Time was, we used to mark the passing of the year with festivals and their associated foods. The list of celebrations that have continued into the 21st century is a lot shorter than it used to be: pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, Simnel Cake on Mothering Sunday, Cross Buns on Good Friday are about all that remain in national consciousness.
Regionally, there are still pockets of celebration peculiar to that particular area. Whilst researching my book (shameless plug) Great British Bakes, I discovered two such celebrations with which I have a personal connection.
The first was that of Pax Cakes at King’s Capel, near Ross-on-Wye, where my father spend his final years and is now buried. Under the terms of the sixteenth century will of Lady Scudamore, cakes and ale were to be distributed to the parishioners of Hentland, Sellack and King’s Capel on Palm Sunday, to be consumed in church with the aim of fostering good will and letting the grievances of the past year be forgotten. The cakes became known as Pax Cakes and the toast/blessing was “Peace and good neighbourhood”.
The second was the celebration at Kidderminster, where I now live, held on Midsummer Eve, for all residents of Church Street. A bequest left by John Brecknell in 1778 added to an earlier bequest and provided cake for each child or unmarried woman born or living in the street. The men-folk were to gather together to oversee the distribution, and for this meeting both beer and tobacco were paid for by the bequest. Old quarrels had to be set aside in order for the meeting to proceed. Over the years, the celebration evolved into a Midsummer’s Even dinner for residents of the street, where the toast was “Peace and good neighbourhood”.
All of which leads me to this week’s recipe found in my grandmother’s cookery book. It’s for a cake to celebrate Whitsun, originating from Lincolnshire. The recipe was very insistent that, after baking, the cake be wrapped and carefully stored for “several days” in order for the flavours to mingle. The first time I made it, I dismissed this notion, as the aroma was so tantalising, and indeed, it was absolutely delicious, warm from the oven. This time I decided to follow the instructions as written, purely to compare taste. Long story short, although the cake I unwrapped this morning was nice, I still prefer the cake fresh and warm. The flavour is akin to an Eccles or Banbury cake, but with an enriched dough taking the place of pastry.
This recipe makes two, 20cm cakes. You can either do your own taste test, by eating one warm and trying the second several days later, or make just one cake by halving the recipe.
There’s no indication, other than the recipe title, what exactly this cake was meant to symbolise or celebrate, so whether you choose to make one cake or two, Peace and Good Neighbourhood to you!
Lincolnshire Whitsun Cake
Makes two 20cm diameter cakes.
170g unsalted butter
625g strong plain flour
2 sachets fast-action yeast
170g unsalted butter
450g soft light brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
2 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
1 large egg white for glazing
- Grease and line with parchment paper two 20cm loose-bottom or spring-form cake tins. Tart tins are not suitable, as the sides need to be relatively high because of the cakes rising both before and during cooking.
- Put the first four ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
- Tip the mixture into a bowl.
- Gently warm the butter and milk together until the butter has melted.
- Allow to cool to blood temperature, then add to the flour mixture. It will form a very soft dough.
- Knead for 10 minutes, then set aside to rise for 30 minutes.
- Mix the fruit, sugar, yolk, butter and spices together in a saucepan and warm through until moist and the fruit soft.
- After 30 minutes, divide the dough into two and then each half into four equal pieces.
- Divide the fruit filling into six
- Pat each piece of dough into a circle of diameter 20cm and place in the prepared tins, alternating with layers of the fruit mixture. The top layer will be of dough.
- Set tins aside to rise for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
- Bake the cakes for 30 minutes, then remove and quickly brush them with the beaten egg-white and sprinkle with caster sugar.
- Return to the oven and bake for a further 25-30 minutes, until the top is browned and the cakes have shrunk away from the sides of the tin a little.
- Cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then remove and cool on a wire rack.
- Eat warm, or wait until completely cold before wrapping tightly in foil and storing in a tin, or wrap in plastic and freeze for later.