“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”
“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”
“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”
-Chapter 11, Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
To prep for this recipe a week in advance, you need to do one of two things- start benchpressing weights at the gym or go buy a mixer. Otherwise your arms won’t be able to finish the job! Ouch. I know my grandma made similar cakes for Christmas by hand. And my aunt. And my mom. But they are tough mammas!
Wedding cakes originally started as pies. Not sweet, but meat, that were eaten as the wedding dinner rather than as dessert. By the late 1800’s, the wedding cake took over.
We’ll assume, based on the book being published in 1860, that Miss Havisham, being wealthy, would’ve been ahead of the trends and had the money to have the cake usually seen only in royal weddings.
These cakes were plum (which actually were currant) cakes, and used nuts like almonds and white icing. These were originally all a status for wealth, as currants, nuts and refined sugar were all expensive items. Originally,the general public would’ve started with single tiered cakes. However after the publicity of royal weddings, in particular Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise’s wedding in 1871 (her cake was 5 feet tall and 225 pounds), multitier cakes became the rage. Whether Miss Havisham had a multitier or not, I unfortunately didn’t have either the freezer space or enough people to eat it for me. So one tier it was.
We’re following a recipe (three actually) from The Book of Household Management, published in 1861, found on the Gutenberg website, however I’ve altered it to be a smaller size. This amount made one medum sized cake.
- 0.90kg / 2lb / 7 cups of fine flour
- 550g /1.2lb butter
- 350g / 0.77 lb / 1.5 cups white sugar
- 200g / 0.44 lb almond meal
- 100g / 0.22lb candied citron
- 100g / 0.22lb candied orange and lemon peel
- 900g / 2lb currants
- 2 tsp nutmeg
- ½ tsp mace
- ¼ tsp cloves
- 6 eggs, separated (yolks and whites will be used)
- 1 ounce / 30ml wine
- 1 ounce / 30ml brandy
- 1 lb white sugar
- 1 lb almond meal
- 4 egg whites
- splash of rose water
- 1 lb icing sugar
- 4 egg whites
- 30ml/ 1 oz cornstarch/ cornflour
- Start by creaming the butter, before stirring in the white sugar.
- Whisk egg whites until frothy and mix them in.
- In another bowl, beat the egg yolks for several minutes (they say 10) and add in the flour, nutmeg, mace, and cloves.
- Combine them together and mix them together for half an hour ( this is where the arm strength comes in). I just used my mixer for about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the currants, almonds, candied peel, wine and brandy (I was taught to soak the nuts and fruit in the brandy beforehand, so that's what I did out of habit).
- Butter a cake pan, or line it well with baking paper (best option), fill with cake batter and place in a medium heat oven.
- They say a quick oven, but I found it best to keep it at about 150oC/ 300F as it'll be in there for a few hours.
- Once a knife is speared into the middle and comes out clean, it's done.
- Set it aside to cool while you make the almond icing and white icing.
- Start by mushing together almond meal and rose water to make a bit of a paste. Whisk together the egg whites until frothy, then stir in the almond meal, sugar and beat it well.
- Once the cake is cool, spread the almond icing on. I found the best way was by wetting my hands and smoothing it on that way. That way you'll get it thin and perfectly smooth, which it needs to be before the white icing goes on. Once the top icing layer goes on, any flaws will show, so use the almond icing to fix them up now.
- Once the almond icing is completely covering the cake, place it in the oven to dry (I turned mine to 'keep warm' or 100C/ 210F) Keep the oven on 100C/ 210F.
- This now has to be my favourite icing recipe ever. Goes on smooth, you just spread it, but dries hard. Start by beating the eggs until frothy, and gradually add in the icing sugar and cornstarch/ cornflour.
- Once the mixture is smooth of lumps, use a cake spatula to smear and smooth the icing evenly over the cake and almond icing.
- Turn the oven to keep warm or off, and place the cake into dry. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't turn any golden colour.
- To finish it off, make a bit more white icing and pipe floral or delicate edging. Why do we do this? To hide flaws of course!
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