The period way

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It's 2019, and by the tone of certain internet memes, some of you just want the recipe and for me to shut up about the details.
So here it is, and if you want to read further, that's on you.

2 cups granulated sugar

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour, sifted 

6 Grade A Large eggs. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking pan with ungreased parchment paper.  

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly, then add eggs and knead into dough. Spread dough in paper lined pan and bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes (test with a toothpick or skewer for done-ness). Let cool, slice, enjoy.

If you think the Girl Scouts of America are cookie pushers, Oze Hoan's introduction to the Chronicles of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1626) complains "What foul things have foreign priests done to Japanese converts?" These "worst enemies of Japan" not only used Christianity to sucker the ignorant, their black ships brought goods and created markets in rare foreign items. "If someone comes to look, for people who like to drink, they offer chinta, grape wine, roke, ganebu and mirinchu, and for teetotalers, they proffer things like kasutera, boro [cookies], karumeira [caramel], aruheito [a sort of meringue] and konpeito [confits or candies] to enlist followers to their sect."

Hmmm, sounds a bit like the MO of the House of Cheerful Monkeys: Known World Domination by plying all comers with good food and drink. 

Eric Rath's Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan contains a translation of the earliest surviving recipe for kasutera. Also known as Pão de Castela (bread from Castile) or Pão de Ló (sponge cake), it was one of several dishes introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th century. So the story goes, a Christian convert, Maruyama Toan (Antoniyo), opened a shop in 1587, selling a sweet called kasutera. He made presentations to Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu (the future shogun). 

The recipe in Rath's book comes from from the Nanban Ryorisho or Southern Barbarian's Cookbook, which dates from 1641:  

"Knead together 10 eggs, 160 momme (600 grams) of sugar and 160 momme of wheat flour. Spread paper in a pot and sprinkle it with flour. Place the dough on top of this. Place a heat source above and below to cook. There are oral instructions."

Sugar had been used medicinally in Japan for some time, but the proliferation of "barbarian" treats involving the use of large quantities of refined sugar was a pricy novelty at the time, not to mention the use of so many eggs. Note too the instruction to heat the pot from above and below: baked goods were also a novelty and the Japanese did not have ovens, so a batch of kasutera needed a second pan set on top and filled with coals. 

It looked fairly simple, so I decided to try it.

BATCH ONE, in which I use too many eggs!
I should probably mention that this was my first attempt at baking something from a historical recipe. I took 600 grams to equal = 2 1/2 cups. (To be perfectly honest I do not remember what internet source gave me that figure, nor did it occur to me that sugar and flour of the same mass might not be the same volume!) 

For the initial batch, I measured out 2 1/2 cups of plain granulated sugar, 2 1/2 cups Gold Medal all purpose flour (which it occurred to me I should probably sift through a wire strainer), cracked ten Grade A large eggs and mixed them by hand with a wooden spoon.


This did not produce dough, which is what Rath's translation describes. What went into the pan was a sweet, yellow batter, at which point it occurred to me that ten 17th century eggs were probably nowhere near the same volume and wetness as ten modern ones. I baked it in a rectangular roasting pan lined with parchment paper for 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven. It tested perfectly at that temperature and time when pierced with a bamboo skewer in several spots. It looked exactly like cornbread. It only rose about an inch in the pan, but might have risen higher had I used a smaller pan. Sweet, cakey,very mild and I could taste the egg.

It was also a very different consistency from modern kasutera, which is always described as sponge cake, and has a density similar to pound cake. If you Google recipes, most of them incorporate milk and honey and call for whisking the eggs in a bowl over a pan of hot water.

While my giant modern eggs may have gotten in the way of this being a period-accurate result, it still made a nice "breakfast bread" and was no harder to prepare than brownies from a mix.

BATCH TWO, in which I try to use fewer eggs.

The obvious solution, therefore, was to mix up another batch of dry ingredients and start adding eggs gradually. 

As before, I lined the pan with a sheet of parchment paper, measured out my dry ingredients and mixed them together, then began adding eggs. When I got to seven I stopped because six had seemed way too dry. Unfortunately, seven was too wet for dough, producing a thick batter. Not one to waste food and knowing I could palm the results off on friends, into the oven it went, 350 for 30 minutes. It rose somewhat less than the original batch and didn't taste appreciably different.

BATCH THREE, in which I try to use even fewer eggs. 

Six, then. Third batch same as the first, only I broke six eggs into it and kept shoving it all around in the bowl with my wooden spoon for as long as possible. Then I floured my hands and got in there to knead by hand. The consistency was about that of cookie dough when I transferred it into the pan.

Again, the oven was set at 350. At 30 minutes, it was still sticking to a skewer. It came out of my oven at 37 minutes, your oven time may vary.

 As you can see in the above photos, the consistency is far more bread-like this time around, nicely chewy and sweet. Just the thing to have with a cup of sencha. 

So, to recapitulate: 

2 1/2 cups granulated sugar 

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour, sifted 

6 Grade A Large eggs. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking pan with parchment paper.  

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly, then add eggs and knead into dough. Spread dough in paper lined pan and bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes (test with a toothpick or skewer for done-ness). Let cool, slice, enjoy.

UPDATE, January 2015: Since I originally wrote this article and began sugaring up the Kingdom of the West with the produce, it occurred to me that 600g of sugar and 600g of flour would have different volumes. Not owning a kitchen scale, I tried varying the recipe by using 2 cups of sugar to 2 1/2 cups of flour. It made very little difference to the result.

I finally acquired a cheap little kitchen scale and decided to try using the actual 600g amounts by weight. I wasn't sure my biggest mixing bowl was quite large enough. It's a lot. And would you believe it soaked up ten Grade A Large eggs? Maybe I could have split the batter and done two batches, but I loaded into my usual baking pan on top of parchment paper. This meant I had to add about ten minutes to the bake time for it to be done through. It rose a bit higher simply because it had nowhere else to go - and tasted exactly the same as every batch of kasutera I'd produced since "Batch 2" mentioned above.

I don't claim to know much about historical cooking, despite what Rath describes in his book, we can't be sure how precise the measurements might have been or what those "oral instructions" might have been. It's flour, it's sugar, it's eggs. It's pretty bomb-proof as baking goes as long as you keep an eye on your bake time. And if your batch manages to last more than 24 hours after you serve it, the chewiness dries to something like biscotti. 


Rath, Eric. Food and Fantasy In Premodern Japan (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2010), pages 96-101.

Fernanda Gomes, translator. A Treatise of Portuguese Cuisine from the 15th century. (A type of pao de lo appears near the very end, consisting of a sugar syrup, almonds and a flour dough.) http://www.medievalcookery.com/notes/tratado.html 
The original Portuguese text can also be found at http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/obra-visor/um-tratado-da-cozinha-portuguesa-do-seculo-xv--0/html/#PagMedi

Copyright 2012, 2019 Lisa A. Joseph

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