This rosewater currant cake must have been extremely popular in 1678, because the recipe was labeled simply, “To Make The Best Cake That Ever Was Eaten.”
With a description like that, you just have to try it.
We came across this recipe at a gathering sponsored by UCLA’s Clark Library along with culinary historian Marissa Nicosia of Cooking In the Archives. This document from 1678 written by Mariabella Charles was one of the volumes on display. We were there to work on the recipe for “jumballs” (hand-shaped anise cookies) but this cake recipe that followed it was a real eye-catcher.
Now, just to be clear: We’re not culinary historians over here. We just like messing around in the kitchen. So that’s the spirit in which we took a stab at interpreting this recipe and bringing it up to modern-day measurements.
A few things about this recipe: One, the quantities are huge (4 pounds of sugar, 4 pounds of cream…). This must have been made for a decent-sized crowd. So we cut it down to a manageable size but tried to keep the ratios more or less consistent.
Two, the ratios are a little hard to understand. On the one hand, it calls for “one pint” of flour (are we even reading that correctly?). On the other hand, it calls for “8 pounds of currants” (!?!?). Our working theory is that this might have been a very fruit-heavy cake. But to bring it closer to present-day ideas of cake, we cut back a little on the currant ratios.
Three, there are no eggs listed in this cake. Of course eggs were used at the time, and you’d think eggs would be pretty standard in cake, but since there was no mention of eggs in the recipe we decided to keep this as an eggless cake.
Four, the recipe appears to be leavened with “ale yeast” (brewer’s yeast, we assume). Just to simplify it (and make it more cake-like than bread-like, which is what the modern palate seems to prefer), we used baking soda as the leavening agent.
Five, the recipe calls for mace, which is essentially the coating around the nutmeg kernel. If you don’t have mace in your spice cabinet, just add a little more nutmeg.
Last, just something to remember: Rosewater is an acquired taste. As we mentioned with the rosewater ice cream, rosewater was an extremely popular flavoring at the time, so it’s likely that many dishes contained rosewater (as opposed to vanilla, which would have been much more exotic and rare). We kept the rosewater to a minimum just to make sure it wasn’t too “heavy” or overly fragrant.
With that said, here’s what we got:
Rosewater Currant Cake
An interpretation of a recipe for "The Best Cake That Ever Was Eaten" from a 1678 manuscript by Mariabella Charles as seen in UCLA's Clark Library.
- 1/2 cup butter plus one tablespoon butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 tsp rosewater
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp ground mace (or just substitute ground nutmeg)
- 1 1/2 cups currants
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, then add the sugar and blend until well mixed. In a measuring cup, measure out the cream, add the rosewater, and stir to combine. In a separate mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and mace, and stir to combine.
Add about 1/3 of the cream mixture to the butter/sugar mixture and mix slowly. Add about 1/3 of the flour mixture and continue mixing slowly. Repeat with 1/3 of the cream mixture, 1/3 of the flour mixture, until all is combined. Carefully fold in the currants. Scoop the batter into a greased 9" x 9" square pan (or, alternatively, into a pan that has been lined with parchment paper). Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
We served this at a brunch the day after we made it and we got some surprised responses. Some of our guests were disappointed because they had mistaken the currants for little chocolate chips. Some were mystified because they had never tasted rosewater before. And some were completely, utterly delighted by this charming little cake.
The best cake that ever was eaten? Sure, why not?