Prune Cake, A Cake to Be baked in Secret (Keeps Well if You Hide It)

prune cake

My mother loved to entertain; she went to elaborate ends preparing for her dinner parties, many of which had international themes-for these foreign affairs she often employed recipes from the Time-Life Books collection Foods of the World, which came out in 1968 (see 1960’s French Dinner, 2016/06/06).

Though I don’t know its origin, this prune cake was among my favorite desserts that Mom served to her many guests.  I recall her making it in the sixties; perhaps she acquired it from beloved friends while we were living in Tucson, Arizona, during several winters in this decade.

Its subtitle boasts: A Cake to Bake in Secret (Keeps Well if You Hide It).  How true this is, for this confection melts in one’s mouth, with its butterscotch glaze seeping into the entire cake; thus, it stays moist for weeks, if you don’t eat it first.

In the hot Mediterranean countries in Biblical times, drying was the most expedient way for preserving fruit and vegetables; grapes became “raisins of the sun”, plums became prunes, dates and figs likewise intensified in flavor as they shriveled up.  There, this basic technology employed the powerful sun, with either spreading the juicy produce out on trays or the rooftop, or burying it in the hot sand; this latter means of preservation became apparent at the beginning of time, with naturally dried fruit, which had fallen from trees and vines in the hot dessert.

Such sun-drying methods didn’t work well in the cooler climates of Eastern Europe; thus, more sophisticated means of dehydrating developed here.  Beginning in the Middle Ages, in Moravia and Slovakia, special drying-houses were filled with wicker frames, on which prepared fruit was laid out; constantly-burning stoves, underneath these frames, produced the necessary dry heat to transform the food.

Those in medieval Scandinavia discovered that cool, crisp air, aided by a stiff breeze, could be utilized to dry Norwegian stokkfisk-cod that had been gutted and hung to dry on wooden racks.  This dried ailment provided these people with an almost indestructible, cheap food reserve.

During this time, means for food preservation were also developing in England.  The rich Englishmen, however, had cool stillrooms, where they candied nuts and citrus peel and bottled fruits-present day canning methods were discovered in the early 19th century-and made marmalades, jams, and sweetmeats.  (In Webster’s, this last item is any delicacy made with a sweetening agent; “meat” here refers to food-sweet foods-such as candied fruit).  Indeed, the English employed the art of candying, or preserving with sugar, although they adhered to many alchemical superstitions and “secrets”, such as walnuts should be preserved on June 24th, St. John’s Day.

This memorable cake calls for dried plums that have been resuscitated.  These stewed prunes, along with the rich butterscotch glaze oozing into the whole, allow for an incredibly moist dessert that keeps for weeks, providing it is hidden from sight.

Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork (New York: Basic Books, 2012), pp. 218, 219.

Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1988, 1973), pp. 54, 180, 181.

prune cake

Prune Cake  Yields: 12 servings.  Total prep time: 1 1/2 hr/  active prep time: 30 min/  baking time: 1 hr.  Note: this recipe calls for a 9” tube pan, with a removable bottom.

2 c flour  (Bob’s Red Mill organic unbleached white flour is ideal, or may grind 1 2/3 c organic soft winter white wheat berries, to make 2 c fresh flour.)

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt  (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is critical for optimum health; an inexpensive fine grind Himalayan salt is available at Costco.)

1 1/2 tbsp cinnamon  (Our local Fred Meyer-Kroger-store has an excellent organic Korintje cinnamon in bulk.)

1 1/2 tbsp nutmeg

1 1/2 tbsp allspice

1 c oil  (The original recipe calls for corn oil, but I use grapeseed oil, as it can be heated to high temperatures without damage.)

1 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 c sugar  (May substitute coconut sugar, which has a lower glycemic index, see health benefits at Zucchini Bread, 2017/07/24 .)

3 lg eggs, beaten

1 c buttermilk

1 1/3 c dried, pitted prunes, soaked and coarsely chopped  (This may be done ahead, see step 3.)

1 c walnuts, chopped

Hot Butterscotch Glaze

1 c sugar  (Cane sugar is important here; organic is best.)

1/2 c buttermilk

1/4 c butter

1/4 c lite Karo syrup  (For easy pouring, rub measuring cup with butter first.)

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp vanilla

  1. 1980’s nutmeg grinder

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

  2. If using optional, freshly ground flour, begin grinding wheat berries now.
  3. Pour boiling water over prunes; let sit for 13-15 minutes, or until soft, but not mushy; drain, cool, and cut fruit in halves.
  4. In a sealed gallon-size storage bag, vigorously shake flour, baking soda, salt, and spices, or stir well with a fork.  (This recipe calls for LOTS of spice; freshly ground nutmeg is superb; see above photo for my 1980’s nutmeg grinder.)
  5. Mix oil, 1 tsp vanilla, and 1 1/2 c sugar together in a large bowl; beat in eggs, one at a time; mix in flour mixture and buttermilk alternately.  Stir in the prune halves and nuts.  (If using fresh ground flour, know that it is a coarser grind and thus absorbs moisture more slowly; therefore, if grinding flour fresh, be sure to let batter rest in bowl for 45 minutes before baking, to absorb liquids.)
  6. glaze at soft ball stage before rolling together with fingers

    Pour batter into an ungreased 9” tube pan, with a removable bottom.  Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean, and cake lightly responds when pressed with finger.  Meanwhile get ready to cook the glaze.

