Adding a bit of Spice won't Help this Gross Cake

 Do not waste your time making this spice cake.

I started The Historical Cooking Project with my friends, in part, as a great way to try out recipes that I would never normally make. I thought that I would use the meetings each month to experiment with new techniques, ingredients, and dishes. However, sometimes I play it safe.

 One reason that so many of my dishes are cakes and breads is because I actually love making cakes and I do have fun trying out different methods from a variety of centuries. Another factor, however, is time constraints. I am a PhD student in the midst of my comprehensive exam year; reading a book a day (until I reach the final 200th which thankfully is in sight—only two weeks away, yay!), working as a TA (teaching assistant), and deciding to take a class—all on top of the regular life responsibilities of housework, walking my dog, and working out. Suffice to say, I am exhausted and sometimes I am not as keen on experimenting with a recipe that will take many hours of prep work, all to flop. I do want my dish to be edible (although some of the fun in our group is when the dish fails in the worst way) and even the less tasty cakes are usually tolerable.

Another reason I often choose cakes is because I am a vegetarian. Many of our books are restricted to recipes for meat, bread, and sweets and the bread recipes usually say something along the lines of “make bread.”

Also, I'm cheap. I try to make recipes where I don’t have to buy many ingredients that I don’t already have at home or at least I prefer to select recipes that use ingredients that I would incorporate into my dinners anyway.

This week I made a slightly riskier choice. Yes, I made a cake BUT I had to work with ingredients that I normally wouldn’t. I probably should have known that I wouldn’t have liked it even from reading the recipe: it has anise seeds which taste like black licorice-- yuck!

The recipe itself wasn’t very difficult, although I did have to do math again. As you can see below, flour is measured by the bushel. Seeing as there were only four of us at the meeting, I cut the recipe by four and there was still far too much.

The recipe had me do something very strange, which was to add all of the dry ingredients to the pot while it was on the stove. By following the order of the recipe, I threw flour onto the melted butter and was not able to add any liquid until the flour had already started to stick to the pot. A solution would have been to keep the burners on a lower level.

making the dough on the stove
I didn’t have barm (because I am not currently brewing beer) so I just added a pinch of yeast. I have added yeast to sweet dough’s before and it made the pastry taste a bit like alcohol. This recipe also did not allot any time for the dough to rise before placing it in the oven. Thus I only put a tiny bit in. Finally, and apart from the grossness of the anise seeds, the reason this cake tasted so bad was --because I didn’t realize until after I had poured it into the pot-- I had absentmindedly used whole wheat instead of white flour (see above: the stress from comps and not being fully aware of my actions).

the consistency of the dough before baking
This cake could actually taste pretty good with a few changes:
Make sure to use white flour. Add some baking powder. Don’t use too many anise seeds (or just don’t use them at all). Add lots of sugar (the recipe is never specific on how much to add but I definitely did not add enough). Don’t bother combining the ingredients on a pot on the stove: just melt your butter on the stove or in the microwave and mix everything in a bowl. Cook at 300 F rather than the 350 that I used.

And most importantly: Don’t waste your money buying saffron.

With a recipe that has so many other spices, I doubted that I would be able to taste the saffron at all. I also really didn’t want to pay eleven dollars at the market for a teeny-tiny packet of the world’s most expensive spice. I actually stood in front of the spice rack debating whether I should endure the expense. I did and I doubt it made any difference.

While Gervase Markham likely never cooked any of the recipes, I think that most cooks would suspect that you wouldn’t be able to taste saffron amidst the anise, cloves, and cinnamon. The only viable reason to add saffron would be to brag about having saffron in the dish. The spice was a symbol of wealth.  Due to the intensive labor process to pluck the stigmas of many saffron flowers just to get an ounce, it has always been an expensive ingredient (

If you decide to make this dreadful cake, forget the saffron. Save your money for something else (like ice cream to make this cake slightly more edible).

I usually give my neighbors pieces of cake or a sampling of any sweets I make when there are leftovers. Almost the entire cake was leftover, but I was too embarrassed to have anyone else try it.