Cakes as we know them are a thoroughly modern invention and today are usually aerated with either bi-carbonate of soda or baking powder or a chemical mix of some sort.
The first mention of baking soda as a rising agent is about 1830 and baking powder about 1900. Prior to this, cakes were leavened with various types of yeast, often brewer`s yeast (barm) or a home-made brew of the same, or a sourdough culture.
We are all in love with our wonderful modern cakes, no doubt, yet the traditional cake has much to offer in flavour, digestibility and simply lack of chemical additives, however benign these appear to be.
The texture and density of the recipe which follows remind me of cakes my Irish grandmother made. I suspect the old recipe was maintained, but soda added instead of yeast. It is based on an old recipe revisited by Elizabeth David and exemplifies cakes of yore, a far cry from today`s cakes.
The very best yeast to use for a traditional cake is the organic yeast from Shipton mill. This nicely replicates the yeast of old and is actually a barm yeast…much used and loved in English baking and cakes, a very traditional English ingredient…not to mention the source of it, traditional English ale from a top-fermenting process…very different to the lager style and undergoing a timely and welcome renaissance.
Regular yeast can be used of course, but the old unique flavour of a barmy yeast is well worth exploring and provides a welcome point of difference.
Cornish Saffron Cake
For this exercise, I want to make a very traditional Cornish saffron cake, and mention a few modern twists which hopefully augment tradition…. to use the traditional process but be creative….as cooks and bakers often were.
There is some debate as to whether saffron is enjoyed by the “English palate” whatever in this post-modern age that means. It is certainly very popular in the media, and for those interested in this wonderful spice, the recent BBC documentary by Kate Humble is fascinating.
It is well worth looking at the BBC site if you are interested in saffron as there is much information and recipes from many modern English chefs/cooks.
It seems that historically, the English of the home-counties largely used saffron for dying or as medicine. It was the Cornish and other south and west dwellers who favoured it in cakes. This has to do with the ancient contacts between the Mediterranean and the south west. For how long have people brought their saffron to Cornwall and Bristol? Some suggest the Phonecians brought it here bce.
Another reason is to do with the true concept of “local”. Saffron is a spice of warm countries, and much enjoyed by the locals. When a spice is taken out of its geo-gastronomic context, it may not meet favour, especially a spice with bitter…even medicinal tones such as saffron.
Caraway seed can provoke similar reactions in reverse…that is, it is not popular in hot countries…or for that matter out of particular cultural enclaves in the UK. Experience has shown me that about 2 out of 10 do not appreciate caraway. Some sampling here at Shipton Mill reveals a similar ratio with saffron.
Anybody remember the 60`s hit “I`m just wild about saffron”?. This was a reference to its supposed narcotic qualities. Im hoping no-one develops a raging habit for saffron cake! It is also touted as an aphrodisiac, so clearly it walks on the wild-side of spices.
Incidentally, saffron is the most expensive spice. Purchase it online at a very reasonable price.
A Word About Recipes
The real reason for a recipe is as a template, as every cook/baker adds their touch and always did, which keeps culture and tradition lively.
The best flour for a yeast cake is a medium-strength flour such as Shipton Mills traditional organic white flour. White spelt flour is also excellent.
My favourite flour for a yeast cake is made by using a medium strength wholemeal, such as Shipton Mills stoneground organic wholemeal flour, but sifting it to remove the coarse bran. This results in a fine tasty brownish flour which is light and retains nutritious elements of the grain. It is also very traditional and what was done in country households to create a lighter flour for cakes.
There is a question about butter. Regular salted butter, which is the English preference, can make this cake salty-sweet, which some enjoy. Traditionally, this would have been the commonly available butter, although sweet butter was also made. I prefer to use unsalted butter made from cultured cream, which is the old way of making butter. This cake was also made using clotted cream instead of butter, which hints at one of the authentic traditional flavours, more readily achieved today with sweet unsalted butter.
Decide for yourself, but the butter/cream options open an interesting route of discovery and baking fun.
…options are equally of interest. Into more modern times, this cake was commonly made with caster sugar. However the traditional versions must have been made with a less-white and refined sugar, which again alters the flavour, making it more robust and interesting. The commonly available organic sugar is usually a faint yellowish or golden hue and actually has an aroma. It is a worthy replacement for white sugar, as would be any less-refined sugar. One hundred per cent extraction sugar is also very good in this cake, but can darken the saffron glow.
The cake can also be made with honey, which was no-doubt commonly done. In this case, source an English honey and use the same weight of honey as for the sugar but increase the flour to 500 gm.
Heretically, the cake is very good made with an authentic maple syrup. If you decide to experiment with maple syrup, reduce the milk quantity and increase the flour.
Modern additions include the rind of 2 lemons or oranges and of course vanilla, although the vanilla really makes the cake too generic….it loses the traditional nuance which makes it different in a post-modern sea of vanilla-flavoured cakes and pastries.
…are traditionally cinnamon and nutmeg. Worthy co-spices are cardemon, ginger and anise, add half a teaspoon of your choice as well as the cinnamon or nutmeg if you like this amount of spice. Caraway seed was often used as the only spice, and this is certainly traditional if not ancient… use 1-2 teaspoons .
