Week 2 - An Excellent Cake ... or Bread ... or Bun


In previous years, the Cook Off has followed a predictable pattern. We kick things off with a beverage, followed by recipes that gradually increase in difficulty as the weeks progress. Which means our dish for Week 2 should be something pretty basic … say, a salad or a simple stew. So what’s the deal with the “Excellent Cake”?

Well, last Friday, Lori invited me over to the 17th century kitchen for a glass of limonade and a chat about recipe strategy. Those of you living in or visiting Newfoundland last summer might remember the unusually hot, humid weather. By August, it was pretty much impossible to move without risking heat stroke, let alone spend the day cooking over an open fire in 17th century clothing. Soooo …. This season, with Lori and Krista’s comfort and safety in mind, we've decided to tackle the most “fire intensive' recipes (anything that requires baking or roasting) early on in the Cook Off, while the weather is still cool.

Which brings us to this week’s recipes. Yes, for a second week, we’re offering you a choice of two slightly different versions of the same dish - an Excellent Cake and Spiced Bread. What’s that you say? Cake and bread AREN’T the same thing? Maybe not today, but in the 17th century, the terms cake, bread and bun were often used inter-changeably. As Elizabeth David notes in her classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery, when it comes to 17th century recipes, it’s difficult to make the modern distinction between cake and bread because the end result is often something between the two.

Which brings us to our first recipe, which comes to us from our old friend Sir Kenelm Digby and his book The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. It goes like this:


To a Peck of fine flower, take six pounds of fresh butter, which must be tenderly melted, ten pounds of Currants, of Cloves and Mace, half an ounce of each, an ounce of Cinnamon, half an ounce of Nutmegs, four ounces of Sugar, one pint of Sack mixed with a quart at least of thick barm of Ale (as soon as it is settled, to have the thick fall to the bottom, which will be, when it is about two days old) half a pint of Rose-water; half a quarter of an ounce of Saffron. Then make your paste, strewing the spices, finely beaten, upon the flower: Then put the melted butter (but even just melted) to it; then the barm, and other liquors: and put it into the oven well heated presently. For the better baking of it, put it in a hoop, and let it stand in the oven one hour and half. You Ice the Cake with the whites of two Eggs, a small quantity of Rose-water, and some Sugar.

Sir Digby’s cake is clearly intended to serve and army. Elizabeth David provides amounts based on 2 1/2 lbs of flour. We’ve reduced the proportions again to what we think are suitable for one, roughly 2 lb cake, or bread, or whatever (yes, this sucker is heavy!)

So, here’s our first crack at a 21st century version. I say “crack” because Elizabeth David does not provide any directions with her ingredient list. Nada. Zip. For guidance, we turned to her directions for Cornish Saffron Cake (also a 17th century cake-bread thingy) and hoped for the best.


12 grams (1 1/2 packets) of dried yeast

125+ ml (1/2+ cup) milk, warmed

450 grams (roughly 4 cups) white flour

120 grams (1/2 cup) butter, softened

120 grams (a generous 3/4 cup) currants (or any combination of diced, dried fruit) See note below.

1 teaspoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon each of nutmeg, cinnamon, mace and cloves

1/4 teaspoon saffron (optional, see note below)

1 tablespoon rosewater (optional, see note below)

2 tablespoons sack or sweet sherry (optional, see note below)


  • If you don’t have access to rosewater and/or sack/sherry, don’t stress it. Just add an extra 3 tablespoons of milk to make up the difference in liquids.

  • If you don’t have any saffron, just skip the first couple of steps and add your yeast to the full 1/2 cup of milk.

  • For a completely accurate recreation of Sir Digby’s recipe, you’ll need to add 270 grams of currant or other dried fruit! We thought that was a heck of a lot! I reduced it to 120 grams and there was still plenty of fruit evenly distributed throughout the loaf. However, feel free to adjust the level of fruitiness as you see fit.


Step 1 - Prepare the saffron and the yeast

Preheat oven to 400 F/200 C

Place the saffron strands on an oven proof dish, or piece of baking parchment. Place in hot oven for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small pot or in the microwave, heat the milk so that it’s just beginning to steam (If you accidentally boil it, let it cool a bit before using).

