In the historic baking world, there’s a legend that springs from a yeast bread. Depending on the sources and the provenance of specific recipes, facts about this legend vary widely and wildly. In some tales, she’s a 17th-century girl, in others an 18th-century woman. She was French. She was English. She was colonial American. She was an ordinary teenager, she was a famous baker, she was a lowly domestic servant. She had a name that was either Sally or Solange or Madame or Marie. She was a real human being but she then again she was a fake and then yet again someone else’s flight of fancy. For three centuries, this baking icon has tumbled through time on the flimsiest of resumes. This is the story of Sally Lunn and a cake (or it might have been a bread) that made her famous.
This weekend, after coming home from the market with a batch of blackberries that were so deliciously ripe they smelled like wine, I discovered a vintage recipe that is as difficult to describe as the lady it was named after. Called Fresh Blackberry Sally Lunn, it came from Meta Given’s 1957 Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking. Surprisingly, out of a stack of forty different vintage cookbooks spanning the early 1900s to the early 1980s, Meta’s book was one of just a few that contained any recipes for fresh blackberries at all. Homemade jam and blackberry pie unified the books that did include the fruit, but Meta’s was the only cookbook that combined blackberries with a cake in the name of Sally Lunn. I love any recipe that is unique and stands out. The name Sally Lunn sounded curious and since I’d never heard of her before I had a feeling this might be fun to share with you too.
Like the age-old conundrum of who came first – the chicken or the egg – there are two different variations of a baked good that purportedly made Sally Lunn famous. One was a yeasted savory bread that looks like a cross between a bundt cake and a hamburger bun…
and the other is a sweetened tea cake that looks like something between a blueberry pancake and a cobbler…
You wouldn’t be wrong to call either variation a Sally Lunn, even though they are two completely different types of food. Because of that, her name has popped up in recipe titles in a myriad of ways. There’s the Sally Lunn Bun, Virginia Sally Lunn, Sally Lunn Bread, Sally Lunn Cake, Sweet Sally Lunn, and just plain old Sally Lunn among others. Likewise, in indexes, you’ll find her popping up under L for Lunn, S for Sally, or more specifically under category sections that include Cakes, Breads, Desserts, Baked Goods, Tea Cakes, Yeast Breads, Coffee Cakes, Coffee Breads, etc. So how could one possibly mythical person be identified with two types of very different yet specific baked goods over the course of hundreds of years?
As it turns out no one knows. And thus far it has been impossible to authentically identify any true source that leads to Sally and the bread and cake that share her name. Lots of ideas about her float around. She was a teenage maidservant named Sally Lunn who delivered a newly invented bread to her master of the house, who in turn delightfully named it for her. She was a talented French baker named Solange, who escaped to a bakery in England where she began to make a popular brioche-style confection that looked like the rising of the sun. She was a working-class woman in 18th century England crying out her name in the streets as a sales tool for the bread that became her trademark. There’s even a historic eating house in England that speculates they might have been the site of Sally’s original bakery in the late 1600s.
I like to believe the theory that Sally Lunn was an actual baker living in 1700s England. The story details how she invented a sweet yeast bread that became very popular at first locally, then regionally, then across the sea. With this theory, it makes sense then that references to Sally Lunn would have shown up in early American cookbooks, a favored recipe brought over by the English as they colonized America. Possibly, at some point in history, when yeast either became too expensive, or there was a shortage, a non-yeast cake version was invented by some other creative and clever baker in the 1800s who used all the same ingredients of Sally Lunn bread minus the yeast. Thereby keeping the name Sally Lunn in the recipe title. By the time, the 1950s rolled around perhaps Meta made her own creative choice by marrying blackberries into the non-yeast version of Sally Lunn cake. Whether this is an accurate assumption or not, no one will ever know for certain unless some of Sally’s baking notes happen to show up. But with all this mysteriousness that surrounds Sally and her two contributions to the baking industry, I think she’d be happy knowing that at least her name stayed attached even though the origin story didn’t. It is, after all, the ultimate branding success story, 1700’s style!
Meta Given was a legend in the culinary world in her own right. A nutritionist at heart, she set out to write some of the most comprehensive cookbooks of the 1950s that included recipes for people across the entire economic spectrum. Her books featured everything from thrifty staples like squirrel stew to elegant French dishes with layered sauces and nuanced flavors. Her mission was to make cooking fun, enjoyable, and accessible for everyone while also making it nutritious and creative. I’m so pleased to present her lovely sweet treat of a dessert that highlights the juicy, sun-ripened flavors of blackberries nearing summer’s end. What I love about this cake in particular is that it is pretty healthy – using small amounts of sugar, butter, and flour. The blackberries really keep the cake moist and add a familiar sweet-tart flavor similar to cobbler but with a velvety more dense consistency like a blueberry pancake. If you wanted to add an extra dash of sweetness you could drizzle the whole cake with honey or follow Meta’s suggestion of adding a lemon sugar glaze once the cake is out of the oven, but I loved it just as it was… simple and summery.
Meta Given’s Fresh Blackberry Sally Lunn Cake
1-pint box of freshly picked blackberries (enough for 2 1/2 cups)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons salted butter, softened
2/3rd cup sugar ( I used raw cane sugar)
1 large egg
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup sour cream*
1/2 cup whole milk*
(*Note – The milk measurement was left out of the original recipe, but was included in a revised edition in 1959. I used the sour cream/milk combination but you can also substitute those two ingredients for 1 cup of buttermilk).
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter well an 8 1/2″ inch springform cake pan.
Drop berries into a bowl of cold water to rinse and remove any stems or leaf debris. Swish berries gently and then by hand remove them to a colander to drain. Once the berries have drained in the colander transfer them to a medium size bowl and gently toss them with 1 tablespoon of sugar. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together. Set aside.
In another bowl, whip the butter, sugar, and egg together until creamy. Stir in lemon juice using a wooden spoon and then add the flour, sour cream, and milk, blending until smooth.
Gently fold in the blackberries until just well distributed. Turn batter into prepared pan.
Bake until golden brown (about 40-55 minutes) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Once ready to remove from oven, let cake cool slightly in pan on a cooling rack before serving either lukewarm or at room temperature.
In addition to enjoying the end-of-season fruit harvest this month, Fresh Blackberry Sally Lunn cake also freezes well. So if you choose that storage method you’ll still be able to taste the warm days of summer even on the coldest winter nights. And because it does have a pancake-esque quality to it, it wouldn’t be terrible to serve it for breakfast or even alongside a summer salad for brunch or lunch. This Fall, I’ll share the other version of Sally Lunn as we dive into bread-baking season to see how these two, and if these two compare in any way other than by name.
In the meantime, cheers to Sally and to Meta for baking delicious food that withstands not only multiple decades but multiple centuries too! If you are interested in learning more about Meta and her cookbooks, find a few in the shop here. The Williamsburg Cookbook will also be heading to the shop shortly as well, in case you want to catch up on your colonial fare before heading into the holiday season. Find that one coming to the cookbook section shortly. And finally, this cake was styled using the lovely vintage 1960s Italian cut glass cake stand which you can find in the shop here.