Lovers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works like The Hobbit enjoy or empathize with Bilbo Baggins’ agony as an unwelcome party of dwarves descends upon him for tea. Bilbo has just finished making a seed cake for his afternoon tea and realizes that the 13 dwarves may force him, as the host, to forgo his own delicious treat. Many have read the novel and wondered what this cake is, while others are already familiar with the delicious treat and thus understand Bilbo’s annoyance at having to miss out on a taste.
A seed cake is a traditional British Isles concoction. Some date it back to English recipes, while others say residents of Ireland or Wales invented it first. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales mentions the cake as being round and resembling a shield.
Early recipes do not include sugar, and in fact, they are very different from the modern version of the cake. A recipe from the late 16th century uses yeast for leavening. It recommends the use of about 1 tablespoon (6.7 g) worth of either anise or caraway seeds.
Since the cake is raised with yeast, this early version could be technically called bread. To raise the seed cake in this early recipe, warm ale is recommended, which would provide natural sugars for the yeast. A Welsh or Irish recipe later adds sugar, deletes the yeast, substitutes brandy for ale and suggests spicing the cake with nutmeg. This recipe calls for caraway seeds.
Modern recipes tend to use baking soda or powder to produce a lighter product, and the amount of sugar is higher. Butter use increases so one often has a rich pound cake studded with seeds. The cake can be either in round form or baked in a loaf pan. Irish or Old County Cake recipes often call for currants or raisins in addition to the caraway seeds, and adding alcohol is optional.
The most modern, and probably most popular, form today is lemon poppy seed cake. This variant is a very rich pound cake base that is flavored with lemon and includes poppy seeds. It tastes very different that the original cake because the caraway seeds are not present to lend their licorice-like taste to the final product. Poppy seeds also provide a slightly crunchier texture to the cake.
The traditional seed cake is still enjoyed by many in the British Isles and elsewhere. Depending upon the amount of butter and sugar used, the cake may be very rich. Slices of it may be served as part of afternoon tea, and some people serve a rich one as dessert, or even as a sweet bite for breakfast.