Better know your Scruples from your Suspicions and your Barrels from your Butts


Music – “Get Baking / Bakewell Counting / Early Bake / Countryside Air / Final Destination (Get Baking Medley)” from Music Featured in the T.V. Program: The Great American Baking Competition by The London Film Score Orchestra. Released: 2014.

In our fully equipped modern 21st Century kitchens, and with people on frenzied schedules, there is a tendency to eschew the old tried-and-true cooking and baking “from scratch”.  So many quick-prep, little-prep, fast and speedy recipes and already prepared “convenience” foods are out there, many people just can’t grasp the concept of starting with an assortment of ingredients, combining them in certain ways and sequences, and lo and behold, producing a loaf of fresh bread, or a cake or similar delight.  In addition to following a “receipt” or recipe, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries in the UK, if you didn’t know a hogshead from a pottle, you were in deep trouble. Nowhere are accurate measurements so important as they are in baking.

Many of these older recipes call for “one large coffee-cup of sugar” and “one very large teaspoon of cinnamon”  But what, exactly is a “large coffee cup” and a “very large teaspoon“?

“…take a large coffee cup of sugar…” (Photo Credit:

“…add a very large teaspoon of cinnamon…” (Photo Credit:

Or “butter the size of an egg” as opposed to “butter the size of a hickory nut“.  If you’d never seen a hickory nut, you might add way too much. “Roll the paste the thickness of an Oliver biscuit” is pretty clear, unless you’ve never laid eyes on an Oliver biscuit.

“Good thing I had an Oliver biscuit on hand!” (Photo Credit:

If you had to add “…a suspicion of cinnamon“, just how much is that?  According to Wikipedia, it is “a trace or slight indication“. If your recipe calls for two scruples, a scruple is the equivalent of 20 grains, or approximately 1/2 teaspoon.

1 scruple

Zero scruples (Photo Credit:

Or, what about the direction to “add analine the size of two grains of wheat“.  First of all, what is “analine“?  I could only find one vague reference to it, pertaining to a compound used in making perfumes, but “aniline” (if that is what was meant) is used in rubber processing, herbicides, and dyes and pigments.  According to Wikipedia, the main use of aniline was a precursor to indigo, the blue in blue jeans!  Why it would show up in a 19th century baking recipe is curious (and perhaps not very healthy!)

Even more curious is a recipe, which directs the baker to “Boil one and one-half cups
sugar with water enough to cover, until it hairs“.

..perhaps measuring the sugar….(Photo Credit: http://www.               


“Now, it’s finally getting hairy!” (Photo Credit:







And, in another 19th century cake recipe, the instructions indicate “…if convenient, let it rise, if not, bake immediately.”  The repercussions for the lazy are obvious.

This is what happens if it’s “inconvenient” to let your cake rise…tsk, tsk. (Photo Credit: http://www.bakingbandgeek.


“So, it will be a flat cake….I don’t have time to let it rise!” (Photo Credit:

For those in the 18th century trying to lose a few pounds, there are recipes for “diet bread” containing “…one pound sugar, nine eggs, beat for an hour (!), add to fourteen ounces flour, spoonful rose-water, one do.  Cinnamon or coriander, bake quick“.  Just the kind of food to help shed a few pounds!

“It’s OK…I can eat all I want….it’s Diet Bread!” (Photo Credit:





When we remember that there were no electric mixers or such contrivances in this time period, beating eggs for an hour seems not only exhausting, but would overwhip the eggs to death.

“Here’s your beer, you lazy so-and-so. I’ve got to get back to the kitchen and beat the eggs for another hour!” (Photo Credit: www.

Bake quick” usually suggests a very hot oven.  Baking in a “… quick, but not a furiously hot oven” is another directive.

“This might be a tad too furious for my cake!”   (Photo Credit:




Many 18th and 19th century recipes indicate that an ingredient should equal the number of eggs.  For example, in a recipe for Providence Sponge Cake, the directions indicate “…the weight of ten eggs in sugar, of six in flour and a little salt.”  Some recipes specify rather disproportionate amounts of ingredients, such as “…five pounds of sifted loaf sugar to five whites of eggs“.  This recipe is even more tiring for the baker than one mentioned previously….the mixture was to be “….beaten two hours in a cool place“!

“The recipe says to beat two hours in a cool place….whew!” (Photo Credit:

As to measurements, many of them are older and seldom referred to in most cookbooks today.  Would you know what it meant to “…cut up three-quarters of a pound of butter into a jill and a half or three wine glasses of rich, unskimmed milk“?

Something that appears in many baking recipes in older cookbooks is “carbonate of ammonia“.  In some recipes, the baker is instructed to grind it down and rub it with the sugar in the recipe.

