'Fyne cakes', how to bake them

A recipe from eighteenth century Holland

English family at teaThis is a recipe for luxurious small cakes or cookies. In the Netherlands there is no high tea, but it is a custom to serve a biscuit or cookie with a cup of coffie or tea, in the morning as well as in the afternoon. Just one, because as you know we Dutch are thrifty people! (although many Dutch do know how to be generous)
These cakes, at what time of the day were they served in the eighteenth century? They were probably served at the end of a meal: according to De Volmaakte Hollandsche Keuken-Meid (The Perfect Dutch Kitchenmaid) from 1746 the last course of a meal for ten to twelve persons in a well-to-do family should consist of a big cake, fruit, fresh cheese or custard, saucers with butter, sugar and cinnamon, and all kinds of small pastries and cookies.

Cake and cookies
The Dutch name for these cookies is kaakjes. It is derived from the English cake. Later, at the end of the nineteenth century, a 'kaakje' would indicate a dry biscuit that was served with tea. The Dutch language gave something back, the English cookie has derived from Dutch koekje.

The Perfect Dutch Cook (Kitchen Maid)
The recipe is from De volmaakte Hollandsche Keuken-meid [...] (The perfect Dutch Cook or Kitchen maid), written by "a distinguished lady, passed away recently in 's-Gravenhage". The first edition was in 1746, and it was reprinted several times, for the last time in 1857. In the year of its first appearance there was already an appendix that was published separately, the Aanhangzel, with 285 more recipes. The Dutch publisher A.W. Sijthoff printed a facsimile edition in 1965 and 1973, of the fifth edition of Volmaakte Keuken-Meid from 1761 and of the Aanhangzel from 1763. This is the edition I have used, but in the online edition of 1752 (that is the third edition) the recipe is exactly the same, the only difference is the type. The dnbl presents the online edition as the one from 1746, but that is incorrect. See here for the measures in the text.

The original recipe

Fyne kaaks, hoe men die bakken zal.
Neemt een half vierdevat
bloem van Tarwe Meel, het beste dat men krygen kan ; stampt het heel fyn, met een weinigje zout daar onder, een half loot nagelen, een half loot foelie, een half loot note-muscaat en een half once  kaneel, doet dit gemengd met drie vierendeel poejer-suiker onder het Meel, en kneedt het ter degen door met anderhalf pond booter : doet ‘er dan by een mingelen Room met een pintje gist, met 12 eijeren, acht zonder het wit en vier met het wit, een weinigje Roozewater en Ambergrys : als het wel doorkneed en gerezen is, dan moet men ‘er nog 3 ponden korenten en een pond rosynen zonder korrels, dooreen, wel fyn gesneeden by doen : Maakt het deeg tot Kaakjes en zet het drie uuren te bakken in een laauwe Oven ; dan haald het ‘er uit en bestryktze met het wit van een ei en rosewater, en met suiker bestrooid, zet ze nog eens in den Oven om de suiker te doen kandilizeren, is delicaat om te eeten.
Fine cakes, how to bake them.
Take a half fourthbarrel flour of wheat, the best one can get. Pound it very finely, with a little salt, a half 'loot' (1 'loot' = 1/2 ounce = 13.5 gram) cloves, a half loot mace, a half ounce nutmeg and a half ounce cinnamon. Add this, tempered with drie quarterpound powdered sugar, to the flour, and knead it well with one and a half pound butter. Then add a 'mingel'  cream with a pint of yeast, 12 eggs, eight without the white and four with the white, a little rosewater and ambergris. When it is kneaded through and risen well enough, then add 3 pounds currants and one pound raisins without pips, finely chopped, to it. Make the dough into little cakes/cookies and set it to bake for three hours in a tepid oven. Then take them from it and coat them with the white of an egg and rosewater, and sprinkle with sugar. Put them in the oven once more to caramellize the sugar, is delicate to eat.

Modern adaptation of the recipe
In the modern adaptation I completely left out the ambergris. Except for the unlikely event that you find a lump of it on the beach yourself, it is very difficult to come by, and very expensive at that (80 euro per gram). For decoration I have chozen an icing rather than letting the sugar turn brown in the oven.
For about 24 cookies; preparation in advance 15 minutes plus time to let the dough rest; preparation 2 to 3 hours.

The 'fyne cakes' made with star-cutters and glazed with icingIngredients
200 gram (1 2/3 cup) flour
75 gram (2/3 cup) powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
in all 1 tsp. ground cloves, mace and nutmeg (1:1:1)
150 gram (2/3 cup)  butter at room temperature
2.75 deciliter (9 fl.oz) cream
1.25 deciliter (1/2 cup) fresh brewer's yeast, or 15 gram (1/2 ounce) baker's yeast (dissolved in 1.25/1/2 cup deciliter tepid water), or dry yeast (4 gram/1 tsp., and 1.25 deciliter/1/2 cup tepid water)
1 egg
2 egg yolks
1 Tbsp. rosewater
400 gram (3 1/2 cup) currants
125 gram (3/4 cup) raisins
for 10 gram (1 Tbsp.) egg white
1/2 tsp. rosewater
as much powdered sugar to produce a good glaze (50 to 60 gram/1/2 to 2/3 cup)
optionally some food colouring, silver pellets or sugared flowers

Preparation in advance
Make the dough by mixing flour, spices, salt and butter, and adding cream, yeast with water, egg, egg yolks and rosewater whilst kneading. The dough will be fairly liquid, more like a thick batter. Cover with a damp cloth, leave to rise in a warm spot. Depending on the kind of yeast you used, this can take from one hour (baker's yeast) to up to several hours (brewer's yeast). In my previous house I always put the bowl with dough in the boiler closet. You can also preheat the oven to 50gr C (120dg F), let it cool slightly (use a cheap oven thermometer), and place the bowl in the oven with the door slightly ajar (I simply put a bent fork between the door and the oven, that's enough). Chop the currants and raisins, add them to the batter after it has risen, and leave for another hour.

