To Make a Rich Seed Cake Called the Nun’s Cake

The pound cake was the standard cake of the 18th century, calling for a pound of butter, a pound of eggs, a pound of sugar, and a pound of flour. In every kitchen, there were balance scales which allowed the cook to weigh the ingredients. To change the recipe, the cook needed only to adjust the ratio.

18th Century

You must take four pounds of the finest flour, and three pounds of double-refined sugar beaten and sifted; mix them together, and dry them by the fire till you prepare the other materials; take four pounds of butter, beat it with your hand till it is soft like cream; then beat thirty-five eggs, leave out sixteen whites, strain off your eggs from the threads, and beat them and the butter together till all appears like butter; put in four or five spoonfuls of rose or orange-flower water, and beat again; then take your flour and sugar, with six ounces of carraway-seeds, and strew them in by degrees, beating it all the time for two hours together; you may put in as much tincture of cinnamon or ambergris as you please, butter your hoop, and let it stand three hours in a moderate oven. You must observe always, in beating of butter, to do it with a cool hand, and beat it always one way in a deep earthen dish.

Glasse, Hannah, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.” pg.311.

21st Century

This version of the recipe is reduced by half.

  • 2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 6 cups cake flour
  • 6 whole eggs plus 5 egg yolks
  • 3 Tbsp. orange or rose flower water
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/3 cup of caraway seeds
  • 1/3 teaspoon cinnamon
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour two 9-inch springform pans.
  2. In a 5-quart bowl using a heavy duty mixer, cream your butter until smooth.
  3. Separate the egg yolks from the whites and put them in separate bowls. Put the yolks into the butter and mix thoroughly.
  4. When the butter and eggs are well combined, slowly add the sugar until light and fluffy.
  5. Add 3 tablespoons of orange or rose flower water, 1/3 cup caraway seeds and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and mix well.
  6. With a hand mixer or whisk, beat the egg whites until frothy. Slowly add 1/3 of your flour to the mixture, beat well, then add 1/3 of your frothed egg whites, beat well, and so on until the flour and egg whites are incorporated together to give you a good batter. The batter may seem a little heavy.
  7. Divide batter evenly between your two pans and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 1 ½ hours. The last 10 minutes of baking time, turn off the oven and allow cake to finish off with the residual heat. Cake is done when a toothpick is inserted and comes out clean.

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26 Responses to “To Make a Rich Seed Cake Called the Nun’s Cake”

  1. November 4th, 2011

    Chris Hansley says:

    Good morning,

    This recipe sounds wonderful.

    My questions are:
    #1. 3 Tbls. Orange or Rose Water. Did you use fresh squeezed orange juice or store bought? Or does it matter?

    #2 Rose Water? How does one make or where can I purchase Rose Water? And what kind of flavor will that have? I’ve never had anything made with roses before.

    #3. What is the best way to store this cake?

    #4. With 2 9 inch cakes can one be frozen for later?

    #5. Are these cakes served in a single layer or are they stacked with a filling?

    #6. Do they have some kind of topping? Powered sugar or a drizzled glaze?

    Thanks and have a great Thanksgiving,

    Chris Hansley – Tinley Park, IL

    • November 4th, 2011

      Historic Foodways says:

      Thank you Chris for your questions. We’ll update with answers as soon as the 18th-century Foodways staff has time to get to a 21st-century computer!

    • November 14th, 2011

      Historic Foodways says:

      Hello Chris,

      Here are the answers to your questions:

      1. One can use rose or orange. It does not matter. Also, one can use fresh or store bought, but fresh orange juice is always the best.

      2. Rose flower water may be purchased over the Internet and in some specialty cooking stores. Rose flower water will have a strong perfume-like qualities. A little bit goes a long way.

      3 &4. These cakes may stored in plastic wrap or foil, left at room temp, refrigerated or frozen.

      5. Yes. These cakes may be served in a single layer or stacked with a filling or baked in a Bundt pan. Research shows that filling wasn’t added until around the 19th century, but it can be added to fit today’s tastes.

      6. The cakes can be dusted with powered sugar or drizzled with a powdered sugar glaze and topped with candied peel or ginger.

  2. November 4th, 2011

    Stacey says:

    Orange or Rose Flower water can be found at Middle Eastern Markets and gourmet markets or grocery stores. Try the spice aisle near the vanilla. Don’t substitute orange juice unless you have no other choice. The flower waters are made by distilling the flowers and have a completely different taste than the fruit juice. It really tastes like essence of flowers. I use orange flower water in Moroccan cooking too. (From a Renaissance reenactor who LOVES Williamsburg too!)

