Shrewsbury cakes

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • For

    12

    biscuits

Appears in

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: The history of British Baking, savoury and sweet

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South

By Regula Ysewijn

Published 2020

  • About

Although the name could fool you into thinking that these are cakes, a Shrewsbury cake is a brittle, spiced biscuit that looks a bit like a gingerbread biscuit. It is thanks to playwright William Congreve that we know that they are brittle, short biscuits. In his play The Way of the World from 1700, he wrote, ‘You may be as short as a Shrewsbury cake.’ Shrewsbury cakes appeared as early as the 16th century and, from 1760, Mr Pailin sold them from his store in the town of Shrewsbury in Shropshire.

During the British Raj, Shrewsbury cakes became popular in India and you can still buy them there to this day at Kayani Bakery in Pune, where the freshly baked round Shrewsburies have been highly sought after since 1955.

Throughout history, Shrewsbury cakes have been made with either nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cinnamon or mace. Rosewater is the only constant, but it was replaced by lemon in the early 20th century. A handwritten 1907 cookbook in my possession contains a recipe for Shrewsbury cakes without spices but with lemon zest.

Ingredients

  • 225 g (8 oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 110 g ( oz) icing (confectioners’) sugar
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground mace
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 110 g ( oz) chilled butter, diced
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp water
  • 1 tsp rosewater or water

Method

Preheat your oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with baking paper.

Mix the flour, sugar, spices and salt in a large bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture is the consistency of breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and the water or rosewater and knead until the mixture comes together into a smooth, stiff dough. Make sure you do not overknead the dough. If the dough turns out to be too dry, add extra water, 1 teaspoon at a time, making sure it doesn’t become too sticky.

Roll out the dough between two sheets of baking paper until 4-5 mm (¼ inch) thick. Use an 8 cm ( inch) cutter to cut out 12 biscuits – traditionally, Shrewsbury cakes are 12 cm ( inches), but I thought that was quite large. You can knead the remaining dough and then cut out more biscuits.

Decorate each biscuit by applying a checkerboard pattern with small holes. Place one more dot in the middle of each square. (I have found that the tip of a clean, old ballpoint pen gives the best result.)

Place each biscuit on the baking tray and bake for 10 minutes until baked to a pale colour. The biscuits are also great when they are baked for longer, although that isn’t traditional – simply bake them the way you like them.

Let the Shrewsbury cakes cool on the tray.