Lemon Cakes

Medieval Lemon...cookies?

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

Our thoughts:

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.


Leave a Reply

  1. This is a great idea for a blog; you lemon cake recipe is awesome.
    I’m amazed it took this long for someone to make a food blog based on George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series.
    Brilliant idea!

    • I don’t feel so bad now that I have yet to find the perfect lemon cake myself.

      As for Colichio’s lemon cakes, a steamed lemon pudding would have been appropriate for a Medieval sweet but once he added the gelatin topping they became something contemporary. Confused, but contemporary. Medieval gelatins were made from animal hooves and used medicinally. It was much later on during the Renaissance period when it began to be used for aspic dishes.

      • It’s not a gelatin topping. It’s just the separation of the liquid (the “gelatin” bit) from the egg whites (the cake bit) as it bakes. It forms on its own at the bottom of the ramekin. And it’s so delicious…. Now I need to make these again. lol

      • Contemporary gelatin is still made from animal hooves (and knees, and…). Some people prefer to use non-animal substitutes, like agar-agar.

  2. Pingback: In Which I Make Lemon Cakes - Phantasmagorical Musings | Phantasmagorical Musings

    • This is actually quite similar to how our first medieval lemon cakes turned out, so we’re glad that we’re matching someone’s ideas of lemon cakes!

  3. I was considering making some in the last few days and was leaning towards an anginette type of cookie – a little thicker than the B&Ws, but similar.

  4. I don’t mind that the little cakes are more like cookies. That’s what cookie means, after all. And the recipe specifically says they shouldn’t be risen, so, it sounds more short breadish than cake-like, which is what you’ve got! Perfect.

  5. I tried the Lemon Cake recipe in the book, disaster. Not enough liquid, no leaving, and too much sugar. I have been experimenting ever since. This is what I have come up with so far.
    2 1/2 cups flour, 1 1/4 cups sugar, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, grated zest from 2 large lemons, 3 eggs slightly beaten with 1/4 cup milk.
    Cream together butter and sugar, add eggs/ milk mixture and zest . Beat until smooth. Set aside. Mix dry ingredients and add a bit at a time to the wet stirring as you go.You should have a slightly stiff dough. If needed you can splash in a little extra milk. Spoon onto parchment paper ( I used a cookie scoop) Bake at 350 for 13-15 minutes.
    Glaze with milk /powdered sugar recipe in book.
    These were a cross between a soft cookie and a biscuit with a nice lemony flavor. Even unglazed they were tasty.

    • That sounds tasty, Gwen. The historical cookbook lemoncakes are based on an historical recipe, so the proportions are according to the original. You might like the modern recipe more!

      • Historical cookbooks were also often written for estate cooks who would have assumed the addition of water or milk to their liking. There is, quite literally, not enough water to form a dough in the book recipe as written. Even left to stand with the yolk, butter, and sugar to provide a little moisture, it crumbles more readily than beach sand when squeezed. I’m going to the leave the recipe alone as much as possible, and just add small quantities of water until it will at least hold together enough to form the requested balls.

    • Gwen, I just made these and they are great. Terrific lemony flavor. Easy to make, thank you for sharing!

  6. I’d like to know why the medieval lemon cake recipe in your book is different from the ones on the site. It was a big failure and I don’t like that I PAID for a sub-par recipe when I could have gotten apparently better ones (judging by the comments) for free here.
    Your book is by no means cheap and I was expecting to get the best recipes.

    • The lemoncake recipes on the blog are what we posted as we experimented with different versions, including historical recipes. The two lemoncake recipes in the book were those we deemed the most successful, both in terms of historical authenticity for the one, and uber lemon tastiness for the other. Although the proportions occasionally give some trouble to folks, for the most part, we’ve gotten great feedback on them. I hope you have better luck next time!

  7. I recently purchased the book and have been happily reading and trying recipes. I think you guys have made something really cool. However, like Gwen (a few comments up), I had trouble with the medieval lemon cake recipe in the book. My resulting cakes were extremely sweet and hard. Also, they did not spread out while cooking and stayed in a rough lump shape.

    In the reply to “B” it was mentioned that there has been good feedback, though some issues with proportion. Can you comment on what changes in proportions have been made? The excerpt from the original recipe does not mention milk or any other liquid. Are people playing with that?

    In my next attempt, I think I will decrease the sugar and increase the butter. I want to stay reasonably true o the recipe, but even my sweet-tooth found these a bit much. I like the idea of NOT using baking powder, but still want to achieve a cake like (meaning airy) cookie.

  8. I got your cookbook as a Christmas present this past December. And I’ve been having fun with it.
    Like others, when I tried the Medieval version of the this recipe, the dough would not come together. I added the juice of half of lemon (the one I zested) to the dough. It came out wonderfully lemony and not too sweet, so much so that I didn’t make the glaze for it. I loved the texture of them too.

  9. Just finished making the medieval lemon cakes. Added lemon juice to bring them together, as suggested. Sadly, I didn’t have lemon zest so I am glad I needed the lemon juice. The lemon flavor is subtle but satisfying. The texture is a dream. I haven’t put the glaze on yet because I don’t want them to get soggy but I have made a basic confectioners glaze like that before and I am sure it is great with it! Nomnomnom.

  10. I made the medieval lemon cake recipe above but used 1 tsp of yeast as in the original and increased the butter to 5 tablespoons instead of 3. I also added currants to the dough before I formed the individual cakes. the dough was much easier to work with and they tasted much better with the currants

  11. I tried making your lemon cakes from your book and they did not come close to turning out. But this recipe is closer to what I was looking for anyhow – upon reading the description I thought “I should figure out a version of these with baking ammonia, and here, you’ve already got a version like that!

  12. I have made these several times using the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and baking powder from the modern recipe. I make a simple lemon curd of butter, eggs, sugar, zest, and lemon juice, half of which I fold into the batter and the other half I “frost” the cakes with once they are cooled. I bake them in regulation-sized cupcake tins. They are more dense than typical cupcakes, which I feel is representative of something Hot Pie might have baked. My family loves them!

  13. All men must Cook! I got your cookbook for christmas a year ago and it has been an absolute delight! Amongst other things, honeyed chicken is now a staple of my diet. I’ve been tinkering a bit with the Elizabethan lemon cakes. As has been pointed out they’re tricky to get right, but well worth the effort. I’ve settled for reducing the sugar by half a cup and monitoring them closely while baking. The transition from chewy to rock hard may come suddenly. I’ve also replaced the milk in the frosting with lemon juice. The contrast between the soft lemon taste in the cake and the sharp lemon sweetness of the frosting makes for a near-perfect whole. I brought some to a fellow ASOIAF fan at work and the next thing I knew everybody wanted them. “The best cookie I’ve ever had” was one reaction. I found myself feeling like a drug dealer, discreetly handing out little bags of lemon cakes to coworkers with a craving! :D

  14. I added lemon juice to the water portion in both the cake and the frosting for the medieval version. I had also added the lemon zest to the dough (i don’t remember if that was in the original or not) that kicked up the lemon a lot. I too had the experience of chewy- to -hard so I think i will undercook them slightly. They aren’t cake like but they are delicious.