To Make A Banbury Cake

by Lady Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina

This is a modern redaction and preparation of an English "cake" from the Renaissance period, described on page 80 of Gervase Markham's The English Hous-wife, published in London in 1649. The cake is listed in the book's chapter on "Skill in banqueting stuffe," so it was most likely a sweet dish which was served at a feast – possibly as the end of a course or as part of a selection of sweets at the voidée, the end of the meal.

Original recipe:

"To make a very good Banbury Cake, take foure pounds of Currants, & wash and pick them very cleane, and drie them in a cloth: then take three egges and put away one yelke, and beate them, and strayne them with barme, putting thereto Cloves, Mace, Cinamon and Nutmegges, then take a pint of Creame, and as much mornings milke and set it on the fire till the cold be taken away: then take flower and put in a good store of cold butter and sugar, then put in your egges, barme, and meale and worke them all together an houre or more: then save a part of the paste, & the rest breake in peeces and worke in your Currants: which done, mold your Cake of what quantity you please: and then with what that paste which hath not any Currants cover it very thinne both underneath and a loft. And so bake it according to the bignesse."

My translation:

To make Banbury cake, wash and pick over four pounds of currants, and dry them in a cloth. Beat two eggs and one egg white, and mix them with ale barm. Add to that powdered cloves, mace, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Warm slightly a pint each of cream and whole milk. Cut cold butter and sugar into flour, then mix together for an hour or more the eggs and barm mixture with the flour mixture. Put aside part of the dough; divide the rest into portions, and knead the currants into it. Mold your cake of whatever quantity you want, and thinly spread the reserved dough over and underneath it. Bake the cake the amount of time that its size requires.

My recipe:

1 lb. currants

two small eggs (room temperature)

1 white from a small egg

1 C warm water (100 to 110 degrees)

1 tsp. yeast (alternately, 1 C homemade sourdough)

1/2 tsp freshly ground cloves

1/2 tsp freshly ground mace blades

1/2 tsp freshly ground cinnamon/cassia bark

1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg

1 pt heavy or whipping cream (almost room temperature)

1 pt 1% milk (almost room temperature)

1 C chilled sweet butter

1 C organic unbleached sugar

9-10 C unbleached white whole wheat and unbleached all-purpose flour (mixed)

1/2 tsp salt

Proof yeast in warm water until it bubbles. Beat the eggs and add to the yeast. Add the milk, cream, and spices, and beat lightly. Cut or rub the butter into about 6 cups of flour, the sugar, and the salt. Slowly add liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and beat gently. Add more flour to make a soft dough and knead in the currants. Put dough in two 9" round cake pans, cover with a plastic bags, and let rise until the dough is larger (it won't double); I think an overnight rise creates the best taste and texture. Bake for 50-60 minutes in a 350-degree oven until browned lightly and a toothpick or skewer inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean. Makes two cakes.

Redaction notes:

When redacting this recipe, I had to make a major decision about the proportion of ingredients and techniques: do I make this into a cake or more like a loaf of bread?

Markham indicated the amount of eggs, milk, and cream in his recipe, as well as the amount of dried fruit. Based on my reading of recipes of similar baked goods of the time period (spice cake, excellent small cakes, fine cakes, etc.), I can make an educated guess that the amount of leavening needed was about a cup of ale barm. Any holiday baker knows that recipes with numerous spices require less than a teaspoon of each, or the flavor will be overwhelming. But what about the flour? Markham doesn't specify the amount. And how much sugar and butter are needed?

In a nutshell, I know as a modern baker that if these ingredients are lightly mixed together with a low ratio of flour to the dairy, the result would be a cake. But Markham says to work the ingredients together for an hour or more, to break "the paste… in peeces," and then mold the cake – so it can't be the modern light texture which we expect from our cakes. Such abuse would result in a very tough and chewy "cake." (Unless people of the Middle Ages preferred their baked goods that way?)

A larger proportion of flour to the dairy ingredients, beaten or kneaded together at length, results in bread. At this time period, most households bought their bread from a baker, so few bread recipes exist in cookbooks of the period, according to Reay Tannahill's Food In History. Of those recipes that do exist in Markham, Kenelme Digbie's The Closet Opened (1669), and Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook (1678) for various types of breads – manchet, pandemayne, and "fine bread" – none contain dried fruit. If Markham meant Banbury Cake to be a fruit-filled bread, I think he would have called it such.

