Shakespeare’s Mom Was Definitely Better At This Than We Are (But We’re Trying Anyway) #WorldBakingDay

Hi!  We’re Beth and Jeremy two home bakers from the American Shakespeare Center.

DSC_4532At the ASC, we recover the joy and accessibility of Elizabethan theatre, but today we’re on a mission to find out if the Elizabethan kitchen is worth recovering too!

We’ve got ​​a 1658 recipe (found here), turned our baking brains on, and watched enough Great British Bake Off to figure this out.  The recipe is pretty vague, so we’ll probably try out some variants and see what works best.

Take a pound of ſugar finely beaten, four yolks of Eggs, two whites, one half pound of Butter waſht in Roſe-water, fix ſpoonfuls of ſweet Cream warmed, one pound of Currans well pickt, as much flower as will make it up, mingle them well together, make them into Cakes, bake them in an Oven; almoſt as hot as for manchet, half an hour will bake them.

The journey begins . . .

Jeremy looks it up and finely beaten sugar is probably just sugar.  Powdered sugar was called “white powder” which sounds like cocaine and we didn’t have time to buy that.

DSC_4533We’re making rosewater (don’t tell the neighbor but we clipped her rose bush) because we couldn’t find it at a supermarket anywhere near us.  Turns out rosewater is exactly what you’d think it is and super easy to make at home (and useful to keep around!).


We actually found currants at the supermarket (no indication as to whether or not they’re “well pickt” though)!  We got chocolate chips too because YOLO.   Jeremy says the currants just taste like raisins.  Beth disagrees.  To her, they’re a “weird, tiny raisin.”  Fundamental difference.

Neither of us feels entirely confident about the order of ingredients.  Beth feels like this is probably an “all in one/mix it all together” type thing but Jeremy feels like the butter and sugar should be creamed first.   We go with Beth’s instincts.

Some Notes on the Process, Measurements, and Temperature


What does being “wafht” in rosewater mean?  Should we rinse the butter in rosewater?  We opt to  add just a couple of tablespoons and mash it together.

We used Google to figure out how much a pound of sugar is, but you could also use a kitchen scale or just guess!

We used a tablespoon for a “fpoonfull.”DSC_4556

There’s no set cooking temperature and we have no clue what a “manchet” is or how hot it should be baked.  We preheat at the tried and true 350°F.

Anyone trying this recipe at home should definitely experiment with all of the above.  We want to hear how it turns out.

Time to Mingle

DSC_4559Then we used Ye Olde KitchenAid mixer to “mingle” sugar, butter, flour, cream, and eggs because our peasants were busy in the fields.  We looked up some other recipes which instructed the reader to beat for a full hour.  We’re not about that.  KitchenAid to the rescue!

“As much flower as will make it up” – what the heck does that mean?  We’re going to attempt multiple flour combinations to see what gives us the best (i.e. least terrible) result.  But, let’s get real, with butter, sugar, and eggs, it will probably taste good.

We start off with just two cups of flour.  The consistency resembles more of a thick batter, so we’re baking it in a muffin tray to see what we get. (Say hello to our assistant, Sunny.)


Then, we add more flour, probably a cup and a half but at this point we’ve ditched the measuring cups.  Jeremy calls it a very “tacky dough” and the dough yelled “YOU’RE TACKY LOOK AT THAT SHIRT.”  We decide these are best as a typical drop cookie.


Another cup and a half (ish?) of flour, and the dough resembles shortbread – crumbly, but still holds it’s shape.  All tackiness is gone!  We press these into small cakes and we’re ready to go!


Into the Oven

We don’t really trust the recipe’s suggested guideline of thirty minutes, so we’re going to check them every 10.


10 minutes in and they’re looking pretty good.  Still got a way to go!

20 minutes in and batch two are ready to come out.

22 minutes and and batch three are good to go.

30 minutes and batch one is looking good.

Let’s taste!

Batch 1

These are by far the most “cake”y by modern standard.  They’re light, fluffy, and buttery.  The lack of any kind of extract or zest makes them taste kind of plain, but the rosewater comes through nicely on the finish.  (Also, we totally know muffin papers aren’t historically accurate.)

Batch 2

Beth says this batch tastes like cream of wheat.  Jeremy has never eaten cream of wheat so he can’t agree or disagree.  She grabs a chocolate chip variety and – “Oh my god those are so much better.  God I could put those away.  I’m so hungry.”  The rosewater isn’t coming through on this batch at all, probably because the extra flour has neutralized it.  All in all these are pretty underwhelming.

Batch 3

This batch is dry as bones.  They’re decent enough to eat fresh out of the oven (meh but edible).  But after cooling for a little over an hour they’re hard as rocks.  Don’t even try these in your home.  Stick with 1 or 2.

