The other day I explored the life of Hannah Wolley. Today, I’m going to attempt to make her Sugar Cakes. Sugar cakes were a common, relatively easy dessert common for the 1600s. Before I dig too deep into the history of the ingredients and my attempts to recreate these delicious, delectable cookies, let’s look at the original recipe.
To make Sugar Cakes.
Take a pound of fine Sugar beaten and searced, with four Ounces of the finest Flower, put to it one pound of Butter well washed with Rose-water, and work them well together, then take the Yolks of four Eggs, and beat them with four Spoonfuls of Rosewater, in which hath been steeped two or three days before Nutmeg and Cinamon, then put thereto so much Cream as will make it knead to a stiff Paste, rowl it into thin Cakes, and prick them, and lay them on Plates, and bake them; you shall not need to butter your Plates, for they will slip off of themselves, when they are cold.
Conversions table. I highly recommend Cafe Fernando’s page for conversions. In old recipes, if (and it’s a big IF) measurements were provided, they were not consistent. It was often weight-based with an assumption that the reader is familiar enough with spoonfuls and requisite spices.
Word definitions. Searced , means to sift, a common requirement of flours and sugars pre-industrial age. Modern sugars do not need to be sifted, but it is highly recommended that all running a fork through the sugar to break up any lumps.
Finding rosewater. Rosewater was a common ingredient in Medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration cooking, especially baking recipes. Modern day palates are familiar with the vanilla extract as a flavored baking addition. Aficionados of baked goods in the 1500-1800s would have recognized the rosewater flavor in a similar way. It is still common in middle eastern and Indian cooking, and as such, can be found in higher end grocery stores (I found mine at Whole Foods), mid-east markets, and, of course, online.
A note: You don’t need to soak spices in rosewater. At the time this recipe was created, ground spices were rare, if they existed at all. Most spices were purchased in whole, a la cinnamon sticks or nutmeg seeds. The spices would then infuse and leach into the rosewater, providing the flavor without requiring the use of a mortar and pestle. These days, modern technology has ground the spices for us, shortening the length of time for making these sugar cakes from 3 days to about 2 hours.
As I was mixing and baking these cakes, I made a few decisions. I reduced the rosewater to 3 teaspoons, from the original five in the recipe, as it is a strong ingredient. Fortunately, this recipe can handle the rosewater, and when I make these again, I’ll likely add another teaspoon to round out the flavor.
Original recipe calls for 1 cup of flour, but the resulting dough was very runny. I doubled the flour, which thickened up the dough from soup to viscous batter.
I also added 2 egg whites, in addition to the 4 yolks called for to provide a stronger binder and an element of lightness. Adding the eggwhites certainly helped the cakes rise.
The recipe never came to a point of peak stiffness, so I ultimately dropped the batter onto a cookie sheet, as opposed to rolling it out.
That decision worked out lovely, as my final cakes came out as cookie size cakes with a lovely amount of fluff and pillowy softness.
What’s the verdict?
The resulting cakes are sweet, soft, and light. They are a great cake to have with a nice cup of peppermint tea or coffee. I do need to troubleshoot the recipe to find the rosewater balance and I would put more cinnamon in to bring out the spicy flavors that are easily overpowered by the sugar. Ultimately, I would make these again, especially for friends who love cake but hate frosting. Those monsters.
When all’s said, the base of the recipe is quite delicious.
Here’s the final, revised, modern recipe I made.
Hannah Wolley’s Sugar Cakes
3-4 tsp Rosewater
Nutmeg (½ tsp)
1 cup-Powdered Sugar
1 cup-White sugar
2 cups Butter
4 Egg yolks
2 Egg whites
⅔ cup Cream
- Preheat oven at 350 degrees.
- Mix sifted sugar with flour.
- Add butter mixed with 1tsp of Rose-water to the sugar/flour mixture.
- Beat the yolks of four eggs with remaining rosewater, nutmeg and cinnamon.
- Add eggs to flour mixture and ensure well mixed.
- Add Cream a little at a time, mixing until well mixed.
- Drop 2-3 inch circles onto cookie sheet.
- Lay on baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes for the drops. 20 minutes for the thin cake.
- Let cool and enjoy!
A few final notes:
These can be made gluten free with one-for-one gluten free flour with xantham gum.
For a dairy free recipe, replace the butter with margarine
To replace cream, add ⅓ of margarine to ⅔ of soy milk. This will make your recipe more liquid, so you may need to consider adding more flour.