Tea with Miss Marple (4)

Constance Spry, British floral expert and co-author of "The Constance Spry Cookery Book."

Last Saturday evening we were invited to dine at a friend’s house in a nearby village, so my husband baked the fourth in our series of seed cakes to bring as a hostess gift. It looked a little strange, due to a kitchen mishap involving the candied-caraway-seed garnish (more on that below) but despite that, it was terrific. The entire cake was devoured during the cocktail hour by the assembled guests, who included designer Rico Espinet, his wife, and their two children.

The seed-cake recipe came from The Constance Spry Cookery Book (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1956), a book whose very existence might surprise some readers of this blog. Rather than being known for food, Spry (1886—1960) was famous for revolutionizing flower-arranging in the 20th century, thanks to her adventuresome use of weeds, pods, fruiting branches, and other unusual materials, and she gilded that reputation by garlanding the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1937 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. That last event makes the publishing of The Constance Spry Cookery Book more understandable. Another participant in the coronation festivities was Spry’s friend and business partner Rosemary Hume, co-founder of London’s Cordon Bleu Cookery School and inventor of that classic dish served to the newly crowned queen’s honoured guests, Coronation Chicken. At the end of World War II, Spry and Hume reestablished the latter’s cookery school, which had closed due to the international conflict; given Spry’s celebrity it was called the Constance Spry Cordon Bleu School of Cookery. A year later, in 1946, the women also launched a school of domestic science at Winkfield Place. “Little did I realize what was at stake when I went to see her [about this collaboration], for I did not realize, nor do I think did she, what a big part cookery was to play in the lives of women after the war,” Spry wrote. “I was the amateur with homely ideas and limited knowledge, enough perhaps to meet simple war-time demands, but completely inadequate to deal with the overwhelming demand for and need of knowledge which have since become manifest.” (Also associated with the cookery-book project was Major Bruce Shand, better known as father of Camilla Parker-Bowles, the present Duchess of Cornwall; the Army officer turned wine merchant advised on the chapter about wines.)

Spry and Hume’s seed cake is one the authors call “a good old-fashioned seed cake.” It was different from our previous experiments, however. For one it included candied orange peel. For another the top of the cake was supposed to be sprinkled with “a handful of caraway confits.” A footnote explained these are “sugared caraway seeds and may sometimes be bought at the confectioner’s. They may be replaced by roughly crushed lump sugar.” Instead my husband tried to candy the caraway seeds himself, the same way he candies orange peel; the decision was not exactly a success, since the seeds clumped together with the sugar and had to be crumbled. In the oven the crumbles melted and gave the top of the seed cake a sweet but blotchy surface. Oh, well; the taste was wonderful nonetheless.


SOURCE: The Constance Spry Cookery Book by Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1967)


8 ounces flour

5 teaspoons flour (keep separate)

8 ounces butter

8 ounces castor sugar

5 eggs

3 ounces candied orange peel

A good pinch of grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

2 tablespoons brandy

About a handful of caraway comfits [sugared caraway seeds. You can also substitute roughly crushed lump sugar.]


Preheat the oven to 360 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sift the flour and beat into it the butter until it is a creamy consistency. Add the sugar gradually and beat to a fine white cream. Separate the yolks from the whites, beat in the yolks one at a time, with a teaspoon of flour added before each yolk. Add the candied peel, the grated nutmeg, and the caraway seeds. Whisk the egg whites and fold them into the mixture with the remaining flour. Lastly stir in the brandy.

Put the batter into a well-greased loaf tin. Strew over it the comfits and bake for an hour or until a skewer or toothpick poked into the center comes out clean.

16 comments on “Tea with Miss Marple (4)

  1. littleaugury says:

    Cook-you will not believe this-but I ordered this book last night and a 1953 copy of the Flower Arranging book on Amazon(great prices exist!)All prompted by a post about CS- something a little newsy you might like (that is of course if you do not already known-which is likely-but I soldier on) Am literally writing the C’s and S’s now.Voila! pgt

  2. Gigibird says:

    Constance Spry is one of my heroines….I have the book you write about and I love the chapter on cakes and the etiquette surrounding what type of cake, when etc.
    I think seed cake is something you either love or hate.
    I used to have an old lady friend, sadly gone but I used to bake her seed cake and she used to tell me stories of the best seed cake bought in slab form from Woolworths.
    I’m sure you know about the new biography of Constance Spry coming out later this month?
    I have just ordered her first cookery book, Come into the Garden, Cook – from the excerpts I’ve seen it seems a right hoot.

    • I just ordered the new Spry biography today! Have been longing to read about her long love affair with the lesbian artist Gluck, who painted a number of Spry’s flower arrangements for very fashionable collectors.

  3. I grew up in New Zealand in the 50’s and 60’s when nice women were judged on the quality of their baking. Even then seed cake was at the bottom of my likes because it had a funny taste and seemed to be very dry. It probably needed some good New Zealand butter. These recipes have inspired me to try this again. Now the caraway seed has an exotic smell and flavour which to a young boy was too different. I think other seeds appeared-there may have been poppy seed too.

  4. I think I’ve got to try this book.. the candied caraway sound like a splendid idea and honestly, I really like her face…those pearls … the jabot. I wonder what her voice sounded like? On to Amazon!

  5. Stan says:

    Point of confusion. We are directed to beat 8 oz of flour into the butter, but then to add and beat egg yolks with a teaspoon of flour. Is this reserved from the original eight oz, or is it additional flour? If the latter, then the ingredients should call for eight ounces of flour plus additional flour for eggs.

  6. Lucindaville says:

    Love Spry. Her “Hostess” book is a must. My favorite of her cookbooks is “Come Into the Garden, Cook.” We featured both on Cookbook Of The Day. We have a wonderful “7 Seed” mix that we love to use in seed cakes. I just love all your seed cake posts.

  7. I got the cookery book and all I can say is thank you… so much fun to read!

  8. Hello Aesthete: I just did a post about Spry and mentioned you… got a pic on Foodgawker too… thanks so much for telling me about it!!!

  9. Pamela says:

    I’ve never tried to make caraway comfits, though I recall the Victorians had a special gizmo, with a funnel, just for this task and used gum arabic in the process. One of my old cookery books has an easier recipe:

    1 lb sugar
    1 teacup full of water
    0.5 lb caraway seeds

    Dissolve the sugar in the water then boil to form a syrup. Drop in the caraway seeds. Remove the seeds and put them in a sieve with a little flour and shake well. Leave to dry. Repeat this process several times until the seeds are the required size.

    Sounds like an astronomical quantity to me and I’m not convinced by the use of flour.

  10. John M says:

    Loved the recipe. I made two: one following it exactly. But the other I made with my father in mind, who is diabetic and also cannot eat seeds like caraway (or sesame or poppyseed) as he has diverticulosis. So I used ground caraway seed instead of whole. And replaced the sugar with an equal amount of a substitute called “Diabetisweet” which is isomalt and acesulfame K. I also added a cup of sour cream, to enhance moisture. They both came out fine, though the sugar-free one was still too dry for my taste (sugar doing more than sweetening). I may try one using Splenda in addition to 8 ounces of either heavy cream or half and half. Or perhaps yogurt. Will report on the experiment later. But the use of ground caraway was fine: it gave the cake an interesting taupe color.

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