Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Queen Cakes and Cup Cakes 1

Two Queen Cakes with their fancy nineteenth century pans
I am sorry to be banging on once again about the food history snippets in the current BBC series The Great British Bake Off, because many readers of this blog may not have seen the programme. This popular, though heavily formatted series is a clone of the well-known Master Chef. In between features where the competitors try out their baking skills in such laudable exercises as 'the great cupcake challenge', an expert is interviewed about the history of one of the baked goods.

To be fair to the makers of the series, most of their history cameos pass muster. Some are actually much more interesting than the cupcake challenge stuff itself, but are far too short. A number of the experts are genuine and distinguished authorities on food history and some of the content has been engaging, informative and accurate - Peter Brears and Laura Mason on funeral biscuits for instance and Kate Colquhoun and Robin Weir on Bath Olivers. Despite the brevity of their slots, they all had interesting things to say. And it would have been better if we had heard a lot more from them.

However, a few of the other 'histories' were badly researched, or offered erroneous and misleading information. In Episode 1, as well as the nonsense talked about the Battenburg Cake (see earlier posting), the cupcake was subjected to a similar 'food detective' style investigation. The conclusion was that this cake had emerged from the kitchens of the great houses of England and was originally baked in a tea cup. A recipe for queen cakes from Maria Rundell's A New System of Domestic Cookery (London: 1807) was cited as the earliest cake to be baked in a cup and was therefore the 'mother of all cupcakes.' I am afraid the truth is much more complicated. In no way do I blame the expert - Dr Annie Gray of Audley End, who cooked the cakes in this section. She acquitted herself with intelligence and flair. I just got the feeling that the producer of the programme was trying to turn a very complicated story into a digestible, but superficial television soundbite.

Nothing at all was said in the programme of earlier recipes published in America, the true home of the cupcake, the garish modern incarnation of which has gained in recent popularity on both sides of the Atlantic as a result of appearing in an episode of Sex in the City. Nor was anything said about the development of the paper cup used for baking this type of cake, which is essential to the cupcake as we know it today. The cake baked in a tea cup on the programme was actually a queen's cake, a much older type of cake than the cupcake. So let me deal with the queen cake first.

Queen cakes were traditionally baked in tin pans which were made in a great variety of shapes, as in the print below. The most popular of these was in the shape of a heart, but many other forms were used.


Queen cake pans from F. Vine Saleable Shop Goods. (London: 1898).

Different shaped queen cakes could be arranged on a plate in a nice kaladaiscope pattern in the same way in which mince pies were served in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. In fact the earliest recipe for queen cakes known to us, dates from 1724, at a time when shaped mince pies were at the height of fashion. Here is the recipe -

An early queen's cake recipe from R. Smith, Court Cookery (London: 1724).

Although in ingredients and method, this recipe is very similar to later ones, it says nothing about the little tins in which the cakes were baked. Perhaps these were like the shaped patty pans that were popular at this period for baking small mince pies, designs for which appeared in a number of contemporary cookery books. It is possible to make mince pies in these complex forms without specialist pans, but it is a tedious and longwinded business. The tinsmiths of the period would have made it a straightforward task by providing a variety of shaped pans. Sadly none have survived. Here are some designs from a book published just over a decade before Smith's queen's cake recipe -
Mince pie designs from Henry Howard England's Newest Way (London: 1703).
During the eighteenth century the Staffordshire potteries produced similarly shaped patty pans in salt glazed stoneware. These were made in the form of stars and other fancy shapes.

These mince pies were made in similar shapes published by Edward Kidder in
Receipts of Pastry and Cookery (London: nd. c.1720s)
Mince pies like these had become obsolete by the second half of the eighteenth century, but the similarly shaped queen cakes remained popular. Most of the English cookery books of the Georgian and Victorian period offer recipes. Queen cake pans were sold in a myriad of forms and were still in production in the early twentieth century. Here are some that were advertised in the 1890s.

Queen cake tins from Theodore Garrett, The Encyclopaedia of  Practical Cookery (London: nd. c.1890).

Most early queen's cake recipes call for an egg-rich batter that rises high above the tin, creating a domed top that frequently ruptures open rather like a modern American muffin. In the nineteenth century, professional bakers guaranteed this effect by including volatile, pearl-ash or soda in the mixture as raising agents.

Procuring a set of queen cake patty pans from a tinsmith required a modest investment and shortcuts were almost certainly taken by those who did not possess any. Mrs Rundell, the early nineteenth century cookery author who was the source of the cake made on the programme, suggests baking them in 'little tins, tea-cups or saucers'.  Rundell's book was first issued in London by Byron's publisher John Murray in 1807. The author gives two recipes. The alternative one suggests baking them in 'buttered patty pans'. She also instructs us to butter the tea cups, so the cakes were designed to be removed from the cup to be served. 

However, Mrs Rundell's recipe is not the earliest for a cake of this type to be baked in a cup. Another had appeared in the previous century in a book published on the other side of the Atlantic. This cake first saw the light of day in Amelia Simmon's American Cookery issued in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796. Here is the recipe.


Emptins was a form of yeast, so this cake was quite unlike the normal egg-raised queen cakes. Amelia does give a conventional recipe for queen cakes on the previous page to be 'put into pans'. They are more or less identical to the queen cakes being baked at this time on our side of the Atlantic. So it is to America that we need to go to explore the complex history of the cupcake, which will be continued in our next posting.

This blog is created by Historic Food. Go to the Historic Food Website.

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