A Shrewsbury cake, often called a Shrewsbury biscuit, is a traditional English dessert that bears a strong resemblance to shortbread. It draws its name from the Northwestern English town of Shrewsbury, where it is believed to have originated during the Middle Ages. The cake is a rather humble dessert, and it uses only a small amount of sugar. Most of its sweetness comes from its high proportion of sweet cream butter. The cakes are small, often no bigger than the palm of a hand, and they remain facets of traditional English tea in many places.
There is some controversy when it comes identifying who baked the first Shrewsbury cake as well as nailing down the “true” original recipe. References to the confection have been found as early as the 1600s. Some innovation seems inevitable across the centuries, but most modern recipes likely capture at least the basic essence of even the oldest versions.
Shrewsbury cake ingredients are incredibly simplistic, centering on sugar, flour and butter. Eggs and rosewater are commonly added for moisture, and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg are added for taste. In most iterations, the proportion of butter far outweighs the other ingredients, which leads the final product to be both dense and rich without being expensive to prepare, particularly not in farming communities where there is ready access to fresh butter.
The proportions of the ingredients can go a long way toward determining the overall shape and consistency of a Shrewsbury cake. The cake usually is presented in the form of raised scones or biscuits. It is not uncommon to see much flatter Shrewsbury cakes, however, and many of them are indistinguishable from shortcake at first glance.
Taste is almost always the distinguishing factor of a Shrewsbury cake. The cakes generally are much less sweet than shortbread and often taste of little more than dense dough. It is for this reason that cooks so liberally use spices and other flavorings, particularly dried fruits and, on occasion, nuts. Shrewsbury cake has long been a rather common confection, born of a need to conserve. This frugality is likely one of the driving factors behind the cake’s continued popularity.
Some cooks serve the confections after dinner, but they more often appear with afternoon tea service. The cakes’ toughness is softened when paired with hot tea, and the tea’s intense flavor also adds some interest to the cake’s taste, often accentuating spices or other additives. They are sometimes served with butter and jam but usually are eaten on their own.
Shrewsbury cake recipes traveled with English settlers to almost every colony and outpost of the British Empire. Many of the United States' early presidents are rumored to have served Shrewsbury cake at tea, for instance. The biscuits also became popular throughout many communities in India, where cooks found many ways of incorporating local spices and flavors.