Despite seed cake enjoying a long and popular past, it has fallen out of fashion in the last hundred years. In fact, the only place I have seen it outside of terribly old cookbooks, is the menu at Fergus Henderson’s St John restaurant in London, where it remains a dailly feature of the bar menu, designed to be enjoyed as a mid-morning snack.
But recipes can be found for it dating as far back as 1591, and it features in many of the most celebrated early cookbooks, from Hannah Glasse’s 18th century The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, to Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management a century later. The seeds in question are simply a small number of caraway seeds, which perfume and flavour an otherwise plain cake, made in the same way one would make the still-popular madeira cake.
These strongly fragranced, liquorice -tasting seeds transform the cake so beautifully, it seems sad that this doesn’t form part of our modern cake repertoire. Perhaps we are more reluctant nowadays to embrace the stronger, more domineering flavours that found favour in earlier times: we shy away from mace and cloves, caraway and even black pepper in baking. But of course, judicious use of any of these can elevate dishes sweet and savoury.
On which note, don’t be deceived by the small quantity of the eponymous seeds: caraway is strongly aromatic, and a little goes a very long way. The seeds shouldn’t beat you over the head. They have a tendency to be medicinal in large quantities, so don’t be tempted to be overly generous here.
I have included madeira in my recipe, as I like the caramel and citrus notes that it brings. But you could follow Fergus Henderson’s example, and instead serve the cake with a glass of the same stuff, for a punchier elevenses.
Makes: 1 loaf cake
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 1 hour
200g soft unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
1 pinch caraway seeds
4 eggs, beaten
250g self-raising flour
2 tablespoons madeira
4 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons demerara sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Rub a little butter along the length of a 2lb loaf tin and place a strip of greaseproof paper along that length, pressing it so it sticks flush to the tin.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar until noticeably paler and fluffy. Stir in the caraway seeds. Measure out the flour, and add an egg followed by a quarter of the flour, alternating and mixing until all the eggs and flour are incorporated.
3. Stir in the two tablespoons of madeira and then add the milk one tablespoon at a time, until the mixture loosens just enough to be able to drop from the spoon; you may not need it all. Pour the mixture into the baking tin and sprinkle the top with demerara sugar.
4. Bake for about an hour until the cake is golden and risen and, when pressed gently with a finger, the sponge resists. Check the cake at 45 minutes; if it’s beginning to look a little dark, you may wish to cover it with tin foil for the remainder of the baking time.