Don’t let these boring looking biscuits deceive you, they are actually quite exciting.
I haven’t posted a Shropshire recipe for some time. This isn’t because I have forgotten my ambition to share more Shropshire recipes with you. I have been reading quite a bit about the history of food in England recently and I have often been thumbing through my Shropshire recipe books. I just haven’t managed to blog about it.
The Shrewsbury Cake, also known as the Shrewsbury Biscuit, has many variations and a long history. Some recipes state lemon as the main flavouring, some caraway seeds. Karen Wallace, in her Shropshire Food, says that five variations of the biscuit are listed in Cassell’s Dictionary of Cooking, printed in the 19th century.
Wikipedia tells me that a recipe for it was included in The Compleat Cookery, printed in 1658, and that the playwright William Congreve, uses the Shrewsbury Cake as a simile in his play, The Way of The World in 1700. Karen Wallace refers to a pamphlet produced in 1938 (that is how important the Shrewsbury cake is, it gets its very own pamphlet, with the grand name ‘Shrewsbury Cakes – The Story of a Famous Delicacy’) that states that the first recorded mention of said cakes was in 1561. The cakes were given to people of importance when they visited the town.
My Shropshire Cookery Book, published by Shropshire Women’s Institute has a historical recipe from a family recipe book from 1630 to 1750 and this is the one I have used for this recipe. It includes a reference to sack, which had me scratching my head for some time. What, I wondered, is sack? Then I remembered that hiding away on one of my shelves I have the Good Housekeeping Cookery Encyclopedia, which says that sack is “an old name for various white wines, particularly those from Spain and the Canaries; sherry is the only modern representative of the family”. So, there we go, who knew?
I don’t have any sherry in the house, but I do have a bottle of Madeira, so Madeira it is then.
Here is the original recipe taken from the WI’s Shropshire Cookery Book. This book does not have a publication date, but as the price was originally 2s.3d. it’s safe to say it was printed before the decimalisation of sterling in 1971. It’s a wonderful book full of treasures and I love the way each recipe was given by a member of one of the WI’s in Shropshire. The historical recipe for Shrosebury Cakes was given by E.Walshe (St.Giles WI), and very grateful I am too.
To Make Shrosebury Cakes
Take one pound of flower, one pound of sugar, one pound of butter, half an ounce of carraway seed, some nutmeg, rub it well together then take three eggs, beat them well, then put to them three spoonsful of sack and as much rosewater. Mix it with your paste then role it out and cut it into what shapes you please, bake them upon tin plates, prick them with a pin let your oven be not to hott.
I love the way so many of the spellings have changed since the 17th Century and the spelling of Shrosebury is very interesting. There is a long-standing argument locally over whether Shrewsbury is pronounced with a shrews or a shrose, and I have grown up saying it with a shrews. It seems, however, that historically it was a shrose. Shocking (and may I add, wrong).
You can still get Shrewsbury biscuits in some of the bakeries in Shropshire. But I doubt they add a slug of Madeira to their dough. In fact no Shrewsbury biscuit I have ever tasted tastes like these. You can detect both the Madeira and the rosewater and the dough spreads to create a delicate tuile-like biscuit rather than the shortbready type I have tried before. They would be delicious with ice cream. When I make them next though I might forgo the rosewater and stick with the madeira as I am not sure it’s not all too complicated a taste. Don’t do away with the caraway seeds though, as they are delicious.
Here is my recipe. It makes one-third of the original to make 22 biscuits.
150g plain flour
150g caster sugar
150g cold butter
¼ tsp caraway seed
pinch of grated nutmeg
1 tsp rosewater
1 tsp Madeira or sherry
The easiest way to make these biscuits is in a food processor. Tip in the flour and the cubed butter and pulse until breadcrumbs. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse until it starts to come together as a dough. Shape into a flattened disc and wrap in cling film or a food bag and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
If you don’t have a food processor, then rub the butter into the flour using your fingertips. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix together with your hands until it gathers into a ball.
Dust the work surface with flour as this is quite a sticky dough and roll the dough until about 5mm thick. Stamp out rounds or any shape you like and place onto lightly greased baking sheets.
Place in the centre of a preheated oven at 160°c, gas mark 3 or the lower half of the Aga Baking oven for 8-10 minutes until lightly golden. Leave on the tray to cool for five minutes and then remove carefully onto wire racks. These biscuits are delicate so take care.
Make a pot of tea, sit down and enjoy a little taste of history and salute to the good people of Shrosebury, or indeed Shrewsbury.