Parsnip cake ‘without eyther spice or sugar’

In the 1590s England was struck by a number of poor harvests, which put pressure on the supply of food and led to starvation in some parts of the realm. To help alleviate hunger, Sir Hugh Plat, already a prolific writer on agriculture and the domestic economy, published a book of recipes ‘against famine’. Beginning with an appeal for the people to adopt the ‘true Christian vertue’ of general abstinence, Plat then listed several thrifty remedies. These included a technique to take away the ‘unsauorie tast of Beanes, Pease, Beechmast, Chestnuttes’, how to make starch without any corn, and a recipe for beer without the use of hops.

In anticipation of our upcoming conference on food waste and food sustainability, I decided to have a go at making one particularly promising- sounding recipe: ‘Sweete and delicate cakes made without spice, or Sugar’.

The recipe itself is short and sweet:

‘Slice great and sweete parsnep rootes (such as are not seeded) into thin slices, and hauing washed & scraped them cleane, dry them, and beat them into powder (here a mil would make a greater dispatch) searcing the same through a fine searce, then knead two partes of fine flower with one part of this ponder and make the same into cakes, and you shal find them to tast very daintily.’

Notably, Plat left the actual cake recipe up to the reader, so I decided to make the simplest cake that I could, the important thing being to assess the use of parsnips in the place of sugar. This was more work that I had anticipated, as the parsnips needed to be dried out and made into a powder before I could begin to actually make the cake. Here’s the recipe and method I used:

Ingredients

  • 2 parsnips (50g when dried)
  • 100g self-raising flour
  • 50g of currants
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • Milk and butter for dough consistency

Method

  • Blanch the parsnips (this helps preserve the flavour)
  • Cut very thin slices of parsnip
  • Lay the parsnip slices out on a baking tray (preferably not touching) and dry them for several hours on the lowest setting of the oven
  • Blend them into the finest powder possible
  • Add the flour, the parsnip powder, and the currants together
  • Beat and mix in the eggs to the dry ingredients
  • Add milk (and butter if you like) until it makes a firm dough
  • Bake for 30 minutes at 180 degrees

The result is indeed quite ‘dainty’! The cake I created is essentially a sugar-free scone, with a subtle sweetness provided by the parsnips. In the spirit of ‘waste not want not’, I also decided to add in some currants that I had left over in my cupboard, which certainly added to the flavour. Perfect with an (anachronistic) cup of tea!

Although of course, I can’t contend that this is exactly the result envisaged by Plat, the exercise was a rewarding one. It reminds us – in a time when food sustainability is a pressing concern – that throughout history people have developed creative (and delicious!) ways of preserving food and reducing food waste.

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The recipe comes from Hugh Plat, Sundrie new and artificiall remedies against famine (1596; first published 1595), sig. B4v- C1r. It is also relayed in a slightly different form in Plat’s Delightes for ladies (1602), sig. D7v – D8r.

Our conference ‘Waste Not Want Not: Food and Thrift from Early Modernity to the Present’ will take place at the University of Cambridge on 12th and 13th September 2019. The programme and more information is here: https://bodyandfoodhistories.wordpress.com/wastenotwantnot/