Historic baking – 18th Century Sponge Biscuits

At West Sussex Record Office, our aim is to make our extensive archive collections ‘come alive’ for our researchers, and engage them with the history of the county they call home. Many records create a vivid image of what life was like for our ancestors, but none do the job quite like the commonplace books and family diaries that record the rural communities in Sussex. From our great estate collections, to individual family’s farming accounts, you will find information that paints a portrait of what everyday life was like. For example, the recipes we find recorded in these volumes tell us so much not only about what a certain family was eating, but the produce available to them at that time, the developments and fashions in home cooking, the advances in kitchen equipment, farming, and food production. In a bid to really make the archives come alive, we have taken to the kitchen and attempted to recreate some of the cakes and bakes found in our historic collections.Recipe

Dating to 1787, this recipe book belongs in the family archive of the Reverend T. A. Maberley, who became Vicar of Cuckfield in 1841. The 1861 census shows him and his wife, Caroline, living at the Vicarage with their two daughters, Leonore and Mary, and five servants. He was well-loved by his parishioners, who put up a triumphal arch when he returned from a tour of Europe in 1864, and when he died in 1877, a parishioner recalled ‘when the church bell tolled for his death we all sat down and wept’.

There were two recipe books amongst the Maberley family travel diaries and Bookpapers, with this one dating 1787, and other volumes ranging until the early 19th century. Prior to its transfer to the Record Office in 1977, the collection was deposited in Chichester City Museum in 1966 by a Mrs E Fisher, who wrote that she was the last of the Maberley and Fisher families.

Avoiding the (many) recipes involving calves heads, tongues, hearts, and various other body parts, I set myself the challenge of recreating one of the Maberley family’s trusted dishes. Choosing a relatively simple ‘Sponge Biscuits’ recipe, the results could range from cupcake to digestive, and the name excuses my efforts.

Take the weight of Eight Eggs of sugar & the weight of ten in fine flour & fourteen eggs, beat the whites well with a whisk till they are like snow, beat the yolks & sugar together for half an hour, then mix the whites and yolks together with the rind of 2 lemons grated – when that is done – shake in the flour & mix it well with a spoon, they must be baked in a slow oven in tin moulds.

Thankfully using the universal weighing system of ‘eggs’, the recipe was relatively easy to adapt for modern baking. However, not wanting to deprive the rest of Sussex of their Platedweekend breakfasts, I halved the recipe to use a mere 7 eggs, and in doing so, saved my arm the full half an hour of beating. Still somehow ending up with 36 small sponges, the result was a surprisingly light, lemony, not too eggy, cake.

As only a handful remain in the Record Office staff room, I can only assume that they are as tasty in 2018 as they were over 200 years ago.

Throughout the summer, we will be raiding the archives to find more historic recipes to convert and attempt to bake. Posting the results here on our blog, please feel free to join in, or suggest any historic recipes your family may still use.

Lauren Clifton

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