Moral of the Story

Baking is fun!  Eliza-baking is like a riddle, with a pinch of myftery, and a dab of rosewater.  We learned that the modern advances in baking are truly magical, but that these Elizabethan bakers could make a truly tasty cake.

Introducing “Kids” to Shakespeare: Part 3

In this blog series, I’m reviewing the suggestions from “The Nerdy Book Club’s” December post “Ten Books to Introduce Kids (of Any Age! Adults, too!) to Shakespeare.Last time I looked at Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion and Street Love by Walter Dean Myers. This one will look at The Cake House by Latifah Salom and Ophelia by Lisa Klein.


The Cake House by Latifah Salom

cakehouseI actually enjoyed this book quite a bit. The Cake House is  loosely based on Hamlet: it’s about a 13 year old girl, Rosaura, whose mother picks her up in a rush one day to flee her maybe-abusive father, Robert (it’s unclear if he was just kind of mean, or not at all? Apparently 13 is too young to form any memories…). Rosaura and her mother, Dahlia, run to her lover Claude’s house, but Robert follows and shoots himself in the face in front of Dahlia and Claude. Unhappy in her new life, Rosaura struggles to support her unstable mother while attempting to balance new relationships with her step-dad, Claude who she isn’t sure she likes, and his son, Alex, who she is certain she likes, all while being haunted by the ghost of her shot-in-the-face-father. To cope, she strikes up an incestual relationship with her new step-brother, to whom she gives her 14-year-old virginity. Like I said, Hamlet.

Truncated, joking summaries  aside, Salom has a really great novel here. Rosaura is an interesting character and the book approaches some dark topics and themes, drugs, depression, haunted pasts, teenage sexualtiy, and functionless families, through the lens of a very young, but strong, narrator. Like the titular character in Hamlet, she struggles to understand the messages from her deceased father and his relationship to her mother’s new husband. Unlike Hamlet, Rosaura never considers murdering anyone and actually has a good head on her shoulders. She is a smart girl, with a passion and skill for photography, and Salom does a lovely job imaging this teenager.

Although Salom does not litter her novel with direct quotes from Shakespeare, I like to think that she chose to characterize Claude’s house, the “Cake House,” because it’s a Danish.

(Pastry jokes are the best jokes.)

Ophelia by Lisa Klein

I really enjoyed this book. I think Klein did an excellent job weaving together her opheliaimagined backstory with scenes that I know like the back of my hand. Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s most studied, produced, seen, and read play (it’s a close race between that, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it isn’t really something that can be quantified), and Klein completely reinvents the narrative, while specifically matching the famous scenes we expect to see. Lisa Klein, PhD., is a Shakespearean scholar with a special attraction to the domestic culture of Renaissance women, and she has published many articles on poetry of the time, Queen Elizabeth, and women’s needlework. She got into (self-titled) children’s writing because she was “reading lots of children’s books” with her sons and subsequently organized a local conference on “Writing for Children,” even before she’d ever done it. Ophelia was her first book, though she now has two historical fictions (one on the Civil War and one about early Roanoke colonization), and three more Shakespeare adaptations/reimaginings (one that draws from Macbeth, a mash-up about Shakespeare the person and the Dekker/Middleton play The Roaring Girl, and a compendium of Shakespeare’s comedies). I’m seriously considering picking up the Macbeth adaptation when I finish this list of ten.

Klein creates a vibrant history for Ophelia and her family, sweetly weaves Ophelia and Hamlet’s courting and secret marriage, and rewardingly gives her readers an “after” for a young woman with hardly any voice in Shakespeare’s play. Having seen Hamlet numerous times and worked on it with my MFA company just last year, I still know the scenes and lines pretty readily. Ophelia narrates her own story, day-to-day, and takes us through Shakespeare’s scenes that she is in. Klein imagines that Polonius’s ambition is what gets them into the court, but Ophelia’s wit and success are what build her a personal relationship as one of Gertrude’s waiting ladies. She works hard for her Queen, and Gertrude favors her. Hamlet courts Ophelia in secret because of their difference in status, and the two finally elope in secret with Horatio as a witness. Unfortunately, their first night together as husband and wife is interrupted when Horatio enters their nuptial chamber to tell Hamlet that the ghost is back, and he needs to come see it. Hamlet eventually reveals his revenge plot to Ophelia and she feels that keeping his secret and being a dutiful wife is directly contrary to being a faithful subject to the Queen. At first, she agrees to parade their love as if that is the cause of Hamlet’s feigned madness, but his cryptic nature and cruel outbursts are too real for her to differentiate. Because we already know what happens, the dramatic irony is doubly striking as we wait for him to kill her father. Knowing the king’s secret, having no living father, present brother, or sane husband present in the court cause Ophelia to  fear for her own life, and she flees. Horatio helps her fake her death and she goes to a nunnery in France. It’s adorable and perfect. She arrives safely and shortly thereafter learns of Laertes and Hamlet’s duel and deaths. While she struggles through her grief, she thrives as an apothecary and healer for the nunnery, but never takes vows. She remains a free woman and eventually gives birth to a son, which she names Hamlet, after his father.

