Pound Cake

This recipe is on page three of Harriet’s recipe book. It’s interesting that, so far, Harriet’s book has provided only sweet recipes, for cakes, buns and tea-cakes. Perhaps she was watching the cook that she worked alongside in the vicarage, as she provided afternoon tea for the vicar, his daughters and parishioners. Or, as I speculated in a previous post, her grandmother Ann could have been teaching her to cook – and we all know what a sweet tooth grandmothers tend to have (or perhaps that was just mine!)

Pound Cake. 1 1/4lb flour. 1lb butter. 1lb of pounded sugar. 1lb currants. 2oz candied peel. 1/2oz citron peel. 1/2oz sweet almonds. 8 eggs. Work the butter into a cream, dredge in the flour, add sugar, flour, currants, peel almonds (blanched and very finely chopped). Whisk the eggs let them be well blended with the other ingredients. Beat all well together for 20 minutes.

This cake traditionally gets its name from the weight of the main ingredients: a pound each of flour, butter, sugar and eggs. Some food historians suggest that the recipe would have been passed down in an age where illiteracy was common. There would be no need to write down or even remember measurements of ingredients if you knew that everything just needed to weigh the same. The recipe could even be scaled down if you had a shortage of ingredients, just so long as the ratio was kept to.

One of the earliest written recipes for Pound Cake is in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in 1747. Born the illegitimate daughter of a Northumberland landowner, Glasse lived a colourful life involving elopement, imprisonment for bankruptcy and at least ten children. She wrote her cookbook during a period when she was struggling financially, although it is claimed that a third of the recipes were copied or adapted from other sources. Her recipe for Pound Cake is as follows:

Take a Pound of Butter, beat it in an earthen Pan, till it is like a fine thick Cream; then have ready twelve Eggs, but half the Whites, beat them well, and beat them up with the Butter, a Pound of Flour beat in it, and a Pound of Sugar, and a few Carraways; beat it all well together for an Hour with your Hand, or a great wooden Spoon. Butter a Pan, and put it in and bake it an Hour in a quick Oven. For Change, you may put in a pound of Currants clean wash’d and pick’d.

Harriet has evidently applied some artistic licence to her recipe, adding slightly more flour, as well as the candied peels and almonds. I decided to halve the quantity of ingredients, so that my family didn’t have to live on Pound Cake for the next week. I baked it until a skewer came out clean, which took about an hour. The result was a dense and heavy cake but it tasted surprisingly good, especially with a cup of tea. (We were still eating it six days later, even after giving a chunk of it away to the friend that lent me the bundt pan!)

Illiteracy was not an issue for Harriet. Records from her village, Kirby Underdale, show she started school when she was five and left just before her fourteenth birthday. In 1833, it was reported there were two schools in the village, attended by 33 children – two-thirds of whom were ‘children of the poor.’ In 1860, the Reverend F. Watkins published an inspection report of Yorkshire schools. At Kirby Underdale, he observed 23 boys and 24 girls and stated that ‘This school has only been in its present state four months, and must be considered almost as a new school. The master has done very well since he came here, both in increasing the numbers and establishing discipline, as well as giving a very fair amount of instruction in the time. There is every promise of a good village school here. *Sewing mistress.’

In 1891, when Harriet was a pupil, Thomas Kingdon and his wife Blanche were living at the school house and are recorded as being ‘elementary teachers’. They look about the right ages to be the couple featured in this photograph of the school, which is in my mother’s collection and dated as c.1890. My mother has marked Harriet as being the girl almost in the centre, wearing all black and with something in her hair and it certainly resembles later photographs of her. She also thought that the boy third from the left on the back row could be her brother, Herbert (matching brows!) This is the only photograph of Harriet as a child.

In 1891, just four properties away from the school house, Harriet (aged 10) was living alone with her father Thomas, a labourer. Thomas had been a widower for three years and lost five of his children. His oldest surviving children are not far away: James and John are both farm labourers in the village. Step-son William is in Pickering with Thomas’s mother-in-law Ann, and she is also taking care of youngest children Herbert and Alice by this point.

The earliest records of the school show admittances from 1878. There is no sign of Harriet’s three older brothers attending. Attendance was not made compulsory until 1880, so no doubt they were considered more use out in the fields. Next brother Richard attended between 1882 and 1889; he was withdrawn in January 1889 and died from tuberculosis in May. Herbert is admitted more than once; he lives with his grandmother until 1894, when he returns to the school, along with little sister Alice. Just days later, both are withdrawn again, with no reason given. Had they returned to Thomas, only to find that he couldn’t cope with them after all? Certainly, by the next census they are back with grandmother Ann.

Harriet left school in 1894. There is no record of what she does at this point, although I imagine she went into service, as by 1901 she is working as a servant in nearby Pickering. There is no record of what level of literacy she managed to achieve. There is a bible (below), won as a prize for religious knowledge. And, of course, her recipe book.

3 thoughts on “Pound Cake

  1. Pingback: Cherry and walnut cake – Eat Cake And Run

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