Last month, we decided to follow some of the recipes in Betsy Westhead’s household book (from 1833).
Betsy Westhead was born in 1805, the daughter of George Royle Chappell, fustian manufacturer. At the turn of the 19th century, Chappell owned land in Chorlton Row (later Chorlton-on-Medlock), on the newly created ‘Nelson Street’. The family lived in Nelson House (now the site of Grafton Street car park), and also owned a pair of semi-detached villas next door (now the Pankhurst Centre). Chappell had six daughters, and each of them married into neighbouring families – who, like them, were influential in local politics, the industrial explosion of Manchester, and the Methodist church.
In 1828, Betsy Chappell married Joshua Proctor Westhead, and the two of them lived in Chorlton-on-Medlock for a time. Joshua adopted the surname ‘Brown-Westhead’ and inherited Lea Castle in 1848. He was elected Liberal MP for Knaresborough in 1847, and was later MP for the City of York (1857-65, 1868-71). Betsy and Joshua has a daughter, Adelaide, who married John Constantine de Courcy, 22nd Lord Kingsale in 1855.
My own research has focused so far on George Royle Chappell and the property he owned in Chorlton-on-Medlock – but this has involved finding out more about Chappell’s ‘fine family of daughters’ (as they were described in one source). During the course of this research, I discovered that the University of Manchester has a small notebook belonging to Betsy Westhead (née Chappell) in its archives. Described as ‘Betsy Westhead’s Receipt Book’, this is a handwritten household book, started in 1833 and recording various household tips and recipes collected from other women of her acquaintance.
Betsy appears to have started this receipt book with the best of intentions, neatly writing out recipes and patterns and adding little comments (‘very nice cake’, ‘a cake made this way with dripping is beautiful for children’). But this only goes on for a few pages, sadly. Most of the notebook is blank. I don’t know if Betsy got bored or lost the notebook (it’s also possible that her daughter was born around this time, and so her attention was elsewhere). What remains is a brief little glimpse into a few months in the life of a woman from nineteenth-century Manchester.
Obviously, I couldn’t resist this… so my mum and I decided we’d try out some of the recipes. After ruling out the intriguingly name ‘Mrs Tootal’s Calves Foot Jelly’ (not the best recipe for a vegetarian), preserved cucumbers (not sure we’d have much need of these) and Rhubarb Wine (rhubarb… urgh), we settled on Almond Pudding and Corporation Cakes. And here’s how we got on…
This recipe looked pretty tasty, so we started here. First up, we mixed grated bread, suet and brown sugar together.
And… almost immediately, we realized that historical baking isn’t as straightforward as finding a recipe in an old book. I know nothing about what sort of bread, suet or sugar Betsy would have used, but since we just wanted to get a ‘flavour’ of these 1833 recipes, we decided to accept that there would be some anachronisms. So we used supermarket-bought soft brown sugar and grated up a stale white loaf. And we used shredded vegetable suet (because I’m vegetarian).
The next problem was the bitter almonds. I was tempted to try these, but I would’ve had to order them online (and they’re quite expensive). I also got a bit squeamish about all the warnings bitter almonds carry – they contain cyanide in raw form and as few as 10 nuts might be enough to kill an adult, and as a result they’re illegal in the US. As far as I can tell, cooking bitter almonds destroys the poison, but I chickened out (because I've read too much Agatha Christie) and decided to substitute sweet almonds instead.
We used ground almonds, mixed with a little rosewater. (Side note: I thought it’d be good if we pounded the almonds ourselves, but it turns out my mum hasn’t got a mortar and pestle. She used to have one – but apparently she got rid of it years ago, so we had to use pre-ground nuts instead.)
Betsy’s recipe didn’t give any instructions about the sweet almonds, so we decided to roughly chop them.
Next, we beat together 5 eggs and a glass of brandy. I don’t know whether we used the right size of glass (we used a small wine glass), but the mixture smelt right so that was good enough for us.
Then we mixed the wet and dry ingredients together, spooned the mixture into a pudding basin, and tied it up ready for boiling.
The pudding needed to be steamed for six hours (give or take), so into the pan it went.
After just over six hours, the pudding was cooked through (slightly springy to the touch) and ready to be turned out of the basin…
… strewed with white sugar…
… and served (we didn’t make the wine sauce, as Betsy didn’t provide a recipe for that.)
