Forget everything you know about holiday fruitcakes and all the stereotypes that earned them their pitiful and bad reputations. This fruitcake, the Woodstreet Cake, is far from bad. With a luxurious lineup of rich (and costly) ingredients, including both butter and cream, as well as a morally gray origin story, the Woodstreet Cake is positively sinful.
Most cake recipes found in early English manuscripts were typically named quite plainly: a good cake, apricock (apricot) cake, sugar cake. Other times, cakes were named after the family or woman who passed on the recipe. The Woodstreet Cake, however, bucked convention and was named for a well-known London lane that had a reputation for good cakes as well as good times at its popular taverns.
Stranger still is the fact that Wood Street, the lane known for cakes, never changed its name, as most streets in 15th-century London were named for the goods or trades housed along them. One of the earliest references to Woodstreet Cakes dates back to the English Civil War, when Lady Anne Murray (later Halkett) reportedly helped the 14-year-old Duke of York escape London after the death of his father the King. According to her autobiography, Murray dressed the young duke in women’s clothes (in which he looked “very pretty”) and sent him to safety on a barge equipped with his favorite treat: a woodstreet cake (Lady Anne Halkett, The Autobiography of Anne Lady Halkett, 1875). William Maitland, author of A History of London (1739), wrote about Wood Street, “of which there is the great and the little” and “was formerly noted for good cakes there made, which were wont to be bought here for Weddings, Christenings, and Twelfth-Nights.” In the 17th century, cakes made and bought for such occasions were typically of the fruitcake variety, and were also known as “plumb cakes” referring to their use of plums and other dried fruits.
Wood Street was also known as the location of a small prison or “compter” (also styled as “counter”) built to hold debtors as well as rowdy tavern goers who were booked for public drunkenness (George Walter Thornbury, Old and new London: a narrative of its history, its people and its places, 1880, p. 368). Notably, alcoholic ingredients–in the form of sack wine, yeast beer, and other liquors–were integral to cake baking, especially fruitcakes like the Woodstreet Cake.
Wood Street’s famous reputation for cakes and infamous repute for less savory diversions extended beyond receipt books and city guides. Early 19th-century satirical poet Richard Porson mentions Woodstreet Cake in a poem entitled “Obadiah,” about a fictional conversation between “Obadiah the Quaker” and his wife “concerning primitive purity and the sinful abominations of the present age”:
“The shameful daughters of iniquity
Like painted Jezabels, go proudly drest
In all the sumptuous trappings of the beast;
Spot their enticing faces o’er with black,
As thick as currants in a Wood-street cake”
(Eloisa in Deshabille: a Satirical Poem, 1819, p. 102-3).
Adored and imitated much like the sweets from famous modern-day bakeries, copycat recipes for Woodstreet Cakes appear in several 17th-century manuscripts. Jane Buckhurst of Sutton Valence, a village southeast of Kent, included a recipe for “the woodstreete cake” in her receipt book (Cookbook of Jane Buckhurst, 1653, V.a.7). Clearly a cake of importance, the handwritten recipe occupies nearly four full pages of her book with careful attention given to both the ingredients and the order of instructions.
To make the woodstreet cake
Take eight pintes of fine flowre
Dried and warmed before the
fire: take tenn pound of curr-
Antes pickt and plumpt
Dry them and lay them in a
sive before the fire : take 11
Eggs halfe the wites and one
Pound of lofe suger finely
Beaten and sifed ; half and ounce
Similar to other fruit or plumb cakes of the era, the Woodstreet Cake called for spices such as clove, mace (often conflated with nutmeg as they are sister spices growing on the same tree), and cinnamon. Grated loaf sugar, a widely available form of refined sugar which was boiled and pressed into a conical form, helped to sweeten the cake along with dried fruit, chiefly native-growing currants. While fruitcakes aren’t known for their height or lightness, this recipe gets a bit of leavening support from beaten egg whites and “good ale yeast.” Where contemporary cooks might elevate a cake with the addition of expensive vanilla beans or high quality chocolate, early English bakers treasured luxury flavors including musk and ambergris–both of which Buckhurst adds to her recipe for Woodstreet Cake.
