My Great Aunt Sues' Seed Cake. A traditional English Bake for Harvest time.
Well the nights are drawing in and the 8th September officially marked the end of summer and the start of autumn. This time of year we have an abundance of seasonal food to choose from, apples, pumpkins, squashes, pears, quinces, to name but a few. However, don’t go picking any brambles as the old wives tale says “blackberries should not be picked in October, lest the devil has spat on them”. So there you are, you have been warned!
It is also Harvest Festival time, for many people it is a time for celebration, sharing and storing away for the winter. Sharing the Harvest is often supported by schools, whose children attend an annual church or chapel service and take along an item of food. This is distributed to the needy or auctioned off to raise money for charity. Along with church services and the familiar rousing Harvest Festival Hymns, there are many Harvest Suppers taking place and in our area village halls and farmhouses. People are busy preparing and organising the annual ritual of thankfulness and celebration of hopefully a good harvest. Depending on where you are in the country there are different dishes that are a must for any Harvest Supper. In Lincolnshire of course it is Stuffed Chine, which would traditionally be served with a splash of malt vinegar, so too is Ham, Pork Pie and Harvest Loaf.
We in Britain have been celebrating the gathering of a successful Harvest since Pagan times. The timing of the festival is the Sunday closest to the Harvest Moon; this is the closest full moon to the autumn equinox when the hours of daylight and dark are equal. This equinox falls on 22nd/23rd September this year. The word Harvest is derived from the old English word – Haerfest, which means autumn. The word then became synonymous with the gathering of grain and produce. The Harvest Festival and Supper as we know it now, along with so many other traditions seems to have it’s origins in the Victorian era. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when or where, but there seems to be a reference to two vicars, one in Cornwall and one in Huntingdonshire that held services with hymns such as “we plough the fields and scatter”, having the church decorated , gifts brought and a shared supper afterwards.
There are also many superstitions surrounding corn spirits or corn mother. The theme of many of them involves the last grain to be harvested. The most recognisable symbol of this is the Corn Dolly, it would be woven and then put pride of place at the Harvest Supper table. The corn dolly would then be kept safe until the following year and at the time of seed sowing would be ploughed back into the field to bring luck to the crop.
A traditional dish that would be made and baked by farmer’s wives in days gone by is a Seed Cake, the caraway seeds representing the cycle of growth. A poem from 1613 refers to the widespread practice that predates the Reformation of distributing Seed Cake to farmworkers. Nowadays this seems to be largely forgotten; in fact this delicious cake rarely gets a mention at all. Perhaps because it is not glamourous, it isn’t iced or “prettied” up in any way. It is just a good tasting old English cake. In the spirit of sharing for Harvest Festival, I am happy to share with you the Seed Cake recipe that belonged to my late Great Aunt Sue Ayre from Alford. The recipe is in her treasured 1961 Jean Balfor book called Good Cooking. It has a faded yellow linen cover on it complete with years of crumbs and baking splodge’s entombed in its pages, marking the many years that it was her baking bible. She had an excellent reputation for her baking and was asked to do catering for many functions and special occasion cakes.
Aunt Sue’s Seed Cake
Freestanding mixer or hand held mixer, bowl, big spoon, butter knife, deep 7 or 8 inch cake tin (greased and lined), scissors, scales, measuring spoons, measuring jug, sieve.
3 oz Butter or Margarine
4 oz Caster Sugar
5 oz Plain Flour
1 tsp Baking Powder
2 tsp Caraway Seeds
Beat Butter and Sugar together to a cream
Beat in the eggs gradually
Sift in the flour with the baking powder
Mix in half the seeds
Turn into your greased and lined tin
Sprinkle the rest of the seeds on top
Bake at 350f or a moderate oven for ¾ hour. If using fan I bake at 170c and check after half an hour
Put on cooling rack in tin for 5mins
Carefully turn out and cool