Just why this heavenly, light-textured and spiced sweet cake baked in a sheet pan has this name was clarified by food historian, William Woys Weaver. He says it was called “Spanish” because its concept was derived from a cake made in Latin America. And “buns” because it was cut into squares for serving, not because it was baked as individual buns. Today the recipe is attributed to the Pennsylvannia Dutch.
According to cookbook author Miss Eliza Leslie, the cake was eaten with afternoon tea. I’ve pretty much followed Miss Leslie’s recipe,with the exception that I use dry yeast, an electric mixer, and I’ve updated her method of preparing the batter.
Miss Leslie, whose classic 1851 volume, Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery, contains this recipe says “These buns were first introduced by Mrs. Goodfellow; and in her school were always excellently made, nothing being spared that was good, and the use of soda and other alkalis being unknown in the establishment.” I introduced my adaptation of Spanish Buns in Baking in America. And I found an online version of my adaptation here.
Spanish buns are flavored with spices and rose water, a distillate of rose petals commonly in use in the nineteenth century. Vanilla didn’t become widely used as a flavoring until late that century. The batter for Spanish Buns is beaten long and hard to develop the wheat’s gluten. Miss Leslie used a hickory rod for almost all her batters. I use a KitchenAid mixer with the flat beater. Lacking such a mixer, use a sturdy wooden spoon and be prepared for a work out. For greatest accuracy, I also recommend you weight the flour.
Sometimes the baked cake sinks a bit in the center. Not to worry. That’s just the nature of the beast. Good as Spanish Buns are with afternoon tea or coffee, I also like them at breakfast served with yogurt and fruit.
3 cups (12 ounces) sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons (1/4-ounce package) quick-rise or active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup warm (105-115 degrees) whole milk
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into tablespoon-size pieces
3/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 whole freshly grated nutmeg (2 teaspoons)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1 tablespoon rose water or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Confectioners’ sugar, if desired
Put 2 cups (8 ounces) of the flour, the yeast, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer.
Add the warm milk and stir to moisten with a rubber spatula. Put the bowl on the mixer stand and attach the flat beater. Beat on medium low speed for 1 minute. Cut the very soft buffer into tablespoon-size pieces.
With the machine running on medium-low, add the butter pieces one at a time, beating until incorporated after each, about 15 to 30 seconds. Then beat for 2 minutes on medium speed. The batter will climb up the beater and be very elastic.
With the machine on medium speed, gradually add the sugar, beating it in well. Then add the eggs one at a time, beating about 30 seconds after each. The batter will be smooth and creamy, with a texture like whipped cream.
Add the nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, and the rose water (or vanilla) and beat them in on low speed. Add the remaining 1 cup flour (4 ounces), beat it in on low, then beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes. The batter is very wet and sticky.
Set the pan in a warm place (80 to 85 degrees) until the batter has doubled in volume and almost reaches the rim of the pan, 1 to 2 hours. The batter should be very light and airy with bubbles on top. Uncover the pan and set it aside while you preheat the oven.
Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake about 30 minutes, until the top is a rich brown color, it springs back when gently pressed, and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and set it on a wire cooling rack to cool completely.
Makes one 13 x 9 inch cake, 12 to 15 servings.