Today you might think it a very thoughtful gesture to ‘bake a cake’ for your loved one … especially for Valentine’s Day. But there was a time, in northern Britain, when baking a cake to show your love was exactly what you did.
Lancashire County, north of Cheshire and west of Yorkshire, was a very working-class area. Although the low lands were and are important agricultural areas, the predominant industries were coal mining and textile mills. The Industrial Revolution actually started in this county with the invention of steam power, fueled by coal, and the resulting creation of the factory system. The coal mines were staffed by men (women were forbidden to work underground in the mines … but that’s a story for another day), and the textile mills were staffed by women. The work was hard, usually six days a week, with little time and few places for socializing. But these young, hard-working men and women found a way.
Each Saturday and/or Sunday, eager-to-meet-the-opposite-sex, young men and women would dress in their finery, and along a designated area of the town square … women friends together on one side of the street … men on the other … each group would stroll or “promenade” up and down the streets. Hopefully, you might catch the eye of the opposite sex and, if you liked what you saw, you would accidentally meet at the local tea shop. Different towns had different designated “promenades” and “accidental meeting spots”. In some towns the “sorting” process was even more segregated. In one part of town the promenade would be comprised of only factory workers, while across town, would be those who worked in offices. The end result, however, was the same … to find true love.
We’re all familiar with the old saying “a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”, well this is where the “courting cake” makes its appearance. Should the connection be made and true love was found, the young woman would bake her betrothed a cake … a “courting cake“. Was this to impress the young man or perhaps the potential mother-in-law, we’ll never know, but the cake was always the same … a shortbread base, filled with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. How can you go wrong with that classic combination?
This tradition didn’t just exist in England. It actually crossed the Atlantic into America, as so many traditions did. The future “first lady of the United States”, Mary Todd, made this cake for her betrothed, Abraham Lincoln. Upon tasting it, Lincoln proclaimed, “it was the best cake he had ever had”. This recipe eventually became a tradition in the Lincoln home and is printed in Mary Todd’s cookbook.
As a symbol of love and in keeping with the Lancashire tradition, in the last public appearance before they were married, Kate Middleton and Prince William were presented with a courting cake. The shortbread-based, two-layer cake was baked was in the shape of a heart with the couple’s names on the top.
I’m all about keeping traditions alive and with Valentine’s Day fast approaching, I think my day is going to be spent making a “courting cake” to show my love for my special guy.
Bake 350°F. 25-30 mins. Makes one two-layer cake.
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 cup milk
2-3/4 cups all purpose flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups strawberries
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
Butter and flour two (or three) round cake pans. In a large bowl cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy … about 6 to 8 mins. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add vanilla. In a separate bowl, thoroughly sift together dry ingredients. Fold the dry ingredients into the butter/sugar mixture. Slowly add the milk.
Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake between 20 to 30 mins (a little less if using three pans). The top should be lightly browned and firm to the touch. Remove and cool thoroughly.
Meanwhile, slice the strawberries and whip the heavy cream. I like a touch of vanilla and tablespoon or two of confectioners sugar in my whipped cream.
To assemble, place one layer on the plate, top with half the whipped cream (or 1/3 if making three layers) and half the strawberries. Place the top layer on and repeat. Be sure to arrange the berries in a decorative pattern. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar and enjoy.