Crumble the saffron into a cup. Add a little of the warm milk and leave to infuse. Within about 10 minutes, the milk should be coloured pale yellow

Cool the remainder of the milk to luke warm. Add yeast and stir to combine. Cover and place in a warm, draught-free place for 20 minutes or until a froth has formed on top.

Step 2 - Dry Ingredients

Sift your dry ingredients (flour, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, mace and cloves) into a large bowl and mix.

Add the softened butter and rub in until mixture looks like coarse crumbs

Step 3 - Add Wet Ingredients

Make a well in the middle of your dry ingredients.

Add your wet ingredients (yeast/milk, saffron/milk, sack/sherry and rosewater)

Step 4. Knead

Using your hands, mix the wet and dry ingredients. If necessary, add a little extra milk to help it come together).

Knead the dough gently until it is smooth (about 3 or 4 minutes)

Add the currants (or whatever dried fruit you are using) and knead until the fruit is evenly distributed throughout the dough.

Step 5. First Rise

Lightly grease a bowl with butter or oil.

Cover and place in a warm, draught-free place until roughly double in size (about 1 1/2 - 2 hours)

Step 6. Second Rise

Deflate the dough with a couple of punches, and give it a quick knead

Shape into your cake/loaf and put in a well greased pan (I used a 8” high sided round tin, but a standard loaf pan with also work. Use what you’ve got ;-)

Cover and let rise in a warm, draught-free spot for about 30 minutes, or until it has almost reached the top of the tin.

Step 7 - Bake

Bake in a 400F/200C oven for about 45 minutes (about 55 minutes if you’re using a toaster oven!)

Step 8 - Glaze

Mix together 2 tablespoons of milk, 1 tablespoon of icing sugar, and a few drops of rosewater (if using) to make a glaze. As soon as you remove your cake/loaf from the oven, brush it with the glaze. Leave it to cool for about 15 minutes before turning it out of the tin.

The result? Pretty darn good, considering I baked my loaf in a toaster oven! The final consistency reminded me of a hot cross bun… soft, but not doughy. I’m not sure if that’s the result I was supposed to be going for, or if it was the best my EZ bake oven could do. Regardless, the flavour was yummy. Again, very similar to traditional, English hot cross buns. And it made fantastic toast!

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Ruthven’s recipe is reprinted, along with a modern version, in Sheilah Robert’s For Maids Who Brew and Bake: Rare & Excellent Recipes from 17th Century Newfoundland. Robert’s directions are almost as vague as Ruthven’s:


1 to 1 1/2 cups warm water

1 packet yeast

1 tsp sugar

4 cups white flour

1 cup raisins or currants

1 tsp mace

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 cup butter or lard, melted

1 egg


Mix dry ingredients and the raisins in a warm bowl

Work in the yeast mixture with the melted butter and egg

Knead and leave to rise in a warm place for about 1 hour

Punch down and shape into two round loaves

Let rise for a further hour before baking at 30-40 minutes

Lori and Krista are taking a crack at this one today. I’ll add pics of the results, along with their tips, tricks and suggestions, to this post tomorrow.

Spiced Bread Update (Tuesday morning)

L & K weren’t very impressed by their results using Ruthven’s spiced bread recipe. “It’s white bread with raisins” they said. I sampled a slice this morning. It’s a really good raisin bread, but “spiced”? Not even close.

L & K’s spiced bread. Their assessment of its taste? MEH!

L & K’s spiced bread. Their assessment of its taste? MEH!

Update No. 2 (Tuesday afternoon)

Today, L & K made a first attempt at Digby’s Excellent Cake. Despite serious concerns that it would never rise or bake, this afternoon’s visitors to the Colony’s 17th century kitchen gave it two thumbs up. Curiously, the texture of L & K’s loaf is completely different than mine…. much more biscuit like. Which leaves us wondering… which is closest to the original 17th century cake?

Which one will you try? Remember …. cook the recipe, snap a photo of the results and post it to the Colony of Avalon’s Facebook page for a chance to win weekly and grand prizes. Up for grabs this week? Heston Blumenthal’s Historic Heston.

Jane SeversComment