Before dating apps, girls in the historic English county of Lancashire would bake romantic cakes for their betrotheds. These were considered love tokens in a time when unmarried men and women were kept apart due to societal norms, but the Lancashire courting cake is still made today, both by professional bakers and people seeking to impress their loved ones.
The Lancashire courting cake is two layers of firm sponge cake, with whipped double cream and sliced strawberries as the filling and topping. Older and more traditional versions forgo the cream for jam in the middle instead, which was easier to store and less expensive.
Baker Cindy Dring of Dottie’s Delight in Bolton began her research into Lancashire courting cake after a request to make one from her veterinarian, whose wife had made it for him in his youth. She describes how local couples would meet in the town centers to participate in a tradition known as ‘“promenading.”
“The blokes would stand on one side of the street and the woman on the other side of the street, and if they made eye contact and they walked off … a couple of months later, she would make him a courting cake,” she says. Older Lancastrians feel nostalgic about the cake, she says, remembering it fondly from their courting days.
Throughout the centuries, various historical bakes have been labeled as courting cakes. Emma Kay, a food historian and author of Foots, Lonks and Wet Nellies: Lancashire’s Food and Drink, explains that girls baking these cakes not only wanted to show their affection, but also wanted to demonstrate their baking skills. Kay believes that this particular cake would have risen to prominence as a dating ritual around the 1920s. “It’s also quite visually attractive, and similar to the Victoria sponge which everyone loves,” she says.
The Lancashire courting cake is so iconic that it was featured on The Great British Bake Off in 2013. Local food writer Philippa James helped recreate the cake in an old Lancastrian weaver’s cottage for the show. Then-Bake Off presenter Sue Perkins, on making her own version of it, pronounced that “the spirit of romance is alive and well in Lancashire.” Prince William and Kate Middleton also tasted one on their visit to Lancashire in 2011, prior to their wedding.
As to why it is still locally popular today, Kay notes that “it’s a nice summery cake, which isn’t that difficult to make, and it’s steeped in tradition, which people like.” While courting cake is not available in shops, it is made by home bakers and small bakeries like Dottie’s Delight for local events or on request. This cake is kept alive by those who have made or tasted it—albeit with a little bit of help from royalty and a popular British baking competition.