A Cheap Seed Cake

“It was the pleasantest tea-table in the world. Miss Clarissa presided. I cut and handed the sweet seed-cake — the little sisters had a bird-like fondness for picking up seeds and pecking up sugar; Miss Lavinia looked on with benignant patronage, as if our happy love were all her work; and we were perfectly contented with ourselves and one another.”

-Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1850.

Seed cakes, usually made with caraway seeds, were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most seed cake recipes fall into one of two camps: ones raised with eggs and a lot of elbow-grease, like the 18th-century cake I made last year; and yeast-raised cakes, like this recipe from Emily Thornwell’s 1856 book The American Cottage Cookery-Book. Thornwell specifies her recipe is “a cheap seed cake.” I suppose that without eggs and with slightly less butter and sugar, it would have been a little cheaper than the 18th-century version. The most important ingredient would be the yeast; while yeast was available commercially, many cooks would have made their own. Thornwell’s book provides instructions for making yeast out of hops, milk, or potatoes, as well as for drying fresh yeast into cakes for later use. While I definitely want to try all of these methods out some time, for this recipe I decided to keep things simpler and adapted it to use modern active dry yeast instead.

Cheap Seed Cake:

  • 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 6 oz butter
  • 4 oz sugar
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 pound flour
  • 1/2 oz caraway seeds
  1. Mix the yeast and warm water together and let sit for a few minutes until the yeast starts to bubble.
  2. Warm the butter and milk together until the butter melts, then place in a large bowl.
  3. Once the butter and milk have cooled slightly, mix in the yeast and water, sugar, allspice, and ginger. Gradually stir in the flour until the mixture forms a workable dough.
  4. Knead the dough either by hand or in a stand mixer with a dough hook until it forms a smooth ball, about 10-15 minutes. The dough will be quite buttery, so you should not need to add more flour – the butter will keep it from sticking. When nearly finished, knead in the caraway seeds.
  5. Form the dough into a ball and place in a covered, greased bowl in a warm place to rise until doubled, about 1-2 hours.
  6. Punch down the dough and shape it into a loaf. Place in a covered, greased 9×5 loaf pan in a warm place and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
  7. Bake at 350 degrees for about 40-45 minutes.
  8. Let cool on a rack before slicing.
Before the first rise…
…after the first rise…
…before the second rise…
…after the second rise.

Tasting notes:

The texture of this is very different from the first seed cake I made. As one would expect from the use of yeast, it has a texture more like bread, although it is still fairly dense. The dough is very buttery and sweet, so despite its “cheap” ingredients the finished product still seems very rich. The flavor of the caraway seeds is excellent, but completely overwhelms the ginger and allspice. If I were to make this again I might double the amount of spices (Thornwell does not give an amount for these, so it is to taste). I have to say that I still prefer my 18th-century seed cake – it’s honestly one of my favorite things I have ever made for this blog – but this seed cake variation certainly wasn’t bad, and would fit in on any pleasant tea-table.


Dickens, C. (1850). David Copperfield. London: Chapman & Hall. https://archive.org/details/personalhistoryo00dickiala/page/482/mode/2up

Thornwell, E. (1856). The American cottage cookery-book. New York: Livermore & Rudd. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_American_Cottage_Cookery_book_Or_Hou/8JNEAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

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