Making The Legendary Cornish Saffron Cake
The making of the legendary Saffron Cake is said to date back to the days when Phoenician traders exchanged spices and other goods for tin from the Cornish mines. Set 2 ounces of yeast (1 package will do) to rise with a little sugar (1⁄2 teaspoon) and one tablespoon of flour in a warm place. Soak about 5p worth of saffron – it used to be 3d worth 60 years ago! [use a good inch, about 40 threads] – in a little boiling water.Mix 3 pounds flour and a pinch of salt with 1 lb lard [yes, lard], 4 ounces butter, and 8 ounces sugar. Add 1 pound of currantsouncesceofs’ sultand anas, of 4 ounces peels (lemon or orange). Add the yeast sponge and make a soft dough. Set this to rise for 3 hours. Knead
into round ‘‘loaves’’ and place in warmed cake tins. Set to rise for 20 minutes longer. Bake in a moderate oven [350 degrees, preheated] for 1 hour. Depending on the size of the loaves you form, these good sized two good size loaves – or four smaller ones, which I can tell you from experience make very appreciated gifts. To make saffron buns, divide the dough into balls no bigger than your palm (you’ll probably get at least a dozen from the dough), pat them to into bun shape, and place them on a flat baking sheet.
Allow the dough to rise for about 25 minutes, then bake at 375 degrees for about 12 to 15 minutes. In her lovely book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1708), Hannah Glasse recorded the following recipe for another sort of saffron cake. I am transcribing it here in its original form – with modern measurement conversions given where useful in brackets – to provide a good example of Mrs. Glasse’s clear and pure language, which is one of the reasons why food historians love her so, but it is simply a source of quaint pleasure to the rest of us mortals.
To Make a Fine Seed or Saffron Cake You must take a quarter of a peck of fine flour [about 4 cups], a pound and half of butter, three ounces of caraway-seeds, six eggs beat well, a quarter of ounce of cloves and mace beat together very fine [use ground spices and stir them together], a penny-worth of cinnamon beat [about 1 to 2 tablespoons ground], a pound of sugar, a penny-worth of rose water [1 to 2 tablespoons], a penny-worth of saffron [1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon, or a full pinch], a pint and a half of yeast [1 package], and a quart of milk; mix it all together, lightly with your hands thus: first boil your milk and butter, then skim off the butter, and mix with your flour and a little of the milk, stir the yeast into the rest and strain it, mix it with the flour, put in your seed and spice, rose water, saffron, sugar and eggs, beat it all up well with your hands lightly [you can use a mixer], and bake it in a hoop or pan [a tube pan or an 8-inch cake pan], but be sure to butter the pan well.
It will take an hour and a half in a quick oven [1 hour in an oven preheated to 350 degrees – but if you’re using cake pans, watch carefully and test for doneness after 35 minutes]. You may leave out the seed if you choose it, and I think it rather better without it [I agree – the caraway undermines the saffrovor]; but that you may do as you like [a common way to end many old recipes, but to which I often feel like adding, ‘‘well, hey, thanks recipes make loaves.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Engineering in Gonabad University of Medical Sciences, Razavi Khorasan, Iran