According to Mistress Judith Kirkland (from Master Huen Damebrigge's Gode Boke website), "sweet, almost bread-like round cakes were common in the Middle Ages." Further, Master Huen himself says according to The Canterbury Tales, "a cake was a flat, round loaf of sweet bread, similar to the shape of a buckler." Okay, so that supports my theory that Banbury Cake should be more bread-like than cakey – and it confirms that it should be round, not square or loaf-shaped.

After looking through the cookbooks listed above, I found several baked goods which used ale barm and currants; almost all required that the ingredients be beaten for long periods of time. However, about half specified pouring the cake into a pan, while the other half directed the baker to break up the pieces and mold them. So, some recipes result in a batter and the other half require a dough.

If I raise the proportion of butter to flour, that would create a shortbread or pastry dough. But I think the existence of yeast in the recipe makes this an unlikely choice. And the numerous recipes I found for "paste" and shortbread were clearly labeled as such. Again, if these are handled roughly, it creates a very tough baked good and I haven't read anything in the period cookbooks recommending that a housewife do so.

So, what does that leave me with? Something which is kneaded or beaten, but the gluten isn't developed enough to create bread. Considering the number of recipes for biscuit derivations, I decided to approximate the ratios of a scone. I think of it as the ancestor of the scone (albeit one raised with yeast rather than baking powder).

Finally, I decided that since few fruited cakes were listed in the suggested courses in May and other cookbooks, Banbury Cake might have been served with the marchpanes, suckets, and other sweets and subtleties at the end of a banquet, the course known as the voidée. (Banquetting Stuffe, C. Anne Wilson)

Now that I decided what I was making, I had to research the ingredients themselves.

Medieval fruits and vegetables were smaller than our hybridized, cross-bred modern varieties, according to Duke Sir Cariadoc of the Bow in a Pennsic class two years ago. I'm making an educated guess that currants were about half as big as our modern ones, thus reducing the recipe's stated four pounds amount to two pounds. I chose to reduce it to one pound because two pounds made the dough a sticky mess, and that doesn't seem in keeping with the recipe. This didn't surprise me; in redacting Medieval recipes, I have found that I've often had to adjust the ingredients' amounts. There are probably several reasons for the difference in proportions: the Medieval European egg size and type (chicken vs. partridge or other bird?), the protein amount and absorption ability of the flour, the texture of loaf sugar, the size of the currants, the milkfat content of the milk and cream, not to mention the heating consistency (or lack thereof) of a Medieval fireplace/oven. Modern currants do not generally need to be washed or picked clean; I merely bought a pound of loose currants and looked them over.

According to several sources, the eggs used in Medieval dishes were much smaller than the large eggs we commonly use now in America; the quails, plovers, gulls, and other birds kept for eggs production back then produced smaller eggs, and modern commercial eggs are now genetically engineered to be much larger. (Seven Centuries of English Cooking, Maxime de la Falaise, p. 15) So, I used small eggs in this recipe to more closely approximate the original proportions. I used room-temperature eggs, since May recommended using eggs fresh from the fowl and I doubt that henhouses were heated.

I used a whisk to beat the eggs, although I have seen paintings of cooks using brushes made of bound rushes for this purpose. I believe the whisk was created in the Renaissance, but I have not been able to verify that yet.

Ale barm was a foamy by-product of brewing which contained wild yeasts. To approximate ale barm, I dissolved active dry yeast in a cup of water, ensuring that the temperature was not so hot as to kill the organism. I did not use instant yeast, so as to more closely imitate ale barm's slower action. Some recipes of the period use sourdough, which would create a more accurate slow leavening, but this recipe specified ale barm and so I did not use homemade sourdough. To better approximate the original leavening's flavor, I believe I could have used some beer in place of the water. However, I am allergic to alcohol, and chose not to do so.

Again, I used a whisk to mix the eggs and yeast together.

