Tender, Sweet Rock Cakes

Virgil Evetts

As a small boy I felt oddly powerful eating rock cakes. I fancied them as a man’s sort of cake – big, rugged and rocky.  This was a rare, and rather convoluted, expression of masculinity I suppose. Fact is, I’ve always been a bit of a big-girl’s blouse, and not at all predisposed to grand gestures of man-dom.

So I wolfed down rock cakes in what I imagined was a masculine, tough sort of way, never considering that beyond the brutish name there was nothing  very rocky about them. True enough, they can look a little gnarly, but more importantly they’re moist, delicately scented, and composed of an almost ethereally light crumb. By the way – did you know that “moist” is among the least-liked words in the English language? Heavy with connotation, apparently.

Rock cakes have become an even rarer species than Sally Lunn and Chelsea Buns – over recent years. They’ve almost entirely vanished from Auckland, but like so many tasty relics, they continue to hold on in small town bakeries. You know the sort of place, part charm, part cringe, part mock cream.

Based on technique and ingredients, rock cakes appear to be British through and through. No brioche or patisserie bloodlines here. Surprisingly, though there is little mention of them in the food history literature, which might indicate a fairly recent name change. During both World Wars a very pared-down version was promoted by Britain’s Ministry of Food as a ration-friendly alternative to sponge, but before that, there is scant evidence of their existence.  It doesn’t really matter though. Rock Cakes are unabashedly simple, honest, no-frills tea cakes, and they’re terribly, terribly good.

For reasons unfathomable currants -probably the most defining ingredients of rock cakes- are routinely passed over by cooks in favour of raisins and sultanas.  To my admittedly subjective sensibilities, currents are easily the finest of the dried grape clan with their tight, chewy texture and distinctive tart/sweet flavour. Incidentally, the name currant is bastardisation of Corinth, the original Greek home of the tiny seedless grapes.

When choosing currants, the smaller and darker the better. The larger, slightly golden variety lacks genuine currant flavour and texture. My mother recently confessed a lifelong and (to my mind rather peculiar) fondness for current sandwiches. Then again, I like soy sauce and peanut butter on toast, so I probably shouldn’t  criticise.

Anyway, down to business….

Rock Cakes

I’m rather proud of these. They taste and smell just like the Rock Cakes of my childhood. True to their legendary tea-cake status, they go superbly well with gallons of strong, hot tea.

Whereas you might only make  Sally Lunn or Chelsea Buns for a slap-up tea party (assuming anybody actually holds these), Rock Cakes can be thrown together with such haste that they just about trump scones. There is no yeast involved, therefore no kneading, proving or waiting around. Whip them up and bash them out, job done.

Ingredients

125 gms softened butter

125 gms sugar

3 free-range eggs (for colour and karma)

260 gms flour

1 ½ tsp Baking Powder

Pinch of salt

2 T best quality Glacé peel– finely chopped

1 generous handful of currants

Zest of 1 lemon (NOT Meyer)

Preheat oven to 190 C

Method

Cream the butter and sugar then beat together with eggs. Combine flour, baking powder, salt and zest. Add wet ingredients and mix to a thick, sticky paste.  Add fruit and mix again until fully blended.

If too wet add a little more flour, if too dry add a little cream- NOT milk or water.

Using two dessert spoons form into rough, hens-egg- sized dollops on a greased or silicone baking tray. The cakes will spread slightly in the oven before rising, so space several centimetres apart.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until the tops are golden and slightly cracked

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9 thoughts on “Tender, Sweet Rock Cakes

  1. Hi Virgil, Your rock cakes seem to be rather flash,I have been making the following recipe for over 50years and they’re always greeted with pleasure by the older farmers around here, the younger ones are becoming “educated” into the delight and fragrance of rock cakes.
    Old Style Rock Cakes.
    2C flour 1/2 C currants
    2tspns baking powder 2Tbspn peel
    1/4 tspn salt 1/4 tspn fresh grated nutmeg
    1/2 C brown sugar rind of lemon
    1 egg milk to mix.

    Combine dry ingredients and rub in the butter, add sugar,fruit and nutmeg. beat egg with a fork and add 3 Tbspn milk and stir in adding more milk if needed to make stiff dough.
    Take Tbspn lots of dough and put onto paper lined tray in a rocky fashion. Bake 425* for 15-20 mins.
    Enjoy.

    • Good question Margaret.
      Meyers are an orange/lemon hybrid and although they are quite nice, they don’t have a true lemon flavour, specially in the zest. That said, if you really like the flavour, you can use them. For this recipe I wanted something authentic.

  2. My brother (now dec’d) used to say that Mums’ rock cakes were the best (note this is D/Devonport grandma)…

    So I just wondered down memory lane with her old hand written recipe book which starts at both ends – lots of empty pages but also many other magazine cut outs inserted (no idea if she used them!) – additional recipes for things like “fly spray, blisters, polish” – mixed in with everything else…book is all in one piece but well used and a bit battered. An older sister must have also been invited to put her lot in as well…some other unfamilar handwritting including some of mine (child-like) – obviously written from either dictation or from something else…

    Anyway I have found a “rock cake” recipe – no oven temp given and it’s all in cups and other numbers that might be teaspoons!

    • My childhood Rock cakes were all from Penny Lanes in Devonport- somewhere near Wigmores pharmacy, but I don’t remember exactly where…possibly where the toy shop is?
      I actually like recipes that don’t include temps or too much detail. Teaches you to trust your instincts.In many Asian countries if you ask for a recipe you’ll just be given a list of ingredients. No quantities or cooking methods. It’s just assumed you know the rest.
      A shame really that we have lost this in the West.

  3. The recipe below says to rub in the butter..but I do not see butter in the ingredient list. …. So I made the other Rocks recipe.. OH MY.. are they heavenly..
    I did not have Glace peel.. I used the peel from a fresh lemon. I used raisins instead of currants, I chopped up dried mango slices and also dried figs. I floured the fruit so that it wouldn’t sink.. and baked them.. YUM

  4. I am fond of rock cakes and have used a recipe similar to Susannah’s, almost scone like.

    I rarely make them now though – more when I was feeding haymakers and shearers in my youth.

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