A Book of Simples, on Making ‘Quince Cakes’

To make Cakes of Quinces red.

Take barberrys and infuse them and when they are very soft take them and stamp them with a spoon and strain them, then have some quinces ready scaulded and pared then take the pulp of  the quinces and mix it with the barberrys then take the weight of it in Sugar and wet it with water then set it over the fire and let it boyle till it be Sugar again then put in your quinces and stir it over the fire till the sugar be all melt'd but not let it boyle then drop it on glass plats.

To make clear Cakes of Quinces.

Take quinces and pare them and cut them into water then set them over the fire and let them boyle very fast till the quinces be very tender then strain the jelly and take the weight of it in Sugar and
 wet it in water set it on the fire and let it boyle to sugar again then put in the jelly and set it over the
 fire and stir it till all the sugar be melt'd but it must not boyle then put them in glasses.

Anon, A Book of Simples (c. 1700 – 1750, published 1908)

The two recipes listed above are intriguing for two reasons. Firstly, there’s the nature of the volume I found them in. Published in 1908, A Book of Simples is the transcribed, published version of a manuscript believed to date from the early to mid 18th century, containing a wide range of household recipes and instructions, many of which prescribe the use of common garden herbs, fruit and other foodstuffs. From the Introduction:

"The original of this little book was found in the library of a distinguished Essex antiquary: the document has unfortunately no history, but from its appearance and comprehensive character it must have been the still-room book of some manor house or homestead of standing. 

The manuscript is a folio composed entirely of vellum, bound in green, with a conventional design in gold: the binding of this book is a reduced facsimile of the original. The writing is in the hand of several persons: the spelling and absence of punctuation are here reproduced in all their original quaintness. The book has been submitted to experts, who are of opinion that it covers a period of some fifty years, terminating about the middle of the eighteenth century." 

I think anything quite so authentically useful and well-used as this is always going to be intriguing. It offers an authentic glimpse into the everyday lives and annual cycle of work of an earlier age, rather than a published, polished impression of what a particular author decides really ought to be the best practice of the day.

The second point of fascination is linked to the etymology of the word ‘cake’. Based on these recipes, and others I’ve seen elsewhere, it’s clear that there was once an alternate culinary meaning of the word ‘cake’ that doesn’t involve flour and eggs.[1] One lingering current day vestige of the usage is the liquorice sweet known as ‘Pontefract cake‘; a very solid, very chewy disk of boiled liquorice jelly. The ‘quince cakes’ under discussion seem to be similar, although perhaps larger, perhaps not so dense?

In the red quince jelly recipe, when the barberry and quince mixture, boiled with sugar – that has already been wetted and then set to “boyle till it be Sugar again“; another intriguing detail – is dropped onto a glass plate, it presumably would form a flat, rounded mass of dense jelly, very much like a Pontefract cake.

We’re told to put the clear quince jelly is into glasses, suggesting that it should be formed into a flat, rounded or cone-shaped ‘cake’ – depending on the shape of the glass – and perhaps then being turned out once it has set, or just served in the glass as-is?

I do know from making my own quince jelly – albeit using Chaenomeles japonica (‘Japanese quince’) rather than Cydonia oblonga (‘tree’ quince) – that the stuff does set to a very solid texture if you get the boiling point right, so a solid ‘cake’ of quince jelly, however small, doesn’t seem too unlikely.

Anyway, there you have it. If you’re similarly intrigued, can get hold of quinces and/or barberries, and fancy having a go at making your own ‘Cakes of Quince’ then please do let me know how you get on. You can leave a comment, below, or better yet, drop me an email with your notes and lots of photos. I’d love to see them.

[Edit, 12 hours after posting] Quick Update: via Twitter, a point that I’d completely overlooked:

Thanks to Mark and Barry for pointing that one out. I’ve not yet tried to make a fruit cheese, so the connection didn’t occur to me.


1 But why use the word ‘cake’ for something so distinct from the expected item? Etymonline suggests that the meaning of ‘cake’, originally “early 13c., flat or comparatively thin mass of baked dough, from Old Norse kaka, became “extended mid-15c. to any flat, rounded mass.”

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