From time to time I’ve come across mentions of Norfolk vinegar cake, but have always thought, ‘that sounds odd’ and moved on, without giving it much thought or attention – it hardly sounds like an appetising combination. My interest was finally piqued when Pete gave me a copy of A Slice of Britain: Around the Country by Cake by Caroline Taggart as a birthday present. The book is a great mixture of history, travel and recipes. Naturally I turned straight to the section on East Anglian bakes.
It turns out that a Norfolk vinegar cake is a light fruit cake, which uses the carbon dioxide created by the chemical reaction between the acid in the vinegar and bicarbonate of soda as the cake’s raising agent – think school science experiments!
At one time vinegar cakes weren’t so unusual. The recipe contains no eggs so it was a great way for people to be able to enjoy cake during the times when the hens weren’t laying. Perhaps it’s the name that made vinegar cakes lose favour, combined with a year-round supply of eggs from the supermarket.
Another thing I picked up on was the use of cider vinegar in the recipe. Norfolk, and indeed the rest of East Anglia has a long history of apple growing, which Pete explored in a previous blog. As a result, cider vinegar was likely to have been widely available, which could be why it has remained in the recipes that are still around today, rather than because of its flavour.
Which brings me nicely on to the result… The cake was unexpectedly delicious! It was much lighter than the type of fruit cake that we’d associate with Christmas, or a Dundee cake, and crucially there was no detectable vinegary taste. It was a moist cake that kept well and we genuinely enjoyed the flavour – which was just as well, as the cake was fairly large.
The recipe below is taken from A Slice of Britain. The book also mentions The Real Norfolk Cake Company (@RealNorfolkCake), set up to preserve traditional recipes from the county using locally sourced ingredients where possible, so definitely one to watch.
Makes 1 x 23cm cake
450g plain flour
225g unsalted butter
225g granulated sugar
225g each of raisins and sultanas1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Grease and line a 23cm diameter round cake tin.
2. Place the flour in a large bowl. Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and the fruit.
3. Mix the bicarbonate of soda with a tablespoon of the milk. Pour the rest of the milk into a large jug, add the cider vinegar and stir in the bicarb mix (it will froth). Add to the cake mixture and stir well without beating.
We found that the vinegar curdled the milk and looked a bit disgusting! The frothing was also slightly underwhelming, so make sure you get all of the bicarb mixture when you add it to the milk.
4. Spoon the mixture into the tin and bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 150C/300F/gas mark 2 and continue to bake for another hour or so until a warm skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. If the cake appears to be browning too quickly, cover loosely with kitchen foil.
5. Remove from the oven, place the tin on a wire rack and allow the cake to cool in the tin before turning out.