Renaissance Era "Sugar-Cakes"




Introduction: Renaissance Era "Sugar-Cakes"

About: I make stuff. It's what I do.

I'm back to enter another contest, this time it's cookies. So of course, I had to do some research on where cookies came from and find the oldest recipe I could follow! Here comes the history: (It's not too long, I promise)

Flat, hard wafers of baked dough have basically existed for as long as people had flour, water and hot stones to bake it on. However, cookies as we know them - that is, sweet cookies - first appeared in the middle east in the 7th century, as that is where sugar was first refined. Sugar, and confections made with sugar, then spread west throughout Europe through trade routes etc.

The earliest recipes *I* could find (and read, Middle Persian is not a language I'm familiar with :P) and recognize as "cookies" in the modern sense were English ones from around the turn of the 17th century. Cookies at this time were often called, rather confusingly, "cakes". Sometimes they were called "jambals" or "jumbles" which may have been a transliteration of an earlier Persian word. Interestingly (at least to me) the word "jumble" for cookie came into use before the word "jumble" was used to mean "a mixture of stuff" so it could be that the word  originally came from cookies!

The modern American word "cookie" comes from the Dutch "koekje" meaning a little cake, while "biscuit", the word used by most of the rest of the English speaking word, comes from the Latin "bis coquere" meaning "twice cooked". Many early cookies were cooked in a two stage process which included baking gently and then drying in an oven, or boiling and then baking.

Ok, that's enough history and etymology for now. ;) Time for some cookies!

Step 1: The Ingredients

The original text:

To make Sugar-Cakes or Jambals.
Take two pound of flour, dry it, and season it very fine, then take a pound of loaf sugar, beat it very fine, and searse it, mingle your flour and sugar very well; then take a pound and a half of sweet butter, wash out the salt and break it into bits into the flour and sugar, then take the yolks of four new laid eggs, four or five spoonfuls of sack, and four spoonfuls of cream, beat all these together, put them into the flour, and work it up into paste, make them into what fashion you please, lay them upon papers or plates, and put them into the oven; be careful of them, for a very little thing bakes them.

From: The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, which can be found here at Project Gutenberg.

My modernized version:

1/2 lb of flour
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
1 pinch saffron
1/4 lb of sugar
6 oz unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp sweet sherry
1 tbsp cream
Extra sugar (~1/4-1/2 cup) for decoration
parchment paper for baking

Some notes:
I did use unbleached flour for this recipe, since I was attempting, as usual, to be authentic. As for the sugar, though, I used plain white sugar in the recipe and raw sugar for decoration. If I had more, as well as the time to "pound it very fine", I might have used raw sugar for the whole thing.
"Sack" is pretty hard to find nowadays, so I used sweet sherry, which is pretty close.
I also reduced the whole recipe to 1/4 of the original quantity. It still made 3 dozen cookies, and being that it's just after christmas and we still have a ton of cookies in the house, I'm glad I did!
The spices get a bit more explanation...

Step 2: Take Two Pound of Flour, Dry It, and Season It Very Fine...

Blah blah blah spices:
I liked this recipe out of the ones I found because it has pretty exact measurements for most of the ingredients, which is fairly rare for early recipes. It did, however, contain the rather vague instruction: "season it very fine" ("it" being the flour). In order to fill in the blanks here, I looked at several other cookie recipes from around that time, mainly from The Accomplisht Cook and The Good Huswifes Jewell (found at Medieval Cookery).

Cloves, nutmeg or mace, saffron and rosewater, as well as rarer and more exotic ingredients like musk and ambergris seemed to be fairly common ingredients for cakes and cookies around that time, and that, along with what I had on hand, was how I came to decide what to use. I did have some rosewater too, but I didn't want to mess with the recipe by adding liquid...

The amounts given in the ingredients step were approximately what I added, and while I found the spice to be quite strong enough in these cookies, it may even be that a cook working in the early modern period would have added even more - they seem to have liked their food to be very strongly seasoned. So adjust your seasoning however you like.


What I actually did:
I put the ground nutmeg and cloves in with the flour and sugar and gave it a stir. I added the butter, broken up into small pieces, and tried to break it up a bit with the spoon.

Step 3: Then Take the Yolks of Four New Laid Eggs...

