Sean Pringle Kosikowsky, Visitor Services Assistant for The Museum of Somerset, has been baking after Somerset Archives shared The Littell Cakes recipe (an 18th century recipe from the Sanford family archive).
Firstly a massive thank you to the archives team for bringing this recipe to the forefront. I love trying to recreate the smells and tastes of history, experiencing it in a multi-sensory way and this is no different. Luckily, thanks to all of the lockdowns our country has had, I have built myself an earthen oven in the garden for which to experiment with historical cooking. I have really as yet only used it for breads, and pies, so I jumped at the chance to try my first cake in it. I should also say it’s the first time I have fired it up this year so this was also a test of the construction of my oven as well as the recipe and method.
Following the recipe, I did have to make a few minor alterations. With a lack of rosewater, I substituted elderflower cordial, and along with the Mace, added a bit of fresh Nutmeg. To the recipe itself I wondered what a little pan would be… Doing a very quick internet search for the origins of small cup-cakes I found that it is thought that the first ever reference to ‘a cake to be baked in small cups’, rather than as a layer cake, was in Amelia Simmons’ ‘American Cookery’ in 1796. I also found that in the 19th century before muffin tins were widely available, the cakes were often baked in individual pottery cups, ramekins, or moulds and took their name from the cups they were baked in. This to me suggested that some sort of pottery cup seemed the obvious choice to put the mixture into.
After locating some spare cups, I fired up the oven. Ovens like this work in a very different way than I first expected and if you are unfamiliar to these I shall briefly explain the process. You set the fire going inside and keep it going for several hours. The heat from the fire gets retained in the walls of the oven. All ovens would be a little different due to variations in construction and so in my case it is a lot of guess work. Once the desired ‘hot’ temperature is reached, the fire is raked out leaving an empty oven and a door is placed upon the entrance. It is this residual heat that cooks, meaning it is hotter at first, then cools. My only way of knowing this is to cook things in order i.e. 15 mins cooldown, Breads then cakes, then biscuits.
So I cooked 2 loaves of breads to attempt to get the timings (and this is where I made a bit of an error). By being eager to progress to the next step I rushed into the bread baking, then into the cakes meaning the oven would probably have been slightly hotter than was probably needed. I had to use a peel to pop the cups of cake in and out of the oven whilst they baked for a full 30 minutes as the recipe says.
After taking them out, they were clearly overcooked, but due to the thicker cups, contained a soft crumb. The larger 2 bowls I used were still wet in the middle and so this suggest that the size of the ‘littell cakes’ was something closer to the cups I was using. I also had a bit of a difficulty in removing the cakes from the cups, due to their shape but eventually got the 6 out and I must say they tasted AMAZING! I had never thought to use mace in baking before, but will certainly be adding it to cakes in the future.
As a sidenote, I also live about a mile from Nynehead Court where this 18th century recipe originates, so in some ways it had a little extra meaning in its baking.
Esther Hoyle, Senior Archivist for the Somerset Archives, has shared what she thinks a modern version of the Littell Cakes recipe may look like, incase you want to have a go at home.
8 oz (225g) unsalted butter
2 eggs plus 2 egg whites
Mace or nutmeg to taste (start with ¼ tsp)
Rosewater, to taste (start with ¼ tsp) or vanilla essence
8 oz (225g) flour
8 oz (225g) caster sugar
8 oz (225g) currants or 1 tsp caraway seeds
Muffin tins, greased or lined with paper cake cases
Preheat oven to 200ºC or 180ºC if fan-assisted.
Beat butter and eggs together.
Add sugar, mace, rosewater and currants (or caraway seeds).
Fold in the flour and spoon into the paper cake cases/tins.
Bake for 15-20 minutes.