Whilst poring over old manuscripts, I love finding really early examples of recipes we would recognise today. And so I was delighted to come across this recipe for chocolate cakes. It appears near the front of a manuscript (MS1799, dated 1700-1775) digitised by the Wellcome Collection, and so, in my opinion, is closer in date to 1700 than the latter half of the century. The reason it caught my eye was because it reads as a ‘normal’ cake recipe, very unusual for the time.
Experience has led me to be cautious when it comes to the word ‘cake’ appearing in old recipes. In times past, this word was used for a broad range of ‘items that were circular’, rather than the baked confections of flour and eggs we associate with the word today. In the past I have been thrilled to find early recipes for lemon cakes and gooseberry cakes, only to find that they are for fruit paste and jellies, musk cakes that turn out to be incence, puff cakes that are meringues, rout cakes that are biscuits and spice cakes that are buns.
Even ‘chocolate cakes’ can catch the unwary, as many old recipes sporting such a title are actually instructions for making solid blocks of ‘chocolate’ ready to use in recipes. Unlike the cocoa powder we buy today, these ‘cakes’ were similar to the modern blocks of Mexican chocolate: solid, hard and requiring grating before use. The old recipes for ‘chocolate’ begin with the roasting of the cocoa beans, which are then pounded and ground extremely find and mixed with sugar, vanilla and spices before drying in cakes which are then stored for use, which makes me incredibly grateful that we don’t have to go through such Faff™ today.
Happily, this recipe omits the time-consuming ‘make your chocolate’ part, but in adapting this recipe for modern use, if an authentic 18thC flavour is required, the spices that would be part of the original cakes of ‘chocolate’ need to be added in. The quantities below might seem a lot, but there’s also a lot of cocoa, so to make sure they can all sing, the quantities need to be generous. You can play around with the spices to your taste – other chocolate recipes I’ve read include one or more of the following: allspice, cloves, aniseed, cardamom, musk, ambergris, and either achiote or cochineal for a reddish colour.
So what are they like? Well, to be honest, it took several batches of tweaking before I was happy with the result. The taste is intensely chocolate-y, and the addition of the spices makes for an unusual and rich flavour. In the interests of full disclosure, as can be seen from the photo, these are dense cakes, and are most definitely not of a lightness of a Victoria sponge, or even a sturdy Madeira cake. But to be frank, that is part of their charm. Since they are made without butter, I would recommend serving/eating them with some lightly whipped cream, or ice-cream, for the mosture as well as the contrast in texture and temperature: the rich warmth and spiciness of the cake against the cold cream is deliciously satisfying.
These cakes include ground almonds, which help to enrich the texture, but also require a little time to work their magic. Consequently, if you’re not eating them straight from the oven, these cakes benefit from being kept 1-2 days in order for them to soften. Freshly-baked, but cooled, they are rather – ahem – ‘firm’, but stick them in a ziplock bag for a day or two and they soften and become glossy and a little sticky (in a good way).
If you’d like to make a less sturdy, more modern sponge version, all it takes is the addition of 1.5tsp baking powder, sifted with the flour.
I used a silicon cupcake mould with straight sides, which look great, but, even thoroughly buttered, proved challenging when it came to getting the cakes out in one piece. Other options might be ‘regular’ bun/cupcake moulds, or use paper liners.
Circa 1700. Makes 8-12, depending on your small cake tin size.
30g melted butter
3 large eggs
1tbs vanilla extract/paste/seeds of 1 vanilla pod
40g cocoa powder*
2tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp ground nutmeg
75g plain flour
1.5tsp baking powder (optional)
75g ground almonds
- Heat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
- Grease your moulds with the melted butter.
- Whisk the eggs and sugar together until light and foamy (5 minutes or so).
- Sift together the flour, cocoa, spices, salt and baking powder if using.
- When the eggs are foamy, use the whisk attachment (or a balloon whisk) to gently fold in the flour mixture.
- Stir in the almonds.
- Portion the batter out into the greased moulds.
- Bake for 18-20 minutes, turning the moulds around after 10 minutes to even the baking.
- Remove from the oven and allow to stand for 10 minutes to firm up.
- Run a thin blade around the edges of the cakes (if not using cupcake papers) and gently ease the cakes from the moulds and cool on a wire rack.
- Enjoy warm with cream, or place in an airtight container for 1-2 days to mellow.
* Modern cocoa is very drying, so if you’d like to use more than this amount, reduce the quantity of flour by that same amount. i.e for 50g cocoa, use just 65g flour.