Sunday, 24 June 2012

History corner – brown cake and patriotic biscuits

Time for a delve into history corner and, for this visit, I’m baking from “Isobel’s Home Cookery” from 1916.  Isobel’s Home Cookery was a monthly publication and, at the end of the year, a bound volume was produced, which is what I have.


1916 was slap bang in the middle of World War 1 and, while Britain didn’t have rationing until the very end of the war, care was taken to avoid waste and flamboyance in recipes.

I chose brown cake because it seemed such an unglamorous name for what is effectively a chocolate sponge sandwich.  Unusually, the recipe requires you to make chocolate milk and this provides not only the flavour, but also most of the moisture as the recipe uses only one egg.  For a modern version of this cake I would expect three eggs.

The cake rather divided my eatership –some finding it too dense and cloying in texture.  Interestingly, they don’t like brownies either for the same reason.  I do like brownies and think that this cake is similar to a squidgy brownie...which is no bad thing, but don’t make it expecting a light crumbly sponge.

The icing is particularly austere in that it contains cocoa, sugar and water.  No buttercream here!  Surprisingly, it tastes very good and rich – a cocoa hit for the chocolate lovers out there.

The patriotic biscuits are a light gingerbread which manages to be crunchy and chewy at the same time.  The only patriotic element seems to be using red, white and blue sprinkles but, as I didn’t have any, I opted for pastel shades.

What I love about old recipe books is the insight they give you into ordinary people’s lives and views; the hot issues and health scares of the day.  Here are some of my favourite examples:

I had never considered that the piece of cheddar lurking in my fridge was plotting to do me harm!

In an age where we’re bombarded with statistics on childhood obesity and TV chefs are launching crusades about poor school lunches, I find it refreshing (and a tiny bit comforting, if I’m honest) that there was an age when mothers were advised to give their children sugar, especially in cake form.

This is less than 100 years ago but look at how old age is portrayed.  I’d love to know how old the lady was in this photo and then compare her to women of her age nowadays – I think we’d be shocked.

This is one of my favourites.  March is the month when youngsters are apt to get ‘out of sorts’.  I’m sure with this Mrs Danvers-esque woman bringing them trays they’ll be motivated to get well and out of her clutches in no time!

While most of the book focuses on running the home and looking after the family, some sections are rather more poignant, like this one about husbands coming home from the front.  Wives are recommended to give their husband food they wouldn’t get in the trenches and pastry is suggested as an achievable luxury.

There is a section on cakes and biscuits you can always have on hand so that you can offer unexpected visitors something a little more exciting than bread and butter.  What I love is the dress the lady is wearing.  If I have unexpected visitors (which I don’t because anyone who knows me knows better than to turn up unannounced!) they will find me in slippers, jogging bottoms and a t-shirt.  This lady looks rather more groomed!

This boy is pale and thin because he has the same kind of sandwiches every day!  Not fair.  I had ham sandwiches practically every day at school – how come the affliction of thinness passed me by?  I think I will stick with ham sandwiches rather than the suggested raisin and nut sandwiches.  What next – ham flapjacks?

I end on a note of caution and advice – feed up when you feel run down.  Be safe out there people......

Ingredients for the brown cake

For the cake:

285ml / ½ pint milk
45g / 1 ½ oz cocoa, mixed with enough cold water to make it into thin cream – I added 8 tablespoons
115g / 4oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
170g / 6oz brown sugar
1 egg
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
340g / 12oz self raising flour

For the icing:

Equal quantities of cocoa and icing sugar – I used 8 tablespoons of each
Enough boiling water to make a glossy icing

Method for the brown cake

Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan oven 160°C/350°F/gas mark 4.

Line two 20cm round loose bottomed sandwich tins with baking paper.

Place the milk in a small saucepan and bring the milk to the boil.

While the milk is heating, mix together the cocoa with enough cold water to make it the consistency of thin cream.  I found this to take 8 tablespoons.

When the milk boils, remove from the heat and stir in the cocoa.

Put to one side to cool.

In a mixing bowl beat together the butter and sugar until smooth and well combined.

Beat in the egg and vanilla.

Stir in half the flour along with half the cocoa milk.

Repeat with the remainder.  Don’t worry – the batter will be runny.

Ladle the batter into the two prepare tins.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cakes comes out clean.

Place the tins on a wire rack to cool and de-tin the cakes as soon as you can safely handle the tins.

