Friday, May 04, 2007

Shrewsbury Cakes from Shropshire

Much of my information about Shrewsbury cakes/biscuits has come from ‘The Taste of Britain’, by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown. For anyone with an interest in British foods and ingredients I recommend this book. The contents cover the produce of each region – vegetables, fruit, livestock and dairy products; and also documents traditional dishes, describing their ingredients (although no recipes are supplied), physical appearance (colour, size, weight) and their history. Brown and Mason originally drew together all of this information for an Europe-wide project that aimed to record traditional ingredients and dishes that are still grown, farmed or in production. It is therefore not an exhaustive list of traditional foods, but the book is incredibly impressive in both its breadth and its scholarship. It is also extremely readable and inspiring, making one want to go on a nationwide tasting spree.

According to Mason & Brown, Shrewsbury cakes (or biscuits) were first documented in the 1500s. The ingredients used at this time are unknown, but the cakes were renowned for their texture, being crisp and brittle. A couple of centuries later the Restoration playwright William Congreve used Shrewsbury cakes as a metaphor (“as short as a Shrewsbury cake”) within his play of 1700, ‘The Way of the World’. Another writer helped to popularise the cakes in the 19th century, . Richard Harris Barham writing as Thomas Ingoldsby penned a tale of ‘Bloudie Jacke of Shrewsberrie. The Shropshire Bluebeard - A Legend of the Proud Salopians’ (Salop is an abbreviation for the county of Shropshire). In this 1840 poem Shrewsbury cakes are attributed to Mr Pailin (“Oh, Pailin! Prince of cake-compounders! the mouth liquefies at thy very name”). If Mr. Pailin was a real person or not has not has as far I can tell been established, although a plaque on an old shop near to Shrewsbury Castle states that "This shop occupies the site of a building where Palin first made the unique Shrewsbury cakes to his original recipe in the year 1760” (alongside a quote from ‘Thomas Ingoldsby’ of 1840), and Mason and Brown write that a Miss Hill, daughter to a confectioner of the town, may have married a Mr. Palin(Pailin). Whether he was fact or fiction, Mr. Pailin's name was taken by a manufacturer, Thomas Plimmer & Sons in the town, who registered as a trademark the name ‘Pailin’s Original Shrewsbury Cakes’. Production up until the Second World War was by Phillip’s Stores Limited. Sadly, due to the rationing of key ingredients, in particular butter, the manufacture of the biscuits then finished. If anyone knows of a commercial manufacturer in the town today, please let me know.

According to ‘The Taste of Britain” the earliest written recipe for the cakes is in Eliza Smith’s ‘The Compleat Housewife’ in 1728. Ms. Smith’s recipe is for a sweet biscuit with nutmeg and cinnamon. However, my internet rummaging came up with an earlier recipe, and Florence White’s ‘Good Things in England’ (1932) has a recipe that may also predate Eliza Smith’s book. The recipe in ‘Good Things…’ come from a Colonel Plomer of Shrewsbury, and he supplied it from a family receipt (recipe) book kept from 1630 to 1750. The Plomer family recipe flavours the biscuits with caraway seeds, nutmeg, sack (or sherry) and rosewater.

The second, older, recipe I found is in Hannah Woolley’s ‘The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet’, published in 1672. She flavoured her biscuits with cinnamon and rosewater only.

I am going to follow Colonel Plomer’s recipe, and not only because he has a fine name. I do like the flavour of both caraway seeds and rosewater, so I am happy to try them out in combination in one biscuit. The Colonel’s recipe works with one pound each of flour, butter and sugar. This must make up a rather large quantity of mixture, so I shall halve the recipe.

225g plain flour
225g caster sugar
225g unsalted butter
5g caraway seeds
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 egg, beaten
1 and 1/2 tbsp sherry (I only used the measure of rosewater as the mix was so wet)
1 and 1/2 tbsp rosewater

1. Preheat oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3. Prepare two large baking sheets.
2. Rub the butter into the flour.
3. Add the spices to the sugar and then tip the whole into the flour and butter mixture.
4. Add the beaten egg, and also the rosewater. I did this ahead of adding sherry, and found the mixture already to be too wet for rolling out successfully. I had to add more flour and omit the sherry altogether. I then chilled the mixture, covered, in the fridge. I left mine overnight, as I had to return to my little man, but 30 minutes would probably do it.
5. Roll out the mixture on a floured work surface. This still might take a bit of doing as the mixture is still a little sticky. Using circular fluted cutters to press out your biscuits and pop onto baking sheets.
6. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, but keep an eye on them. With all that butter and sugar disaster could quickly strike should one go off for a nice cup of tea.
7. Leave biscuits to cool for a few minutes before sliding them onto a wire cooling rack.

