A ‘ginger cake’ recipe was found in a red wallet along with a gentleman’s toiletry kit in the Museum of London collection. Whom did it belong to? Was it a precious family recipe? We don't know, but we definitely wanted to try making it ourselves! Maybe you'd like to try too?
Many of us have old family recipes, handwritten on now-yellowed bits of paper, and passed down from one generation to the next. They’re kept loose in a kitchen cupboard, or safely tucked into a recipe book/scrap book. Every time it’s used, you promise yourself you’ll type it out, but never get around to it. So, now, the corners are a bit torn and there are some unidentifiable stains and splashes across it. There might be a photograph on a mobile somewhere, but you can never find it when you need it.
There is such an undeniable charm to these old recipes that coming across a similar precious ‘chit of paper’ belonging to someone else is as delightful as finding a surprise present! Often transporting oneself back in time or into someone’s kitchen. One such example is a mysterious handwritten recipe found in a little red leather wallet from c.1850, in the Museum of London’s collection.
The museum’s acquisition register described the wallet as a ‘Red notebook, with a gentleman’s toilet fillings c.1850’. Rightly so, the leather red wallet does contain tweezers, ear scoops and nail files — the likes of which have barely changed since the Roman times. These manicure items are in fitted compartments alongside a small pencil and string attachment, where a notebook would have been held.
But in an additional pocket, alongside an engraving of an unknown woman, there is a neatly handwritten recipe for ‘Ginger Cakes’ with ‘Ginger Sugar’ icing. The recipe is one we’re all familiar with, but a slight peculiarity in this instance is that the ‘ginger cakes’ contain no ginger! Instead, they are flavoured with caraway seeds.
Caraway seeds aren’t usually found in cakes now, but were widely used in what were called ‘seed cakes’; although recipes appear for these cakes in the 17th century, they gained popularity from the 18th century onwards. Unlike several other exotic seeds or spices, caraway seeds were available across Europe, where they were used in dishes such as sauerkraut. In Britain, they were incorporated into sweets like cakes. They even find mention in several English classics like Jane Eyre, who was served a seed cake by Mrs Temple; or in David Copperfield, on “the pleasantest tea-table in the world”, not to forget Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)! Well-known food writer Elizabeth David wrote that other than seed cakes — which were once a staple — caraway seeds were rarely used in British cooking. It is thought that the cakes fell out of fashion because they were considered dry and became viewed as boring — suggesting you can have too much of a good thing.
In this recipe found in the museum’s collection, ginger is not an ingredient in the main cake batter, but in the sugar icing, which carries the ginger flavour throughout the cake. If this recipe was an heirloom, then it’s likely that it has been adapted over time. In the 17th century, it may have contained less sugar or even no sugar icing at all, since sugar was expensive and seen as a mark of status and wealth. It is more likely that this recipe is contemporary to the wallet in which it is held, from around 1850, when sugar was easily found on every table in England. At this time, this recipe could very well have been made in many households.
Put the sugar into a brass pan & a little water just to wet it & boil them (the sugar and water) till they become candied, then put in the ginger & boil them up together.
Pour a little into a plate & if it be free from water it is finish’d.
The 21st-century version
Inspired by this find, we decided to give it a try ourselves. However, we adapted it slightly, using a one-fourth of the suggested quantities to make 12 cupcakes. This could easily be made a loaf cake as well, but may need to be baked for slightly longer. A vegan version would entail the use of dairy-free margarine, dairy-free milk and an egg substitute.
There is, however, an element missing from the original recipe, which we have had to guess. If you mix the listed ingredients together you get an almost sand-like consistency, which needs some liquid to get a batter-like texture. Mrs Beeton, of Household Management fame, suggests brandy at this point, but milk is another option that would have been readily available for most households at the time.
GINGER CAKES (ADAPTED) RECIPE
(makes 10-12 cupcakes, or a loaf cake)
227g self-raising flour
170g light brown sugar
1 egg (beaten)
7g caraway seeds
Splash of milk (stir in until a batter like cake texture is made)
Method: Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl, and stir in the milk until you get a slightly thick cake-batter texture. Add the batter to a cupcakes tin (or a lined loaf tin). Bake at 180 degrees Celsius in a fan-assisted oven for 25-30 minutes (or until golden and a skewer test comes out clear).
GINGER SUGAR ICING
14g grated ginger
114g granulated sugar
Water, enough to dampen all of the sugar
Method: After the cakes have cooled, a wet caramelisation method is used to candy the sugar. This means adding the sugar to a pan, and then wetting it with water before putting it on the gas /stove. When the sugar starts to turn brown as it caramelises, add the ginger. Try not to over-stir the mixture as the ‘wet method’ caramelisation is prone to crystalising the sugar if stirred too much. However, even if this happens it still gives an excellent ginger-flavoured sugar icing! Once ready, pour it over each cupcake, working fast before it sets.
Important: Be careful as the caramel is extremely hot and can set fast.
The majority of the flavour comes from the ginger sugar icing, which does give the illusion that the entire cake is ginger filled. The cakes are very sweet, and the caraway seeds add a really subtle, slightly aniseed-y flavour.
Over all, it’s certainly unusual, definitely a surprise and worth a go to taste a 19th century sweet treat.
Why not give it a try yourself? Share your photos on social media, tagging @museumoflondon