Monday, October 26, 2015

Bunn Cake: A 19th century Sweet Bread Recipe to Make All the Year Long

Burn Cake Two Ways: Dressed Up for Thanksgiving and Christmas

This recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations.


Bunn Cake

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in England the word bun or bunn can refer to a variety of individually-sized sweet, round cakes, usually fruit laden, that can be held easily in the palm of one’s hand. The earliest examples (in the years 1371 and 1460, for example) are less specific about the type of loaf or cake constituted by the term, bun. On the other hand, in 1845 Eliza Leslie was very specific about the English custom of eating Cross-Buns at breakfast on the morning of Good Friday, but she also wrote “they are very good cakes at any time, but are best when fresh.” (p.217) Other contemporary recipes for buns are: Carter’s, The Frugal Housewife (1803); 1803; Emerson’s, The New England Cookery (1808), which is a pirated edition of Carter’s recipe; Randolph’s, The Virginia Housewife (1824); Howland’s, The New England Economical Housekeeper (1845); Allen’s, The Housekeeper’s Assistant (1845); and Lea’s, Domestic Cookery (1869).

This recipe can be used to make a very good version of an Easter hot cross bun; however, I chose to dress the buns up for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They are laden with fruit and topped with royal icing and decorative festive sugar. Enjoy during the holidays or, as Eliza Leslie suggests, at any time of the year!


Bunn Cake

1 ½ lb. flour, ½ lb. butter, a wine glass of yeast, wet it with milk, 4 eggs ½ a glass of wine, ½ glass Brandy, little cinnamon & nutmeg, a handful of currants stirred together. When risen, stir in ½ lb. of sugar let it stand an hour. bake it in tins one spoonful sufficient.


Modern Recipe Adaptation

Yield: 48 1-ounce bunns

½ Cup Warm Water
2 ¼-Ounce Packets of Dry Active Yeast
4 ¾ Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Teaspoons Ceylon Cinnamon
1 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1 Cup of Zante Currants or Other Dried Fruit (I like fresh candied lemon and orange peel for Christmas)
½ Pound Butter, Salted and Softened
½ Cup Whole Milk
4 Large Eggs
½ Cup White Sweet Wine
½ Cup Brandy
1 Cup Granulated Sugar

1.    Whisk together the warm water and the yeast and set aside to activate for at least 5-10 minutes.

2. While the yeast is activating, mix together the flour, spices, and dried fruit.

3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the milk, eggs, wine, and brandy. Mix together until well-blended. Add the yeast and mix again.

4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet.

5. Place the bunn dough in a warm place and let sit for at least 1 hour. After one hour, add the sugar. Let the dough sit again for another 30 minutes.

6. While the dough is sitting, heat the oven to 375º. Grease mini-muffin pans by with butter or spray oil, or use muffin liners.

7. After the dough has rested for 30 minutes, spoon 1 ounce portions, 2 tablespoons, into the muffin pans.

8. Bake for 20 minutes or until cooked through and slightly golden in color.

9. Remove from pan and allow to cool completely if planning on icing them. These can be iced with simple royal icing, or you can use flavored icing such as lemon, orange or almond. Top with festive sugars/sprinkles for holiday service.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Black Cake: A Caribbean Treat Found in 19th Century America

Black Cake

This recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations.

Original Receipt (Recipe):
3 lbs. flour, 3 lbs sugar, 3 lbs butter, 3 dozen eggs, 2 lbs currants, 4 lbs Raisins, 1 lb. citron, a pint of Brandy, 1/2 oz. cinnamon, 1/4 oz. cloves, 1/4 oz. mace & 3 nutmegs.


Black Cakes are versions of British plum puddings or fruitcakes that emerged in the Caribbean, particularly in Trinidad, and they are served at Christmas, weddings, and other special occasions. Caribbean-made  Black Cakes have traditionally gotten their dark color not just from the dark-colored spices such as cinnamon, mace, and cloves  used in the recipe, or from the dark fruits such as raisins in it, but from the burnt sugar syrup traditionally used in the recipe. Burnt sugar is exactly what it sounds like - you take sugar and cook it in a frying pan until it gets very dark and syrupy.

While Black Cakes made with burnt sugar syrup may be popular in the Caribbean Islands even to this day, recipes for these cakes can also be found going back as far as the 19th century (and quite possibly earlier) in American cookbooks and manuscript recipe collections. These recipes can be found in  Eliza Leslie’s, Seventy-Five Receipts (1828), Lettice Bryan’s, The Kentucky Housewife (1839), Eliza Leslie’s, Directions for Cookery (1840), Elizabeth Lea’s, Domestic Cookery (1869), and in several others that appear in the latter half of the nineteenth-century. 

While traditional island Black Cakes get their dark color from the burnt sugar syrup, 19th century American recipes do not usually use that type of sugar. Instead, plain old white sugar,  brown sugar, and/or molasses were used. These versions of Black Cakes are therefore similar (they do use heavy amounts of dark sweet spices and fruit) but are fundamentally different because they do not use the burnt sugar syrup. Therefore, they could not be equal in flavor to the island varieties. Mrs. Morris's recipe for Black Cake just states "sugar" but does not specify which type. It must be assumed that she meant to use either white sugar or brown sugar. Therefore, these cakes are not quite black, but have more of a dark beige color to them!

All versions of these cakes burst with the flavor of various darkly hued sweet spices such as mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. Dried and/or sugared fruits such as orange and lemon peel, currants, raisins, etc. are crucial to the recipe; a recipe by Lettice Bryan in The Kentucky Housewife (1839) even contains whortleberries! 

Additionally, while most island versions of these cakes require that the fruits be soaked in spirits such as brandy, port, or rum for days before the cake is to be made, the 19th century American recipes do not seem to include this direction.  Instead, these recipes usually give instructions to dredge un-soaked fruit in flour just prior to adding it to the cake batter. Likewise, Mrs. Morris's recipe does include brandy but like her contemporaries she does not specify pre-soaking the fruit; also, the amount of brandy, one pint for 7 pounds of fruit, does not seem to be enough for the pre-soaking method, so this version of Black Cake is clearly not as potent as the more traditional island versions.

Anyway you make it, Black Cake is a rich, spice-laden, and flavorful cake you can enjoy anytime, preferably with a cup of tea and a good book!

Modern Recipe Adaptation:
Makes 1 10" Round Cake


1 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
4 Teaspoons Ground Cinnamon (Ceylon)
1 1/2 Teaspoons Grated Nutmeg
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Cloves
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Mace
1 Pound Mixed Dried or Candied Fruits (Currants, Raisins, Citron, Pear, Apple, Apricots, etc); Make sure all of the fruit is coarsely chopped.
1/2 Pound Butter, Softened
1 Cup White or Brown Sugar
6 Large Eggs
1/4 Cup Brandy


  1. Heat the oven to 375º F.
  2. Grease a 10" round springform pan and set in on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and spices, and then stir in the fruit. Set aside.
  4. In a separate large bowl, mix together the butter and sugar (you can use an electric mixer for this). Add the eggs two at a time, beating after each addition. Then, add the brandy and beat until well-blended, about 1-2 minutes.
  5. Add the flour mixture to the wet mixture and mix until the flour is all absorbed and the fruit is well distributed throughout the batter. The batter will be thick.
  6. Spoon the batter into the prepared baking pan.
  7. Bake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
  8. Let cool for 10 minutes and then remove the cake from the pan.
  9. Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream, ice cream, royal icing, a sweetened cream cheese (honey pecan or pumpkin work well), or try Georgian Wine Cream for an historically inspired topping.