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Jane Eyre’s ‘good-sized seed-cake’ and the JVC Bake Off Part 1

2013 March 4
by lucinda matthews-jones

Helen Rogers (Liverpool John Moores University)

This post has been written in conjunction with the JVC Bake Off . If you would like to know more then click here. If you feel inspiured to get involved after reading this post then email Lucie at l.m.matthew-jones@ljmu.ac.uk.

I was ten or eleven when I was given Jane Eyre, my first ‘grown up’ novel. In those days I never gave up on a book but it took me three attempts to struggle through the gloomy opening chapters. I shivered with Jane, huddled in the window-seat. While the icy landscapes of Bewick’s Birds fired Jane’s imagination, I felt only the chill of the dreary November day. The heated rage of the Red Room left me cold. In the grey Lowood schoolroom, I shuddered at Jane’s humiliation by the terrifying Mr Brocklehurst.
And then Miss Temple invited Jane and her new friend Helen into her parlour for tea and I began to warm up. The kindly teacher unwrapped before their eager eyes a parcel containing ‘a good-sized seed-cake’.

‘I meant to give each of you some of this to take with you,’ said she, ‘but as there is so little toast, you must have it now,’ and she proceeded to cut slices with a generous hand.
We feasted that evening as on nectar and ambrosia; and not the least delight of the entertainment was the smile of gratification with which our hostess regarded us, as we satisfied our famished appetites on the delicate fare she liberally supplied.
I had never heard of seed-cake but it filled my mouth. From then on I devoured the novel hungrily. It remains the most memorable reading experience of my life, forever connected with a cake I have yet to taste.

So, for JVC’s Bake-Off, I shall be recreating Miss Temple’s ‘good-sized seed-cake’ and serving it to my students at our Victorian Tea Party for Comic Relief.

Appropriately, for Jane Eyre, this is a good, plain cake. Caraway seeds are its key ingredient. I fancied they might be another of the novel’s colonial traces, along with Madeira and Indian ink, but they are native to Europe and seed-cake is an old English recipe with sweet, bread-like versions dating back to the sixteenth century.[ii] Elizabeth Moxon’s English Housewifery Exemplified (1764) has a gastronomic version, of Gary Rhodes complexity:

Take eighteen eggs, leave out half of the whites, and beat them; take two pounds of butter, wash the butter clear from milk and salt, put to it a little rose-water, and wash your butter very well with your hands till it take up all the eggs, then mix them in half a jack of brandy and sack; grate into your eggs a lemon rind; put in by degrees (a spoonful at a time) two pounds of fine flour, a pound and a half of loaf sugar, that is sifted and dry; when you have mixed them very well with your hands, take a thible and beat it very well for half an hour, till it look very white, then mix to it a few seeds, six ounces of carraway comfits, and half a pound of citron and candid orange; then beat it well, butter your garth, and put it in a quick oven.[iii]

Fortunately, since I must follow a Victorian recipe, I don’t require a thible and nor, I very much hope, will I need to beat the mix for half an hour!

As I will be baking Victorian-style it must be Mrs Beeton, even if her Book of Household Management, first published in 1861, is a little later than Miss Temple’s cake. My mother still uses the centenary edition, given to her by my Dad ‘On her first Birthday as Mrs. Rogers’. On the eve of the Swinging Sixties, seed-cake must have fallen out of fashion, for it appears only as a one-line variant of the ‘plain cake’. But Mrs B’s original book had two versions.[iv]

Miss Temple had surely purchased the cake she removed, ceremoniously, from its paper for she will not have been welcomed in the kitchen run by Lowood’s mean-spirited domestics. It must have been the ‘common seed-cake’, an unpretentious, wholesome cake that can be made all year round and, that costing eight pence to bake, will have been within a teacher’s modest means.

COMMON SEED-CAKE.

1775. INGREDIENTS – 1/2 quartern of dough, 1/4 lb. of good dripping, 6 oz. of moist sugar, 1/2 oz. of caraway seeds, 1 egg.

Mode.—If the dough is sent in from the baker’s, put it in a basin covered with a cloth, and set it in a warm place to rise. Then with a wooden spoon beat the dripping to a liquid; add it, with the other ingredients, to the dough, and beat it until everything is very thoroughly mixed. Put it into a buttered tin, and bake the cake for rather more than 2 hours.

