‘”Come along in, and have some tea!” he managed to say after taking a deep breath.
“A little beer would suit me better, if it is all the same to you, my good sir,” said Balin with the white beard. “But I don’t mind some cake — seed cake, if you have any.”
“Lots!” Bilbo found himself answering, to his own surprise; and he found himself scuttling off, too, to the cellar to fill a pint beer-mug, and to the pantry to fetch two beautiful round seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon for his after-supper morsel.’ – from The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is set in a fictional universe, but many of the foods found in Bilbo’s pantry were inspired by traditional English foods. Seed cakes were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and were likely a food that Tolkien had eaten growing up. Although 7-year old me assumed that Bilbo’s seed cakes must have been made with poppy seeds (I pictured giant poppy-seed muffins), 18th and 19th century seed cakes were almost invariably made with caraway seeds.
Seed Cake (1/3 of original recipe):
- 8 oz flour
- 8 oz butter
- 8 oz sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1/4 oz caraway seeds
- 1/3 of a nutmeg, grated
- 6-inch round cake pan with sides at least 3 inches high
- All ingredients should be slightly warmer than room temperature, and the mixing bowls should be slightly warm as well. I placed my bowls in the oven for about a minute while it was preheating to warm them.
- Beat the butter until it is creamy, then add the sugar and beat them together.
- Beat the eggs separately, then gradually add them to the creamed butter and sugar.
- Gradually add the flour and nutmeg.
- Using an electric mixer, beat the whole mixture together thoroughly for about three to four minutes, until the mixture looks completely smooth. Add the caraway seeds before the last minute of beating.
- Pour into a greased and floured 6 x 3 inch round cake pan.
- Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cover the top of the cake with foil if it starts to brown too much.
- Let the cake cool in the cake pan for a few minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.
This is officially now one of my favorite cakes. The inside has a nice fluffy crumb, while the outside forms a crispy buttery crust that contrasts perfectly with the interior texture. It does remind me a bit of a giant poppy seed muffin, in the best possible way. The caraway seeds add a depth of flavor to the sugary, buttery cake, and I can finally understand why they were often used in desserts at the time. The cake is excellent with tea, although I’m not sure if I would want to have it with beer as Balin does.
If I had thirteen surprise guests for tea, I would think twice about giving them this cake – because I would want to keep it all for myself!
Ayto, J. (2012). Seed cake. In The diner’s dictionary: Word origins of food & drink. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harrison, S. (1738). The house-keeper’s pocket-book and compleat family cook. Dublin: Edward Exshaw. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_House_Keeper_s_Pocket_Book_and_Compl/yE3ncQhWcEsC?hl=en&gbpv=0
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1973). The hobbit. New York: Ballantine Books. (Original work published 1937).