Leave the sponges to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

Now make the icing: Place an equal quantity of cocoa and icing sugar into a bowl – I used 8 tablespoons of each as I only planned to sandwich the cakes, not decorate the top.

Add boiling water, a teaspoon at a time, and beat into the dry ingredients.

Keep adding tiny amounts of boiling water – the icing should be glossy and thick.  Adding too much water will make it dull. (Mine took 9 teaspoons in the end)

Place one sponge on a serving plate and spread the icing over the top.

Place the other sponge on top.

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


Ingredients for the patriotic biscuits

57g / 2oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
170g / 6oz plain flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
57g / 2oz light brown sugar – the recipe called for ‘moist sugar’ which I think is dark brown sugar i.e. sticky and treacly
115g / ¼ lb golden syrup
To decorate: 1 egg white and hundreds and thousands (ideally red, white and blue)

Method for the patriotic biscuits

Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan oven 180°C/400°F/gas mark 6.

Line two baking sheets with baking paper or non stick foil.

Beat the butter until it is soft and creamy.

Add the flour and beat until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Stir in the ginger and sugar.

Stir in the golden syrup and bring the mixture into a firm, moist dough.

Roll out between two sheets of clingfilm and aim for a thickness of approx 0.5cm.

Using a 7cm round cutter I got 18 biscuits.  The dough re-rolls easily but when rolled out the golden syrup starts to rise to the surface so work quickly.

Place the biscuits on the prepared sheet (they don’t spread that much) and bake for 10 minutes or until a darker golden colour.

Leave to cool for 5 minutes when out of the oven.

Brush with beaten egg white and sprinkle with hundreds and thousands.

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



Jo said...

What a brilliant post. The articles in those old books are fantastic, especially the poor boy who always has the same sandwich. I really should look through my Granny's old cookbooks.

Can't believe that sponge only uses one egg! Love your pastel sprinkles on the biscuits too.

Victoria said...

This is so interesting. I love a bit of history!

Gloria said...

I love this post and especially the draws are beautiful and the cake too!:)

trash said...

Now that sounds like a proper icing. Cake looks quite dense doesn't it? Not sure how I feel about it, probably should make it to find out :-)

Susie @ Fold in the Flour said...

I love this - it reminds me of looking through some of my nan's cookbooks when I was little. There was a great 'household management' one (not Mrs Beeton) which I loved - she used to make rock cakes from it. And a couple of Fanny Craddock ones that scared the life out of me! It's great to see how the history of cooking has developed :)

Nom! The Indulgent Baking Blog said...

Aaaaaah I love this! Can't beat a bit of cake history either,love the sound of the unglamouress brown cake. I really enjoy seeing the little articles about feeding the children and the old :)


Katie said...

Yay I love your History Corner pieces! They are always so interesting. Its funny to see how much times have changed. Everything was so propper and neat and Blyton-esque back then. Love the sound fo the brownie like cake and that icing sounds divine - im not a buttercream fan, so will give this a go

fallen from flavour said...

what an interesting post. old cookbooks really are treasures. there's so much more to them than just the recipes. and i do like a squidgy cake.

Choclette said...

Great post, really enjoyed reading this and aren't those illustrations fantastic. I quite like dense cakes and any mention of it being even faintly like a brownie has sold it to me.

Lisa Marie said...

It's not the cheddar that will plot against you. It's the limburger you have to keep an eye on. Just saying.

Maggie said...

I always enjoy History Corner. Fascinating insight into yesteryear. My hubby also isn't sure about the texture of brownies. Your cake looks huge CC.

Caroline said...

I love all those pictures from your book - fascinating how views have changed over the years. I must look out for old/vintage cookery books - yours always look fascinating.

I do like the sound of that chocolate cake and those patriotic biscuits would be perfect to help use up the patriotic sprinkles I bought for the Jubilee celebrations - they take some using up - I've got most of the container remaining!

Jean said...

Fascinating !!
As you say, not only an insight into old ideas about nutrition but also how people lived their lives.

sensibilia said...

What a fascinating book! Lovely to read these snippets from life in days gone by. I remember being told as a teenager that cake is good for you - I have never forgotten this lesson!

Wonder what Cakoma was? (You see, I read everything! true to my blog-title!)

Lottie @ Lottiesworldofcakes said...

What a fantastic book! I love that it is called brown cake!

Johanna GGG said...

a delightful book and a delightful post - I suspect I would enjoy the cake as I am a fan of brownies and dense cakes - I am also a fan of drawings in old cookbooks - priceless