Water Cakes are traditional plain biscuits or wafers eaten during the fasting period of Lent and Easter. For many Christians, ardent in their beliefs, food eaten during this time of fasting followed a very simple and plain design.
“A cake was in much request on this day, [Good Friday] called water cakes, composed of flour and water only; but, to compensate for the want of flavour, the tops of the cakes were smeared with turmeric, which made them of a fine yellow colour. These have given way to the sweet crossbuns”, taken from, ‘The Mirror Of Literature’, by Reuben Percy, published 1824. A slightly more indulgent recipe for Water Cakes is given below (from 1789) which adds in sugar, egg-whites and caraway seeds.
‘The Complete Confectioner’, By Frederick Nutt, Published 1789
Water Cakes. Take three pounds of powdered sugar and four pounds of sifted flour, mix the flour and sugar together on a clean dresser with half water and half whites of eggs, and as many caraway seeds as you think proper, mix all together so as to make it a very fine paste, that you can roll it on the dresser and the thinner the better, cut out the shape you like with a tin cutter; round and scolloped is the general fashion, but vary the shape to your own fancy … put them on a sheet of [buttered] paper and … bake them very little so as just to change the colour of them.
Yet even this recipe was superseded in popularity during Lent by the Hot Cross Bun and Good Friday Bun. Neither of which (in their present, modern format) can be said to be part of a diet of fasting … Under the pretext of pious living, coupled with a fierce competition between bakeries to bake (and sell) the best buns, Hot Cross Bun had evolved by the 1800s into something of a ‘treat’ and a ‘luxury’. The most popular Hot Cross Buns had become a rich, sugary-sweet, dried-fruit filled spiced bun, using much more butter than previously and substituting cream instead of water in the ingredients, and this, during a time of supposed fasting, was ironically pointed out in many Victorian magazines:-
‘Figaro In London’, Published 1836
This is the season at which all good Christians devour hot cross buns for breakfast, under the comfortable impression that a religious duty is being performed; and in this instance we are happy to find a spirit of faith and religion in the rising generation, for the little boys devour hot cross buns with a most sacred Gusto, which shows that if there is any virtue in the act, the youth of the present day are the very best performers of the religious duty. It is a most comfortable thing, when any kind of eatable commanded by religion happens to be Nice, and we must say even we feel a holy and comfortable glow come over us, when we feel that we Ought to substitute for the plain baker’s bread, the more savoury, and more sacred substance, called Hot Cross Buns.
For those wishing to have a fasting day, or indeed follow the 40 days of Lent, then these traditional Water Cake recipes will fit in with the fast. The first recipe is literally as suggested, water and flour only, coloured with turmeric. While the other (still simple recipe) follows the one written in 1789 by Fredderick Nut.
Water Cakes Recipe
Plain Water Cakes (very old recipe)
- 250g Plain Flour
- Enough cold water to bind the flour into a dough
- 2 tsp ground turmeric
Water Cake Recipe 1789
- 300g Plain Flour
- 200g natural brown sugar (demerrara)
- 2 tbsp caraway seeds (ground slightly)
- 1 egg white
- Enough cold water to bind the flour into a dough
Plain Water Cakes
Grease a baking tray and pre-heat the oven to 150C
In a mixing bowl sift in the flour, mix in enough cold water to bring the flour into a stiff dough. Knead this dough between your fingers until it is no longer sticky (add more flour if necessary). Then on a floured work surface roll the plain dough out so that it is about 5mm thick. Brush over the ground turmeric.
Use a small pastry cutter to cut out small discs and place them on a greased baking tray using a palette knife. Bake the Water Cakes in a cool oven at 150C for about 10 to 15 minutes. If done after 10 minutes remove from the oven, allow to cool on a wire rack and then store in an air-tight jar or tin.
Water Cakes 1789
Grease a baking tray and pre-heat the oven to 150C.
In a pestle and mortar grind the caraway seeds to break them up slightly.
In a mixing bowl sift in the flour, add the sugar and the ground caraway seeds. Mix the flour, sugar and seeds with a wooden spoon then bring together into a stiff dough by adding in the egg white and enough cold water. Knead this dough between your fingers until it is no longer sticky (add more flour if necessary). Then on a floured work surface roll the plain dough out so that it is about 5mm thick.
Use a small pastry cutter to cut out small discs and place them on a greased baking tray using a palette knife. Bake the Water Cakes in a cool oven at 150C for about 10 to 15 minutes – do not let the cakes discolour very much. If done after 10 minutes remove from the oven, allow to cool on a wire rack and then store in an air-tight jar or tin.