  3. November 4th, 2011

    Lisa Hrinko says:

    I just received my King Arthur Flour Company catalog and they carry rose water and orange blossom water flavorings. I have several 18th century dinners coming up and this cake will make a nice addition.

  4. November 4th, 2011

    Christine Keatley says:

    Has anyone tried this cake? What does it taste like? Is it worth the time? Is there a similar cake I can compare it to for an idea of what the flavor would be like?

  5. November 6th, 2011

    I use Cortas rose water, it is not expensive and works really well. I do a shortbread with it all the time at Christmas –

  6. November 8th, 2011

    John Chaney, Warren RI says:

    I’m somewhat confused about the eggs. Six whole eggs + 5 egg yolks? Frank mentions separating the whites for beating and adding at the last min. to leaven the cake. I presume this is the whites of the 6 whole eggs. While adding the whipped egg whites is mentioned in the video it is a step that doesn’t get shown. Also, this step doesn’t seem to be in either recipe version. Is it your feeling that it’s just something that an 18th century cook knew to do is it a 21st century adaptation to lighten the cake?

    I’ve also always been curious about recipes that call for one 1b. of eggs… and wondered is that’s before or after they’re out of the shell? Dumb question I’m sure but still something I’ve wondered about

  7. November 8th, 2011

    Chris Hansley says:

    To: Stacey, Lisa and Alexa,

    Thanks for the information on the Orange and Rose waters.

    Have a great Thanksgiving,

    Chris Hansley, Tinley Park, IL

  8. November 13th, 2011

    Loraine Anderson says:

    Hello everyone from Down Under.
    My Yorkshire grandmother used to make a cake very similar to this, without the Rose Water, and she called it Caraway Cake. I loved it and still make it occasionally though have to think of the hips (expanding!!!)

    What amount does your ‘cup’ hold? I’m aware it will be ounces but that can easily be converted to metric.

    • November 14th, 2011

      Historic Foodways says:

      Hello Loraine,

      Glad we could reconnect you to your family’s tradition. There are 8 oz to the American cup.

  9. November 15th, 2011

    Chris Hansley says:

    Dear History is Served Staff,

    Thanks for the response. Please keep the recipes coming. This is a great feature.

    Have a great and safe Thanksgiving,

    Chris Hansley, Tinley Park, IL

  10. March 13th, 2012

    Erin says:

    Thank you for the recipe! My question is: is there a reason why the recipes back then were so much larger than the 21st century version, as you mention in the video?

    • March 13th, 2012

      Historic Foodways says:

      The answer is actually the size of the mold it was baked in. Most cakes were not put in the Turk’s head mold (basically a bundt pan), but were baked in a wooden hoop.

      These hoops were up to twenty inches around and 3 or 4 inches high, so the cake would be a big disc. Then you would often stack smaller cakes on top of that like a wedding cake. So, a cake recipe might be quite large if it is intended to make a multi-layer cake.


  11. March 10th, 2013

    Terry Sargent says:

    Here is a Nuns Cake I made for a 1750’s French sugar camp. It was also a birthday cake for a good friend.

  12. March 14th, 2013

    Bev Mathews says:

    Did anyone answer the egg question? Is it 6 whole + 5 yolks or just divided? Confused.

    • March 18th, 2013

      Historic Foodways says:

      To answer the egg question; it is somewhat ambiguous I’m sure. I’ve corrected the instructions to give a clearer picture as to how many you have and how to work them into the recipe. There are 6 whole eggs plus 5 egg yolks. This makes a better cake over all. Thanks again for keeping us straight.
      Dennis Cotner

  13. March 19th, 2013

    Terry L. Sargent says:

    Another shot of the cake, we drizzled fresh hot maple syrup over it.

  14. March 22nd, 2014

    Mieko says:

    The recipe given here does not call for salt, nor does the historic version. Is that a mistake, or was it common to bake cakes such as this without any salt?

    • March 24th, 2014

      Historic Foodways says:

      Most of the recipes I have come across from the 18th century cookbooks do not, in fact, call for salt.
      Thanks for the question,
      Historic Foodways

  15. March 24th, 2014

    Mieko says:

    Thank you for answering my question regarding salt. One small discrepancy: the ingredients list calls for 1/3 teaspoon cinnamon while the directions say 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. I would recommend going with the larger amount, at least when using orange flower water.

  16. June 4th, 2018

    Éric says:

    Around how long does it take to prepare.
    Around how long does it take for the cake to settle.

    • June 21st, 2018

      kcosta says:

      If you are using a modern mixer it shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes. The cake doesn’t really settle, but you should let it cool for at least an hour before cutting. Enjoy!

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