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 sticks, or 1/2 lb. 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).

« Back to recipe browser

34 Responses to “Sugar Cakes”

  1. November 29th, 2012

    jbell says:

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

  2. November 29th, 2012

    Margi Reed says:

    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. November 29th, 2012

    Margi Reed says:

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

    • November 30th, 2012

      Historic Foodways says:

      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

      • November 30th, 2012

        Margi Reed says:

        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.

  4. November 30th, 2012

    Susan McNamara says:

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

    • December 1st, 2012

      Chris Hansley says:

      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.

  5. December 1st, 2012

    Chris Hansley says:

    Whoops! I meant Margi.

    • December 4th, 2012

      Margi Reed says:

      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

  6. December 4th, 2012

    pam williams says:

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

    • December 4th, 2012

      Historic Foodways says:

      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

  7. December 4th, 2012

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

  8. December 6th, 2012

    Jo Ann Ptack says:

    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.

    • December 8th, 2012

      Margi Reed says:

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

  9. December 9th, 2012

    Christine Hansley says:

    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

  10. December 11th, 2012

    Kamailei says:

    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

  11. January 24th, 2013

    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.

    • January 28th, 2013

      Historic Foodways says:

      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

  12. September 21st, 2013

    Jennifer Dickman says:

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

  13. November 9th, 2013

    Georgia Renck says:

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

  14. May 17th, 2014

    Dan Hrinko says:

    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.

  15. October 15th, 2014

    austin says:

    this is goooooood

  16. April 2nd, 2015

    Lauren says:

    Were these ‘cakes’ made for any special occasion?

  17. April 5th, 2015

    Frank Clark says:

    Lauren, these cakes could be made for any occasion. For more important events they would be stacked up into high towers n the desert tables.

  18. October 1st, 2015

    emiah says:

    how many cakes will this recipe make?

  19. April 5th, 2016

    Huckleberry fin says:

    Easy to make and a great snack that you can’t stop eating

  20. May 11th, 2016

    Jan says:

    I am surprised there is no salt in the recipe, but I will try it. They look lovely. More recipes please of the sweet variety, especially cakes. I have a very sweet tooth! Thank you for posting all the recipes here.

  21. November 14th, 2016

    Logan says:

    How many does it serve?

  22. November 17th, 2016

    Morgan says:

    These were so good and were perfect for my daughters colonial food project.

  23. December 4th, 2016

    Jade says:

    I have to make a food item from the renaissance time for a school project. Would this be a good recipe to use?

  24. January 17th, 2018

    Robin M. says:

    My daughter, Gabrielle & her 5th grade classmate, made sweet bread and small sweet cakes (later called cookies) for their Colonial Days project. We tried this recipe. Our first attempt was a failure…too crumbly to form balls (used an electric mixer & we think the recipe called for too much flour). Our second attempt altered the recipe by adding 1 cup of granular sugar to 1 cup/2 long sticks of room temperature softened salted butter. We used our hands to mix the butter & sugar and let that sit for 10 minutes, so the sugar could dissolve, then added 1 cup of flour. We used our hands to combine, then added another cup of flour. Combined. Added a little more flour until mixture would not take more flour without crumbling. We made sure to stop adding flour if we could not form a “brick”(size of medium bread loaf). I think we used 2.5 – 3 cups of flour total. Molded the brick of dough into 4 tennis balls. Sliced each ball with thin knife. Baked 17 minutes at 350. Our adjusted recipe produced 24 sugar cakes/cookies (might have made 2 more, but kids ate some of the dough). Huge success!! There is definitely something about using your hands to mix, perhaps the body heat is really needed and perhaps our dry AZ desert climate effected the flour amount.

    • January 17th, 2018

      kcosta says:

      I’m so excited that you made the recipe! And welcome to the 18th century. Here is Historic Foodways we often do exactly what you did- try and figure out the measurements based on our own ingredients at hand. You are right about using your hands. Not only does it cream the butter from the heat, but allows you to feel if the sugar is dissolved properly. We do not use spoons in our kitchens, just hands.

  25. May 18th, 2019

    Ava Martin says:


    Thank you so much for all the recipes! Just wanted to let you know that the butter measurement seems to be off on this one. I think 1 lb instead of 1/2 lb would be more accurate. Ours was way too crumbly.

    Thank you!


Leave a Reply