  7. In a medium saucepan, measure the ingredients for the butterscotch glaze.  Set aside, until 10 minutes before cake is done.  After cake has been baking for 50 minutes, boil glaze over medium heat, until a candy thermometer registers 235 degrees F, or a soft ball is formed (using a clean spoon, place a small amount of the cooked sugar in a cup of cold water; then, squish together with fingers to form a soft, pliable ball that doesn’t hold its shape,  see photo above).
  8. Immediately pour hot glaze over hot cake; piercing it repeatedly with a skewer or toothpick, so it can easily soak up glaze (see photo below).
  9. piercing glazed cake with skewer

    After cooling on rack, slide a knife down all sides and under removable bottom; then, gently transfer pastry to plate.

  10. Remember this is a cake to be baked in secret, for it keeps a long time, if you hide it.

Medieval White-Dish

White-dish

white-dish

Here is a bird’s eye view of a 14th century nobleman’s kitchen, as was common during the reign of King Richard II.  It consisted of a large, separate structure with many fireplaces built along the walls, each with its own cooking area.  At least one fireplace was large enough to roast a whole ox.  A raised open hearth was situated in the center of the kitchen.

Bake metes (baked foods) were concocted in an oven, prepared first with a blazing fire, getting its brick walls red hot.  Cooks placed the pies, custards, and pastries in the hot oven, after they swept out the ashes.  These items baked, behind a closed door, until the oven was cool.

Bakers, however, made breads in separate buildings in larger kitchens, such as that of King Richard II.  The stoves in these bake houses were often 14 feet wide.

Our king was extravagant; he daily entertained over a thousand guests.  There is record of a very large shopping list for a banquet he gave on September 23, 1387. His overseer included 14 salted oxen, 2 fresh oxen, 120 sheep, 140 pigs, 120 gallons of milk, and 11,000 eggs, among taxing quantities of other items.

These feasts were held in the castle’s great hall.  Here the king and special guests sat on a raised platform, or high borde.  The lesser guests assembled at tables that paralleled the side walls.  The backless benches, on which they sat, were called banquettes; thus we got the name banquet for such affairs.

Cooks in many of these kitchens prepared white-dish, or blank-mang.  It was a popular dish in England, as well as on the Continent, during the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s chef made this receipt.  Our poet wrote in his “Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales (c.1386):  “For blancmange, that made he with the best.”

I am indebted to Lorna Sass for her documentation of this information in To the King’s Taste (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975).  Below is my version for her delicious, historical recipe.  Its preparation is easy with my introduction of 21st century appliances  Can’t encourage you enough to try this.  It’s a palate pleaser!

Next week I will be making the connection between these medieval foods and our “renaissance” happening right here in Tualatin, Oregon.

White-Dish is adapted from a recipe in Lorna Sass’ To the King’s Taste (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975).  Yields: 4-6 servings.

2 large chicken breasts

2 1/2 cups water

1 1/4 tsp salt  (Real Salt is best, available in health section of local supermarket.)

1/2 cup raw whole almonds

1 cup brown rice  (I like basmati rice, available at Trader Joe’s.)

3 tbsp butter

4 tsp brown sugar, packed down  (Sucanat  evaporated cane juice, may be substituted; this is close to what they used in the Middle Ages.)

3 tbsp anise seed

1/4 cup sliced almonds

  1. In a tightly covered medium-size saucepan, over medium heat, boil chicken in water, to which 1/4 tsp salt is added.   Boil for about 10-15 minutes.  Be careful to not overcook.  Check meat by cutting with a sharp knife; center should be slightly pink.  (Meat will be cooked more later on.) Remove chicken from broth; set aside both broth and meat.
  2. To make the almond milk, grind 1/2 cup whole raw almonds in a 11-cup, or larger, food processor. Pulse repeatedly until almonds are a fine powder.  (A blender or Vitamix will also work; add 2 tbsp of ice water to nuts, before grinding, if using either of these.)
  3. With food processor running, slowly add two cups of broth through the feeder tube on top of the processor.  (You may have to add water to make 2 cups of liquid; if perhaps you have extra broth, be sure to save this.)  Let sit for 10 minutes.  This makes almond milk.
  4. Put almond milk in the saucepan.  Add remaining 1 tsp salt, 1 tbsp butter, and sugar.  Bring to a boil over medium heat.  Add rice, cover,  and reduce heat to medium low.  Simmer gently for about 40 minutes, or until rice is soft.  Watch carefully so rice doesn’t cook dry; gently check bottom of pan with a fork, being careful to not stir rice.  Add more broth, or water, as needed.
  5. Meanwhile dice chicken into 1-inch cubes.  Set aside.
  6. In a small sauté pan, cook almond slices in remaining 2 tbsp of hot butter.  Watch carefully, sautéing only until light brown.  Salt them lightly and set aside.
  7. Crush anise seed using a mortar and pestle.  May also grind in a DRY food processor by pulsing lightly.  Set aside.
  8. Add chicken when rice is soft; stir, and cook about 5 more minutes, or until meat is hot.  Watch moisture in bottom of pan, so rice doesn’t burn, add water or broth as needed.
  9. Serve garnished with buttered almond slices and crushed anise seed.  SO GOOD!

