also toned down the caraway flavour, adding just a couple of teaspoons of the seeds.

Mrs Townley’s 18th century recipe for a light sponge with lemon and caraway cake, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

Mrs Townley’s 18th century recipe for a light sponge with lemon and caraway cake, from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

Mrs Townleys Cake

A pd of sugar, dryed, pounded & sifted, half a pd of flower, 12 eggs, half ye whites. The yolks & whites beat seperately. Put the sugar to yr yolks, beat them till as white as cream. Then, put in the whites by degrees. As the froth rises, great in the rinds of 4 lemons, an ounce of carray seeds. Then put in yr flower. All together mix it well. Butter yr pan. An hour bakes it.

And if you’re feeling fancy, here’s a recipe for icing your cake… There’s no call for special palette knives for piping bags: a simple feather does the trick!

This recipe suggests spreading the icing onto the cake with a feather

This recipe suggests spreading the icing onto the cake with a feather

Icing for a Cake

Beat the whites of 2 eggs. Beat to a froth, then have some dubble refind sugar sifted. Take a feather, & when yr cake is bak’d, daub it over with the egg. Then sift it thick with the sugar & set in the oven to dry.

“Hot Spiced Gingerbread!”

This man cried "Hot Spiced Gingerbread" as he sold sweet treats to passersby in Oxford Street

This man cried “Hot Spiced Gingerbread” as he sold sweet treats to passersby in Oxford Street

Hot Spiced Gingerbread, sold in oblong flat cakes of one halfpenny each, very well made, well baked and kept extremely hot is a very pleasing regale to the pedestrians of London in cold and gloomy evenings. This cheap luxury is only to be obtained in winter, and when that dreary season is supplanted by the long light days of summer, the well-known retailer of Hot Spiced Gingerbread, portrayed in the plate, takes his stand near the portico of the Pantheon, with a basket of Banbury and other cakes.

Itinerant Traders of London (1804)

This ‘gingerbread man’ was one of over 30 street traders featured by William Marshall Craig in his book, Itinerant Traders of London. Craig himself seemed pretty impressed by the cakes, describing them as ‘very well made’ and ‘well baked’, and cheap at the price of a ha’penny.

We don’t know whether the unknown ladies of our Cookbook ever patronised this street trader’s stall at the Pantheon, but we do know that they were fans of gingerbread. They recorded two recipes for this spicy cake in their manuscript recipe book.

The first recipe comes to us courtesy of Mrs Ryves, whom we last met when she was making cream cheese. Here, we share her simple method for a classic gingerbread:

"To make gingerbread Mrs Ryve's Way"

“To make gingerbread Mrs Ryve’s Way”

To Make Ginger Bread Mrs Ryves’ Way

Take two pound of fine flower, half a pound of white sugar, won ounce of pounded ginger all well dryed and sifted, a pound and a quarter of treacle, half a pound of fresh butter. Boyle the butter and treacle together then take it of and make it into a past with the things above nam’d and make it into what shapes you pleas. Butter your papers very well you bake them on. Your oven must be as hot as for Chease Cakes.

The second recipe is a little different from the gingerbread we’re used to today. Along with the ginger, caraway seeds and candied citrus are used to flavour the mix. It sounds rather intriguing… one to try as warming treat at tonight’s Bonfire Night celebrations? The mixture also contains eggs, so although our ladies make no mention of cooking, don’t forget to bake it!

A Georgian gingerbread recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

A Georgian gingerbread recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.

To Make Ginger Bread

Take fore qurts of flower, a pinte of treacle, & not quite halfe a pound of butter, four eggs, halfe an ounce of pounded ginger, halfe an ounce of carraway seeds, a qr of a pd of brown sugar, a nagin of brandy, som canded lemmon or orange. Mix all these in the flower. Melte the treacle & butter to geather. So mix all very well.

Putting on the pounds: Georgian pound cake

Over the past month, we’ve received numerous comments about how rich the Cookbook’s Georgian recipes are.

Today’s recipe should, in theory, prove no worse for your waistline than a traditional pound cake, which draws on eggs, butter, flour and sugar in equal parts. It’s the quantities here you have to be wary of: make the recipe up as our unknown ladies advise, and you’ll end up with cake to feed about 40-50 people!

Unless you have a range cooker, an enormous baking tin and a mass-catering opportunity around the corner, you’ll want to reduce the quantities by at least a third. It will also mean you don’t have to wait 2½ hours for your cake to cook through…

Georgian recipe for a 3 pound cake... you need a good appetite for this one!

Georgian recipe for a 3 pound cake… you need a good appetite for this recipe!

