I recently spent a fun evening helping out with a historic cooking workshop at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum, where we made queen cakes, little currant-filled treats that were popular in England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. These cakes may have been named for Queen Mary, who reigned in Great Britain from 1689 to 1694, or her sister Anne (1702–1714). The earliest known recipe for them was in a book called Court Cookery (1725) by Robert Smith:
Take a Pound of dry’d Flower, a Pound of refin’d Sugar sifted, and a Pound of Currans wash’d, pick’d, and rubb’d clean, and a Pound of Butter wash’d very well, and rub it into the Flower and Sugar, with a little beaten Mace, and a little Orange-Flower Water; beat ten Eggs, but half the Whites, work it all well together with your Hands, and put in the Currans; sift over it double-refin’d Sugar, and put them immediately into a gentle Oven to bake.
Queen cakes probably evolved from Portugal cakes, which were so-called because they were made with sack, or sweet, fortified white wine, from Portugal. The ingredients in the two cakes were similar: flour, sugar, and butter (usually in equal weights), plus eggs and currants. Some queen cakes also contained sack or brandy, but nonalcoholic flavorings became common — the orange-flower water and mace in Smith’s recipe, for example, or rose water and pounded almonds. Some recipes also called for icing, although Elizabeth Moxon advised in English Housewifry (1764), “…you may ice them if you please, but do not let the iceing be thicker than you may lie on with a little brush.”
Like Portugal cakes, queen cakes were made in small pans. Early queen cakes were possibly made in the little tin or stoneware patty pans used for mince pies, but by the mid-18th century, specific queen-cake pans were available in a variety of shapes, with hearts being the most popular. (Some bakers just used simple teacups or saucers for these cakes, however.) Here is an illustration of queen cake molds sold in the 1890s:
Many American cookbooks had recipes for queen cakes, including Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1840). We made Leslie’s recipe at the Mount Vernon cooking workshop, as well as one by English author Isabella Beeton, from her best-selling Book of Household Management (1861), a sort of domestic bible for the Victorian middle class.
Leslie’s cakes were flavored with mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, and brandy, and had an icing made from whipped egg whites and rose water. They also used eggs for leavener, whereas Beeton’s recipe also included baking soda, which was was just coming into use around this time. Beeton’s recipe also called for much more flour, plus cream and lemon zest. Here is her recipe:
INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of flour, 1/2 lb. of butter, 1/2 lb. of pounded loaf sugar, 3 eggs, 1 teacupful of cream, 1/2 lb. of currants, 1 teaspoonful of carbonate of soda, essence of lemon, or almonds to taste.
Mode.—Work the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour, add the sugar and currants, and mix the ingredients well together. Whisk the eggs, mix them with the cream and flavouring, and stir these to the flour; add the carbonate of soda, beat the paste well for 10 minutes, put it into small buttered pans, and bake the cake from 1/4 to 1/2 hour.
Grated lemon-rind may be substituted for the lemon and almond flavouring, which will make the cakes equally nice.
Beeton’s queen cakes were heavier than Leslie’s, because of the higher proportion of flour, but I preferred them. They tasted like pound cake but with a nice crunchy exterior. We made them with tart molds that resembled old queen-cake tins except for having ribbed sides (see photo below). These molds seem to make the cakes crunchier than modern muffin pans do, perhaps because they get very hot. Also, since the cakes are so little, there is more surface area exposed to heat. You need to butter the molds well to keep the cakes from sticking, and it’s important not to overfill them or you’ll end up with slightly blobby shapes instead of identifiable hearts, diamonds, etc. But they’ll still taste good! Below is a slightly adapted version of Beeton’s recipe, which I halved. I left her long subtitle in all its glory, however.
Adapted from Mrs. Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management: Comprising Information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-All-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly, Wet, and Sick Nurses, Etc. Etc. Also, Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda; With a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of All Things Connected With Home Life and Comfort. (London,1861)
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for buttering molds
2 cups less 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 cup (4 ounces) sugar
¾ cup (4 ounces) currants
2 eggs, room temperature
¼ cup cream
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon baking soda
1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Generously butter about 20 small (approx. 2″) tart molds or one dozen muffin tins. If using molds, place them on a baking sheet.
2. In a large bowl, beat the stick of butter until light, about 1 minute. Slowly blend in the flour, then add the sugar and currants, and stir well.
3. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until light, then add the cream and lemon zest and blend well. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture along with the baking soda, and beat well for about 2–3 minutes if using an electric mixer, or 5 minutes by hand.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared molds, until half full, and bake for approximately 20–25 minutes. The cakes should be slightly firm and golden. (Baking time will vary depending on the size of tins used.) Remove from oven, let rest a few minutes until cool enough to handle, then carefully remove cakes from tins, using a dull knife or spoon to pry them loose if necessary.