Like most bakers, I tend to read cookbooks like they are novels: word-by-word,
Last week I read a cookbook that I had recently inherited from my mom. It was her mother’s cookbook and so I felt they were both with me as I read the recipes. It was a pleasant feeling. I felt that I was paging through a family scrapbook as I realized that several favorite family recipes had come from this cookbook.
The name of the cookbook is The Household Searchlight Recipe Book first published in 1931 by The Household Magazine. Ethel Wilson, my grandmother, had inscribed her name inside the front cover in 1940.
In the Foreword the publisher outlines their mission. A mission that takes the reader back to not exactly simpler times in American history but certainly a time in our history where a woman’s role was seemingly clearly defined:
“The Household Searchlight is a service station conducted for the readers of The Household Magazine. In this seven-room house lives a family of specialists whose entire time is spent in working out the problems of homemaking common to every woman who finds herself responsible for the management of a home and the care of children.”
I would have liked to visit that seven-room house.
The recipes were contributed by the readers of The Household Magazine as well as others developed by the magazines' “food specialist” as well as by food manufacturers (could this be an early example of product placement?).
As I turned to the section dedicated to cakes, a recipe called Nun’s Cake intrigued me. The recipe was submitted by Mrs. C. E. Beam of Statesville, North Carolina and the subhead of the recipe notes that it is a “Prize Winning Recipe.”
As I looked over the ingredient list, the cake appeared to be a type of seed cake popular in the British Isles. But the seed in this cake are caraway seeds. Caraway seeds are not typically found in most modern day seed cakes; most seed cakes are now made with poppy seeds. I tend to think more of sturdy dark breads when I think of baking with caraway seeds.
I decided to poke around a bit online on the Infotrac databases as well as on online sites to see what I could find about seed cakes.
I found that seed cake was a general term for a cake served to celebrate the spring sowing of wheat or to celebrate the autumn harvesting of the crop starting in the 16th century. The cake got its name not from containing seeds but from the occasion upon which it was served. It appears that early seed cakes were more of a typical fruitcake or even a simple and plain pound cake.
Although caraway seeds are not often used now in cakes, they were used quite frequently in all types of baking in the 16th to 18th centuries. Seeds cakes often pop up in literature -- seed cakes are mentioned in both The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien as well as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Early seed cake recipes didn’t use sugar but instead used yeast in the form of ale to raise the cake. Modern recipes of course now use baking powder and baking soda as leavening agents.
The other interesting ingredient for this Nun’s Cake is rose water. I have used rose water in Middle Eastern baking – see my post on making Syrian bread – but haven’t seen it used in this type of cake.
According to reporter Patricia Mack in a 1997 newspaper article titled “Flower Power” published in The Record a New Jersey newspaper, “It (rose water) is a very exotic and very ancient ingredient. The use of floral waters in cooking dates from the Middle Ages. Orange blossom and rose were the most commonly used extracts, which along with elderflower, gained popularity in the 17th century.
Rose water was also frequently used in baking in Western Europe and in the U.S. until the use of vanilla flavoring knocked it out of favor in the 19th century.
But my search for other recipes called Nun’s Cake turned up no other recipes other than the one in my cookbook. In fact, several other recipe sites use this recipe word for word -- right down to calling it a Prize Winning Recipe but the recipe is attributed to someone other than Mrs. C. E. Beam. Often the recipe was attributed to a grandmother or my dear mother but not to Mrs. C. E. Beam.
There actually was one exception – I did find a recipe for Nun’s Cake from The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse and published in 1747. I love how it is written:
A Rich Seed Cake, called the Nun's Cake.
Take four Pound of your finest Flour, and three Pound of double refine'd Sugar beaten and sifted, mix them together, and dry them by the Fire till you prepare your other Materials; take four Pound of Butter, beat it with your Hand till it is soft like Cream, then beat thirty-five Eggs, leave out sixteen Whites, and strain off your Eggs from the Treds, and beat them and the Butter together till all appears like Butter. Put in four of five Spoonfuls of Rose or Orange-flower Water, and beat again; then take your Flour and Sugar, with six Ounces of Carraway Seeds, and strew it in by Degrees, beating it up all the time for two Hours together. You may put in as much Tincture of Cinnamon or Ambergrease as you please butter your Hoop, and let it stand three Hours in a moderate Oven. You must observe always in beater of Butter to do it with a cool Hand, and beat it always one Way in a deep Earthen Dish.
Doesn’t sound that plain and easy to me!
But the following recipe is definitely easy but not plain tasting. When I tasted it, I thought that I was glad I had tried it but that I wouldn’t be making it again. But then I found myself breaking off bites and nibbles during the evening. My guests had the same reaction – they politely said it had an interesting taste as they moved on to the brownies on the tray but then I saw them coming back to the seed cake. My husband spread blackberry jam on slices. I could easily see slices spread thickly with peanut butter or even chocolate ganache. You could even make it fancy by serving slices with grilled peaches.
So, thank you Mrs. C. E. Beam – your Nun’s Cake is one habit I will keep.
(Prize Winning Recipe)
(Prize Winning Recipe)
(edited only slightly from original recipe wording)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Butter a 9x5 loaf pan
1 Cup Butter
1 ½ Cups Powdered Sugar
5 Egg Yolks
2 Egg Whites
¾ Cup Milk
3 Cups Cake Flour (sift then measure)
2 ½ teaspoons Baking Powder
¼ teaspoon Salt
3 teaspoons Caraway Seed
2 teaspoons Rose Water
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
(the original recipe calls for cinnamon flavoring. I used ground cinnamon)
Add sugar and yolks of eggs and beat thoroughly.
Stir in unbeaten whites of eggs and beat mixture.
Sift flour, measure, and sift with baking powder and salt.
Add flour mixture alternately with milk to first mixture.
Sprinkle in caraway seed, beat well and add rose water and cinnamon.
Pour into prepared pan.
Bake for approximately one hour.