Time.—Rather more than 2 hours.

Average cost, 8d.

Seasonable at any time.

Two hours baking? Just as well the recipe uses ‘moist sugar’! I like the idea of cooking with dripping. That will be another first. (We must remember to clearly label our ingredients; I fear that vegans will struggle with the Victorian Bake Off!). In her ‘Nice Plain Cake’ recipe, Mrs B tells us that ‘Beef dripping is better than any other for cakes, &c., as mutton dripping frequently has a very unpleasant flavour’. It should be ‘quite clean before using’ (1766). Apparently this means clarifying, not washing. I’m beginning to see where my cake may come unstuck!

Mrs B includes a luxury version which vegetarians will prefer, made with as much butter as flour and a glass of brandy. Currants can be substituted for caraway seeds which, hints Mrs B in her ‘Nice Plain Cake for Children’ (1767), may not appeal to young ones. At two shillings and sixpence to bake, a ‘very good seed-cake’ must have been an extravagance that a sensible Victorian schoolmistress could scarce afford.

A VERY GOOD SEED-CAKE.

1776. INGREDIENTS – 1 lb. of butter, 6 eggs, 3/4 lb. of sifted sugar, pounded mace and grated nutmeg to taste, 1 lb. of flour, 3/4 oz. of caraway seeds, 1 wineglassful of brandy.

Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour; add the sugar, mace, nutmeg, and caraway seeds, and mix these ingredients well together. Whisk the eggs, stir to them the brandy, and beat the cake again for 10 minutes. Put it into a tin lined with buttered paper, and bake it from 1–1/2 to 2 hours. This cake would be equally nice made with currants, and omitting the caraway seeds.

Time.—1–1/2 to 2 hours. Average cost, 2s. 6d.

Seasonable at any time.

Seed-cake appears to be making a modest comeback. Delia Smith and Nigel Slater have sung its ‘old-fashioned’ praises.[v] Their recipes are more slim-line that Mrs B’s and require just half the time in the oven. A light touch is required, Nigel advises; ‘Caraway seeds are particularly pervasive, and too many will introduce a medicinal, musty quality to your baking’:

Cream 120g each of butter and caster sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in 3 large eggs, then, when well mixed, add 1 tsp caraway seeds, 170g self-raising flour, 50g ground almonds and 2 tbsp milk. Scrape into a paper-lined loaf tin (20cm x 9cm x 7cm measured across the base) with a rubber spatula and bake for an hour at 160C/gas mark 3.

Don’t fiddle with this classic cake, cautions Nigel: ‘Whatever embellishment you bring to this recipe will change its nature and therefore its name. It is something to be left alone.’  This will be a challenge. I have never been known to follow a recipe.

Though Nigel would not have us tamper with this ‘delightfully understated cake’, happily he recommends it goes well with a glass of Madeira. As Mrs Rochester, I feel sure that prudent Jane will have continued to favour the ‘nice plain cake’ of her schooldays over butter-and-brandy indulgence. Yet at home in Ferndean and heiress to the Madeira wine-merchant, she may have served her husband a ‘good-sized slice’ with a glass of Spanish wine. Perhaps, after all, I can have my colonial twist.

To be continued. . .


[i] Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847), chapter 8.

[ii] Susan L. Meyer, ‘Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre’, Victorian Studies 33.2 (1990), pp. 247-268. Sweet, bread-like recipes can be found in A.W.’s Book of Cookrye (1591) and Gervase Markham, The English Huswife (1615). http://www.godecookery.com/goderec/grec29.htm

[iii] http://www.free-recipes.co.uk/english-housewifery-exemplified/ebook-page-34.asp
[iv] The gloriously titled, The Book of Household Management: Comprising Information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-Of-All-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly, Wet, And Sick Nurses, Etc., Etc. Also, Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda; With a History of the Origin, Properties, And Uses of All Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort (London: S.O. [Samuel] Beeton, 1861); available online at http://www.mrsbeeton.com/

[v] http://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/type-of-dish/sweet/old-fashioned-seed-cake.html; http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/may/02/nigel-slater-classic-recipe-seed-cake

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