early modern cake

“To make an excellent cake” (~1650)


Place: England | Time: late 17th century/early 18th century

When we open a cookbook today, we have very clear expectations of what we might find: we want to learn how to make good food. Early modern books of recipes – those produced from the 16th through 18th century – are a little different. They don’t only contain recipes for making good food. They often contain instructions for activities as diverse as curing a headache, mixing a perfume, or killing rats and mice. To an early modern recipe writer or copyist, food wasn’t necessarily an entity all its own, but part of a broader desire to interact with the material world, learn about it, and manipulate it.

Remedies, such as those for skin ailments, inflammations, or dog bites, are frequently sandwiched between recipes for cider and ginger bread; a recipe for frying parsnips is followed by one for a “precious oil” that promises to ease the pains of burns, bruises, or broken bones. The mingling of medical materials was seen as no different from the concoction of edible creations.

Recipe books such as this one fit into a larger genre of Books of Secrets. The classification of knowledge as “secret” could be rhetorical at times, but it also conveyed a concern about sharing knowledge in a society without any copyright protection. This designation was applied not only to esoteric knowledge, but also frequently to the techniques and skills of artisans and craftspeople. The ability to alter materials provided a key impetus for experimentation and acquisition of scientific knowledge.

Image of kitchen ware from 17th century England, from Randal Holme, An Academie or Store of Armory or Blazon

Image of kitchen ware from 17th century England, from Randal Holme, An Academie or Store of Armory or Blazon


The recipe used here comes from a late-17th century/early-18th century English manuscript that can currently be found at the Wellcome Library.

From Text to Technique:


  • 24 eggs for one cake?! One of the first things that surprised us when we tried this recipe was the crazy amount of eggs, but that’s not unusual in this book. Many recipes in this manuscript call for an extremely large number of eggs. Eggs were commonly used as binding agents throughout the early modern period and can be found in recipes for food as well as those involving metalwork or wax casting. Another thing that caught our eye is the emphasis on personal judgment in many of these recipes; one had to engage with the materials in order to understand how to manipulate them. This could only occur through practice. Recipes were not expected to replace other forms of knowledge and experience.


  • What’s the deal with “mingling your almonds?” Some of the instructions weren’t exactly clear, as often happens when the author of a recipe assumes that we already understand how to do something.


  • What is a medicine spoon? The recipe also refers to units of measurement that we don’t use nowadays, so we did our best to figure them out and adjusted them to modern measurements here. Aside from the crazy amount of eggs, the other thing that surprised us about this recipe was how much cake it makes. It was clear from the recipe that it would make more cake than we wanted, but even halving it made too much! The recipe presented here is ¼ the amount that the original recipe makes, which gives you a sense of just how many portions it yielded. This cake was probably meant for a large feast or celebration, so the quantities listed reflect the effort to prepare a dessert for about 50 people, probably something like this:


“Serving the Peacock,” 1517 edition of Virgil, Lyon

“To make an excellent cake”

Recipe Reconstruction in Modern English

(Quantities in the reconstruction are ¼ of the original recipe because it makes way too much)


“Mingling your almonds”


  • 1.25 pounds stone-ground whole wheat flour (half a bag)
  • 1.5 pounds of currants
  • ¼ pound of sugar
  • salt
  • ½ pound of almonds
  • 1 whole nutmeg, ground
  • mace, ground
  • 1 whole cinnamon, ground
  • caraway seeds
  • candied lemon: 1 lemon, 1/3 cup of sugar
  • 12 eggs
  • yeast
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • ½ pound of butter

This is how it goes:

  1. Assemble dry ingredients. Obtain 1.25 pounds of stone-ground flour, 1.5 pounds of currants, 1/4 pound of sugar. Obtain salt, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, and caraway seeds in as small a quantity as desired (to taste). [Note: we put enough caraway seeds that it looked speckled with them, but didn’t overload it]
  1. [1]Candy the lemon: Slice the lemon horizontally into slices less than 3 millimeters thin. Boil water in a medium saucepan, remove from heat, put in the lemon slices for one minute, and then drain the water. Boil a second cup of water together with 1/3 cup of sugar.  Once the sugar has dissolved, lower the heat and add the lemon slices.  Simmer for an hour and then lay out the candied lemon slices.
  1. Mix all the dry ingredients and candied lemons together in a bowl.
  1. Crush ½ pound of almonds.
  1. Obtain 12 eggs. Separate the egg whites from 5 of the eggs and set aside the egg whites. Mix the 5 egg yolks with 7 eggs.
  1. Mix 1 teaspoon of yeast with 1/8 cup of warm water. Let sit for five minutes.
  1. Boil one pint of heavy cream. Add 1/2 pound of butter to the boiling cream by slowly cutting sections and mixing them in.
  1. Mix the almonds, eggs, yeast, cream and butter.
  1. Add mixture of dry ingredients with the wet mixture. Allow this new mixture to rise in a separate bowl for 30 minutes.
  1. Preset oven to 350° F. Transfer the mixture to flat metal pans with a 3-inch lip so that the mixture is roughly 1-inch height. Place pans into the oven. Cook for approximately 25 minutes.  Check to ensure that the cake is cooked through by cutting a small hole with a knife.


Notes: cut out rosewater, barm replaced with yeast, candied citron replaced with candied lemon, did not ice the cake because the recipe said “this cake is also good without icing”


So is this ‘Excellent Cake’ really excellent? We liked it, but it’s definitely very sweet and heavy – probably too fattening to have more than one piece. The currants are a nice touch, though, and the spices add some rich flavor to make it a very interesting treat.


Historian interviewed for this post: Professor Pamela Smith, Early Modern History of Science, Columbia University

Further recommended readings:

[1] Due to availability, a lemon here replaces the citron using this recipe.

Our Leftovers from this Post:


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'“To make an excellent cake” (~1650)' have 3 comments

  1. May 19, 2015 @ 10:41 pm elisheva magril

    It is so interesting this point of view.By the way: in the recent Indian cookbook there are also instructions and advises about things that are not cooking like how to treat your serventsand what is the best stove(primus stove)


  2. July 20, 2015 @ 7:41 pm Cathy

    Hi, I’m interested in trying this cake recipe and was wondering how much rosewater was in the original recipe? And how much is the scaled-down amount? Thanks!


    • July 22, 2015 @ 10:06 am Jordan Katz

      Hi Cathy, thanks for your question! The original recipe doesn’t provide an amount, just “some rosewater.” In our version, we actually omitted the rosewater. We did this because in our practice run of this recipe, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. We had a good, historic source that described the distillation of rosewater, but we lacked the appropriate glass apparatuses needed to distill something properly. Following this 17th-century recipe loosely, we decided to find a rose, remove the petals, crush them to expel juices, and boil them in a pot. We then conserved the water that condensed under the lid of the pot and saved it as rosewater. This yielded only a small quantity of rosewater (a teaspoon at best), and we were not certain what impact it had on the recipe as a whole. In short, it appeared to make little difference, and we found it best to omit this step.


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