The wet ingredients for the recipe were the egg yolk, the cream and sherry. I had put the saffron into the sherry to soak a bit and try and get some of that golden colour that saffron is famous for out of it. I don't know if it made any difference or not, but I didn't let it soak for very long. If I was going to do this recipe again, I would probably have ground the saffron up first, and/or let it soak for a lot longer.

Basically, all I did was mix the wet ingredients in a bowl. Not all that complicated really, and the end result of this step wasn't terribly appetizing :P

Step 4: Work It Up Into Paste...

Now for the first moment of truth... You can usually tell if a cookie recipe is going horribly wrong at the point where you get all the ingredients together, but this behaved pretty much like any sugar cookie type recipe I'd ever made. After some stirring, I got a wet-sand looking kind of texture, and then after mushing it together with my hands, a nice solid ball of dough.

Step 5: Make Them Into What Fashion You Please...

Another somewhat vague instruction, "make them into what fashion you please". Many of the other recipes I looked at had cookies rolled out and tied in knots and such, but in this case I went for simplicity. I rolled the dough into 1-11/2 inch balls and dipped the top of them into the raw sugar I had for decoration. I placed them a couple inches apart on parchment paper and a cookie sheet for baking.

I don't, unsurprisingly, have a wood burning oven in my house, so an electric one had to do. As for what temperature to set the oven, I settled on the pretty much standard baking temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 6: Be Careful of Them, for a Very Little Thing Bakes Them...

12-14 minutes in a 350 degree oven seemed to do the trick. The recipe made about 3 dozen cookies, and they are really quite tasty. They did kind of slump into odd shapes a little in the oven, and got little crispy bits around the edges that tended to fall off when they were picked up, but I don't think that's much of an issue. The cloves are the dominant flavour, and the raw sugar on top formed a really nice crunchy crust. One of my more successful historical food experiments if I do say so myself.

In conclusion: do try this one at home! They're yummy, and an interesting taste of the past. Might be a fun activity for a class learning about the spice trade or something...

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Chile Fanatic
Chile Fanatic

Tip 3 years ago

Cut your butter into small cubes and add to the dry mix slowly so each cube gets coated and doesn’t stick to the others. Use a stand mixer and slowly add the liquid to the dry mix while scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as it turns. It will quickly come together as a dough. I don’t think I would try this without a stand mixer.

We also omitted the Saffron.

Chile Fanatic
Chile Fanatic

3 years ago

My daughter had to make a Renaissance recipe for her Honors English class and she chose these. We just made them and love them. They have a very interesting sweet-savory flavor that is quite addicting. Ours cooked up just like a perfectly soft sugar cookie. No brown crumbly edges as stated in the article. We will definitely make them again, just for us.


4 years ago

I know this was made a long time ago, and I don't know if you will even respond, but I'm trying to make these cookies but when I tried to make them, the dry ingredient amount far exceeded the wet ones. When I mixed it all together it ended up being a dry powder, it just looked like all the dry ingredients.


Reply 4 years ago

If you could help at all that would be great.

Chile Fanatic
Chile Fanatic

Reply 3 years ago

I just made these. Doubled the recipe but they turned out great. Try cutting the butter up into small pieces and using a stand mixer to mix the dry ingredients as you slowly add the liquid ingredients to the bowl, scraping down the sides of the bowl as it mixes. It will all come together as a dough.


10 years ago on Introduction

The spices from the Middle Ages had to travel LOOOOONG distances strapped to camels or in the holds of ships on looong soggy journeys. No wonder they used so much---the quality of them surely suffered. And I am very sure that the spices sold to European vendors were NOT the same quality as those used by say the local spice merchants cook. When I had actual real FRESH spices in Israel I was amazed at the difference---and also in the Caribbean spice growing islands.

Even in our home kitchens with fairly fresh spices from a busy food coop the quality degrades after a while. I have looked at many an old cook book and wondered at the quantities and mixes of spices and gone--HUH???

I deeply admire tackling these sorts of recipes tho! Just as long as you use fake blackbirds for the "Four And Twenty" when you make your pie---or the PETA People will be stopping by and it won't be for supper! LOL!


Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

Thanks for the comment!

You make a good point about how far the spices had to travel, I hadn't thought of that. I always kind of assumed that the people who were wealthy enough to have plenty of exotic spices really wanted to make sure everyone noticed them ;)