It was delicious. The texture was close, but not stodgy, and you could really taste the almonds and brandy. The only change I would make in future would be to reduce the amount of rosewater, as there was just a little too much rose in it. The rosewater is really only intended to take the edge off the bitterness of the almonds, so if you’re using sweet almonds you only need a drop or two. (I’m also wondering about substituting the brandy for amaretto, for the ultimate almond pudding.)
The next recipe was a bit of a mystery. I’d never heard of corporation cakes before, and an internet search revealed very little. All I found was another recipe, in The Young Ladies’ Guide in the Art of Cookery (1777) by Elizabeth Marshall, but no information about the history or popularity of this type of cake. (As you can see, Elizabeth’s recipe differs from Betsy’s, as it has no yeast and the ratio of flour to sugar is different.)
Curious about corporation cakes, I asked people on Twitter if they could shed any light on the matter. I got some nice responses (and some advice) from food historians, but no one had actually heard of the cake before. Fortunately, I know a baker! The mum of one of the kids I tutor works for Park Cakes in Oldham, and I had a vague memory of her being knowledgeable about the history of baking. Sure enough, Ann-Marie turned out to have heard of corporation cakes – in fact, she recognized the name as soon as I said it – and she advised me that they’re a bit like rock cakes. (Sadly, she didn’t know anything about the history of the name – so I’m yet to discover why they’re called ‘corporation’ cakes.)
At least I now knew what the end product should look like… but there was a new problem. One of the historians I spoke to on Twitter, David Fouser, warned me that I’d have to think carefully about the type of yeast being used. Modern baker’s yeast didn’t exist in 1833, so I’d have to work out what sort of yeast Betsy was using before I could calculate the measurements for a modern substitute. With a bit of reading around the subject, I came to the conclusion that Betsy’s household would probably have used a homemade yeast (along the lines of a modern sourdough starter) or leftovers bought from a local brewer. My mum and I quickly decided that making a homemade yeast was out of the question (not least because we were both doing this on our only day off!) and it was unlikely that we’d find a local brewer willing to sell us some leftovers. Instead, I found a website to convert measurements of brewer’s yeast into modern baker’s yeast (dried) – though I had no idea how big Betsy’s ‘spoonsful’ were – and, working on the basis that we were making something along the lines of a rock cake, decided on using two teaspoons of dried yeast for 1lb of flour.
To this, we added the currants, sugar (anachronistic caster sugar, I’m afraid) and nutmeg.
We melted the butter over the fire – well, okay, in a pan on the cooker – and stirred in the egg white (without the homemade yeast, of course, as we’d added our dried yeast directly to the flour). Then we put the butter and egg to the flour mixture.
The mix was a little dry, and we couldn’t work it into a dough. This might have been because the yeast should’ve added some extra liquid to the mixture, so we compensated for this as best we could with a little warm milk. Eventually, the mix bound together into a dough.
Of course, I don’t know if this dough was right, as Betsy only told us to ‘lightly make it into little cakes’. Perhaps it was meant to be a sloppier than this… but without any evidence of what corporation cakes are supposed to look like, we just went with what we had. We made the mixture into small buns, and then ‘threw’ some powdered sugar onto them.
Betsy just told us to bake them in a ‘slow oven’, so, again, we had to just go with what seemed right. We decided to bake them at Gas Mark 4 ‘until they look right’ (in my mum’s very scientific language).
I was a bit disappointed, after all the research I did, to discover that the yeast was near enough pointless. The cakes didn’t rise at all, and we’re fairly convinced that we could have achieved the same result without the yeast. Maybe we should’ve added more, or maybe we should’ve avoided the preactivated dried stuff – or, given the fact that Elizabeth Marshall’s recipe didn’t include it, maybe the yeast was always pointless. I don’t know enough about the history of baking to say for sure. But never mind… onto the taste test…
The conclusion we reached (and which was agreed by my dad and my husband) is that Betsy Westhead’s Corporation Cakes (or, at least, our version of them) are amazing. They’re like the sweetest, butteriest rock cake you’ll ever taste. I think you could probably die from eating more than two of them in one sitting though, which is a problem because they’re really morish. The taste of nutmeg came through nicely as well. All in all, I think Betsy’s recipe might be a bit more decadent than Elizabeth Marshall’s, but that’s no bad thing.
(If you can shed any light on the history of ‘corporation cakes’, please do leave a comment!)
So that was our little foray into baking 1833-style. What have I learnt? That Mrs Tootal made a mean calves foot jelly, the people of Chorlton-on-Medlock had a sweet tooth, and puddings in the nineteenth century were a bit more cyanidey than modern ones.