In Medieval times, spices were bought whole from spice merchants and ground in a mortar with a pestle (Take A Thousand Eggs Or More, Cindy Renfrow). Since I have arthritic wrists, I ground the clove buds, mace blades, and cassia bark one by one in a miniature food processor, then used a nutmeg grinder for the whole nutmeg. I know from my herbalism studies and modern cooking knowledge that grinding spices at the last moment preserves their volatile oils until they are used, and thus preserves the strength of the taste.

According to Markham (Chapter 6), the cream was carefully separated from the milk for use in making cheese and butter. Since Medieval milkers didn't use modern cetrifrugal separators, I estimate that the milk would have retained 1% or 2% milkfat. So, I used such instead of whole milk. I used heavy or whipping cream rather than half and half because the latter is a modern product. (Also, I buy my milk products from a dairy, rather than a supermarket, in the hope that the milk is fresher.)

I found equal numbers of recipes specifying salted or unsalted butter – and Markham discusses, in Chapter 6, creating both salted and sweet butter from the cream. (Butter was apparently salted to preserve it, same as it is today.) Since modern sweet butter tends to be fresher than salted, and this affects the texture of most baked goods in my experience, I went the less-processed route.

I cut the cold butter into large pieces with a knife and then used a pastry blade to cut it into the flour and sugar – as if I were making a pie crust. The second time I made this cake, I used a food processor to cut the flour and butter together so as to save my wrists from hurting. If Medieval bakers cut in the butter, did they use two knives or did they have a similar pastry cutter? Or did they rub in the butter? The latter is more likely, considering the "work it for an hour or more" instruction.

Since I used unsalted butter, and since yeasted baked goods benefit from having a little salt to slow down the organism's growth, I added some salt to this recipe. Although it is not specified, baked goods which don't contain salt generally taste a little flat. Medieval Europeans extracted salt by boiling down briny wellwater, by burning seawater-soaked peat, or by collecting sea salt. (Bridget Ann Henisch, Fast and Feast, p. 161) I ground up coarse Kosher salt in a mortar and pestle, reasoning that medieval salt did not contain added iodine and Kosher salt was the only pure salt I could easily obtain.

As stated in several sources, sugar was an expensive spice which was sold in loaves or cones. (To The Queen’s Taste, Lorna Sass, p. 26) I have found apparent cone sugar (piloncillo) in both the King Arthur Flour catalogue and an internet spice merchant's webpage. However, I haven't procured this yet, so I used raw, unbleached sugar for this recipe in an attempt to avoid modern processing and chemicals. Digbie and other cookbooks specified that the sugar be sifted very fine, so I spun it in a food processor – again, to save my wrists from excessive grinding in a mortar.

American all-purpose and bread flours – which are mostly hard white wheat – have higher protein and ash contents than modern English flour – which is mostly soft red wheat (English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David, p. vii).

Standard American all-purpose flour contains 8 or 9% protein and thus has low gluten; unbleached all-purpose King Arthur flour contains 11%, while the KA white whole wheat flour is 13%. Modern English granary flour's protein level is about 12. By using a one-to-one ratio of KA white whole wheat and all-purpose, I think I approximated at least the protein level of flour which Medieval English bakers used. I am unable to reproduce the exact texture (the wheat's growth in English soil, the fineness/coarseness of the miller's grind, impurities, etc.) of that period.

I believe the flour used would have been wheat; Bridget Ann Henisch, in Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society, is one of several sources I have read who states that flour had several grades: wheat being the finest and most prized, then wheat mixed with rye, then barley, rye, and oats, and lastly, in times of poor harvest or deep winter, flours made of ground beans, peas, and bran. Since this recipe is listed under dishes for a banquet, it is reasonable to assume that nobles would have been eating the meal, and that the ingredients would be the best the household could afford.

To save my wrists, I placed the flour/butter mixture in my stand mixer and then slowly added the liquid ingredients. I added more flour until I had a soft dough. I turned the sticky dough out onto my woodblock counter and used a bench knife to help knead it. I let it rise overnight because I have found that the flavor of baked goods develop better if left to rise slowly and fully.

In keeping with Master's Huen's theory about Medieval cakes, I used round cake pans. Further, numerous paintings and woodcuts I've seen of Medieval kitchens displayed round pans, not square ones. Finally, I decided to bake the cakes at 350 degrees because that temperature is appropriate for bread and scone recipes.

©2000 Chris P. Adler