Wigs – whichever way you spell them – were a type of enriched, leavened teacake. They reached a peak in popularity in the eighteenth century but may have been cooked up as early as the fifteenth. It seems that they were eaten up until 1900, though as with many foods, they changed their form somewhat.
Elizabeth Raffald included a recipe ‘To make Light Wigs’ in her 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper, so I thought I would devise an updated recipe for them using modern kitchen equipment, weights and measures.
This is her recipe taken from the first edition:
As is often the case, her recipes are a mixed bag of precision and vagueness, and this one is no different: we have proportions – the most important thing, I suppose – but little else concerning mixing, shaping and baking. And what are the seeds she mentions? Luckily, by cross-referencing other recipes and others’ research, we can build up a good idea of what they were like.
Let’s dissect the recipe sentence by sentence:
- First of all, we have to make a simple dough of flour, milk and barm and prove it somewhere warm. Barm is the frothy yeast skimmed from fermenting vats of beer; it is from here we get our leaven. The bubbles of gas in low-gluten flour doughs with little elasticity (as would have been the case here) tend to pop quickly, so we have to assume that the dough was kneaded to develop what gluten was present.
- Once proved, add the butter and sugar. It’s very common, even in modern recipes, to add the enriching ingredients after the first prove. Ingredients such as these get in the way of entangling gluten strands, and their heaviness slow proving even further. These days however with our robust fast-action yeasts, I find dough rises well with all of the ingredients mixed right from the start – though I hedge my bets a little by using a mix of plain and strong white flours.
- Elizabeth tells us to ‘make it into Wigs’ which isn’t useful for those of us in the twenty-first century. It does inform us that they were common enough in 1769 for Elizabeth to assume we would all know the correct shape. Another recipe given in Florence white’s Good Things in England says to make wigs ‘into any shape you please’. Elizabeth David helps us out here by spotting that the word wig comes from the Dutch weig, meaning wedge-shaped. She thinks the round of dough would be split into sixteenths, but I think sixths or eighths would be better.
- As for the seeds; all other recipes state caraway seeds for wigs. I like them so much I put them in and on the dough before baking.
There are richer versions of this basic recipe. Hannah Glasse’s ‘light Wigs’ are very similar to Elizabeth’s, but she also includes a richer version (‘very good Wigs’) containing egg, cream, spices and sack. Some recipes ask you to egg wash the wigs and sprinkle coarsely crushed lumps of sugar over them. I opt for a milk wash and granulated sugar.
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Wigs can be eaten buttered, and when cold eat like very sweet scones, when warm they are softer and stodgier, though not in a bad way. Elizabeth suggests toasting them and pouring stewed cheese over them – a recipe for which can be found in my book Before Mrs Beeton.
My recipe makes 1 round that can be divided into 6 or 8 wigs:
5g/1 tsp yeast
5g/1 level tsp salt
180g strong white flour
180g plain white flour
120g caster sugar
1 tbs caraway seeds
120g softened salted butter
200ml warm milk, plus extra for brushing
A smear of sunflower oil
Granulated sugar for sprinkling
In a bowl, mix the yeast, salt, flours, caster sugar, and most of the caraway seeds (keep a few behind to sprinkle on the top). Make a well in the centre and add the butter and milk. Mix preferably with the dough hook of a food mixer, if not a wooden spoon – the mixture is very sticky indeed, a good 7 or 8 minutes, or until the dough is smooth.
Oil a clean bowl and place the dough inside. Cover and allow to prove in a warm place for between 60 and 90 minutes. The dough is so enriched that it doesn’t double in volume like regular bread or bun dough, but it does need to have increased in volume noticeably.
As you wait, line a 21 cm/8 inch cake tin with greaseproof paper. Elizabeth asks us to shape the wigs ‘with as little Flour as possible’, but I find that a good strewing of flour is best. The dough needs to be brought into a tight dough ball; again not as tight as is usually possible, due to all of that sugar and butter. I find a couple of dough scrapers helped a great deal at this point.
Once gathered, plop the dough into the lined tin, cover and allow to prove for 30 to 45 minutes. Using a well-floured dough scraper split the dough into 6 or 8 wedges.
When the proving time is almost up, preheat your oven to 175°C and place an ovenproof dish at the bottom of the oven. When the wigs are ready to go in, put the kettle on. When boiled, finish preparing the wigs by brushing the top with milk and scattering the reserved caraway seeds and a little granulated sugar over the top, then place on a baking tray.
Open the oven door, slide the wigs onto the centre shelf, then gingerly pull out the hot ovenproof dish and pour in a good amount of hot water, then quickly but carefully slide it back in and close the oven door.
Bake for around 45 minutes until well-risen and golden brown on top. Cool on a wire rack in its tin. Serve cold or warm with butter and sliced or toasted cheese.
 David, E. English Bread and Yeast Cookery. (Grub Street, 1977).
 By this point, wigs had become a fruit cake or scone, leavened with baking powder and sweetened with candied angelica, citron peel and glacé cherries. Hartley, D. (1954) Food in England. Little, Brown & Company.
 Raffald, E. (1769) The Experienced English Housekeeper. First Edit. J. Harrop. Available at: https://archive.org/details/experiencedengl01raffgoog.
 White, F. (1932) Good Things in England. Persephone.
 David (1977).
 Glasse, H. (1747) The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Prospect Books.
 David (1977).