The cake just after bakingPreparation
Preheat the oven to 120-130 oC (250-265dg F). Be careful not to heat the oven higher (use the oven thermometer), because the currants and raisins will burn and turn bitter if the temperature is too high.
Cover a baking tin covered with baking paper or a silicon sheet. Spread out the batter in a thin layer (one to two centimeters, half to one inch), bake in the middle of the oven until the cake has turned a nice golden brown colour. Depending on your oven and how thick the layer of batter is, it will take two to three hours.
Cut out small cookies, using a cookie cutter. Let the cookies cool on a cooling-rack.
Prepare the frosting by tempering egg white and rosewater with powdered sugar (or icing sugar), and if you like some drops of food colouring. Keep stirring until you get a smooth and evenly coloured paste. Paste the cookies with a thin layer of frosting, let dry, and apply a second layer if you want to. I prefer to make small amounts of frosting at a time, because it gets hard very quickly, and, what to do with what is left over? Much to sweet to just eat.
You can also finish the cookies as described in the original recipe: paste the still hot cookies with egg white and rosewater, sprinkle with powdered sugar, and put them back into the oven until the sugar has melted and coloured slightly. But I had more fun with the frosting.

To serve
Why not a tray of cookies to accompany a cup of tea or coffee? Or dress them up as christmas cookies, like on the picture above.
The cookies will keep several days simply out on a tray. If you put tham in a tin, they will become too soft. You can also freeze the cookies, and frost them after thawing.

The use of measures in the Volmaakte Hollandse Keuken-Meyd
Vierdevat, loot, pint, these measures were in use before the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) was founded after the end of the French occupation in 1816.  Even the ounce and pound are not what they seem. And the confusion gets even worse when you realize that measures are different in different cities. In the introduction to the  Aanhangzel, van de Volmaakte Hollandsche Keuken-Meid (Appendix to the perfect Dutch Kitchen Maid) it is written that "although in the first part, as being written by a lady from The Hague, pints of The Hague are being used, which are one and a half times as large as the Amsterdam pint, we use the Amsterdam pint in the Appendix" So now I am wondering whether a cook in a town in Brabant would have three sets of pints, for recipes from Amsterdam, The Hague, and her own town. 
Below I have 'translated' the old measures from the recipe to the metric system.Measure from the end of the 18th century, French (Clermont-Ferrand). Source: pewtertankardsflagons.com

  • 1 loot = 13,5 gram
  • 1 ounce = 27 gram
  • 1 quarterpound = 107,5 gram
  • 1 pound = 430 gram
  • 1 pint = 0,585 liter
  • 1 mingel = 1,17 liter
  • Half fourth barrel = measurement for inhoudsmaat voor graan, ongeveer 7 liter

All descriptions of ingredients

A piece of amberAmbergris - Not to be confused with amber that is a resin. Just like musk (a secretion of the gonads of the musk deer and some other animals), ambergris was used in medieval Arab dishes, but now they are mainly ingredients for perfumes. You could say ambergris is a pellet of the sperm-whale. It is a waxlike substance in which indigestible remains like the beaks of squid are encapsuled. From time to time the sperm-whale emits large pellets, just to be rid of them. 'Fresh' ambergris smells of shit (manure, if you think that sounds better) and has a dark colour. Influenced by sunlight, salt water, and air the ambergris matures. It looks lighter, grayish, and the smell gets to resemble isopropanol (that is what Wikipedia says). Ambergris is one of the ingredients of Chanel no.5.
You can find ambergris washed ashore on ocean beaches, or fish it up from the sea. If you are lucky. If you want to buy some, prepare to pay a lot. There is a vegetable substitute, labdanum resinoid, the purified resin of the cistus rose (Cistus labdanifer), that can be used instead of ambergris (this also happens in the perfume industry).
Brewer's yeast - Until the fifteenth century fermenting was caused by wild yeasts. Bread was baked with sourdough. Beer (or ale), that was already brewed in prehistoric times by the Egyptians, was fermented with the help of wild yeasts. From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century the yeasts used for brewing were refined by adding the froth of a previous brew to the wort (malted grain, the basis of the beer). In that time only top fermenting beer was produced, hence the yeast in the froth.
Brewer's yeast was also used to bake. Baker's yeast became available in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was considered a great improvement, because the quality of the yeast was more consistent, and it tasted less bitter. Whether brewer's yeast or fresh baker's yeast is easily available depends on where you live. You can also use dried yeast, which will need less rising time. Just see what you can get. Only, don't confuse real brewer's yeast with the health tablets.

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)

  • De volmaakte Hollandsche Keuken-meid, Onderwyzende Hoe men allerhande Spyzen, Confituren en Nagerechten, zonder ongemeene kosten, zelfs voor de Roomsgezinden op Visdagen,en in de Vasten, gezond en smakelyk kan toebereiden : Hoe men alles tegen de winter inlegt. Wat men in de Slachttyd doen moet : En hoe men Mol en versch Bier des zomers goed kan houden. [...] Anonymous ("A distinguished Lady, recently passed away in The Hague" (1761, 5th edition, facsimile A.W. Sijthoff 1973) recipe 11, p.23.