To Make a 3 Pound Cake

Beat 3 lb of butter with your hand, to cream, an hour. Then put 2 lb ½ of sugar well dryed & sifted. Put it in by degrees. Put in 3 lb of flower dryed & sifted all at once, the third part of a pint of brandy, ye yolks of 3 lb of eggs well beat, & ye whites whiped to a curd, 4 lb of currans washed & picked, half a pound of almonds cliced thin, what citron & orange you please. Two hours & a half will bake it. If it be a good soaking oven, see it with ye whites of eggs, double refined sugar & fine starch beat ’em together. The longer they are beat up, ye whiter it will be. Lay it before the fire or put it in ye oven to harden.

If your oven is good and hot, the recipe recommends that you bake your cake with a frosting of beaten egg whites, double refined sugar and starch.

Fancy a go? Don’t forget to share your Georgian baking experiments with us by emailing, or by posting a comment here on the blog!

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.

In the footsteps of the Unknown Ladies…

Some of our readers have been intrepidly trying out our Cookbook recipes at home.

Here are some fabulous pictures sent in by Catherine, who has been inspired to have a go at the recipes for chocolate cream and saffron cake.

We’re very impressed by the results!

Catherine's Georgian chocolate cream

Catherine’s Georgian chocolate cream

The chocolate cream was “rich and unctuous”, although it proved tricky to get a good froth on the top…

She also baked saffron cakes, reducing the quantity of saffron for “a lovely light cake with a delicate colour and flavour”:

Saffron cakes made, "as the woman at the Blew Peel does", by Catherine

Saffron cakes made, “as the woman at the Blew Peel does”, by Catherine

Here are her tips for making delicious Georgian saffron cakes:

The proportions I used were 1lb flour, 1tsp caraway seeds, 2oz sugar, 2 oz butter, ½ tsp saffron, 2 floz milk, 2 eggs, 5 tbs sourdough starter. Bake in two 7 inch round loose bottom cake tins (the Georgians used hoops) for 15m at 200 degrees C, cover with paper and bake for a further 15m at 180 degrees C.

We’d love to see more pictures of your cooking from the Cookbook of Unknown Ladies recipes.

Share your stories and photos by emailing us at, or post a comment on the blog.

Happy cooking!

Saffron cakes and the mystery of the Blew Peel

Saffron is the dried stigma of the autumn-flowering crocus sativus (saffron crocus). This plant was widely cultivated in early modern England, and its historic importance is recorded in several place names in the south-east of the country. Saffron Hill, near Farringdon, once formed part of an estate that grew crocuses for saffron. Croydon’s connection with saffron goes back to Saxon times and is commemorated in its name, croh meaning crocus or saffron, and don meaning valley.

Saffron Walden became one of the foremost saffron farming and trading centres of Tudor and Stuart England, thanks to its light, chalky soil that could sustain large crops of crocuses. The streets of Saffron Walden were said to turn  blue with petals during the saffron harvest, which took place between October and December.

By the early 18th century, the saffron industry was in decline. While harsh frosts in early autumn could effectively wipe out the English harvest, improving trade routes enabled merchants to import the spice from more reliable climates in Southern Europe. Imports in other spices and flavourings were also changing English tastes. Exotic products such as chocolate and vanilla contributed to the demise of saffron’s popularity in English kitchens.

Our Cookbook‘s recipe for saffron cakes favours English saffron over the imported spice, although by this time the country’s saffron trade was on the wane.

18th century recipe for making saffron cakes 'as ye woman at the Blew Peel does'. Extract from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

18th century recipe for making saffron cakes ‘as ye woman at the Blew Peel does’. Extract from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

To make saffron cakes as ye woman at The Blew Peel does (modernised spelling)

Take 6 quarts of flower, dry it and sift an ounce and a half of caraway seeds [and] 3 quarts of a pound of loaf sugar. Rub in[to] it a pound of butter. [Take] half an ounce of good English saffron dried and powdered very fine, steeped overnight in half a pint of milk; 12 eggs, beat their whites to a curd and mix the yolks with your saffron and milk, and set it over the fire. Stir a little more milk in it. Let it be just blood warm. Make a well in the middle and pour in your milk and whites and strain in half a pint of good barm. Work it up lightly to a paste [so] that it may be smooth. When you make your cakes, pat them with the palm of your hand. Prick them as they go into the oven, which must be very hot, cleaned out with a wet malkin.

Where was the ‘Blew Peel’, where this recipe is said to have its origins? We’ve found no reference to a pub of this name in the London area, nor to any of the obvious variations of this name (Blue Peel) etc. Could the recipe have travelled to our cookbook writers from another part of the country – maybe from as far as Devon or Cornwall, where the tradition of saffron buns is still strong today?

If you think you can help identify our mysterious ‘woman at the Blew Peel’, please get in touch!