Make An Excellent Cake from The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened, 1669

Written by local writer, playwright & ‘Monmouth’ actress Maya Pieris


“Sugar and spice and all things nice” were even more welcome in 1669 after Lent which was observed religiously and culinarily in a much more serious way. Many foods were banned with fish being popular on the menu. Spiced breads and cakes were the post Lent treat and have long been associated with festivals. Cakes, prior to the development of baking powder in the early 1800’s, were enriched bread doughs laden down with butter, sugar, eggs, spices and dried fruits especially currants whose name is a corruption of “Corinthe” as they were known as Raisins of Corinthe. Now not the most popular of the dried grapes they were heavily used in festive cakes from medieval times on. As was saffron- very popular in the West Country one theory being that it was brought in by Phoenician traders. Caraway was also a popular flavouring especially in breads called Wiggs, thought to derive from old English for wedge as these buns were often broken into large pieces. They continued to be popular into the 19th century but like Seed Cake have fallen from flavour! A recipe for them will go into the theatre’s website. The following recipe comes from a fascinating collection put together by the Sir Kenelm Digby, the ultimate Renaissance man- soldier, scholar, collector and married to one of the Stuart beauties, Venetia Digby painted on her death bead by Van Dyke. He is also an ancestor of the current Digby family long connected with Dorset. The cake uses lots of butter and I have made it rather as a lardy cake is made with the butter and fruit added to the dough by rolling and folding it in. And it needs eating within a day or two! Icing is optional but adds to it. And don’t expect this to be like your standard Hot X Bun!

Easter Wiggs 

10g fresh yeast or a sachet of dried –start fresh activate start off in a little warmed milk and a tsp sugar

6fl oz warmed milk, more if needed

1 egg beaten

50g sugar

250g unsalted butter

500g white bread flour

1 tsp caraway gently crushed if you have a pestle and mortar

Good pinch of ground cloves, mace and nutmeg

1/2tsp salt

If using fresh yeast mix with a little milk and sugar and leave till it starts to bubble, about 10 minutes. Rub the butter into the flour, stir in the caraway seeds, spices, sugar and fresh or dried yeast and then add the milk and egg. Mix briefly together then cover with a damp cloth or cling film and leave to rise for a couple of hours. You can do this in a food processor. When risen knock back, form into  4 large rounds and place on a greased baking tray, cover and leave to rise for about 30 minutes. Bake at Gas Mark 6, 200 C or 400 F for about 30 minutes but check after 20 minutes. Great toasted and buttered.

Spiced cake  

560g white bread flour

225g unsalted butter

20g sugar

330g currants

2fl oz sherry

5fl oz beer more if needed

¼ tsp ground cloves, nutmeg and mace

½ tsp cinnamon,

Good pinch of saffron

1 tblsp rosewater

15g dried or 25g fresh yeast

Heat the saffron in the sherry and beer, leave to infuse for a few minutes then strain. Sift the flour and spices together. Rub in 100g of butter. If using fresh yeast add to the liquid and leave for a few minutes to bubble. If using dried yeast stir into the flour. Pour the liquid including the rosewater into the flour, incorporate and then kneed for about 10 minutes till the dough forms a ball. Or put the flour and liquid into a food processor and follow the instructions for making bread. Leave the dough in a warm place, covered, till about double in size. Turn out onto a floured board, roll out to an oblong and dot 2/3rds of the dough with the remaining softened butter and currants. Fold one end into the middle and then the other end over that and roll out. Give the dough a ½ turn and repeat the process 2 or 3 times. Form into a circle and place in a greased 8” tin with a solid base not a spring clip tin and gently ease the dough to the sides, cover and leave for about 30 minutes. Bake at 180C, Mark 4 or 350 F for about 40 minutes checking it doesn’t catch.


225g granulated sugar

2 tblsp rosewater

Place in a pan and heat till the sugar has dissolved then heat for a few minutes till thickened taking care the mixture doesn’t “spit”. Pour over the cake and return to the oven on a low heat, 150 C, Gas Mark 2, 330 F, for about 15 minutes to “candy”.