July is the busy month that looks to the harvest about to roll in. Thomas Tusser recommends in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry that the farmer should Get grist to the mill, to have plenty in store, lest miller lacke water, as many do more. This was necessary now for two reasons. First, as Tusser points out (and of which we have first-hand experience this year), if there is a drought which reduces the flow in the rivers, the stream may not have enough force to effectively and speedily turn the mill-wheel to grind the grain. The second reason is a logistical one. This years grain will be harvested soon, and the sheds and storage must be cleared for the new grain, it being not advisable to mix the old with the new. So, with plentiful flour new-come from the mill, July would be an excellent time to bake
[A] Very Good Cake
from The Closet of Sir Kenelme Digbie, Knight, Opened
Published by his sons consent, London, 1669
Take four quarts of fine flower, two pound and a half of butter, three quarters of a pound of Sugar, four Nutmegs; a little Mace; a pound of almonds finely beaten, half a pint of Sack, a pint of good Ale yest, a pint of boiled cream, twelve yolks and four whites of eggs; four pound of Currants. When you have wrought all these into a very fine past, let it be kept warm before the fire half an hour, before you set it into the oven. If you please, you may put into it two pound of Raisins of the Sun stoned and quartered. Let your oven be of a temperate heat, and let your Cake stand therein two hours and a half., before you Ice it; and afterwards only to harden the ice. The Ice for this Cake is made thus: Take the whites of three new laid Eggs, and three quarters of a pound of fine Sugar finely beaten; then beat it well together with the whites of the Eggs, and Ice the Cake. If you please you may add a little Musk or Ambergreece.
TRANSLATION No translation necessary, as long as you read phonetically. (For example, flower means flour, of course.) Some of the terms will be treated mere fully in the glossary
REALIZATION: Before I get to the realization, a brief comment on the title of this piece. Digbies recipe is really titled Another Very Good Cake, since in the text it is really the seventh of eight recipes for various cakes. But since this is only the first I have offered here, it is [A] Very Good Cake.
Digbies recipe works very well for us if we simply quarter it. Start with four cups of flour; bread flour is preferable, but all-purpose will work fine if the batter is mixed well. Cut in two and a half sticks (1¼ cups) of softened butter until the texture is like fine corn-meal. Add 1/3 to ½ cup granulated sugar, a generous teaspoon of ground nutmeg, and a small pinch of mace. (If mace is not a routine resident of your spice rack, forget it and be more generous with the nutmeg. Since mace is the outer cover of the nutmeg kernel, the tastes are similar.) Mix in 4 ounces finely chopped blanched almonds, and as many currants as your taste dictates. Digbies specified amount of currants (one pound for this smaller cake) makes a very fruity cake, so use less if your taste does not run that way. Add ¼ cup sweet sherry, a cup of half-and half scalded, and one cup of warm water in which you have softened 1 package of dried bread yeast or one cake of compressed yeast. You can approximate Digbies yeast a bit closer by dissolving the yeast in a mixture of half hot water and half pale ale. (See discussion of yeast below.) Add two eggs and one additional egg yolk. This should work up to a VERY thick batter, one that is too wet to knead, but thick enough to really work your arm when you beat it with a spoon. You should beat this batter for at least five minutes by the clock, and eight would be better. Pour the batter into a greased and floured 10 spring-form pan with removable bottom, and smooth the top if necessary. Let rise for at least 30 minutes in a warm oven, and 1 hour is better; the batter should be just rising to the top of the pan. Bake at 375° for 1 hour to an hour and 15 minutes, or until a long stick put into the middle of the cake cones out clean.
While you are baking the cake, mix a frosting from the beaten white of the 3rd egg and enough powdered sugar to make a rather thick, but spreadable frosting. Musk and ambergris are not currently available as flavorings, to my knowledge, but a few drops of rosewater or almond extract will serve. When the cake is done, quickly spread the icing on the cake, put it back in the oven and turn off the heat, and close the oven door. The residual heat will harden the icing. To serve when cool, remove the sides of the springform pan, cut in wedges, and serve it forth. For those concerned about use of a raw egg white, the residual heat is more than enough to make the icing safe.
Two points for the authenticity mavens out there: on Yeast and on Flour.
On Yeast: In the middle ages, baking was inseparable from brewing, because most of the live yeasts for baking was skimmed from the top of vats of foaming ale. The early multiplication stage of brewing forms a foamy cap of bubbling yeast, called a Krausen in German. The excess Krausen can be skimmed off, just like cream is skimmed from milk, to use in cooking. Therefore, the water/ale mix for the yeast gives a bit of authentic beery taste to the bread.
On Flour: The great doyen of historical cookery, Elizabeth David, in her book, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, has calculated from period sources that fine flour used to make pain de mayne, or noble bread, was milled at about 85% extraction. That means the flour was about 85% white endosperm from the wheat, and 15% bran and wheat germ. You can use white flour in this recipe, but both taste and texture are more interesting if the bread is made with a blend of 4 cups white flour mixed with 1 cup of whole wheat flour, and a tablespoon or two of wheat germ. This is a pretty close approximation of 85% extraction.
Pain de mayne: bread of the nobility, lighter, whiter, and more purely wheaten than the cheat bread, or coarse bread of mixed grains eaten by the poor.
Sack: A sweet sherry made in Spain. The sherry was brewed sweet, and additional sugar was added by the merchant (and more each time it changed hands), and even more by the user, if they could afford it.
Musk: an excretion from glands of the civet cat. The smell is very strong, and musky, but in minuscule amounts mixed into a sweet, ads a very attractive overtone to foods. The civet cat is endangered and protected today, so musk is not available. To get a picture of what the extract does to taste, try a really over-ripe cantaloupe, remembering they were originally called muskmelons.
Ambergreece: Modernly spelled Ambergris. It is another substance like musk, whose source is best left undescribed, except to say that its source is the sperm whale. It is also not available today.