Medieval Lemon Cakes
“Later came sweetbreads and pigeon pie and baked apples fragrant with cinnamon and lemon cakes frosted in sugar, but by then Sansa was so stuffed that she could not manage more than two little lemon cakes, as much as she loved them. “
Modern Lemon Cakes
The modern recipe, while good, could use a little improvement. We’d lessen the leavening to get a slightly denser cake. As it stands, the cake is neither light enough for an airy cake, nor dense enough for something like a pound cake. There are definitely lemon cupcakes that have a clearer sense of their own identity than these little cakelettes.
As for the medieval recipe, it tastes good, but lacks that proper lemon kick. The glaze helps, but it is more a cookie with lemon frosting than a proper lemon cake. Unsatisfactory, when one desires a cake!
Bottom line? One too ambiguous, the other too cookie-like. Both have their ups, and both definitely have their downs. But what’s that you say? Perhaps we are too demanding where Lemon Cakes are concerned?
The hunt for the ideal Lemon Cake shall continue…
**NOTE! If you’re having trouble with the Elizabethan Lemoncakes from the cookbook, be advised that a little water or lemon juice is recommended to bring together an especially dry dough.**
Medieval Lemon Cake Recipe
Take fine flowre and good Damaske water you must have no other liquor but that, then take sweet butter, two or three yolkes of egges and a good quantity of Suger, and a fewe cloues, and mace, as your Cookes mouth shall serue him, and a lyttle saffron, and a little Gods good about a sponfull if you put in too much they shall arise, cutte them in squares lyke vnto trenchers, and pricke them well, and let your ouen be well swept and lay them vppon papers and so set them into the ouen. Do not burne them if they be three or foure dayes olde they bee the better.
– Dawson, Thomas. The good huswifes Iewell. London: Edward White, 1596.
Our Changes: To make these lemony cakes, we added lemon zest to the dough, and basted the finished cookies in a lemon-honey sauce. We also took out the rosewater to eliminated possible flavor rivalry.
- 3 Tbs. butter, softened
- 1/4 heaping cup sugar
- 3 egg yolks
- zest from one lemon
- 1/2 tsp. hartshorn (or baking soda), dissolved in 1 tsp. of hot water
- 1/4 tsp. each salt, cloves and mace
- pinch saffron
- 1 1/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
- juice from one lemon
- 1 tbs honey
Cream together the butter & sugar until smooth; beat in the egg yolks. Blend in the dissolved hartshorn or baking soda, then the zest, salt & spices. Stir in the flour and work until a ball of dough is formed. Knead gently until smooth, working in more flour if necessary.
Roll out the dough on a floured surface to a 1/4 ” thickness. With a floured butter knife, cut the dough into small squares or rectangles. Make decorative vent holes on the cakes by pricking with a fork, then place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake in a preheated 300° F oven for 14-15 minutes until just done. Be sure that they do not brown on the bottom. Cool on a wire rack. While they are cooling, mix the lemon juice and honey together in a pan on the stove, over low heat. Let cool slightly before brushing onto cakes, and store in an air-tight container.
Cook’s Notes: Fun fact! Hartshorn, an early predecessor of baking soda, was literally made from reindeer antlers, or “hart’s horns”. It can still be purchased today, and gives baked goods an extra crispness.
Modern Lemon Cake Recipe
- 1-3/4 sticks (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- Grated zest of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
- 3 cups cake flour, sifted after measuring
- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons whole milk
- Lemon Glaze
- Juice of 3 to 4 lemons (about 1/2 cup)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons coarse or large-grain granulated sugar, for topping
- 2 lemons, sliced thinly
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sugar
Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a couple of cupcake pans.
Combine the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl of a stand mixer and mix at medium speed until mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs to the butter mixture and mix them at medium speed for 1 minute. Add the lemon zest.
Measure out the cake flour and sift into a separate bowl. Add the baking powder and salt and stir the ingredients just to blend them. Add one-third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix them at low speed for about 1 minute or until the flour is completely incorporated. Add the lemon juice and 1 cup plus 1-1/2 tablespoons of milk. Mix them at low speed until they are completely incorporated. Add the rest of the ingredients, alternating between dry and wet, and mix at low speed for until it is completely incorporated.
Scrape the batter into the loaf pans, dividing it evenly and smoothing the surfaces with a spatula. Bake the cakes for ~15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean.
While the cakes are baking, make the candied lemons: cook the water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat until the mixture comes to a simmer. Add in the sliced lemons and continue to simmer until the lemons are semi-translucent. Fish out the lemons, and reserve the sugar mixture (which now tastes like lemons!). Arrange the lemon slices on top of your mini cakes, and for an added kick, let the cakes sit in the warm sugar mixture to soak up some of the juice.