Carbonate of ammonia, used in baking years ago (Photo Credit:

According to Wikipedia, carbonate of ammonia is it is used as a leavening agent and also as smelling salt. Whew….powerful stuff!  Also, directions to “…dissolve the pearl-ash in vinegar” feature in many older baking recipes. Pearlash (pearl ash) or salts of tartar was a common leavening agent at the time.

Pearl ash (pearlash), also used as a leavening agent many years ago (Photo Credit:




Other recipes allow a certain “whatever” attitude in baking.  For example, in one 19th century recipe for a sponge cake, the baker is instructed to “…take 4, 6, 8 or 10 eggs, weight of eggs in powdered sugar half that weight in flour…beat the yolks ten minutes, mix them well with sugar and one teaspoonful of essence of lemon. Beat whites separate and stir in last.”  As long as you have the correction proportion of powdered sugar and flour for the number of eggs you are using, I would suppose all is well, but the recipe requires rereading a few times to clarify this.

A recipe for “Independence Cake” appears to be most unwieldy for the home baker:  “Twenty pounds of flour, fifteen pounds of sugar, ten pounds of butter, four dozen of eggs, one quart of wine, one quart of brandy, one ounce of nutmegs, three ounces of cinnamon, cloves and mace, two pounds of citron, five pounds each of currants and raisins, and one quart of yeast.  Frost it and dress it with (?) leaf.”

“Grandma, here’s the flour for your cake…” (Photo Credit: http://www.eventprop

Another feature of many of these older recipes is the lack of specifics as to the sequence of mixing and the approximate baking and cooling times.  In addition, some recipes have the baker adding, subtracting, and substituting to the degree that is bound to confuse the mathematically challenged baker (like myself).  For a 19th century “Rice Sponge Cake“, “…put twelve eggs into a scale, and balance them in the other scale with their weight in broken loaf-sugar.  Take out four of the eggs, remove the sugar, and balance the remaining eight eggs with an equal quantity of rice-flour…”  No telling how this cake would turn out if you lost track of the ingredients.

One of my favourite recipes is from a 19th century cookbook, pertaining to cakes that are a tad past their prime:  “If you have loaf cake slightly injured by time, or by being kept in the cellar, cut off all appearance of mould from the outside, wipe it with a clean cloth, and wet it well with strong brandy and water sweetened with sugar ; then put it in your oven, and let the heat strike through it, for fifteen or twenty minutes. Unless very bad, this will restore the sweetness.

Possibly, a bit of cake just a tad past its’ prime (Photo Credit:

A recipe for “young people and delicate stomachs” includes “...six ounces of rice, six ounces of flour, the yolks and whites of nine eggs, half a pound of lump sugar, and half an ounce of caraway seeds“.  Of course, the ingredients must be beaten for one hour, which, apparently, “…makes a very light cake”.

Many of these older recipes only specify “makes a large cake“.  The number of servings are rarely indicated, but the following recipe would have been sufficient to feed the corpulent King Henry VIII  “...nine pounds of flour, nine of sugar, seven and a half of butter, ten of raisins, eight of currants, three of citron, forty-two eggs, two ounces of mace, 9 nutmegs, cloves as  you please, one and half pints of brandy, one and a half pints of wine“.

“You mean I have to beat ALL of these for 2 hours?!” (Photo Credit:

“I think this bowl will be big enough for 9 pounds of flour, ten pounds of raisins, 42 eggs, etc.” (Photo Credit: http://www.the

A 1864 recipe for “Mrs. Briggs Election Cake” indicates that the baker is to “...lay a sponge overnight with milk, next morning add to the sponge a pint of flour, one coffee cup of sugar, one of butter, one nutmeg, teaspoon of soda and fruit if you choose

“Well, the recipe said to lay a sponge overnight, but something doesn’t look quite right…” (Photo Credit:






Other common measurements in 18th and 19th century cookbooks, especially in the UK included the gill (also known as “Jill“), the pottle (2 quarts), and your coombs (4 bushels) and wey (40 bushels).

This is not a “jill” as in cooking terms. (Photo Credit: www.



This is the “jill” or gill meant in measurements! (Photo Credit:












Then you have your firkins, ankers, runlets, hogheads, puncheons and butts, not to mention others…


Not this butt… (Photo Credit:

….THIS butt! (Photo Credit:

So, there you have it.  Be careful when measuring your scruples (assuming you have some), and be suspicious with your cinnamon.  Happy baking!

My EatYourBooks cookbook collection

About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 6,500. What next? More shelves?
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1 Response to Better know your Scruples from your Suspicions and your Barrels from your Butts

  1. artofthepie says:

    This is a wonderful piece. I love reading about old measurements, and your humorous presentation of them.

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