The biscuits were very sweet and buttery, as you might well expect considering the proportions of ingredients. The rosewater added to this sweetness, but for me the nutmeg was completely lost. Caraway seeds have a distinctive flavour and they did manage to stand up to the rest of the biscuit, and retain a voice of their own. The biscuits had a rather nice denseness and the promised brittleness manifested itself in a good clean ‘snap’. That all said, I would next time round look at reducing the amount of butter (made the mixture difficult to work) and the sugar (I like my own teeth), perhaps adapting a more standard shortbread recipe as these biscuits are a form of shortbread.

I’ve had a request for an up-to-date picture of Ellis. Just the one, but I only need to be asked once. Thank-you for indulging me my proud mumness! Here he is – 9 1/2 weeks young.


Anonymous said...

Ellis is a cutie! You are entitled to your proud mumness! Kathy in Kentucky

Anonymous said...

The cookies look almost as precious as your baby!

Cornflower said...

Even sweeter than the Shrewsbury Cakes!

dorothee said...

Wow, Ellis is gorgeous! What beautiful blue eyes... reminds me of my nephew.

bushra said...

oh wow, those eyes!

Figs, Bay, Wine said...

What a perfectly beautiful baby! Congratulations! By the way I love your site - I love learning the history behind so many traditional recipes that I can still remember my Granny preparing. And I can't wait to try these Shrewsbury cakes.
- Amanda in NYC

Anonymous said...

What a nice boy!

AnnaW said...

Ellis says thank you for your comments, and he looks forward to having a more active role in this site once he is old enough to help in the kitchen ; )

Anonymous said...

A very beautiful baby. Congratulations. Even more delicious than the Shrewsbury Cake

Cornflower said...

Congratulations on your well-deserved mention in Saturday's Telegraph!

Anonymous said...

Hi Anna,
I'm so glad to have found your blog and I'm really glad you're "back". I missed you when you were busy with your "bun in the oven."
I visit many times a week looking for British goodies and their history. I love your blog and all things English. Please keep it up!
Congratulations on your beautiful baby boy!
Yvonne in NH

Pilar - Lechuza said...

He has the most biggest eyes I have ever seen. What a beatiful baby! congratulations

Anonymous said...

Hi Anna, great blog, and very intersting stories! Just a suggestion though: it would be great if you had a recipe archive, to making finding recipes easier for your readers. Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Also, I thought your blog is a great idea, so I wrote a little post about it on my blog! Check it out!

Anonymous said...

hi, it's me again. thought you might like this link: It's about British regional cooking. Bye!

AnnaW said...

Hi Maninas,

Glad that you have enjoyed the site. I think that it is a good suggestion to have some easy way to browse the recipes on Baking for Britain. I will look into doing so, although it may take me some time ; ) Watch this space...

Jeanne said...

These biiscuits sound intriguing - the flavours are so unlike what you expect from English cuisine these days... And wow, look at Ellis! He is one of those babies who looks as if he is an old, wise soul in a baby's body. Too gorgeous!

Anonymous said...

Hi Anna,
so your baby is a beautiful "biscottino" (little cookie),I am in the office printing your fabolous recipes.
Isabella from Venice (Italy)

Anonymous said...

I actually have a question: Can I publish the image you have of Shrewsbury cakes in my newspaper? I'm the editor of a weekly newspaper in the United States called The Prince George's Sentinel.

Martin Skjöldebrand said...

Actually I found an older recipe for Shrewsbury cakes in The Compleat Cook fron 1658.

Ed Dixon said...

Dear Anna,

I have just inherited an old family cookery book from the mid-late 1600s with around 500 handwritten recipes in it, one of which is for Shrewsbury cakes. There are plenty of other bakery recipes in there as well. If you would like me to send over an image, please let me know.

AnnaW said...

Hello Ed,

How lucky are you! What a fantastic piece of family history to inherit. Preparing and eating recipes set down by ancestors centuries ago is a real privilege. I'd love to see an image if you have a moment. Send to

Andrea Broomfield said...

This is the second time I have visited your site tonight, and again, thanks for such an informed history of Shrewsbury cakes and the recipe. I have a copy of Good Things in England. It's a lovely book, and I also own Mason and Brown's Taste of Britain as well. What a sweet baby!! Congratulations.