Medieval Perrey of Peson Soup

Perrey of peson soup

perrey of peson soup

This heavenly soup is from the late 14th century manuscript collection titled the Forme of Cury (Manner of Cookery).  King Richard II, who reigned in England from 1377-99, requested the compilation of the methods of food preparation from his grand court. This record of 196 recipes resulted.  He was an extravagant king who daily dined with over 10,000 guests.  It took 300 cooks to prepare his extraordinary meals.  These manuscript receipts providentially allow us to replicate, in part, the flavor of his feasts.

Lorna Sass discovered two volumes published by the Early English Text Society, while she was researching at the Columbia University library in the early 1970’s. They were filled with medieval manuscript recipes; among them was the Forme of Cury. She published a number of these in To the King’s Taste in 1975.  Here she includes both the original version in Middle English and her translation of that. This is followed by her cooking instructions, which she developed based on a 70’s kitchen.  Her goal was to plainly duplicate these exceptional tastes as closely as possible.

I have simplified several of her recipes even further; my versions utilize our modernized conveniences nearly fifty years hence.  Perrey of peson, puree of pea soup, is my first inspiration.  The flavor here is much the same that our illustrious king experienced.  However I substituted dried peas for the shelling of fresh ones; thus, this distinctive soup is available year round.  Poetic license had me choose yellow peas instead of green.  Either will do.

The basic techniques for preparation in medieval times were much the same as today. There was paraboyling, bakying, stewying, scaldying, broyliying, tostying, fryeing, boilleing, and roosting.  However these manuscript recipes only document vague preparatory steps with the needed ingredients.  There were no quantities and not many details.  Below is an example: here you’ll find this soup’s receipt given in its entirety as taken from Sass’ book:

“Take peson and seeth hemsaft and cover hem til thei berst.  Thenne take up hem, and cole hem thorgh a cloth; take oynons, and mynce hem, and seeth hem in the same sew and oile therewith,; cast thereto sugar, salt, and saffron, and seeth hem wel thereafter, and serve hem forth.”

Indeed let us serve this forth!

A pot of perrey of peson soup

a pot of perrey of peson soup

Perry of Peson  Yields: 8 servings.  Total prep time: 1 hr & 20 min/  active prep time: 20 min/  cooking time: 1 hr.  This medieval puree of pea soup is adapted from a manuscript recipe from Lorna Sass’ To the King’s Taste (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975).

2 tbsp oil  (Coconut or avocado oil is best; olive oil at high temperatures produces carcinogens.)

1 lg yellow onion, chopped

2 c dried yellow peas  (Available in bulk at our local Winco; may substitute dried green peas; I choose these yellow peas, though the manuscript recipe calls for fresh peas.)

2 quarts bone broth or 2 liter-boxes chicken broth (See recipe under Tortellini Soup, 2016/10/10, for the easy, inexpensive preparation of bone broth.)

1 c water

scant 1/4 tsp saffron threads  (Spanish saffron available inexpensively at Trader Joe’s.)

2 tbsp brown sugar, packed down in spoon  (May also use sucanat, evaporated cane juice, which is close to what they used in the 14th century.)

Season with Better Than Bouillon, a healthy chicken base  (Most grocery stores carry this.)

White pepper and salt, to taste  (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is critical for optimum health; an inexpensive, fine grind Himalayan salt is available at Costco.)

  1. Heat oil in a stock pot, add onions, and sweat (cook until translucent).
  2. Add peas; stir to coat with oil.
  3. Add broth, water, and saffron; bring to a boil over med/high temperature; reduce heat and simmer at a low boil for 1 hour, or until peas are very soft.  DO NOT ADD SALT WHILE COOKING, AS PEAS WON’T SOFTEN.
  4. Add brown sugar when peas are soft.
  5. Next season with a small amount of Better Than Bouillon; taste and add more slowly.  Add white pepper and, finally, salt to taste.  Add these last three items slowly, adjusting as you go, until desired taste is achieved.
  6. Take off heat and puree with a stick blender, also known as an immersion blender, available at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
  7. Check seasonings again, serve hot.  Freezes really well also.  Explodes with flavor!