Pick up any 18th, or even 17th, century British cookery book,
whether published or manuscript, and you’ll more than likely
find a receipt (recipe) for Shrewsbury Cake. Or for that matter,
any cookbook, commercially printed and not, during the 18th or
early 19th centuries, here in this country. Yep, the Shrewsbury
Cake is virtually everywhere. It’s also a VERY English concoction.
At least, that’s what I discovered once I decided to make them
for display and eating purposes at the Israel Crane House this
past December. Once I began my research, looking through
a vast assortment of historic cookbooks, I found nearly two
dozen receipts. Whether it was the published work of Hannah
Wolley, Eliza Smith, and Mary Randolph, or the handwritten
records of an unknown housewife in the English countryside,
an anonymous lady of Virginia, or New Jersey’s own Polly
Burling,* receipts for Shrewsbury Cake are abundant.
Of course, finding all these receipts begs the question: Are
they all the same? Well, yes and no. The basic ingredients
are flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and usually one or more
spices. However, the quantities of each changes. As always,
some are sorta similar and others are quite different. Then
there are the exact or near-exact copies that were stolen,
er, borrowed directly from another cookbook (for example,
the receipts in E. Smith, Susannah Carter, and Elizabeth
Cleland are exactly the same).** The specific spices were
often different: some called for mace, nutmeg, cinnamon;
others gave only one or two of those, plus a little rosewater;
then there were a few that specified mace only or nutmeg
and cinnamon only, but with a little brandy instead of (or
at times, along with) the rosewater. One really interesting
receipt not only cut down the the number of eggs (which
was typically three or four) to just one, but it also added
milk (or cream). And finally, another, from a Medieval-era
work, includes it all: the basics of flour, sugar, butter, and
eggs; the spices; the rosewater; a liquor (altho sack instead
of brandy); AND “warm cream.”***
There’s more that I could mention, but I don’t want to bore
anyone. Maybe one of these days, I’ll do a more detailed
comparison of all the receipts (or not!). Suffice it to say
that, in the end, the main components and the overall
structure (the instructions) of each receipt is the same,
but there’s also a bit of creativity, if you will, thrown
in for good measure.
Of course, I’ve already stated that I used Amelia Simmons’
receipt from her book, American Cookery. However, I imagine
now you’re wondering, “Why?” Well, stay tuned!
*Hannah Wolley, The Queen-like Closet, England, 1672;
Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, England, 1750
(1st ed. pub. 1727);
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, Baltimore, MD, 1836 ed.;
18th C British manuscript cookbooks in Egg Pies, Moss Cakes, and
Pigeons Like Puffins, by Vincent DiMarco;
18th C American manuscripts in Colonial Virginia’s Cooking Dynasty,
by Katharine E. Harbury.
Polly Burling, A Book of Receipts April 1770, NJ.
** E. Smith: ibid.;
Susannah Carter, The Frugal Housewife, England, 1772;
Elizabeth Cleland, A New and Easy Method of Cookery, Edinburgh,
***William Kitchiner, M.D., The Cook’s Oracle, England, 1831
(1st ed. 1817);
Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery.
For more information on the above books, see the Library pages.