As I mentioned, Klein cleverly weaves everything that happens in Elsinore through the Shakespearean scenes that we expect to see. When Ophelia longs to re-deliver the remembrances that Hamlet gave her, the scene begins after the “To be or not to be” speech, and we get to read Ophelia’s inner monologue instead of hearing Hamlet’s constant soliloquies. Same thing happens for the play-within-a-play. Ophelia narrates her worry at Hamlet’s boldness to stage such an accusatory fiction for Claudius. Most creatively, we learn that the madness scene is an intricately detailed part of Horatio and Ophelia’s plan to fake her death. Each flower that she gifts is chosen with accusatory accuracy, and her mumblings are specific with the hope that Gertrude will understand her secret thoughts. The mash-ups are refreshingly beautiful for such an overdone, known story.

My favorite thing about the novel is the nunnery business. Although Klein’s intertwining of Ophelia’s thoughts with Shakespeare’s play are clever and truly new, the completely invented plot of what happens after is so important to the novel that she created, because it isn’t about Hamlet. The infamous Dane no longer matters in the third part of the book, or rather, he matters only as he relates to Ophelia’s growth. Rather than female characters that are only defined by their theatrical relation to the men that surround them, Klein final chapter provides a completely original literary equality.


So far, Ophelia is definitely my favorite on the list. Once again, I encourage people looking to be interested in Shakespeare to experience the plays of Shakespeare themselves. However, Ophelia is a really good read. Maybe I like it so much because it isn’t just a retelling of the stories we already know, or an attempt at cleverly creating backstory for narratives that never needed it, but somehow it is a compilation of both of these things in a completely new way.


Next time! Something Rotten by Alan Gratz and Illyria by Elizabeth Hand

It’s not just any town – it’s OUR TOWN.


Constance Swain plays Emily Webb in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (above photos by Lindsey Walters and Michael Bailey), one of our four Spring Season shows.  See what she has to say about pairing this classic play with Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions.

You play Emily in Our Town.  How does Thornton Wilder’s classic play compare to the Shakespeare titles you’re doing this season? How is it different?

You said it right, Our Town is a classic, an American treasure.  This play works wonderfully with both Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  These plays are chock full of lessons we’ve either learned, need to learn, or need to be reminded of.  Lessons like the power of forgiveness, the beauty of friendship, and the importance of a hearty laugh.

While Our Town shares several characteristics with these Shakespeare titles, there’s something special about its simplicity.  This play doesn’t have period dances or fancy sword fights.  There’s something familiar about the straightforwardness of Our Town.  If Shakespeare’s plays are desserts, Our Town is the meat and potatoes.

What is your favorite line/lines in the play? Why?

EMILY:  Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?
STAGE MANAGER:  No.  Saints and poets, maybe they do some .  .  .

Being an actor is a lot like being a poet, it is my hope that I realize and inspire others to realize life while they live it.  Every.  Every.  Minute.

Do you have a favorite audience moment from either your time on the road or at the Blackfriars?

There are so many beautiful moments we share with the audience in this play.  We’re on a journey, a mission, to spark the imagination of our audience.  Our Town, in particular, calls for the audience to stretch their imagination.  We encourage them to give themselves over to Grovers Corners, to take this ride with us, feeling every loop and twist along the way.

I love watching the audience turn their heads or sit up to see the house on the hill, or Mr.  Morgan’s drug store, or the graves of fallen soldiers.  The stage manager simply points to these “places” and the audience, both young and old, turn to get a better view.  None of these places are tangible, we can’t go up and touch them.  The audience knows this.  It’s no secret.  This is a play.  But they still believe in magic.  For an evening they abandon all logic and play.

How does Our Town fit into the current cultural moment?  What do you think audiences might walk away with watching this play in 2017?  

This play is a classic because it is timeless.  No matter if the year is 2017 or 3017, this play will be relevant.  Human beings will live, and eat, and love, and die.  This play is a reminder to breathe in those moments.  Hopefully, after seeing this play, audiences hug their loved ones a little tighter before bed.

Does performing Our Town with Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions impact the way audiences respond to the play?

Absolutely! This play is captivating on its own; adding Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions only enhances its charm.  Our staging conditions (keeping the lights on, directly addressing the audience) remind people that they matter, that they are just as important to this story as any of us.