What is a Shrewsbury Cake?

A Shrewsbury cake, often called a Shrewsbury biscuit, is a traditional English dessert that bears a strong resemblance to shortbread.

A Shrewsbury cake, often called a Shrewsbury biscuit, is a traditional English dessert that bears a strong resemblance to shortbread. Its name comes from the town of Shrewsbury in northwest England, where it is believed to have originated during the Middle Ages. Cake is a rather humble dessert and uses only a small amount of sugar. Most of its sweetness comes from its high proportion of sweet creamy butter. The cakes are small, often no bigger than the palm of a hand, and remain facets of traditional English tea in many places.

There is some controversy when it comes to identifying who baked the first Shrewsbury cake, as well as defining the original “true” recipe. References to confection have been found as early as the 1600s. Some innovations seem inevitable over the centuries, but most modern recipes probably capture at least the basic essence of even the oldest versions.

Shrewsbury cake ingredients are incredibly simplistic, centered around sugar, flour and butter. Eggs and rose water are commonly added to hydrate, and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg are added for flavor. In most iterations, the proportion of butter far exceeds the other ingredients, which makes the final product dense and rich without being expensive to prepare, especially in farming communities where fresh butter is readily available.

Ingredient proportions can go a long way in determining the overall shape and consistency of a Shrewsbury cake. The cake is usually presented in the form of scones or cookies in relief. It’s not uncommon to see much smoother Shrewsbury cakes, however, and many of them are indistinguishable from shortcake at first glance.

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Flavor is almost always the distinguishing factor of a Shrewsbury cake. Cakes are usually much less sweet than shortbread cookies and often taste little more than a dense dough. It is for this reason that cooks so liberally use spices and other flavorings, especially dried fruit and, occasionally, nuts. Shrewsbury cake has long been a very common confection, the result of the need to preserve. This frugality is likely one of the factors driving the cake’s continued popularity.

Some cooks serve the pastries after dinner, but they appear more often with the afternoon tea service. The hardness of cakes is softened when paired with hot tea, and the intense flavor of the tea also adds some interest to the cake’s flavor, often accentuating spices or other additives. They are sometimes served with butter and jam, but are usually eaten alone.

Shrewsbury cake recipes traveled with English settlers to almost every colony and outpost of the British Empire. Rumor has it that many of the early presidents of the United States served Shrewsbury cake in tea, for example. Biscuits have also become popular in many communities in India, where cooks have found many ways to incorporate local seasonings and flavors.

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