Baking cakes can give us a taste of First World War life

You can try baking recipes from the past at the Georgian kitchen in Callendar House
You can try baking recipes from the past at the Georgian kitchen in Callendar House

With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War next month there’s a renewed interest in what life was like in post-Edwardian Britain.

But without the benefit of a time machine, one of the most authentic ways we can taste the world in 1914-1918 is by trying its food.

While troops on the frontline had to make do with hard biscuits and bully beef - the kind of grim fare that is best consigned to the history books - domestic recipes from the time have survived and can still be enjoyed today.

Many have been rediscovered thanks to a recent revival in home baking, helped by the popularity of shows like ‘The Great British Bake Off’.

Children can try baking using recipes from 1918 at free workshops taking place in the Georgian kitchen at Callendar House, which take place on Thursdays.

They will be asked to imagine they are making cakes to raise the spirts of injured soldiers recovering in Falkirk hospitals.

The workshop mirrors the public mood of a time when people looked to aid the war effort in any way they could - and baking for troops was one small way that those at home could help.

Relatives typically sent their loved ones fruit cakes, but with some ingredients hard to find, the Government issued a recipe which did not require items such as eggs. Popularly known as ‘trench cake’, vinegar was used to react with the baking soda to help the cake rise.

In an age before supermarkets, takeaways and cheap restaurants, cooking and baking skills were essential and recipes were treasured by families and passed down through generations.

These skills were put to the test at a time when basic staples were scarce due to price rises and supply issues caused by the conflict on mainland Europe.

Recipes were also regularly printed in newspapers, with The Falkirk Herald being no exception.

Laura Macdonald (28), a learning assistant based at Callendar House, chanced across instructions on how to make gingerbread sponge from a 1916 edition of the paper. She decided to try it for herself, a full 98 years after it was first printed.

“I found the recipe while browsing the archives at my work,” she said. “I was working on a First World War project and was looking at issues of The Falkirk Herald from 1916, when I found the recipe column. I am easily distracted, especially when it comes to the subject of food, so I printed it out and squirrelled it away in my notebook. I always like to copy out a new recipe, especially if it’s not the usual ingredients or method format.”

A keen baker and food blogger at, Laura is a fan of trying old recipes, even if they do present a few problems along the way.

“The biggest challenge is the ingredients have changed so much,” she said. “The kind of flour we use today is much different, and older recipes didn’t use raising agents.

“The cakes we are used to aren’t like they were for other generations. For example, in the Georgian period they were much flatter and tougher - their palates were very different to ours.”

The Falkirk Herald recipe (which is reproduced opposite) posed fewer problems, even if the instructions could be unhelpfully vague at times.

“I took a punt at 180 degrees being about right for the oven temperature, as ‘slow oven’ isn’t massively helpful. I always have it in my mind that 180 is the correct temperature for baking and tend to scoff inwardly when a recipe calls for something else.

“I made two batches, one with the proper ingredients which went to my mates, and one with gluten and dairy free substitutions for myself. For my first go I used about an ounce of finely grated fresh ginger because I couldn’t find the dried stuff. It adds a little extra moisture for a start, but the flavour of the final product was stunning: a delicate warmth of ginger rather than a fiery kick in the tonsils that usually accompanies ginger cakes.

“I also substituted self-raising flour for the original recipe’s requirements of plain flour plus bicarbonate.”

For more information on the free First World War baking sessions at Callendar House, or to reserve a space, call (01324) 503777 or email

Laura’s baking blog can be found at

Try The Falkirk Herald’s original 1916 recipe for gingerbread sponge

1. The original recipe for gingerbread sponge printed in The Falkirk Herald in 1916 was as follows: “Take a half pound of golden syrup, two ounces of butter, one egg, half an ounce of ground ginger, ten ounces of flour, two ounces of sugar, about two tablespoons of milk and half a teaspoon of soda.

2. “Put the flour, ginger and sugar into a bowl.

3. “In a saucepan, stir the milk, butter and syrup until dissolved, then stir in the dry ingredients.

4. “Dissolve the soda in a little milk, add this and the well-beaten egg to the mixture, pour into a shallow tin lined with greased paper and bake for thirty or forty minutes in a slow oven.

5. “Cut into fingers when cold.”

6. Laura recommends using finely grated fresh ginger rather than ground, and substituting self-raising flour for plain and bicarbonate soda. She suggests the cake should be baked at 180 degrees for 30 minutes.

7. If you try the recipe for yourself, why not send a picture of your finished cake and your thoughts to