Options are to use the recommended 2 teaspoons either as a mix or of a single spice such as cinnamon. Nutmeg is the exception, use no more than half of a teaspoon. My favourite is to simply use ground cardemon, replacing all the other spices,( Freshly ground from the seeds if at all possible.)
Bread or Cake?
The version below is a bread really. Technically, the amount of fat makes it a “cake” , but the texture is of a dough in that it can be handled and kneaded. The sugar amount is minimal, again more bread than cake.
I have treated this one as a bread in its final preparation and suspect this version is older, because it does not require a metal tin to support it. Clay moulds were probably used in some areas.
A Cakey Version
As tins became available, so the dough became more of a cake batter and softer, more luxurious and of course popular. Simply add more milk and sugar to the recipe to make a softer dough which will need a tin to support its rise. 200-220 gm milk is enough, and increase the sugar to 100g.
This dough requires thorough kneading/mixing. It should flow but not be sticky.
After its first proof/rise, the softer loaf will rise rapidly and have considerable oven-spring. If allowed to rise to the very top, it may just start to flow onto the edge of the tin and then spring in the oven giving a mushroom-head-like crown. Baked in a tin this way will require a further 5 minutes in the oven than specified for the loaf-of-old in the recipe.
Cornish saffron cake…..bread.
Shipton mill traditional organic white flour ….450gm
Shipton mill organic yeast…9g (1 sachet), or 15g fresh yeast.
Unsalted butter/heavy cream/clotted cream….120g .The butter should be soft or melted.
Currants and or sultanas or raisins or dried cherries, total of…120g….warm them at the same time as the flour.
Milk, best you can source…175g…if using a stronger flour, the dough will absorb more milk, up to 200g, so have some extra on hand just in case.
2 teaspoons of spice.
1 loosely packed level teaspoon of saffron threads…. more if you are wild about saffron….or indeed less, say ½ teaspoon if you are unsure but would like to try this traditional golden cake.
A teaspoon of good salt.
The very first thing to do is temper the saffron. Place the threads in a small bowl or glass. Heat the milk until very hot and pour it over the saffron threads, reserving about 2 tablespoons which will be used to cream the yeast later. Leave this for at least an hour before proceeding…it can be left overnight to good measure.
Warm the remaining 2 tablespoons of milk, add the yeast and a tablespoon of flour stirring until smooth. Cover and leave to activate at least 15 minutes…while you weigh out and prepare the rest.
Warm the flour. At the same time, warm the dried fruit.
In a bowl, mix the flour with the sugar salt and spices.
Add the creamed yeast and saffron milk and mix with the flour.
Add the butter or cream and mix in well until the dough is “clear” and smooth.
This should form a soft-ish dough.
Knead or mix it well for 2-3 minutes. Depending on whether you use clotted cream or butter or thick cream, the texture can vary, but simply adjust with a little more milk or flour if the dough isn’t a soft kneadable consistency. This is quite a forgiving cake and will not suffer from extra mixing if you dont get the required texture at first.
Add the dried fruit and mix in thoroughly.
Briefly knead to form the dough into a round and put it in a bowl.
Cover the bowl with plastic film or put in a plastic bag. Leave it in the warm-ish spot for 2 hours. It should have doubled in bulk. Because of the amount of butter, the fermentation is slowed and requires time, and most especially warmth.
TIP… Do not let this dough get too cool, or the hardening butter will suffocate the yeast.
A bakers slip is invaluable for the next procedure.
Without deflating it completely, lift the dough on to a lightly floured surface, it will still be a round, so gently re-round it. The top should be as smooth as possible, but extra terrain is characteristic! Place on a buttered/papered baking tray.
Ensure the tray is big enough for the loaf to double its diameter. Cover with the mixing bowl and keep it warm. This needs an hour to fully rise.
Just before baking, “dock” or prick it right through to the bottom with a skewer, about 7 times. Not an arcane ritual...this should prevent seismic bursting, although all such rustic shapes are acceptable as long as the flavour is good!.
Preheat oven to 220 o. Place cake in the centre and turn down to 200 o. Bake for 30 minutes.
At the completion of baking ,slip it off the tray and return to the oven for 5 minutes more. This cake is actually crusty!
Dip a pastry brush in the honey and gently brush the cake with honey as soon as it leaves the oven and is hot . The crust soaks-in the honey and is a delight to eat.
If the honey is hard, mix with a tiny amount of hot water and stir it well before brushing the cake.
Post-modern variation on the theme……deconstruction re-mix.
Follow the above recipe, but add 2 heaped tablespoons of authentic cacao powder to the flour mix.
Finely grate the rind of 1 medium sized orange. Mix with 2 teaspoons of authentic vanilla essence or the seeds scraped from 2 vanilla beans. Let this sit for a while. Mix in at the same time as the butter/cream.
Use dried cherries as the fruit. After rinding the orange, squeeze the juice on to the cherries and marinate for at least half an hour. This will add some more liquid to the mix, which is enough to absorb the cacao.
Use cinnamon as the sole spice…2 teaspoons.
Glaze with heather honey.