Friday, June 8, 2012

Sugar, doo doo doo doo doot do, oh honey honey...

I'll be getting more into the foods of the books in due time, but today seems as good a time as ever to discuss a topic near and dear to everyone's heart: What about dessert?

Before getting to far afield with lemon tarts and the delicate pastries of Pentos, it's important to recognize that something that's fairly common in modern kitchens, sugar, would have been quite a luxury in a Medieval kitchen, or even a Renaissance kitchen (It's hard to tell exactly "when" the world of Westeros is and, like most fantasy, this world seems to blend a little of this and that).

Originally, people of India chewed sugarcane to extract its sweetness.  Then, around 350 AD, some great people learned that it could be boiled into a syrup and then solidified into an easy to transport, preservable crystalline form.

Shortly thereafter, sugar made its way to China and the Middle East.

There are records of knowledge of sugar among the ancient Greeks and Romans, but only as an imported medicine, and not as a food.  In particular, the "honey like salt" was thought to alleviate kidney and bladder pain. During the Muslim Agricultural Revolution, Arab merchants adopted the sugar refinement techniques of India and transformed them into large scale operation.  The conquests of the Iberian peninsula brought sugar to Europe in the 8th century, and more sugar was introduced when Crusaders encountered caravans carrying "sweet salt" and brought it home.

By the 12th century, Venice began to farm sugar plantations for export to Europe.  So, of course sugar would be available in Westeros, likely shipped in from across the Narrow Sea where it's traders could rely on slave labor, but like many things we take for granted, it too would be a luxury.

Honey, sugar beets, maple syrup and other more local sweeteners would be used by the small folk, but for special occasions, even Ned Stark might allow a little bit of sweet.

So, with that said, here is a delightful cake that might have found itself a home in the kitchens of Winterfell.  (Note, baking soda absolutely would NOT have been available, so this cake omits any baking soda or other leaveners.  For a lighter, less accurate cake add 1.5 tsp of baking soda)

Winterfell Cake

  1. 1/2 cup of cooking oil (I used vegetable) 
  2. 2 cups flour
  3. 2 tsp cinnamon
  4. .5 tsp cloves
  5. .5 tsp salt
  6. 1/2 cup honey
  7. 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  8. 1 egg
  9. 1 tsp ground ginger
  10. 1 apple, chopped (I used a Macintosh, because it was there, but in a perfect world, use a granny smith)

Heat oven to 350.  Oil a round cake pan and dust with flour. EDIT: An astute reader has called me out.  Lard would have been more likely used instead of oil.  However, in a lot of my desserts especially, I will be trying to a. not give my husband a heart attack and b. keep things that don't NEED to involve animal products vegetarian friendly to balance out the barrage of meat fests!  So veggie oil it is!

In a large bowl, whisk flour, cinnamon, cloves, and salt (and baking powder if you are a cheater...)  In a medium bowl whisk oil, honey, sugar, egg, ginger and 1/2 cup boiling water.  Add to dry ingredients and whisk until combined.  Do not over whisk.  Fold in apples.  I added some more cinnamon on top because cinnamon is delicious.

Transfer to pan and bake 40-45  minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan for 30 min, then turn onto a rack to cool completely.  You can dust with some confectioners sugar if you like, but I don't think Ned Stark would approve.  Serve with milk, or a nice winter stout.


  1. BTW, anyone who likes Game of Thrones needs to read the non-fiction, "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century" by Barbara Tuchman. I have it on audio book to keep me company while tool'n around. Outstanding book.

  2. Interesting discussion on sugar. I imagine cloves, cinnamon, and ginger would also have been luxury items, at best. Would have also probably used lard.

    1. KB, Welcome and thank you for the comment.

      cloves cinnamon and ginger would indeed be a luxury, but one likely affordable by a High Lord like Ned Stark. These spices in particular have a long history of import to Europe, even going back so far as Roman Antiquity.

      As a sign of remorse, Roman Emperor Nero ordered a year's supply of cinnamon be burnt after he murdered his wife. The Treaty of Tordesillas in the lave 15th century gave Portugal, among other things, greater power over the clove trade in Europe. Ginger also would have been available, having fallen out of use almost entirely after the fall of the Roman Empire and coming back sometime before the Elizabethan era possibly the 13th century. QE1 is credited for the first gingerbread man in some texts. So, though costly, I imagine there would be some small quantities of spice at Winterfell for treats and special occasions.

      As for lard, again, you are correct, this would be much more accurate, but I prefer to use vegetable oil for 2 reasons: 1) I have a husband with cholesterol issues and 2) so much of this blog will be meat feast I wanted to make at least the desserts vegetarian friendly if possible!

      Thanks for the input and I hope you enjoy the next few posts!

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