It’s the Fourth of July, so here is a little cake in honour of US Independence Day! It’s my take on a recipe for the late 1700s – based on a bundt cake, and finished with gold in honour of the big day.
There is a little bit of a story behind this recipe. I found the original in one of my cookbooks, which features cake recipes from around the world. Among them all was a gem of a recipe of Herculean proportions and with little by way of directions. The limited information was all down to the fact this recipe originated in the late 1700s. Rather than just updating it, the author cleverly presented in all its glory, with original directions as follows:
Independence Day Cake by Amelia Simmons (1796)
• 20 pounds flour
• 15 pounds sugar
• 10 pounds butter
• 48 eggs
• 1 quart wine
• 1 quart brandy
• 1 ounce nutmeg
• 1 ounce cinnamon
• 1 ounce cloves
• 1 ounce mace
• 2 pounds citron peel
• 5 pounds currants
• 5 pounds raisins
• 1 quart yeast
• crushed loaf sugar
• box cuttings
• gold leaf
Sadly, the temperature of the baking oven was not given, but I would imagine it would need to be cooked slowly. If you do try and succeed do let me know.
And you know what? It was that last sentence that got me. This was not a “tested” recipe of the sort we’re all used to…but…what if I were to take that recipe…convert into measurements that are not so voluminous, and try to make this into a cake? With that, a challenge was set.
Before I could convert this lot, I was faced with a few decisions that were going to test my culinary knowledge. First off, I had to get the types of ingredients right. The butter was pretty easy (it’s a safe bet that the butter we have today is not unlike the butter available back in the 1700s), but the sugar was less clear. Should it be white or brown? While I like to use muscovado sugar in baking, this was supposed to be a celebratory bake, so I opted for sparkling white caster sugar. Next, the flour. In cakes, it should be plain flour. However, when making yeasted doughs, I use strong white flour that gives a light, springy texture. I didn’t know which to go with, so given this was more cake than bread, it would be plain cake flour. Luckily the spices, citrus peel and dried fruit did not require much thinking, otherwise I would have been in the kitchen all day fretting!
The method also presented something of a challenge. I started by weighing everything out into bowls, and then I was own my own – pure guesswork territory. I creamed the butter and sugar, added the eggs, then the flour and the yeast mixture. After that, the fruit was worked into the batter, and I left the cake to rise for a few hours.
Sadly…the cake had other ideas, and decided that it didn’t really want to puff up as I had hoped. Instead, it remained dense. All in all, a bit of a failure.
I was deflated but not defeated. A few days later, I had another go at the cake, but this time embraced the fact that the world of baking has moved on since the 1700s, and we now benefit from a magic substance called baking powder. I could skip the whole yeast thing, and instead rely on the white stuff to do the job. And this time, the cake worked like a dream. The crumb is tender and moist, and the cake has a rich, velvety texture that works very well with the spices, citrus peel and dried fruits.
Now, we also need to keep in mind that this is a cake to celebrate Independence Day. The original recipe suggests loaf sugar, box cuttings and gold leaf. I’ll freely admit that I have no clue was is meant by box cuttings (leaves from the box hedge plant?), and I didn’t have loaf sugar to hand. So again, I improvised – a simple glaze, drizzled in loops on top of the cake, and then finished, as was intended, with some flakes of gold leaf. Very celebratory!
So what do you think? Suitably impressive for the Fourth of July? I’d like to think so, and I hope that Miss Amelia Simmonds would too.
To make an Independence Day Cake (modern version!):
• 4 tablespoons rum
• 60g citrus peel, chopped
• 90g currants
• 90g sultanas
• 190g butter
• 280g sugar
• 2 eggs
• 350g self-raising flour
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon mace
• 150ml milk
For the glaze
• 85g icing sugar
• 4-5 teaspoons double cream
• gold leaf
1. Put the rum, raisins, sultanas and citrus peel into a bowl. Mix, cover and leave to sit overnight (or if you’re in a hurry, heat quickly in the microwave and leave to sit on the kitchen top for an hour).
2. Prepare a cake pan. If using a bundt pan, brush with melted butter, then dust with plain flour. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
3. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the spices and mix well.
4. Combine the flour and the baking powder. Add half of the flour mixture and half of the milk to the batter, and mix until smooth. Repeat with the rest of the flour and the milk. You should have a smooth batter that drops slowly from the back of a spoon.
5. Finally, fold in the currants, sultanas and citrus peel.
6. Spoon the mixture into the cake pan and bake for around 45-60 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Once baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly, then turn out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
7. To finish the cake, make the glaze by combining the icing sugar and cream. Mix until smooth – it should be soft, but not runny. Drizzle on top of the cake, then add flakes of gold leaf to finish the cake.
Worth making? In spite of all this history and the fact I’ve had to convert this cake into modern quantities, this is a great cake – spicy and fruity, but not heavy. This would make a great and lighter alternative to traditional fruit cakes.