Recipes so good it oughta' be a sin!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Williamsburg Shrewsbury Cakes

When is a cake not a cake? When it's a cookie! What we would term a "cookie" today was called a "cake" in the 18th century thanks to our British roots. Shrewsbury (pronounced Shrows-bree) Cakes are most closely related to a "Sugar Cookie" today. But, they're so much better!

I first had real Shrewsbury Cakes at Colonial Williamsburg some 25 years ago. I was recovering from an illness that hit me my first month in college and knocked me out for a semester. Mama decided that since I was up and about that we should go to Colonial Williamsburg. After all, I was a history major and my specialty was Colonial American History.

So, we jumped in her 1977 Mercury Marquis station wagon and headed out on the 8 hour drive to the Virginia Peninsula. We found a motel outside the historic district where we stayed for our weekend jaunt.

Once we got into the historic area I was in love with the town. It was November and the trees were in full color with yellows and reds and oranges abounding. In the shops and homes fireplaces were burning to keep away the damp and chill and the smell of woodsmoke permeated the air. It was magical.

It wasn't long until we discovered the Raleigh Tavern Bakery. We wandered in expecting just another "demonstration" but were thrilled to learn we could buy the wonderful baked goods made in the old ovens! We purchased a few items that day including two that would become lifelong favorites of mine: Ginger Cakes and Shrewsbury Cakes.

The next day we continued our trip with breakfast at a little restaurant next door to our motel. I can still remember the wonderful pancakes with powdered sugar they served. The restaurant was owned by a couple and they were very friendly. We returned the next day for breakfast again and Mama had to buy a few of the little ceramic cow creamers they had for sale! We also signed their guest book and that Christmas got a hand signed card from the couple. Every year when we returned we ate at that restaurant every morning and every year until they finally sold their restaurant we got a Christmas card - even after we no longer were going each year to Williamsburg.

On our final day Mama informed me we had to go to the Raleigh Tavern Bakery. I figured she wanted to get a snack for the road. After all, she'd already gotten the "Raleigh Tavern Bakery" cookbook as well as one with recipes for Christmas.

So, we walked into the Raleigh Tavern Bakery and lined up with other tourists. Finally, it was our turn and Mama began:

"I'll have 3 loaves of the Sally Lunn Bread." she announced. The baker looked at her a bit strangely. After all, most people got a loaf at most. But Mama wasn't finished. She began a recitation that eventually included a minimum of 3 of each of their breads and 4 dozen of each of their cookies!

Yes, she was stocking up for everyone she knew. We left the bakery loaded down with boxes and bags of baked goods!

Moderation wasn't something Mama did too well when it came to bakeries and gifts!

So, in memory of that first visit 25 years ago this Autumn, I give you Williamsburg Shrewsbury Cakes. We'll start with an original 1808 recipe and then adapt it for modern use (and taste).
1 pound Sugar
3 pounds Flour
3 Eggs
melted Butter

Sift one pound of sugar, some pounded cinnamon, and a nutmeg grated, into three pounds of flour, the finest sort; add a little rose-water to three eggs, well-beaten, and mix these with the flour, etc. then pour into it as much butter melted as will make it a good thickness to roll out. Mold it well, and roll thin, and cut it into such shapes as you like. Bake in light oven.
So, that's the original.
And here's a modern variant that's a tad more suited to our modern tastes and batch sizes!

1/4 c. unsalted butter
1/4 c. shortening
1 c. sugar
1-1/2 tsp. of grated orange peel
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 egg
3 Tbl. milk
2 c. sifted all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cream or tartar


Cream the butter, shortening and sugar. Add the orange peel and vanilla extract. Add the egg and milk. Sift the flour, baking soda, salt, and cream of tartar and add to the creamed mixture. Mix well. Roll into 1-inch balls and roll the balls in sugar. Arrange the balls 1-1/2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten the balls gently with a small glass. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 8-10 minutes or until very light golden brown.

I've actually made both. The original I used for demonstrations at 18th Century living history events. The taste is a bit more bland than we generally expect in a cookie and it's also flatter and more crisp (more of what the British term a "biscuit"). Without the addition of the Baking Soda it doesn't "rise" like we generally are used to with cookies. However, I encourage those into food history to try both!

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