Musk, you’ll regret to learn, comes from an abdominal gland of the male musk deer and is used to attract mates. While the flavor fell out of favor thanks, in part, to the globalization of the vanilla market, artificial and real musk remains a staple of the perfume industry. Ambergris, also styled “amber grease,” is a waxy secretion created in the digestive tracts of sperm whales. After a whale passes the mass, it is left to dry and drift in the ocean–gaining briny flavor and prized funk, or so I’m told. Ambergris was purported to be a virile aphrodisiac and energy enhancer, which is why 19th-century food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin added it to his hot chocolate and King Charles II (yes, the same one who ate Woodstreet Cake by barge-light as a young duke) put it in his eggs. Perfumers value ambergris because it acts as a fixative that allows scents to last longer. In baking, aside from its status as an affluent ingredient, we can assume it was meant to heighten the other flavors of the cake.
Recipes for similar cakes, though under much more common names, can be found in popular cookery books of the time, including “a rich great Cake” in The Compleat Housewife (1732) by Eliza Smith. Where Smith calls for orange-flower water, Buckhurst suggests rosewater (as well as “two graines of Amber grease” a bit more musk, of course!) as the flavor for the vigorously whipped egg-white icing that sits atop the cake “as White as snow.” So whether you’re preparing for a winter wedding, celebrating Twelfth Night, or just baking something new for the holidays, consider the Woodstreet Cake, the baddest fruitcake of them all!
Recipe: Woodstreet (Counter) Cake
This contemporary take on the Woodstreet Cake swaps in baking powder (a brilliant little baking technology from the 19th century) for yeast, balances the dried currants with the addition of dusky golden raisins, and significantly reduces the size of the overall bake (we’re aiming to feed a family, not an estate). In lieu of the hard-to-find (if not illegal!) flavorings of ambergris and musk, this version leans on the earthy heft of dry vermouth (also a nod to the Woodstreet Counter prison for public intoxication!) as well as plenty of freshly grated nutmeg. While the original recipe calls for butter and cream, that makes for a very dense and almost too-moist cake for modern palates. The cream is omitted here, but you can sub in a portion in place of the vermouth, if you prefer. The cake is topped with the traditional rosewater royal icing–a feature of Woodstreet cakes. The perfect wintery bake for your historical holiday feast.
Makes one 9-inch cake
For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
2 cup sugar
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cup dried currants
1 ¼ cup golden raisins (aka sultanas)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
½ cup vermouth (or dry white wine)
For the icing:
2 egg whites (can substitute meringue powder and follow directions on package)
3 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon rosewater (note: if you’re a big fan of rosewater, add a small splash to the cake, too!)
Set the oven to 325 degrees F and line the bottom of a 9-inch springform baking pan with parchment paper. Grease the bottom and sides.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, spices, salt, and dried fruits.
In another bowl, combine the butter, eggs, and vermouth. Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and gently mix until thoroughly combined. Pour into the greased cake pan and smooth the top with an offset spatula.
Bake for 1 hour, then loosely cover the top of the pan with foil to avoid over-browning. Continue to bake the cake for 25-35 minutes more or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Note: the sugar and dried fruit will leave some residue on the toothpick, so you’re really just looking for any underdone batter. While the cake cools, make the icing.
In a large clean bowl, beat the egg whites until foamy. Slowly add a little sugar at a time, beating in between each addition until fully incorporated. Continue to beat until semi-stiff peaks form. Add the rosewater and beat to combine. Once the cake is cool, spread the icing over the top of the cake using an offset spatula or the back of a big spoon. For a thinner layer, continue to spread the icing down the sides of the cake, too. Gently lift the spatula to create small peaks or swoops to your liking. Serve as is or allow the icing to set (dry) a bit in a warm, dry corner of the kitchen.
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