How to make a spectacular plum cake from the 1820s

A recipe for a Plumb Cake

Plum cake

Take four pound of fine flour well dried, four pound of fresh butter, two pound of loaf sugar pound and sift fine, quarter of an ounce of mace, the same of nutmeg, to every pound of flour put eight eggs, wash four pounds of currants pick them well & dry them before the fire, blanch 1 pound of sweet almonds & cut them length ways very thin, one pound of citron, one pound of candied orange, the same of candied lemon, half a pint of brandy, first work the butter in your hands to a cream, then beat in your sugar a quarter of an hour, beat the whites of the eggs to a strong froth, mix them with your sugar and butter, beat your yolks half an hour at least, mix them with your cake, then put in your flour, mace and nutmeg, keep beating it well till your oven is ready, put in your brandy & beat in your currants and almond lightly, tie three sheets of paper round the bottom of your hoop to keep it from running out, rub it well with butter, put in your cake & lay your sweetmeat in three layers with cake between every lay. After it is risen and coloured, cover it with paper before your oven is topped up, it will take three hours baking in a good oven.

The original recipe is this:

Handwritten plumb cake recipe
More handritten recipies
  • 4 lb butter 2 lb grams sugar
  • Quarter of an ounce of mace – 3 tsp
  • Quarter of an ounce of nutmeg – 3 tsp
  • 32 eggs
  • 4 lb currants
  • 1 1b almonds flaked
  • 1 lb citron
  • 1 1b candied lemon
  • 1 lb candied orange
  • 10 fl oz brandy

To make a more modest-sized cake, in modern measurements:

  • 450 g flour
  • 450 g butter
  • 225 g sugar
  • 1.75g mace (ground)
  • 1.75 g nutmeg (ground)
  • 6 eggs
  • 450 g currants
  • 110 g flaked almonds
  • 110 g citron
  • 110 g candied lemon
  • 110 g candied orange
  • 58ml brandy

Put the butter and sugar into a bowl. They need to be beaten together until light and creamy, the aim is to introduce air into the cake to make it lighter. There was, after all, no baking powder in the 1830s in England and, quite frankly, who needs it when you have an army of servants?

Separate the eggs. Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, set aside.

Beat the egg yolks until light and frothy.

Gradually add these beaten egg yolks to the butter and sugar in the bowl. If the mixture begins to curdle just add a tablespoon of the floor and continue to mix until all the egg yolks are incorporated. 

Turn on the oven to 160 degrees celsius (325 fahreneit/gas mark 3).

Now mix the rest of the flour gently into the mixture.

Add the mace, nutmeg, currants, brandy and the flaked almonds to the mixture.

Fold in the beaten egg whites into the mix.

I added milk at this stage to loosen the cake mix. You might not need to. It should be easy to stir with a spoon. Not so tough that it almost breaks a spatula (this has almost happened to me).

The original recipes calls for a wooden hoop lined with 3 sheets of writing paper. If you were Mahler’s wife you could have used his old music scores. If you aren’t, use baking paper to line a 7 inch cake tin, bottoms & sides.

Put half of the mixture into the cake hoop or tin with a spatula.

Spread the candied peel all over the first layer. In the original recipe there are 3 different types of citrus. I just used candied orange, but I did candy it myself. Not as hard as it sounds and your kitchen will smell delightful, but I digress.

Cover the candied peel with the second layer of cake mix. Flatten neatly with your spatula. It is this part of cake making that always reminds me of plastering. It’s something I had to learn to bring the Town House’s  kitchen back to life again but I digress for a second time.

Bake for 2 hours. A skewer pushed through the middle of the cake should come out clean when the cake is baked.

Take the cake out the cake tin or hoop when baked and leave it to cool on a fancy cake stand. 

Playing some Mahler at this point seems entirely appropriate.

Notes on the original recipe

Recipes are like small detective stories. They can give historical clues. If you just know where to look.

Loaf sugar – When sugar used to come in loaves pieces had to be cut off with sugar nips

One pound of citron – The citron is a large fragrant citrus fruit with a thick rind. It is one of the original citrus fruits from which all other citrus types developed through natural hybrid speciation or artificial hybridization.  We don’t use citron much now.

The bottom of your hoop Wooden hoops were used to bake cakes. You’d tie sheets of paper to cover the bottom and act in the same way as a cake tin.