Shrewsbury cakes are actually cookies, which were called cakes or biscuits in colonial times — and still are in England. The word cookie comes from the Dutch settlers’ word koekje, or “little cake,” which was Anglicized to “cooky” and then “cookie.” (I think they should have stopped at “cooky”.)
Shrewsbury cakes were made in England from at least the 17th century, and were common in early American cookbooks. I followed Richard Sax’s recipe in Classic Home Desserts. His was similar to one by Hannah Glasse (The Art of Cookery, 1747), except that he used nutmeg instead of rose water. I had read that rose water was popular in colonial times, and decided to use it for authenticity’s sake. What a mistake — the cookies tasted like perfume had spilled all over them. I should have known that Sax, a master baker, knew what he was doing. I tried again using nutmeg, with good results.
Adapted slightly from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or ground mace
1 large egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
1. In a small bowl, beat the butter until light. Gradually add in the sugar and nutmeg or mace and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, then add the flour and beat just until blended.
2. On a sheet of wax paper, roll the dough into a long, 2-inch diameter log. Wrap in the wax paper and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour. (It is important to use wax paper as this dough is very sticky.)
3. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter four baking sheets (or two sheets twice).
4. Cut the dough log into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Place the slices about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake until the cookies are light golden around the edges, about 8 minutes. The dough will spread — be careful not to crowd the cookies or you’ll end up with this:
5. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
Makes about 30 cookies.