Sugar Cakes

This is much like classic shortbread. The key to baking these is observation. A light touch will tell you when they are done. Being slightly firm tells you they are ready. These are a great complement to the Orange Creams.

18th Century

Take a pound and a half of fine flour, one pound of cold butter, half a pound of sugar, work all these well together into a paste, then roll it with the palms of your hands into round balls, and cut them with a thin knife into thin cakes, sprinkle a little flour on a sheet of paper, and put them on; prick them with a fork and bake them.

Briggs, Richard, “The English Art of Cookery”

21st Century

  • 4 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 cups butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  1. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add flour in thirds to the mixture. Remove the mixture by scraping with a spatula or knife and place on hard surface and knead until well mixed and smooth. Dough will be stiff.
  2. Form into four balls, one the size of a tennis ball and reducing in size as you go until the smallest ball is about 1 ½ inches in diameter.
  3. Slice dough 1/4” thick with a sharp, smooth knife. Place on parchment paper or lightly greased cookie sheets.
  4. Bake at 350, 12-18 minutes until the centers of the large cakes are set when lightly pressed with your finger.
  5. After cooling, remove from cookie sheet. To form into a pyramid shape, use the larger cakes on the base, and stack the next smaller ones on top. Sift confectioner’s sugar on top (optional).

22 comments on this post.
  1. jbell:

    Look delicious! They would go well with the Orange Cream.

  2. Margi Reed:

    Thank you for posting this :) its one of my favorite type of cookies, and thank you Jbell for the serving suggestion..the orange cream does seem like a nice combination. Keep up the GREAT work … the CW kitchens are the first places I want to see each time I return to Colonial Williamsburg.

  3. Margi Reed:

    Now that Im excited… anyone know how many “cakes”this recipe makes?

  4. administrator:

    Thanks for the question Margi. As to how many cookies, that depends on the ultimate size of the dough ‘balls’ and how well you cut them. We’ve never really counted them as we always got quite a number of different sizes by slicing the dough. Needless to say, what we didn’t use for the pyramid stack, we ate. That’s always a plus! Make yourself known next time you come in the kitchens we’d like to say Hi to you.

    -Dennis Cotner

  5. Margi Reed:

    Thank you Dennis,

    Point taken about the size ball you make, I hadnt considered that, or rather that there wasnt a standard unit of measure being applied in the recipe :) Either way Thank you very much for your response, it was much appreciated. Also I will definately say Hi next time I am there, its truly my honor to watch you all work. It would be a dream to do what you do, but I know its also a lot of hard work bringing us an accurate depiction of history,sometimes unrewarded and back breaking. I guess I just wanted you to know it wasnt lost on me… I know first hand because of the work I’ve seen you do. Its amazing just how hard it was, and how easy we have it in the kitchen today :) Thanks again Mr. Cotner for the invitation, as well as the information.

  6. Susan McNamara:

    Just checking, does the recipe really call for 4 cups of butter??

  7. Chris Hansley:

    Hi Sharon,
    Based on looking at both pictures of the stacked tree, I come up with approx. 40 cakes. But, as Dennis indicated it all depends on how big the dough balls are when you start. If you or anyone else bakes this recipe, please let the rest us know. Granted the numbers will different, but at least we’d get a general idea of how many cakes we should get. The 40 number is a good place to start.
    Wish we could be there.
    Everyone have a great and safe Christmas Season.

  8. Chris Hansley:

    Whoops! I meant Margi.

  9. pam williams:

    I’ll second the question on the 4 cups of butter???? Know it’s a “shortbread,” but that sure does seem like a lot???

  10. Margi Reed:

    Thank you Chris,

    Your reply was very helpful. Fourty seems like a good base number to start with, and I appreciate the follow up to the response The Amazing Mr.Dennis Cotner gave:)
    I also want to wish EVERY one in Colonial Williamsburg a very very happy and safe holiday. I also want to add a special Thank you to those in the colonial kitchens … too often hard work doesnt get the praise it really deserves, but it doesn’t go unoticed by all. Thank you for the education, and for expanding my culinary world. May you all have a wonderful holiday, and a peaceful, prosperous new year!

    Thank you Always- Margi Reed

  11. administrator:

    Thanks for catching this. It is a typo. It should be 2 cups butter. One way we’ve always looked at this recipe is to think of it in terms of a 1-2-3 recipe. 1 lb. sugar, 2 lbs. butter and 3 lbs. flour. This recipe of course is halved and some adjustment made for flour moisture. We put this in volume measure because most are familiar with that type. You can use either one you are comfortable with. They are good, can’t eat just one!!! Appreciate you all checking up on us.
    Dennis Cotner

  12. Kimberly Costa:

    I agree, perhaps it’s four sticks of butter?

  13. Jo Ann Ptack:

    This was very easy to do although next time I hope to get the different sizes a little more refined and will take them out of the oven a couple of minutes sooner.
    Love the site, there is so much to learn, many thanks.

  14. Margi Reed:

    Thanks for sharing the picture, and I think they turned out perfect! Jo Ann :) Have a safe and happy holiday.

  15. Christine Hansley:

    Hi Jo Ann,
    They look great to me. Unless they are really dry and hard a little brown around the edges helps to define the layers. And if they’re a little crisp all the better for dunking in a glass of milk.
    Have a great Christmas,

    Chris from Tinley Park, IL

  16. Kamailei:

    Thank you so much! I had to find an old recipe for a project worth 3/4 of my grade; ACED it! DonÊ»t worry: i gave u guys ALL the credits :) Thank you – Kamailei

  17. History A’la Carte 12-27-12 « Maria Grace:

    [...] Sugar Cakes, an 1th Century Recipe [...]

  18. Deanna Stockwell:

    I am researching for a menu of Colonial foods and find the “pyramid of desserts” interesting and thought that this recipe would be a good addition. Would adding lemon peel and lavender blossoms be appropriate to the time period? (I noticed that you are having a class this Spring on herbs in cooking.) My favorite place to visit is Williamsburg–I started visiting 40 years ago while living in the area. Have to look up the kitchens when we are there again. Thank you for all your dedicated work.

  19. administrator:

    Great question and observations. You certainly can add grated lemon peel if you care, however it is not in the original recipe. As for lavender blossoms, those sort of additions are known more in confectionary work (candies, etc). Pyramids of desserts were created more in the late 17th through the earlier part of the 18th century. Putting fruits, little cakes, and other foods into pyramids or cone shapes helped to get more food on the table and helped to visually reduce the height of dining rooms and banquet halls. Next time you are in town come by to see us, don’t wait that long again. Thanks for the note.
    Dennis Cotner

  20. Jennifer Dickman:

    We made these with the Orange Creams for our Cooking class lessons. They were a great combination!

  21. Georgia Renck:

    Has anyone tried making these using raw sugar? Just curious as I find raw sugar to make a shortbread recipe extra wonderful.

  22. Dan Hrinko:

    Becky Bostick made them for a period tavern dinner we had for 30 of our closest friends at the Crabill Homestead in Springfeld, Ohio. This is an 1826 home in the federal style. They went well with vanilla ice cream.

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