Rout cakes – part 2

In my last post I wrote about rout cakes in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) and Vanity Fair by Thackeray (1847-48).  Rout cakes were small rich cakes, flavoured with dried fruit and alcohol, which were commonly eaten at large parties and evening assemblies.

The earliest printed recipe for rout cakes that I could track down dates from 1806, from Mrs Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery.  However, George Gascoigne advertised his new shop in the Leeds Intelligencer of Monday 6th July, 1795, noting that amongst the desserts he served up were ‘rout cakes’.

Mrs Rundell’s recipe for rout cakes is as follows:  

Mix two pounds of flour, one ditto butter, one ditto sugar, one ditto currants, clean and dry; then wet into a stiff paste with two eggs, a large spoonful of orange-flower water, ditto rose-water, ditto sweet wine, ditto brandy; drop on a tin plate floured, a very short time bakes them.  

Since my version made with 150g flour produces 12-14 cakes, her quantities by my reckoning would produce about 80, probably a reasonable number for an evening party.  Even were she feeding the likes of Joseph Sedley, who eats 24 in one evening, there would still have been sufficient for everyone else.

I used just freshly squeezed orange juice and brandy, instead of Mrs Rundell’s four different liquids, and added finely grated orange zest.  And whilst I like the original version – with currants – I can heartily recommend using chocolate chips instead – in the photo below they are a mixture of currants and choc chips.  And I’m sure other ingredients could also be used – dried cranberries, chopped nuts and glace cherries all spring to mind.

MRS ELTON’S ROUT CAKES (makes 12-14)
150g plain flour
Pinch salt
50g butter at room temperature
50g caster sugar
1 small egg
40g currants (or choc chips)
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed orange juice
2 teaspoons brandy
Finely grated zest of half an orange

Preset the oven to 180C / 160C fan oven/ Gas mark 4.
Grease and line a baking tray.
Sift flour and salt into a large bowl.
Rub in the butter using the tips of your fingers to make a crumbly mixture.  Then stir in the sugar.
Beat the egg and stir in the orange juice and brandy.
Gradually mix the liquid into the dry ingredients to make a smooth dough.
Finally stir in the currants (or chocolate chips) and orange zest.
Spoon small heaps of the mixture onto the baking tray and bake for 16-18 minutes until golden brown.
When cool dust with sieved icing sugar.

Rout cakes 1

Mrs Elton was a little shocked at the want of two drawing rooms, at the poor attempt at
rout cakes, and there being no ice in the Highbury card parties.  (Jane Austen, Emma)

Mrs Elton is one of Jane Austen’s dislikeable female characters.  She arrives half-way through the novel as the new wife of the vicar of Highbury, Mr Elton.  Mortified to have been rejected by the novel’s protagonist Emma Woodhouse, and offended that she had been trying to create a match between him and her friend, Harriet Smith, of dubious social origins, Mr Elton leaves Highbury for Bath.  When he returns he is engaged and, as he makes clear to his parishioners – knowing that the gossip will spread and reach the ears of the woman who has turned him down – ‘he had not thrown himself away – he had gained a woman of 10,000 pounds or thereabouts’. 

Emma is far from impressed by Mrs Elton when she arrives in Highbury, considering her no more than ‘good enough for Mr Elton … accomplished enough for Highbury – handsome enough – to look plain… by Harriet’s side.’  Despite the £10,000, she has ‘no name, no blood, no alliance’, and simply basks in the reflected glory of an elder sister ‘who was very well married, to a gentleman …who kept two carriages!’
Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) from 1915 edition of Emma

Mrs Elton enters Highbury society like a whirlwind: she name-drops at any opportunity, annoys Emma by claiming a familiarity with  Mr Knightley – whom she insists on referring to as ‘Knightley’ – and when she discovers the social failings of Highbury determines to put things to rights:
Mrs Bates, Mrs Perry, Mrs Goddard and others, were a good deal behind hand in knowledge of the world, but [Mrs Elton] would soon show them how everything ought to be arranged. 
Amongst Mrs Elton’s criticisms is the quality of the ‘rout cakes’.  Rout cakes are very small rich cakes containing brandy and dried fruit that were made for evening parties (routs).  They are also mentioned in William Makepeace Thackeray’s satirical novel, Vanity Fair(1847-48).  Joseph Sedley, the obese and shy older brother of Amelia Sedley, the naive heroine and friend of its anti-heroine, Becky Sharp, gorges on rout-cakes at a party:
Joseph Sedley contented himself with a bottle of claret besides his Madeira at dinner, and he managed a couple of plates full of strawberries and cream, and twenty-four little    rout cakes that were lying neglected in a plate near him.
Recipe next time, for those of you wanting to stuff yourself like Joseph….