Rhubarb Gingerbread

This is a recipe from that classic of home cooking, Farmhouse Fare. I have copies ranging in date from the 1930s to the 1960s, and I always find it interesting to see which recipes come and go through the decades as they are replaced with more fashionable dishes, or as tastes change, as well as recipes which persist over time. This recipe comes from the second impression of the third edition, published in 1947.

It recipe is in the style of the delightfully named pudding cakes, which are so deliciously comforting hot from the oven with custard or cream, that can also be enjoyed cold as a cake. I must confess, though, this really does taste better warm, so have been briefly zapping leftover slices in the microwave to bring it back to a cosy and comforting temperature.

Pairing sharp, zingy  rhubarb with the warmth of treacle and ginger is just the tonic for this time of year, when there has possibly been a little over-indulgence, and a jaded palate needs reviving with something bright and fresh.

The rhubarb in the shops is currently of the beautiful, coral-pink forced variety and sandwiching it within gently-spiced sponge provides richness and freshness with every bite.

Rhubarb Gingerbread

150-250ml milk
60g butter
85g treacle
1 heaped teaspoon ground ginger
1 level teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 large egg – whisked
225g self-raising flour, or plain flour + 2tsp baking powder
200g rhubarb, chopped into 2cm slices
50g soft brown sugar

  • Grease and line a dish with parchment paper. Grease the parchment paper. I used a rectangular tin of dimensions 15cm by 25cm. You could also use a 20cm square tin, or indeed a round cake tin.
  • Heat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Put 150ml milk, butter, treacle and spices into a pan and warm through until the butter has melted.
  • Remove from the heat and sift in the flour, then whisk in the beaten egg.
  • Add more milk, if required, until the mixture reaches a dropping consistency – that is, it will drop freely from a spoon (as opposed to thud in a lump).
  • Spread half of the mixture into your prepared tin and then lay over the rhubarb. I like to gently poke the slices into the mixture standing on end, but you could also just scatter them freestyle.
  • Sprinkle over the sugar, then top with the remaining mixture.
  • Smooth over and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the middle is springy to the touch. If you like to test for doneness with a toothpick, be sure you don’t mistake cooked rhubarb for uncooked cake mixture and overbake.
  • Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then serve for pudding either as is, which is delicious, or with custard, cream or ice-cream.


Soda Cake

This was a spur-of-the-moment bake this week, and in just over 1 hour after reading the recipe, I was taking this picture. Not as fast as scones, admittedly, but made from store-cupboard ingredients and comes together in mere minutes.

I found the recipe in a manuscript recipe book from The Wellcome Library, an impressively long-lived book containing over 100 years of family entries, starting around 1750.

The use of bicarbonate of soda became popular in the 19th century for its speed and ease of use, especially in areas where fresh yeast was difficult to come by.  This is a very early recipe – not the earliest I’ve found – that award goes to the recipe in “The Virginia Housewife” by Mary Randolph, published in the US in 1824, but this recipe has the added deliciousness of currants and candied peel.

Notes in the book suggest a larger proportion of peel and fruit can be used if liked, but I think it’s perfect as is. Best enjoyed fresh from the oven, it is delicious plain and also spread with an indulgent layer of butter.

You can add a little lemon juice to sour the milk if liked – the bicarbonate reacts best with acidity – or you could use buttermilk, a mixture of milk and plain yogurt or whey.

Soda Cake (1835) MS4645, Wellcome Library
Soda Cake (1835) MS4645, Wellcome Library

Soda Cake

450g plain flour
115g currants
115g caster sugar
115g unsalted butter
60g candied orange peel – diced small
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
240ml milk/buttermilk/yogurt+milk/whey

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Butter a square, 20cm tin or cover a baking sheet with parchment if you want to bake it freeform.
  • When the oven is heated, mix the flour, currants, sugar, peel and soda in a bowl.
  • Melt the butter in the microwave or in a pan on a low heat.
  • Add the milk (or whatever liquid you are using) to the melted butter and pour into the dry ingredients.
  • Mix thoroughly and either shape into a round on the baking sheet or in the tin, if using. Try and mound the mixture up into a dome shape, if possible, but don’t faff about too much The quicker you get the cake into the oven after adding the liquid, the more lift you’ll get from the reaction of the soda.
  • Bake for 50-55 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Turn the sheet/tin around after 30 minutes to help with even colouring.
  • Cool the cake on a wire rack.
  • Enjoy warm.


Pudding Cake

May Byron, 1915

The pudding cake is, to my perception, a genre of puddings that has all but disappeared from our tables, despite being popular since the 18th century. It describes something that, when cold, would be recognisable as a cake, but here it is served, warm and comforting, straight from the oven. As with the Fruit Sponge, it’s the hugely enjoyable lure of warm sponge with cream or custard that is the main draw.

The flavourings for this recipe are only limited by your imagination – you can use any combination of fruit/nuts/candied peel that takes your fancy. For this base recipe I have opted for the unjustly unglamorous prune for the wonderfully rich dark, almost toffee flavour the fruit develops during cooking.

Pudding Cake

250g prunes, stones removed
250ml apple juice
100g chopped nuts or flaked almonds
3 large eggs
200ml milk, plus extra if needed
100g butter, melted
200g sugar
2tsp baking powder
350g plain flour

Double cream or custard to serve.

  • Quarter the prunes and put them in a small pan. Pour over the fruit juice and put over medium heat.
  • When the mixture boils, cover and turn off the heat and leave to stew for 30 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4.
  • Grease and line a 24cm, springform tin with parchment paper.
  • Drain the prunes.
  • Put the eggs, milk, butter, sugar baking powder and flour into a bowl and mix thoroughly until it comes together into a smooth cake batter. If it seems a little heavy, mix in some additional milk until it achieves a dropping consistency and falls easily from the spoon.
  • Spoon a quarter of the batter into the prepared tin and scatter half of the soaked prunes over.
  • Add another layer of cake batter and sprinkle over the nuts.
  • Spoon in half the remaining batter and sprinkle the rest of the prunes.
  • Pour the rest of the batter into the tin and smooth over.
  • Bake for 40-50 minutes, until the cake is risen and golden.
  • Allow to cool in the tin for ten minutes before removing and transferring to a warmed serving dish or plate.
  • Serve in wedges with double cream or custard poured over.

Whitsun Cake


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
¼tsp salt
625g strong plain flour
2 sachets fast-action yeast

170g unsalted butter
300ml milk

450g currants
450g soft light brown sugar
60g butter
1 large egg yolk
2 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp allspice

1 large egg white for glazing
caster sugar

  • 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.