Although Blot calls them “Hard Cakes,” they are basically Shrewsbury Cakes, which originated in the British medieval market town of Shrewsbury and became a teatime staple in many colonial American households. An 1851 book from Henry Pidgeon called Memorials of Shrewsbury sheds a little light on the history of these indulgences. Says Pidgeon, “Among the delicacies for which our town is celebrated may be mentioned a most delicious Cake … which appear to have been presented to distinguished personages on their visit to this town as early as the reign of Elizabeth; and when their Royal Highnesses the Duchess of Kent and the Princess Victoria arrived here in 1832, they were graciously pleased to accept a box of them from the Mayor.”
They are often embellished with a pretty design, made by scoring the dough with a knife (or a wooden stick as Blot suggests) and then glazing with beaten egg. I’m wondering if this is because Shrewsbury was also well known for its stained glass, which adorned churches and mansions throughout the area. As Pidgeon states, “Glass-staining has been brought to the highest state of perfection in this town … contending in effect with some of the finest works of the ancient masters.”
In any case, these delicious treats are very easy to make – just flour, sugar, butter, eggs, cinnamon, (nutmeg, mace or caraway seeds can be used instead) and rose water (or any other essence, such as orange-flower water, lemon essence, or even vanilla). Although rising agents such as saleratus would have been available to Blot, he sticks with the original recipe, which uses no baking agent. Enjoy!
Blot’s original recipe:
Hard.—Put half a pound of flour on the paste-board and make a hole in the middle; put into it three ounces of pulverized sugar, three ounces of butter, two eggs, a pinch of cinnamon, a few drops of essence, and knead the whole well, dust the board with flour, roll the paste down to a thickness of about one-fourth of an inch, cut it in pieces with a paste-cutter, of any shape; beat one egg with a teaspoonful of sugar and glaze the pieces with it; with a piece of wood draw leaves or flowers on each, and bake in an oven at about 360 degrees Fahr. They are eaten cold at tea.
My adapted version:
Hard (Shrewsbury) Cakes
- 1 ¾ cups flour
- 6 tablespoons salted butter, softened
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp essence (rosewater or orange blossom water)
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp sugar
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Cream butter and sugar in a blender until well mixed.
- Add eggs one at a time and mix well. Add rosewater.
- Sift flour with cinnamon and slowly add to other ingredients.
- Form dough into a ball and roll out onto a well-floured surface to a thickness of slightly more than ¼ inch. Cut into shapes using a biscuit or cookie cutter. (I used a flower-shaped cutter – you could also just use a glass to make circles).
- Beat an egg with a teaspoon of sugar and use this to generously glaze the pieces. Using a knife, draw flowers or leaves on each (I did letters to symbolize the initials of the friends with whom I shared my finished version).
- Bake for 10-12 minutes or until firm to the touch. Cool on a wire rack. Enjoy as per British tradition if you’d like - spread with some clotted cream and preserves accompanied by a cup of tea.
Sources: Handbook of Practical Cookery by Pierre Blot (1868), Memorials of Shrewsbury by Henry Pidgeon (1851), A Sweet Taste of History by Chef Walter Staib (2013)