Friday, 15 September 2017

Sowing Seeds Of Kindness

One of the delights of visiting the John Rylands Library last month was being able to look at the digitised version of "A Forme of Cury" - the 14th century cookbook, from the kitchens of King Richard II. Caraway is one spice which crops up frequently. Called seeds, actually they're split and dried fruit. 
They are brown, long, narrow, slightly curved, ridged, and pointed at both ends. They are aromatic and have a distinctive bitter, sharp, nutty taste, with warm, sweet undertones.
Caraway is associated with fidelity and was often used in love potions. And it was believed that possessions couldn't be lost, stolen or mislaid if they contained a few seeds, and country folk fed caraway to their geese to ensure they always returned. It was a tradition in East Anglia to eat cakes or biscuits made with caraway seeds to mark the end of the wheat-sowing season. 
My Mum never had a vast collection of herbs and spices - but she always had a little jar of caraway seeds in the pantry for making the occasional Seed Cake. "Because my Mum did too" she once told me. I wonder how many generations of Essex girls in our family said the same thing?
At the weekend, I decided I needed to make a cake. The last two weeks had been really intense [stolen purse, cards to replace, stained carpet, busy at school and church, a drowned phone and then a temporarily lost phone] ...a session in the kitchen, with the radio making a special weekend treat seemed a great idea. I haven't made a Seed Cake for years.
Seed cake was first mentioned in 1570 by Thomas Tusser in an new edition of A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie
"Wife, some time this weeke if that all thing go cleare,
an ende of wheat sowing we make for this yeare.
Remember you therefore, though I do it not,
the Seede Cake, the Pasties, and Furmentie pot."
Since then, authors throughout history have mentioned seed's a few
Bronte; Jane Eyre [1847] - Taking from a parcel wrapped in paper, she disclosed presently to our eyes a good-sized seed-cake. "I meant to give each of you some of this to take with you," said she, "but as there is so little toast, you must have it now," and she proceeded to cut slices with a generous hand.
Dickens; David Copperfield [1850] - I cut and handed the sweet seed-cake—the little sisters had a bird-like fondness for picking up seeds and pecking at sugar; Miss Lavinia looked on with benignant patronage
Tolkien; The Hobbit [1937] - "But I don't mind some cake - seed-cake if you have any." "Lots!" Bilbo found himself answering, to his own surprise; and he found himself scuttling off… to the pantry to fetch two beautiful round seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon for his after-supper morsel.
Christie; At Bertram’s Hotel [1965] - "We endeavour to give people anything they ask for." "Including seed cake and muffins – yes, I see. To each according to his need – I see... Quite Marxian."

I checked out my cookbooks for a seed cake recipe - HFW's "Love your Leftovers" had a slightly different take on Delia's more traditional version. Hugh says "Based on a traditional seed cake, this is quick to make and is a sweet way to use up leftover roots, especially beetroot, which gives it a cheery colour"
  • 100g cooked beetroot [or *carrots or parsnips - boiled, roasted or mashed]
  • 2–4 tbsp milk**
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 11⁄2 tsp caraway seeds
  • 150g butter, softened, plus extra to grease the tin
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten 150g self raising flour, sifted
  • 2 tbsp pearl or demerara sugar, to finish 
1 Preheat the oven to 160°C/Fan 140°. Lightly grease a 1.5-litre loaf tin and line with baking parchment, then butter the parchment.
2 In a bowl, mash the beetroot with some of the milk until smooth. [I used *carrots, and **replaced 1tbsp of the milk with orange juice.] Mix in the ground almonds and caraway seeds.
3 Using a hand-held  mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs a little at a time, beating well after each addition.
4 Gently fold in the flour, followed by the beetroot mixture, until just combined.
5 Spoon the mixture into the prepared loaf tin and gently smooth the surface. Sprinkle the
 sugar over the top and bake for 55–60 mins, until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
6 Leave in the tin for 10 mins, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. This cake keeps well; if anything, it’s better after a couple of days stored in an airtight tin.
Hugh's Beetroot Cake is very pink. I like the little flecks of orange carrot and black seeds in my version. I don't have any pearl sugar- but used just one tbsp demerara.
The flavour was lovely - and yes, it did improve with keeping


  1. That is fascinating! My husband likes to cook cauliflower with caraway seeds!
    You deserved a treat!

  2. This looks and sounds so lovely, Ang. Seed cakes are special to me as my Dad was from Czechoslovakia and loved caraway seed bread. My Nana (his mother in law) made a caraway seed cake for him so that flavour always reminds me of both of them.

  3. I love the literary connections! What a nice little cake!

  4. Thanks so much - this is so interesting! I've noticed mentions of seed cake over the years in many books, but not having grown up with it, I really didn't know what it was. Later, I assumed it meant poppyseed cake, or more likely, lemon/poppyseed cake (which is really delicious). Thanks for the photos and recipe. Now I'm trying to imagine the taste of caraway seed in a sweet cake :)


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