Sunday, 1 August 2010

History corner – Normandy short cakes

“The Housewife’s Referee”, subtitled ‘A treatise on culinary and household subjects’ was published in 1898. Written by Mrs de Salis, who you may remember from other books such as “Tempting Dishes for Small Incomes”, “New Laid Eggs”, and “Dogs and their Ailments”, it takes a rather unimpressed view of the modern woman.

This is my favourite bit from the introduction. I quote word for word because to edit it would be a crime:

The silly ignorance of so many gentlewomen is astounding. Let me give an example: I was present at a lecture a short time since at one of the recent cookery exhibitions, where Miss Young was teaching pastry making, when a lady among the audience asked,

“Must we put out bare hands into the dough?”

“Certainly,” replied the teacher; “you cannot make it otherwise.”

“Oh, then,” remarked the questioner, “perhaps that is the reason why I failed when I made my last tart; my gloves did seem in the way!”

I consider this a very good example of the terrible ignorance which prevails regarding the knowledge of the cuisine.

I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson there – the number of long white evening gloves I’ve wasted! Also, while Mrs de Salis is keen to point out the failings of others I would like to expose her, for this recipe undoubtedly contained a typo. She says to use the same quantity of flour as the sugar and butter; any seasoned biscuit maker will tell you that you need a lot more flour in order to bind the dough. Further, her instructions tell you to add flour until you have a stiff dough and then roll it out - so the dough is obviously not meant to be as soft and sticky as it was. The amounts set out below are what I actually used rather than her flawed recipe!

The whole tone of the book is rather high-handed and Mrs de Salis or Harriet, as she would no doubt not let me call her, can’t ever resist slipping in some heavily italicised French whenever the chance arises. These are actually called
Sables Normands with the English provided as an afterthought.

I didn’t want to add too much flour and lose the buttery focus of the biscuit so I made a decision to roll little balls of dough between my hands rather than add more flour so I could roll it out and use a cutter. I think that was that right way to go as the texture was great – crumbly but rich and flavoursome.

As is often the way with old recipes there is no cooking time or temperature given. We are told the oven should be “brisk” which I’ve interpreted to mean medium-hot. You will note from the rather scanty ingredients list below that the biscuits are not flavoured. Personally, I’d be tempted to add some vanilla but wanted to keep them as the recipe stated for this first attempt.


3 eggs
230g/ 8 oz caster sugar
230g/ 8 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
460g/ 1lb plain flour – don’t be afraid to use more if the dough is too sticky


Preheat the oven to 180˚C/fan oven 160˚C/350˚F/Gas mark 4.

Line 2 biscuit sheets with baking paper.

Place the eggs, sugar and butter in a bowl and beat until well combined.

Using your hands (remember ladies – no gloves!) add the flour a little at a time until you have a thick and firm paste. I never actually achieved this state and my dough remained too soft to roll.

If your dough permits it, roll out the paste between two sheets of floured baking paper and use a cutter to cut out biscuits. As my dough was soft and I didn’t want to over flour it and diminish the butteriness I took walnut sized balls and rolled them between my floured hands.

Place on a baking sheet, leaving a little room for expansion. If you’ve rolled balls, flatten them slightly.

Bake for approximately 15-20 minutes until the biscuits have turned pale golden.

Remove and leave to cool on a wire rack. Remove the biscuits from the baking sheet when they have cooled – they are far too soft when straight from the oven.

Bask in the glory of the wonderful thing you have created.



Ling's Passion said...

These looks delicious.

trash said...

Despite having followed it word for word I find that particular book has not ever provided a dish to tempt any small income I have encountered!

Choclette said...

Oh dear, sounds like Mrs de Salis had a thing or two to learn herself about cuisine! Your adaptation certainly looks really good - your photographs are great.

Priya (Yallapantula) Mitharwal said...

I am bookmarking these, they look great and love them :)

Baking Addict said...

I love your history corners. Thanks for yet another great recipe. Looks good! :)

Cakelaw said...

LOL, despite Mrs Salis' hugh-handed tone, these biscuits look delicious.

Rhyleysgranny said...

Oh I enjoyed reading that. Don't you just love these old cookery books. Your biscuits look just perfect. Mrs de Salis would be impressed I think. :)

FireintheBreeze (Brittany) said...

Wonderful post! That book sounds hilarious, and well done for picking out Mrs de Salis' mistake

Margaret said...

I love History Corner - more please CC!
Pleased that your biscuits look so delicious.

crazydaisy said...

Hi, these look lovely, I like simple recipes like this where the star would naturally have been wonderful Normandy butter. Looks like a great book you have!

Y said...

Fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing. I especialloy love that introduction.

Maria said...

Great post! I need to try these short cakes.

Lucie said...

Delish! They look so light and buttery. Lucie x

C said...

They look great - lovely pale colour and beautifully crumbly.

It could be said, though (just to play devil's advocate!), that you did use the same weight of flour as butter and sugar. In your version of her recipe you have the same weight of flour as that of (butter+sugar). Perhaps her wording is ambiguous but this is what she meant and you have unwittingly followed her recipe exactly!!! Anyway, the end result is surely the most important thing and these look lovely - I do like your history corner posts!

The Caked Crusader said...

Hi C

Ah, I see what you're saying! No, I was cutting it short in my write up - she does actually expressly say "half a pound of flour".
I thank you on Mrs de Salis' behalf for trying to defend her but...alas, she got her recipe wrong!

Coco Cooks said...

I love to read old cookbooks and compare the techniques to modern times.

The Kitchen Buzz said...

Love your cake blog, but I can't find the prompt to become a follower. Aiuto! (Italian for "Help!").

The Caked Crusader said...


It's on the right hand side under the "about me" section - it's quite a way down.

Hope this helps!