A stream of golden honey shimmered as Becki Altman drizzled the sweet topping over buttered Shrewsbury cakes chock-full of dried cranberries and walnuts. The cakes — which actually look like cookies — are from a recipe the Columbus cook keeps returning to, even if it is a few centuries old — or perhaps because of that. There’s something pretty grounded in making up one of Gen. George and Martha Washington’s favorite desserts.
Altman discovered the original first lady’s Shrewsbury cakes in a cookbook she received last year, a birthday gift from her sister. “Presidential Cookies: Cookie Recipes of the Presidents of the United States” (Presidential Publishing, 2005), by Bev Young, invites bakers to step into the kitchens and dining rooms of the White House for cookies featured in presidential receptions, teas and dinners since the earliest days of government. Eat like a president with Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s Gingerbread Men Cookies, Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s Vienna Chocolate Bars or George W. and Laura Bush’s Texas Governor’s Mansion Cowboy Cookies.
“I found several recipes that sounded really good — and then there were some that had me thinking, ‘Do you really do that to food?'” Altman laughed, scooping raw dough onto a baking sheet destined for the preheated oven. “I decided I’m just going to start trying them.” She has no shortage of taste testers, including her husband Bob, son A.J. and daughter Isabelle, a reporter with The Dispatch.
“They’re my tasters, and they’ll tell me,” smiled the baker. As for Shrewsbury cakes, they’ve earned the family’s thumbs up. “I’ve made this one tons.”
These cakes, or actually biscuits, are a classic English dessert named after Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire. The recipe can be traced back as early as a cookbook called “The Compleat Cook of 1658.” It dates to a time when sugar was a luxury, when cooking was often described as plain and honest, to days when a recipe like this even called for a pound of butter to “be layd an hour or two in rose water.” Fortunately, cooks like Altman have it easier in modern times.
“Every time I make them I try something different,” the former educator and Mississippi University for Women alumna said. Sometimes she uses a melon baller to make small cakes. At others, she uses a larger scoop, producing a cake that more resembles a scone or biscuit — great for splitting open to add butter, then draping with honey. (You can put them on a rack to drizzle honey, if preferred.) She likes using dried cranberries and walnuts, but almost any fruit of choice works. She’s also made them with almonds.
Shrewsbury cakes aren’t Altman’s only specialty, of course. She is a deft hand at Russian tea cakes, datenut pinwheels or pumpkin ribbon bread.
“She goes crazy about Christmas time,” her daughter Isabelle said with a grin. “She makes all kinds of breads as well as a Jewish coffee cake and sugar cookies and chocolate chip cookies.”
Altman frequently exercised her culinary creativity with Christmas Open House events when her husband served in the U.S. Air Force, but it doesn’t take a holiday to set her in motion.
“I love to bake. Holidays, or if I’m just in the mood,” she said, measuring cranberries into another bowl of batter.
Shrewsbury cakes were popular in the 1700s at Mt. Vernon, so we’re told, and Martha was quite the hostess. Surely she would be pleased to know bakers like Altman are still whipping up one of the General’s favorite sweets today.
Makes 3 dozen cakes
1/2 cup soft butter (one stick)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons milk
2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 cup dried fruit (cherries, apricots or currants), chopped
(Note: For larger cakes to serve for breakfast or brunch, use an ice cream scoop to make 6 or 7 mounds on a cookie sheet. Bake for about 25-30 minutes until light brown. Serve with butter and honey.)
(Source: “Presidential Cookies: Cookie Recipes of the Presidents of the United States (Presidential Publishing, 2005, by Bev Young)
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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