Monday, June 7, 2010

Olde English Seed Cake

For bedtime reading, the Miss Read books can't be beat. A deep calm comes over one upon opening one of her books at the end of the day. Quiet English villages in the Cotswolds ... cottage gardens, eccentric characters, and never a day without tea. When someone falls ill in Fairacre or Thrush Green, "lemon barley water" is produced, a restorative believed to help strengthen a weakened constitution. It's simply lemonade made with water in which barley has been cooked, sweetened with honey.

Seed cake is frequently offered at tea. In modern times, seed cake is merely a sponge cake with caraway or anise seeds added. It's still served at English teas. But its origins go back as far as the 1500's, when it was a yeasted, round cake. It's mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, its round shape said to represent a medieval shield known as the Buckler.

Years ago my mom and I made a round skillet bread with caraway seed in it, called "San Francisco Firehouse Bread." That memory, plus the intrigue of making a recipe with a history going back to an age when books had titles like Book of Cookrye and The English Huswife, prompted me to do a little research and create this cake of seeded exquisiteness. Not something we often bake with, seeds bring a unique flavor as well as a gritty crunch.

Step back in time ...
Adapted from this website

I used a mixture of seeds; you can use all of one type if you wish, or a different mixture than mine. Make sure any mixture you use is a pleasing one.

1 package yeast
1/8 cup warm ale or water

1/2 cup (1 stick) organic butter
2/3 cup organic sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt

2 fresh, local eggs
2 teaspoons anise seeds
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds

1-1/2 cups regular flour
1 cup whole wheat flour

About 1-1/2 cups milk (I used some fresh, local buttermilk from this adventure!)

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Sprinkle yeast over ale or water in a small bowl.

Crush seeds lightly with a mortar and pestle if you have one.

In food processor, cream butter, sugar and salt until smooth. Add eggs, seeds, flours, yeast mixture, and 1 cup milk. Blend JUST until smooth. You should have a thick batter. If needed, add remaining 1/2 cup milk.

Pour batter into buttered 8-inch round cake pan. (I used a buttered 8-1/2 inch springform pan.) Bake 45 to 55 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on rack for about 15 minutes before running knife around sides and turning cake out onto a plate.

Makes 8 servings.

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