Trawling through recipes for the JVC Bake Off, my eye was caught by a mysterious recipe in the Lady’s Own Cookery Book reading simply ‘Hedgehog’. As a long-time connoisseur of the hedgehog cake (my Mum baked one for my first birthday party in 1986), the prospect of a Victorian variant on this much-loved dessert was profoundly appealing. Unfortunately, the Lady’s Own recipe was not. Instructions for a kind of eggy, almondy paste, cooked on the stove-top until ‘stiff enough’ and then ‘moulded into the shape of a hedgehog’ just weren’t going to cut it. Fortunately, further investigation revealed that the hedgehog cake was a popular Victorian conceit; and better still, the most popular of these erinaceous delicacies was known as a ‘Tipsy Hedgehog’.
‘Tipsy cake’ is essentially a variant on the trifle (sponge soaked in alcohol and served with whipped cream or custard). The Victorians (and their eighteenth-century predecessors) liked to serve their tipsy cake studded with almonds; some culinary genius now lost to the mists of time obviously noticed the potential for a spiny reconfiguration; and thus the tipsy hedgehog cake was born. My Google search turned up a reference in Theodore Hook’s 1830 novel Maxwell (‘Miss Palmer… had a basin of hot water up into the parlour to bleach almonds, with which to stick a “tipsy cake”, after the fashion of a hedgehog’) but this recipe is a little later. It comes from Volume II of Cassell’s Household Guide (1869).
Tipsy Cake.—Procure a mould the shape of a hedgehog or porcupine; in this make a sponge cake; when cold, set it in a hollow glass dish. Blanch almonds by throwing them into boiling water; when the skins are removed, split them, and cut the halves, lengthwise, in two. Pour over the back of the porcupine, to soften it, a glass of Marsala, Cette Madeira, or other wholesome white wine. Then stick the back full of the almonds, to represent quills, and make the eyes with currants or raisins. When wanted, pour round it, in the hollow of the dish, as much of the same white wine as it will soak without melting or falling to pieces. Some add brandy to the wine, but that is apt to make it a little too tipsy. If you wish, on the contrary, to render it milder, when you judge that a sufficient quantity of wine has been absorbed by the cake, fill up the hollow of the dish with whipped cream or some kind of custard. (64)
Obviously there’s a key process missing here but luckily the same volume of Cassell’s provides a recipe for…
Sponge Cake.—Take four eggs and their equal weight of pounded lump sugar, and three eggs and their equal weight of flour. Beat the seven eggs and the sugar together for a quarter of an hour; then add the flour, and beat the whole five minutes longer. Put this paste into a buttered mould, and set immediately into a smart oven. (112)
So here’s how it went.
Luckily, the ingredients for the cake were all easy to find – with the exception of the sherry recommended in the original recipe. I substituted a bottle of dessert wine, nominally for reasons of authenticity (wasn’t wine drunk fairly sweet during the nineteenth century?) but mostly because I thought it would taste good.
Weighing my four eggs gave me a figure of 250g of sugar, which I promptly added to the mixture. (Full disclosure: rather than pounding any lump sugar [which I suppose could be more or less replicated using sugar cubes and pestle and mortar], I used caster. So sue me.) The next step – beating for ‘a quarter of an hour’ – caused me some anxiety. I was pretty certain that my elbow power wouldn’t measure up to that of a Victorian housemaid (or housewife) and as the recipe called for plain flour, the beaten egg was the only raising agent in the cake. Scouting online for some other butterless sponge recipes suggested that the mixture should be almost white before it was ready to go – which after fifteen minutes, mine certainly was not. In the end I beat it for 45 minutes and I still think it could have been fluffier.
After all that exertion, folding in the flour (3 eggs worth = 185g) was a positive treat. And that was it for the sponge! Of course I then had to deal with the problem of having failed to procure ‘a mould in the shape of a hedgehog or porcupine’. In the end I opted for two circular sandwich tins (I wasn’t sure how much it would rise), which I popped in the (fan) oven at 180˚ for about 25 minutes. (Note the devastatingly authentic silicone bakeware…)
While my cakes were baking, I blanched and peeled the almonds. I used 200g in the end as I wasn’t sure how many would be required but actually I had some left over so I think 150 or even 100g would have been fine. The peeling process was straightforward: after about ten minutes’ boiling on the stove, the almonds slid out of their skin with a satisfying ‘fwip’ at the slightest hint of a squeeze. They were then chopped as per instructions: halved, and halved again into splinters.
The cakes emerged looking springy and golden, so I turned them out and then turned to sculpting them into a rather more hedgehog-like form, cutting the front to a point for the nose and popping the offcuts in between the sandwich layers to give a bit of a dome-shape for more definition. As per instructions, I then poured a glass of wine over the cake… but that hardly seemed to touch it and I ended up adding quite a lot more. N.B. that’s only a half-size bottle! I didn’t add that much…
I wasn’t convinced about how great the finished product would look at this point but then we started adding the almonds and it suddenly began to look really bristly and amazing! I would suggest to any recipe-replicators not to hold back on the almonds – the more you can squeeze onto the hedgehog, the more convincing he looks and also the more your weirdly-shaped cakes are disguised beneath the bristling layer of nuts. The recipe calls for currants for his eyes but I couldn’t find any in my kitchen cupboard so I used chocolate drops instead. In a burst of creative inspiration, I also added a hazelnut for his nose.
The end result was so appealing that I wasn’t sure we ought to eat him but at that point several hungry afternoon-tea guests turned up and so I had no choice but to savage my beautiful creation. Here I am putting a brave face on things.
So, what was the verdict?
Despite my anxiety about how well it would rise, the sponge was tasty. I hadn’t made a butterless sponge before but it was good – it had quite a trifle-sponge texture (appropriately). I’d say the main flaw was that the hedgehog wasn’t tipsy enough. I doused him in wine until it was puddled underneath him but I think the sponge was a little too solid to absorb as much as it should have – the outside was alcoholic but the inside was quite dry. Next time I’d use a skewer to poke holes in the sponges and get a bit more wine in that way.
Although this relative sobriety was disappointing, the cake still worked; especially served with whipped cream, as Cassell’s recommends. I asked my punters to rate the hedgehog experience and got scores of 8, 8, 8 and 10: ‘Not very tipsy, but delicious, particularly with cream’, read one (anonymous) comment; ‘Yummy and aesthetically pleasing’, another. One popular suggestion was that I should have put jam in the middle of the cake, to make it squidgier and to give a pleasing gory hedgehog-death effect when cut. I resisted on this occasion as I was trying to stick to the recipe but I think actually it might be a tasty and effective addition for future bakes!
In summary, I found the tipsy hedgehog Victorian baking experience a good one. The recipe was relatively simple (my decision, there were a lot which looked more fearsome) but the effect was great. I’d previously seen hedgehog cakes in chocolate and done with Matchmakers for spines but this is a perfect grown-up alternative. And I love to think that such a sweet little cake made its appearance on nineteenth-century dinner tables. (On that note: Cassell’s refers to a picture of the cake on the third illustrated plate attached to the Household Guide but on Google Books, the plate is missing – if anybody comes across it, send the picture my way! I’d love to see what it should have looked like!)