Penguin’s Great Food series is a labour of love for editor Pen Vogler: she spoke at the V&A Reading Rooms with infectious affection for the chefs and authors featured in the series, from a groaning Samuel Pepys seeking remedies for indigestion to Charles Lamb writing about hunger.
Some of the cooks are celebrated: Claudia Roden who rediscovered recipes from her Egyptian childhood and published a classic work on Middle Eastern cooking in 1968, and Victorian domestic goddess Mrs Beeton. Others are intriguingly obscure, such as Colonel Wyvern, who was stationed in Madras in the 1870s and made it his mission to encourage Raj ladies to embrace Indian curries.
Pen’s words were enough to spark interest in the writers, but she had also cooked up four historic cakes from the series. Biting into them was a strange thrill… tasting something fresh from the past, alive with scents of ginger, lemon and rosewater. The oldest, the marchpane from 1615, is perhaps the least familiar: the cooked marzipan and rosewater carry the rich influence of medieval cooking, whose tastes are recognizable today in Middle Eastern food. The little un-iced sponge from 1747, the caraway cake, has a delicate infusion of caraway seeds, candied peel, rosewater and sherry. And Acton ginger bread from 1845 is a timeless treat, the ginger backed with hints of lemon and cloves. 1922’s super chocolate cake is less chocolately than the indulgent goodies we’ve become used to, but none the worse for that: the flavour is soft and subtle, with an indulgent Twenties dash of Maraschino cherry liqueur in the icing. (The introduction to the recipe neatly conjures a lost world.)
This series is very much a visual as well as a culinary treat: the colourful jackets designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith are based on contemporary ceramic tiles.
Pen recreated the recipes as accurately as possible, even going to the lengths of finding smelling salts as a raising agent for the super chocolate cake. Most are fairly straightforward to bake, but when it comes to ingredients it’s worth bearing in mind that our eggs are larger than those of the past, so you may need to reduce quantities slightly.