Brussels Cakes/Cakes de Bruxelles

Another guest post by Martha (first one here). Thanks Martha!

I knew I’d struck vintage cookbook gold the moment I laid eyes on the cover. “Cooking Into Europe: Choice Common Market Dishes”, with its offer to “Win a week’s gastronomic holiday in Europe!” and its colourful, often unappetising photographs, could not fail to provide hours of joy. I was right too. Best £1.50 I ever spent.

Published in 1973 to mark the entry of the UK, Denmark and Ireland into the Common Market it promises that “All recipes were checked by official bodies from their countries of origin.” The introduction is written by Clement Freud who I think is something of an official body all by himself. It makes other promises too. Apparently “the planners of the book have kept the needs of the modern housewife very much in mind” and “Not one of these well-tried favourites is difficult to prepare.” I still managed to muck things up, but then I have no pretensions to being a modern housewife.

6 eggs
4 egg yolks
14 oz caster sugar
14oz flour
8oz finely chopped preserved fruit (raisins, candied orange and lemon peel, angelica etc)

Gas mark 4/180C/350F

Put the eggs, egg yolks and sugar in the top of a double boiler, over hot water. Place the boiler over heat, and stir until the mixture is smooth and thick, like mayonnaise. Remove from the heat, and mix in thoroughly the flour and fruit. Prepare 24-30 small buttered greaseproof paper cases. Fill them with the mixture. Bake in a moderate over until firm. This takes about 30 minutes. One large cake may be made in a 10 inch tin. The preparation is the same, but it will take 1hour to bake.

I did a double-take when I read the recipe and saw a) the quantity of eggs and b) the fact that there is no butter or other fat in this dish c) the baking time which seemed very long for cupcake sized things. Intriguing!

I halved the quantities. I used glacé cherries, currants and candied peel. I used self-raising flour. If I hadn’t, I suspect they would have been inedible.

I do not have a double boiler so I made a rather unstable bain marie over a small saucepan. When I first started, I was as wary as any cook attempting to make a smooth mayonnaise-like substance and not sugared scrambled eggs. I set the heat fairly low and stirred continuously with a wooden spoon… And stirred… And stirred.

The sugar dissolved. The mixture foamed slightly. But it did not thicken. I turned the heat up cautiously and stirred some more. The mixture resolutely remained the consistency of thin gravy. I turned the heat up a little more and started putting the paper cases into the baking tray with my left hand. One eye was on the clock which had passed the hour at which I should have gone to meet a friend. The bain marie wobbled, threatening to dowse me in hot, sugary but defiantly liquid egg. I stopped laying out paper cases and made an executive decision not to butter the blasted things. I had quite enough on my plate without that sort of nonsense.

I’m not sure how long I’d been stirring when I finally lost it. My friend hadn’t called the police so it can’t have been more than a day. ‘Stuff it!’ I thought, ‘I’ll just whack the heat up on full and beat the bugger into submission.’ If it failed spectacularly then at least you could all have a laugh at my expense.  I slammed gas right up, grabbed a whisk and attacked, steadying the bowl with my oven gloved hand and coating my oven gloves in sugary egg. And lo! The mixture began to thicken. Finally we were getting somewhere!

It never reached the consistency of mayonnaise. It just about managed heavy double cream. But I was bored, late and covered in egg by then, and very conscious of that half hour baking time.

When stirred into the flour, the resultant batter was a thoroughly weird texture. It was very stiff and abnormally sticky. Somewhere between cake batter and bubble gum. I dolloped it into the paper cases and it just about made twelve small cakes. I feared they would be very dense and unpleasant.

I gave them the full thirty minutes to cook. Because they looked totally insipid when I checked after ten. They rose like good ‘uns though. Which is a relief because they would have been impossible to eat if they hadn’t.


The tasting verdict is that they were, well, quite nice actually. Crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle with a good flavour of candied peel. They were very sweet and the outside was a bit hard. I think maybe that half hour baking was too long and they should actually be almost white. It is also possible that the eggs I used were too small. The batter could have been better mixed with some of the currants having traces of flour stuck to them.

The other general conclusion was that the cakes were too big and would be much nicer as petit fours. Sort of like fruit amaretti. That said, I’m not sure I can be bothered to make them again. I’m basically pro-European so I have tried to avoid the inevitable joke about Brussels being a whole load of effort for a mediocre result, but it seems to have snuck out in spite of me. Ho hum.

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4 responses to “Brussels Cakes/Cakes de Bruxelles

  1. I really liked these. The chewy crunchy mix is a favourite of mine and the addition of mixed peel made me very happy. They also kept really well, becoming a bit less crunchy and much more stickily chewy two or three days in.

    If you can bear to do all that stirring and then not eat them for three days, you’re in for a treat!

  2. Fatless sponge cake, e.g Swiss roll, is usually made by whisking the eggs and sugar, over a bain-marie as described, to a thick foam. The sieved flour is then folded in gently. However, that mixture is unlikely to support dried fruit. Brussels cake is definitely borderline confectionery.

  3. I have some brilliant Victorian baking books I keep meaning to dive into but haven’t yet found the time. Your blog is great and makes me want to do some retro cooking/baking myself. x

  4. Thanks so much, HtbP! Your blog is gorgeous and I certainly look forward to reading it regularly in the future.