A worthy repeat post for seasonal celebrations from our archives....
If you were the cook for a great house in the 17th-early 19th centuries, or simply a woman who lived in a sufficiently prosperous household, you'd be baking your Rich Cake, left, for Twelfth Night celebrations now. The Christmas holidays were also a popular time for weddings,and the Rich Cake would be the wedding cake of choice, too.
Celebratory cakes of the past were not the frothy, towering constructions of piped and colored icing that they are now. What made them festive was the lavishness of their ingredients, not their outer display. These cakes would be rich with eggs and butter and sugar, candied fruit and costly imported spices, brandy and sherry. With eggs as the only leavening, the texture would be dense to modern tastes, more of a cross between our pound cake and a fruit cake. But because the ingredients were fresh (or freshly ground), there'd be none of the chemical-preservative flavor that makes many 21st century fruitcakes such bad jokes.
Rich Cakes were often baked in a Turk's-head pan, shaped much like contemporary Bundt pans. Once unmolded, they could be wrapped in cloth and soaked with more liquor to develop their flavor and moistness. By the time the cakes were served in late December or January, they would truly be worth their star status on the holiday table.
During a recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg, the cooks in the kitchen of the Governor's Palace were baking the Rich Cakes for Twelfth Night. I was there for the final unmolding, right, a process that apparently involves exactly the same held-breaths and crossed fingers familiar to modern bakers. But as you can see, the cake slipped free with nary a crumb left behind.
If you'd like to try making a Rich Cake yourself, Colonial Williamsburg has put the recipe that they use (from Hannah Glasse's classic 18th c. cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy) on their Historic Foodways site. In case the non-specific nature of an 18th c. recipe is too daunting, the site provides a modern version, too.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.