Ann Schofield’s Recipe for ‘Lemon Biscuits’, 1754 (archive-ref DDSD/643)
When you work in a place like East Riding Archives, you can’t help but look into some of your own genealogy, or ‘family history’ as it were. It’s partly because doing so is good training for helping others to trace their ancestors, but also having all that historical information at your fingertips means the curiosity factor is irresistibly high.
Before I worked here I’d never considered tracing my family tree, but once I started I was amazed to find I was unlocking my own secret background story. Fascinating stuff, and aside from a tenuous and, as yet unproven, possible link to Camilla Parker Bowles (is that good or bad??), one of the other things I uncovered about some of my ancestors, is that they once owned a bakery on Whitefriargate in Hull during the early to mid-19th century, which was served by their flour mill on Holderness Road. It turns out my Dad’s uncle Eric also had a bakery on the corner of Perth Street West and Chanterlands Avenue in the 1960s, so I began to see some sort of family tradition going on here.
We recently published our Recipes page on this blog, which features historic recipes taken from our archives and going as far back as the 16th century. All of these recipes are from local records and would have been baked, cooked, and eaten by people right here in East Yorkshire. One of the most interesting recipes is the one for ‘East Yorkshire Sugar Cakes’ (archive ref DDJA/72). I remember when we first revealed this to the public and it went down a treat. The ‘Pipe and Glass’ inn at South Dalton even adapted it and added it to their dessert menu!
As the ‘Pipe and Glass’ discovered with East Yorkshire Sugar Cakes, the adaptation of an historic recipe for modern tastes and standards can be really important if you want to achieve good results. We’re accustomed now to seeing regimented instructions in a recipe a la Delia Smith or Mary Berry, telling us exactly what oven temperature is required and for how long etc. What’s important to remember is that these recipes were written at a time when you couldn’t measure temperature as accurately and people lived by the approximate time of day instead of the hour or minute like we do. Many of our recipes are therefore very basic in their instruction, so when you read things like ‘bake in a quick oven’, ‘mix it for half a day’ and ‘be sure that it bee not too hot’; you know that this is going to be baking with improvisation.
I think this makes things more fun and lets you be a bit more creative. It can even be necessary to adapt your ingredients. To again use East Yorkshire Sugar Cakes as an example; it recommends including mace – perfectly sensible in the 16th century, when this dried spice was a useful preservative – but if you’re aim is to enjoy what you’re eating as well recreating an old recipe, then you may want to leave it out as it’s quite unpalatable and no longer needed for its preservative qualities in modern baking.
It’s always important to practice what you preach though, so even though I’m a total beginner, I figured I would have a go at one of these recipes for myself and see if I could summon up some ancestral baking power to make it work. Using this ‘fuzzy’ logic, I picked out ‘Lemon Biscuits’ by Ann Schofield from 1754 (archive ref DDSD/643) as they sounded quite nice, and so I set to work…
The original recipe is quite vague and instead of the recommended ten egg yolks and five egg whites, I scaled it back to 4 egg yolks and two egg whites. I also used 1 tablespoon of Valencian Orange extract rather than ‘four spoonfuls of orange flower water’. You can still buy orange flower water in some supermarkets but, perhaps because of the current lockdown, it wasn’t available in mine. I used just 1 tablespoon of the extract because I wasn’t sure how big a standard spoonful was in the mid-18th century (I guessed it was probably a lot smaller than ours).
The recipe then mentions ‘loaf sugar’. Put simply, this is just refined sugar, and probably the only version that people could get hold of in 1754. I decided that granulated sugar is probably the nearest thing to it – caster sugar is far more refined than anything that was available in the 18th century. The suggested mixing time of half an hour is just ridiculous, and it made me wonder what the recipe’s author Ann Schofield would’ve made of a Kenwood food blender nowadays! Instead I just used a normal whisk until the mixture was reasonably smooth.
Scaling back the ingredients once more, I grated the zest of just one lemon, mashing and juicing half of it (being careful to leave out any of the pips and skinny bits!).
Then came the really tricky bit – deciding how hot the oven should be, and for how long to bake it. As I’ve already said, I’m a complete novice and so just dialled the oven up to a standard 200 degrees centigrade and watched the mixture suddenly inflate into a mushroom at its centre.
At this point, I realised that 18th century ovens probably reached nowhere near 200 degrees so turned it right down to 120. Despite this setback, the colour and texture were as they should be so, by my standards, this was still a result. Unfortunately, a brief distraction by a ‘Pointless’ quiz question on tv meant that I took my ‘eye off the ball’ for just a few seconds, but this was all it needed to turn my biscuits to toast.
You know what they say though, ‘if your biscuits burn, just make another batch’, so I did. This time I set the oven to 150 degrees and baked the mixture for around 20-25 minutes, watching it constantly. Result! I’ve got to say, the lemon in it makes them one of the tastiest biscuits I’ve ever tried; really nice, and very more-ish. Thank you Ann Schofield!
I think I may well have picked up the baking bug and could be trying some more of these historic recipes. Have a go at the lemon biscuits recipe below for yourself and send us your photos or videos (firstname.lastname@example.org).
More recipes are available on the Recipes page.
By Sam Bartle