Redaction of Excellent Small Cakes

by Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina

The following cookies were made for both Ice Dragon and local baronial A&S competitions in the style described in a "receipt" in The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened: Whereby is Discovered Several Ways for making of Metheglin, Sider, Cherry-Wine, &c., Together with Excellent Directions for Cookery, As also for Preserving, Conserving, Candying, &c, published 1669, London.

Original receipt:

"Take three pound of very fine flower well dryed by the fire, and put to it a pound and a half of loaf Sugar sifted in a very fine sieve and dryed; Three pounds of Currants well washed and dryed in a cloth and set by the fire; When your flower is well mixed with the Sugar and Currants, you must put in it a pound and a half of unmelted butter, ten spoonsfuls of Cream, with the yolks of three new-laid Eggs beat with it, one Nutmeg; and if you please, three spoonfuls of Sack. When you have wrought your paste well, you must put it in a cloth, and set it in a dish before the fire, till it be through warm. Then make them up in little Cakes, and prick them full of holes; you must bake them in a quick oven unclosed. Afterwards Ice them over with Sugar. The Cakes should be about the bigness of a hand-breadth and thin: of the cise of the Sugar Cakes sold at Barnet."


4 cups English granary flour (or 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose

and 1 1/2 cups unbleached whole wheat flour)

1 cup granulated sugar, preferably unbleached

10 ounces to 1 lb. currants

1/2 pound unsalted butter

1/2 cup heavy cream (preferably not ultra pasteurized)

yolks from 1 to 2 large eggs

approximately 1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons dry white wine

Sift together the flour and sugar, then mix thoroughly with the currants. Cut in the butter, then add the cream, yolks, nutmeg, and wine. Roll out to 1/4- to 1/8-inch, cut out with a cutter, then mash slightly and form into small cookies of similar size. Prick them with the tines of a fork and bake on greased sheets for 15-20 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Let cool slightly on a rack, then ice with granulated sugar mixed with some water or cream. Yields about 3 dozen 3-inch diameter cookies.

Research Notes:

My redaction is smaller than the original recipe, and the proportions are a little off - I found that trying to replicate exactly the proportions in the original recipe created a too-sticky dough and a tough cookie. I instead balanced the wet and dry ingredients to the proportions I would find in a modern butter cookie recipe.

There are probably several reasons for the difference in proportions: the Medieval European egg size and type (chicken vs. partridge or other bird? etc.), the protein amount and absorption ability of the flour, the texture of loaf sugar, the size of the currants, the acidity of the wine, etc., not to mention the heat consistency (or lack thereof) of a Medieval fireplace/oven.

Therefore, I estimated the amounts and temperature based on my knowledge of modern baking, and then experimented several times before arriving at the redaction above.

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), according to Elizabeth David in English Bread and Yeast Cookery. I used modern English flour to approximate at least the type of flour which Medieval English bakers may have used, since at this time 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. Mistresses Judith of Kirtland and Mathilde des Pyrenees both told me they knew of some research materials that could help me determine such things... stay tuned.

However, I wonder if the flour used was necessarily 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. If these cookies were made for a noble, they would most likely have been made of wheat flour but what if it was March and the flour stores had run out? I tried the recipe with half wheat, half rye flours, which resulted in a more substantial and quite nice biscuit but definitely not what we think of as a cookie. Was the recipe intended to be a biscuit, not a cookie? Hmm. Must research more about the definition of "cakes."

Since I could not find anything resembling loaf sugar at this time, I used granulated sugar. I tried large-crystaled pearl sugar (similar in size to kosher salt) to approximate crystal size, then decided that was futile since I couldn't find a lot of information describing loaf sugar. So, I just used unbleached sugar to approximate the taste of non-modern, non-chemicalized sugar. Digbie specified that the sugar be sifted very fine, so I spun it in a food processor before sifting it in with the flour. In one experiment I ground it fine in a mortar and pestle, as it would have been done, but that was very tiring.

I used unsalted butter because I had read through Digbie, Robert May, and Gervase Markham's recipe books and found no reference to fresh butter being salted. I thought it might be salted as a preservative, but can find no evidence so far to support this. Since a lot of modern European baking prefers unsalted butter, I thought I should lean towards the less-processed route.

I tried this recipe with unmelted but softened butter to "wrought a paste well," but found that this made the cookies more biscuit-like and somewhat leathery. So, although I doubt Medieval conditions would allow this, I prefer to use chilled butter which I then chop up and cut into the flour like a pastry-making technique to achieve a more cookie-like texture.

The recipe needs the yolks from only one or two large eggs, not three as Digbie says, because according to Madeleine Pelner Cosman's Fabulous Feasts, among other books, medieval eggs were smaller than our modern ones. I used room-temperature eggs, since I doubt the henhouse, cellar, or wherever eggs were kept would be as cold as a modern refrigerator. Plus, three egg yolks throws off the proportions of the recipe. One or two works better, depending upon the humidity of the day and thus the absorption of the flour by the wet ingredients on the day the cookies are being made.

I am assuming that "one nutmeg" refers to a whole nutmeg, which I know from my many years of herbalism studies is a hallucinogenic to toxic amount in a recipe of this size. I found that a near tablespoon of freshly ground nutmeg gives a strong flavor to the cookies without intoxicating or killing anyone who eats them.

My 1933 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary says "sack" was a dry white wine which originated in Spain. I conferred with Master Corwin of Darkwater at the baronial A&S competition as to a modern equivalent of "sack" since Digbie and my other period sources don't describe alcohol content. He suggested that a dry white wine would approximate sack's flavor and alcohol content.

Corwin also suggested that I make the cookies irregular, since he surmised that Medieval bakers would not have perfect cookie cutters like my modern ones. I used a cutter which was about the width of my hand (since I have no way of finding out the size of cookies sold in Barnet) then molded them into irregular circles, and pricked them with a fork. Several judges at Ice Dragon disagreed with this theory that cookies would not be perfectly round: one saying that she had a shortbread mold dating from 1650, and another said that a lathe or potter's wheel would easily make round cutters from wood or clay. Everyone seemed to agree, however, that slightly imperfect ones did seem more medieval and not so obviously modern so I'm following Corwin's suggestion!

I know from baking and reading old cookbooks like Fanny Farmer and Mrs. Beeton's that a "quick" oven is about 350 to 400 degrees. I experimented before deciding that 15 to 20 minutes at 400 degrees was the best baking time.

Finding no references in my period recipe book reprints for icing, I mixed together sugar with the leftover cream to make a thin glaze. I used confectioner's sugar, since that is what I normally use for glazes and icings in modern baking. Several judges at Ice Dragon helpfully pointed out it would be a very thin glaze made of granulated sugar, not a frosting with confectioner's sugar, and it would be water, not cream Mistress Michaele del Vaga said that Medieval "sweets were never as 'sweet' as modern recipes."

Well, that's the recipe as it stands now. I discovered that the actual calculations and experimentation toward a workable recipe is a small part of redaction: the research on accurate cooking methods, ingredients, and climate takes much more time and is much more telling.

1997 Chris P. Adler