I am always on the lookout for new culinary history reading material so when I heard about a book written specifically about the history of English baking (with recipes included!) I just had to add it to my library.
Sweet Slices of History: Baking & Cakes (The English Kitchen) by Marjory Szurko was published recently, just in November, by Prospect Books. I read it cover to cover and was surprised by how pleasant of a read it is, and I own a decent number of food history and recipe books. There are seven chapters, each covering a period of history from the Fourteenth century to the Early Twentieth. The introductions to each period are just enough to provide useful historical context, but not so long and overtly academic that the reader loses interest or feels overwhelmed by new information. Each chapter also includes a number of selected recipes for cakes, tarts, pies, breads or other sweets found in period manuscripts or cookery books. I counted 83 total recipes. I was immediately impressed by the author’s willingness to take on medieval subtleties, or sculpted sugar confections, in Chapter One. This woman is my newest hero.
What I enjoy most about Sweet Slices of History is not so much the recipes themselves but the way the author approaches learning and writing about them. Marjory Szurko is the Librarian at St. Stephen’s House, University of Oxford, which explains her use of literary and historical context to interpret and redact the recipes. Within each chapter-era she provides some brief background on her process and cookery sources, as well as biographical sketches of chefs along with bits of other research relating to each recipe. I also like that she includes the original text along with the necessary translations for all of her recipes. I’ve been disappointed by how many historic food writers do not include original text!
Marjory Szurko has the added luxury of having friends and associates at Oxford whose expertise and professional insight have inspired and assisted in the development of this recipe collection. Therefore, I have no doubts whatsoever about the book’s overall accuracy. For many years Marjory and her colleagues at Oriel College have been hosting a special event called “Edible Exhibition” which showcases many historic baked goods, including the ones in her book. That’s an event I wouldn’t mind attending!
The recipes vary in degree of difficulty, some being great for a beginner and others being much more time consuming and deceptively complicated. I feel like there is a very nice balance between the two ends of the spectrum. For the most part, ingredients are accessible to someone living in the UK, but here in the States I’ve had to settle for some minor substitutions. Most recipes include measurements in both Metric and Imperial, but if you only use the U.S. system, particularly with dry ingredients like flour and sugar, there are a few recipes that will require a conversion chart or you might want to consider buying a kitchen scale. For best results, I suggest simply following the UK weight measurements.
There are photos scattered throughout the book, which is appreciated, but if you’re looking for images of all of the recipes for visual stimulation or for purposes of comparison you’ll be disappointed. There are a handful of sketches and images of manuscripts, though, which are fun to look at. I see Sweet Slices as more of a history book with recipes than a recipe book with history so I personally don’t feel like I need to see a picture of every single biscuit and cake. But that’s just me.
There are so many sweets in the book that I want to make, including a couple that I had already redacted on my own. Someday I’ll compare my interpretation of medieval gyngerbrede to hers, but first I want to make some other dishes that intrigue me. So I decided to start with one recipe from each chapter to bake at home!
Here are some highlights:
14th Century – Sambocade
This cheesecake from The Forme of Cury has been on my radar for well over a year but I haven’t gotten around to trying it until now. Depending on where you live all of the ingredients are easy enough to find, perhaps with the exception of elderflowers and rosewater. I already had rosewater on hand because I use it, but I had to order dried elderflowers online.
Note: Unfortunately I over-beat my eggs or didn’t take enough care when adding them to the cheese filling, which is why the surface of the cheesecake is cracked. When the filling has too much air it can puff up, leading to breaks or cracks. Custard-making is a delicate process.
16th Century – A Tarte to Provoke Courage Either in Man or Woman
There was no way I wasn’t going to try this recipe. It’s a sweet, spiced pie with some interesting ingredients like sweet potatoes, burdock roots and cocksparrow brains. The recipe called for quinces but suggested apples as an alternative so I went with the latter because quinces are virtually impossible to find in my little town. And luckily the brains were omitted and replaced with a nuttier and more accessible substitution. This one is my favorite of the tarts.
17th Century- An Almond Tart (with Spinach)
This lovely tart is flavored with almonds, rosewater and spices and dyed green with spinach. The flavor is different but surprisingly pleasant. If you like marzipan or any sweet almond confection, this is the tart for you.
18th Century- Wigs
A “wig” is a small spiced yeast bread, something like a bun or a hard crust roll. It’s a pretty straightforward recipe with common ingredients.
This was my first time “scoring” bread, which is painfully apparent in the photos. I’m embarrassed to admit that this was also my first time even baking rolls (or buns, if you’d rather). Dull knife and learning curve aside, I think they turned out quite well! When I make these again I’ll score them into much deeper wedges. These wigs are hearty and have a distinctly rustic quality to them. They’re also great with jam.
19th Century- Rock Cakes
When it comes to baking, it doesn’t get much simpler than this recipe for little fruit cakes/buns. The original recipe said to form into balls or rock, so for the first batch I followed Marjory’s instructions to put “dessertspoonfuls” onto the baking tray in small balls. On a whim I looked up “rock cakes” and discovered that these are a very common treat in the UK! As an American I did not know this. My second batch was exactly the same as the first, only rather than forming the dough into smooth balls I used bigger spoonfuls – rough-surfaced blobs – in an attempt to give them the more familiar rock-like appearance. They taste the same either way, which is delicious.
I genuinely enjoy Sweet Slices of History. Of course it appeals to me as someone who is passionate about food history and recreating historic recipes, but I think it could just as easily inspire any home baker or casual historian. The author’s selection of recipes is exquisite and it’s just a really fun and interesting book. I highly recommend it to all of my readers, especially those of you who love sweets!
To quote Marjory Szurko, Happy Baking!