When I first wrote the prologue scene between Laura and Sol in Lady Wynwood’s Spies, volume 1: Archer, I threw in that bit about Sol’s favorite seed cakes just on a whim. I had looked up different pastries in an old 1800 cookbook and chose those at random.
However, I got a lot of mileage out of those seed cakes. Sol mentioned his fondness for seed cakes in The Gentleman Thief, and the seed cakes showed up again for a team meeting in Lady Wynwood’s Spies, volume 3: Aggressor.
Later when I wrote in Sourdough Treacle Buns in Lady Wynwood’s Spies, volume 2: Berserker, I felt a hankering to eat them and ended up figuring out a recipe using sourdough.
After my success with the treacle buns, I decided to try making Sol’s seed cakes, too.
I took a recipe from a book published in 1800, The Complete Confectioner; or, Housekeeper’s Guide by Mrs. H. Glass and Maria Wilson. If you click on the link, you can download a .pdf scan of the original antique book.
There are actually FOUR seed cake recipes. One is a "Pound Seed Cake," second is “Another Seed Cake,” third is a “Rich Seed Cake,” and fourth is “Currant and Seed Cakes.” "Pound Seed Cake” looked like the easiest—it looked like pound cake with caraway seeds mixed into it. “Another Seed Cake” looks like a buttery, eggy brioche bread with sugar-glazed caraway seeds mixed into it. “Rich Seed Cake” and “Currant and Seed Cakes” both look a bit unusual because they have additional spices and flavorings added.
They all look rather good, and so I decided to try a few of them to see if one of them is delicious enough to be Sol’s favorite seed cake.
First, I decided to try the easiest one, “Pound Seed Cake.”
Now that I’m suffering from IBS, sourdough is the only type of bread I can eat. However, through my experience in figuring out the treacle bun recipe, I’ve learned just enough about the chemistry of sourdough to make me dangerous (to myself and others).
Because of my IBS, I decided to see if I could make the seed cakes with sourdough, but I also included instructions so that you can make it with regular flour.
Here’s the original recipe from the book:
"To make a pound Seed Cake. Take a pound of flour, one pound of fine powder sugar, one pound of butter, eight yolks and four whites of eggs, as much carraway seeds as you like; first beat up the butter to a cream with your hands, beating it one way lest it oil; then by degrees beat in your eggs, sugar, and flour, till it goes into the oven; bake it in a quick oven, and it will take an hour and a quarter baking.”
Since this was an experiment, I didn’t want to waste an entire pound each of flour, butter, sugar, and eggs, so I quartered the recipe.
I needed to be able to long-ferment the flour of the cake with my starter so that the bacteria could work its magic and make it digestible for my IBS-beleaguered intestines. So I decided to try a low hydration levain, and use that in place of the flour of the recipe.
However, in using a levain, I knew the resultant dough was going to be more liquidy than a regular pound cake. However, from what I’ve read about the origins of pound cake, they were usually very dry anyway and had been made in order to keep a few days without spoiling. So rather than trying to do something weird and adjust the eggs or butter, I decided to leave it as is and try it out. And it turned out fine—the cake was moist but not too wet.
The second time I made the cake, it occurred to me that instead of making a levain with flour and letting it sit for a day, I could use mostly sourdough discard with a little flour added, because I always have tons of discard in my fridge. I don’t need the sourdough to give the cake any rise, so it doesn’t matter that the discard is flat and not bubbly. I tried it, adding only a little bit of flour to some discard and letting it sit for a few hours before baking with it, and the cake turned out great that way, too. I included both options in the recipe below.
The original recipe has you cream the butter, then add the other ingredients, but I was reading about making pound cakes online, and one method to make the cake more fluffy is to cream the butter and sugar together to trap air into the butter. So I used that method in the recipe below, although it’s different from the original recipe.
cast iron mini cake/biscuit pan. You can try this in muffin tins, which I would have done if I’d had paper muffin cups in the house, which I didn’t, and I didn’t feel like driving out to the store just to get muffin cups. So I decided to try the biscuit pan instead, and I liked the wide flat shape better for these seed cakes, anyway. It ended up that the wide flat shape made for a really great texture for the cake, so I’m glad I didn’t use muffin tins after all.
However, you can certainly bake this in a loaf pan like a regular pound cake. I would suggest that you double the recipe and increase the baking time to one hour, but check it for doneness at around 45 minutes or so.
The inside of the cake turned out extremely moist, probably because of the sourdough and the weakened gluten in the batter, and I think also because I made the cakes thin, so they cooked all the way through very evenly. The sourdough gave it a slight tang that was very pleasant.
The caraway seeds gave it a slight anise flavor which actually compliments the cake quite well. If caraway seeds aren’t your thing, you can use other types of seeds (like poppy) or chopped nuts.
This recipe was very simple but tasty, and I felt these would be the kinds of seed cakes that Laura would bring for the group meeting/tea break in Lady Wynwood’s Spies, volume 3: Aggressor. However, I will continue to try some of the other recipes to find Sol’s favorite, which he eats in volume 1. :)
Here’s my recipe. While I made it with sourdough, I have instructions below so you can try it as it’s written in the original recipe.
Pound Seed Cake
This recipe makes 7 small cakes. It’s about the same amount of cake as half of a large loaf of pound cake.
114 grams (1/4 pound) flour
74 grams warm water
1 tablespoon 100% hydration sourdough starter, active and bubbly
Alternate: Instead of flour, water, and 1 tablespoon of starter, you can instead use 148 grams of spent sourdough discard (100% hydration) plus 39 grams of flour.
Alternate 2: If you don’t want to use sourdough, just use 114 grams of flour in place of the levain. However, be warned that I have not tried this recipe with only flour (since I can’t eat it because of my IBS). Also, (according to some articles on the web) it’s the sourdough that weakens the gluten and makes the cakes tender, so omitting it will change the texture of the cake.
1 stick (1/4 pound) butter, room temperature
114 grams (1/4 pound) sugar
1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk, beaten together lightly and at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (this wasn’t in the original recipe, but I thought it added nice flavor to the cake)
1-2 teaspoons caraway seeds (or the seeds/nuts of your choice)
Alternately, use sourdough discard: Mix 148 grams of 100% hydration sourdough discard with 39 grams of flour and let it sit for about 4 hours at room temperature before using it just like the other levain.
If you’d rather not use sourdough, skip the above steps and instead add 114 grams of flour below in place of the levain.
Mix the butter in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer for a minute or so, then add sugar and cream them together until light and fluffy.
Add the beaten eggs to the butter/sugar very slowly, a teaspoon at a time, scraping down the sides and making sure the egg is completely incorporated before drizzling in another teaspoon of egg. This is supposed to make an emulsion of the egg with the creamed sugar and butter.
Add the vanilla, levain and 1-2 teaspoons of caraway seeds or your seeds/nuts of choice.
The batter will be a bit stiff, stiffer than cornbread batter, but not as stiff as biscuit dough.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. You can butter the inside of the biscuit pan if you’d like, but I didn’t the second time because the fat in the batter makes the cakes release easily without buttering. Spoon the batter inside the pan, filling each cup only about halfway. If using a loaf pan instead, butter the loaf pan before spooning the batter inside.
Bake it at 350ºF for 25-30 minutes. If using a loaf pan, bake for 60-75 minutes, but especially the first time you make it, check for doneness at around 45 minutes or so. The cakes are done when a toothpick comes out clean.