Eating Medieval: Bough Cake

Food was scrounged from somewhere, despite heavy rains, and placed on the tables before Bruce’s thousand men by young boys daring brave glances at the Scottish devils. The Black Douglas! they whispered. The gentle Jamie Douglas scared the English with the mere sound of his name.

Book Four, The Blue Bells Chronicles

In writing Food and Feast in the World of the Blue Bells Chronicles, I included recipes for things that aren't mentioned by name in the scenes, but things I think might likely have been eaten in those circumstances.  One of these is the bough cake.  The idea is simple: skewer any sort of dried fruit on a stick, coat it in ale batter, and fry over an open fire.

Given that the above scene takes place during military campaigns in years of famine, it seems ale, flower, and dried fruit--or berries of some sort--might have been available for the men in an army to help feed themselves.  The recipe I found for this elusive bough cake contained yeast.  I didn't really foresee the medieval Scots carrying yeast or even ale barm with them, so I determined to try it without the yeast to see what happens.

Thanks to Murphy (of Murphy's Law), and skipping all the fascinating details, I ended up this morning in a house that just so happens to have ale in it.  Well--in the refrigerator, anyway.  And now in my batter.  It's made like this.

1-1/4 C. flour
3/4 C. ale or beer
1/4 tsp saffron
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar or to taste

  1. Heat 3/4 cup ale or beer to lukewarm in a pan on the stove
  2. Heat one tbsp of beer to hot and partially crush saffron into it
  3. Mix with flour, salt and sugar, until smooth and thick
  4. Set aside in a warm place to rise, 30 to 60 minutes
The next step is:

Bough Cake::

dried fruit—apricots, apples, plums, etc

  1. Thread dried fruit onto a long, thin stick—fruit shish kabob!
  2. Coat with batter and roast over an open fire
  3. Spoon more batter over fruit as it cooks, until they are covered in a thick layer
  4. Roll bough cake in honey and spices

Let's keep a few things (cough, disclaimers) in mind as I describe my experiments:

  1. I'm a doctor, Jim, not an actor!  Or, to paraphrase, I'm a musician, not a cook, and especially not a medieval warrior cook.
  2. Did I mention Murphy?  I'm down here in this ale-house (or house with ale, if you prefer) to help out a friend in the wake of surgery, drain backups, his planned help having a problem and having to cancel, and now his entire yard being dug up to repair 30 or 40 or 50 feet of drain.  Let's just say I was more than a little distracted.
  3. Although I've built campfires, I found some of the wood was damp (not surprising after the rains we've had here) and I don't think I've ever attempted to cook over one.
Disclaimers over, here's what happened after I made the batter--which was quite thick and sticky, and to which I added a little honey:

Attempt #1:

I left Chris with a bag of figs and a skewer.  He burst into laughter.  I think maybe that was the narcotics talking or laughing.  I left him there, helpless with the figs while I went to start a fire in his backyard. 

You can see the figs covered in batter.  I think I put it on way too thick and I didn't really have a stick long enough to hold over the fire properly.  I innovated--and ended up with the whole thing in the fire.  

Attempt #2:

Chris, a past instructor of survival wilderness, told me to wrap the next one in oiled foil and put it on the edge of the fire.  Foil is hardly period, but my real goal was to know how this batter works without yeast.  So I wrapped the next one in foil.  Did I mention distraction?  I forgot to put in oil.  That might have been about the time Roto-Rooter came in to inform us he'd hit a gas line.

Also, the fire seemed a bit low to just put something beside it, so I put it on top of the flames.  This one burned and stuck to the foil.  We got at some of the part that wasn't charred.  It tasted decent.

Attempt #3:

This time, I remembered to oil the foil (olive oil) and listened to the expert.  I set it beside the fire.  This one came out looking much better.  I promised Chris I wouldn't make him try it--he found this a very funny comment from a 'chef,' but then, as I said, I'm hardly a chef, let alone a medieval one.  He bravely tried it, although still somewhat full from the last one.  This one was better than the last !  We were starting to like this!

With just a little batter left, and remembering I had some dried papaya and pineapple in my work bag (yes, also not exactly period, but the point was to make sure the batter works without yeast), I decided to fry some on the stovetop.  Given Chris has not only ale, but a girdle--or a griddle as I believe he prefers it to be known!), I figured this was another way they may have done it, as they often carried 'girdles' with them.

This time, I put a much lighter coating of batter on each piece, and fried them in butter on the stove top.  We were unanimous--all two of us!--in deciding this was the best attempt yet!  This time, the batter came out just right, a nice golden brown, and a perfect accompaniment to the fruit.

Notice in all these attempts, I did not remember to roll the completed bough cake in honey and spices.  Did I mention distraction?

Notice, too, the recipe doesn't say what spices to roll it in.  This is because medieval recipes tended to be less specific than ours.  Often times, spices were specified, but in a case like this, it would have been whatever happened to be on hand.  Attempt # 5 will include cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, because these were three popular spices in medieval times, and also because they were the spices recommended for Hildegard von Bingen's Cookies of Joy, because she believed they had properties that brought about happiness.  I'm all for a Bough Cake of Joy!

If you liked this post, you might like others with the EATING MEDIEVAL label
Medieval Cookies from a Modern Oven
Juselle Dates

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  1. The reason I burst out laughing was because I thought the bag she handed me had raisins in it and I imagined myself trying to thread raisins on to a skewer. In fact, they were figs; much easier.

    I tried to get her to do it reflector-oven style, but alas, no.

    The stuff was tasty, though.


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