Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hobbit Test Kitchen: Seed Cakes, Three Ways.

"'A little beer would suit me better, if it is all the same to you, my good sir,' said Balin with the white beard. 'But I don't mind some cake - seed-cake, if you have any.'

"'Lots!' Bilbo found himself answering, to his surprise; and he found himself scuttling off, too, to the cellar to fill a pint beer-mug, and then to a pantry to fetch two beautiful round seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon for his after-supper morsel."

Seed-cake being specifically mentioned in the opening scenes of the Hobbit and many other places, it's a food that I've wondered about for a long time. I have a certain curiosity about food because I love it so much, so I often make things just to see how it's done or to see what something tastes like.

Of course this had to go on the menu. So the research began.

The recipes were quickly narrowed down to two versions, both from old cookbooks and translated into modern measurements and terms by bloggers. The first recipe dates from 1861, approximately the correct point in time, and the blogger tells us it stays nice for days and that a sprinkling of demerara sugar just before baking makes a delightful crisp texture on the crust. Sold.

But the problem is, this recipe (like most of the others) calls for caraway seeds. I hate caraway seeds. They're the most common type of seed used in seed cakes, but ick, no.

Enter this recipe. It's from a 1591 cookbook, making it rather old and complicated. (It's leavened with yeast, for example, because it predates baking soda and baking powder.) However, it also allows for a variety of seed options ("anise, caraway, coriander, cardamom"). Now that gives me some wiggle room.

I definitely wanted to try caraway because it seems to be the most-frequent option. But I also bought some anise and cardamom at the store, thinking that those would be most-likely to go well with the mace and nutmeg also called for in the recipe.

Today, I gave it my first try. I've altered the recipes in a few places for boring reasons. And for this baking, I didn't use a round pan because I don't even know whether I like seed cake, but whether or not I do, I doubt I can eat three of them before they go stale. These are just tasting size, in mini-loaf pans.

Three Kinds of Seed-Cakes

1½ cups flour
2¼ teaspoons baking powder
teaspoon salt
2 sticks of butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs, beaten
½ teaspoon mace
½ teaspoon nutmeg
3 tablespoons brandy
4 to 6 tablespoons milk (I used all 6)
2 teaspoons each caraway, cardamom, and anise seeds
demerara sugar

Preheat your oven to 350°. Grease three mini-loaf pans.

Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. This is to substitute for self-rising flour.

Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then beat in the eggs. Add mace and nutmeg and mix in along with flour mixture. Add in brandy, then enough milk to get a good "dropping consistency." It took 6 tablespoons of milk to get that for me.

Split the batter between three bowls. Put 2 teaspoons of seeds into each bowl and mix in; pour into loaf tins. (I found out later I should have crushed the seeds, at least the bigger cardamom ones - whoops!)  Finally, sprinkle with demerara sugar and bake; mine took 30 to 35 minutes. They're done when the toothpick comes out clean, you know the drill.

....and now.... for the taste testing!