Sunday, 9 October 2011

History Corner – Empress cakes

Miss Tuxford’s “Cookery for the Middle Classes” was – despite its rather exclusive title – a big hit. Originally published in 1902, my copy is the 11th edition dating from 1930. That’s quite a lifespan for one cook book.

The subtitles of this book highlight how far food and food preparation has come in a short period of time. The full title is “Cookery for the Middle Classes (including a few vegetarian dishes) and Useful hints on Gas Stove Cooking Including the New Automatic Control”. This book is set in the time when having a temperature control on your oven was cutting edge innovation. There is a section at the back of the book instructing you how to set the oven properly depending on what you’re cooking. Sponge cakes need to be baked at 5E, if you’re interested.

One wonders what Miss Tuxford would’ve done had any of the lower classes dared bake from this book? It seems a crazy thing to limit your market in such a way especially when Miss Tuxford had an entrepreneurial streak. At the back of the book she has a page of items for sale included food essences such as vanilla, and also “useful and inexpensive utensils”, my favourite of which is the “Straining grid for use in deep fat frying or boiling fish and cauliflowers whole (designed by myself)”. A whole boiled cauliflower. Imagine it. Are you imagining it? Well, you don’t have to – here is the least appetising illustration of a cauliflower ever (with a strange looking thumb thrown in for free) :

And a close up:

I chose the Empress Cakes recipe as they were probably a well-known recipe at the time the book was originally published. Queen Victoria died in 1901, only a year before publication. No doubt these little cakes were named in honour of her, as one of her titles was Empress of India.

Lining the pan with nuts wasn’t as fiddly as I thought it might be. The recipe gave no indication as to the amount of nuts to use so I guessed (my guess is in the recipe below) – feel free to use less if this looks too nutty:

The cocoa is delicate; I wouldn’t call these a chocolate sponge, more sponge with a hint of cocoa. The idea of lining the pans with nuts so that they bake into the sponge works surprisingly well and creates a nice look. However, I wasn’t sure which way to serve them – nuts up or nuts down? On this blog post you’ll see a mix of both!

As you’ll notice my cakes came out a touch on the large side – that’s the problem with old recipes; they don’t tell you what size pans to use or guidelines. I know I should’ve trimmed the mushroom top off to make them look daintier but, let’s be honest, the mushroomy top is often the best bit of a cake!

They were also delicious warm with custard – a cake or a pud; what’s not to love? One thing I would say, they definitely dried out a couple of days after baking (tasted lovely though) – still fine to serve as pud with custard, but if you had them with a cup of tea if would be a good idea to add a dollop of cream.

Although Miss Tuxford wrote the preface well over 80 years ago it shows how nothing really every changes. Except for the old fashioned phrasing, this could’ve been written today:

“During recent years the cost of living has greatly increased and many ladies have sought a cookery book giving recipes which, whilst ensuring dainty, wholesome and nourishing dishes, are withal modest in cost.”


½ lb / 227g unsalted butter, plus extra to grease the pans
½ lb / 227g caster sugar
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
4 eggs
¾ lb / 340g plain flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon baking powder
Milk, if needed
Chopped almonds to line the tins – I used a mixture of ground almonds and chopped hazelnuts totalling 120g


Preheat the oven to 150°C/ fan oven 130°C/300°F/ Gas mark 2, or as the recipe calls it – “slow”.

Generously grease a cupcake pan – if you have a deeper, more ‘muffin-y’ pan that will be better. Take a second pan and grease half the holes – the mix will make 18 cakes. I made 12 from mine and they were too big!

Sprinkle the chopped almonds into the pans ensuring that they stick to the bottom and sides. This can be a bit fiddly but is worth the effort.

Place the butter, sugar and cocoa in a bowl and beat together until light and whipped.

Add two of the eggs and beat well.

Add half the flour and stir in.

Add the remaining two eggs and beat well.

Add the remaining flour, along with the vanilla and baking powder and stir well.

If the mix is dry i.e. not a dropping consistency, add a little milk – do this with caution so you don’t add too much.

Carefully spoon into your almond-lined cake pans and level the surface. Fill them more than you would a cupcake case because the low baking temperature means they won’t rise as much. I filled mine to the top because the recipe gave no guidance – I think the ideal would have been somewhere between 1/2 - ¾ full.

Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cakes comes out clean. Mine took much longer – just over 30 minutes, so don’t worry if yours take longer too!

Leave to cool – in the tins – until cool enough to handle and safely remove. Leave to cool completely on a wire rack.

The cakes will store for several days in an airtight container but note they will dry out – best to have some cream on hand!

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



Jacqueline said...

What am interesting post CC and yes indeed some funny thumbs. It shows you just how little things change (the economy and not the thumbs). I like thought of one with custard :)

Nom! The Indulgent Baking Blog said...

I love really old cookbooks they have some seriously odd illustrations in, great cakes though!

Nom! X

Step-parent's Cove said...

Yummy! I wonder if I can subsitute the nuts with dried fruits, as I have a nut allergy. But the cupcakes looks amazing!

sensibilia said...

Love the antique pictures! So clear. I have couple of old books, too, with instructions on how to boil pigs' heads etc.

Elegant cakes so much more interesting, though!

Jo said...

That is the strangest drawing of a cauliflower I've ever seen! Speaking of cauliflower, my mum decided to cook one last night and when she was cleaning it at a sink an earwig/forky tail crawled out of it. Needless to say there was much screaming in the kitchen!

I love how rustic these cakes look with their little muffin tops. Bet it was lovely with custard.

C said...

They do look lovely - I like the idea of coating the outside of cupcakes with a different flavour.

Interesting post - I do enjoy seeing parts of your collection of older recipe books. You're braver than me though - I like a rough idea of how much cake I'm expecting to make!

i cannaetell said...

Ooo yes. Whole boiled cauliflower is ace for turning into a wonderous cauliflower cheese. Mmmmmmm.

Hahahahha... word ver is 'exollynt' as indeed your recipe is.

JavelinWarrior said...

I love this post - partly because of the cookbook relic and bits advice from a times gone by, but mostly because I've never seen an Empress Cake up close. And without your blog, not sure I ever would have! Thanks for sharing...

Katie said...

It's so interesting what cooks of old used to bake. They look great and I love the idea of the nutty lining/coating. Don't trim the tops off - thats the best bit!

Katie said...

Opp meant to say - deep fried cauliflower, sounds odd yet strangly appealing....

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful piece of history! These look really interesting and very impressed with your bravery at tackling such an old recipe. The results look delicious - nuts up or down!

Maggie said...

I love History Corner CC. You must have a very interesting collection of old cookery books now.

Jay said...

cake sounds utterly yummmy...nice presentation dear..:)
Tasty Appetite

Baking Addict said...

Lovely post. Custard goes with everything! I do like the idea of lining with nuts. I agree that the mushroom tops are the best part. I'm always pleased if I have to trim them to ice the cake as I get to eat them all :)

Cakelaw said...

Love the look of these cakes, especially when you mention they can be served with custard! I'll skip the whole boiled cauliflower though ...

Working london mummy said...

what a wonderful post and a great idea cooking from an old cookbook. love the custard with cupcake idea!!