Were you at LSE in the 1960s? LSE alumnus James Thomas Emmerson shares the recipe for Mrs Ellis’s rock cakes.

In the 1960s (before the Troubles), the School was known, among other things, for having “arguably the worst food north of the Thames.” At least that was the Sunday Observer’s characterisation of the daily fare dispensed on the third floor. Such judgements are always in the eye of the beholder and a matter of individual taste. But one thing the Refectory did indisputably well was produce rock cakes. Freshly baked after lunch, they were the hit of the tea break for hundreds of peckish students and it was always a skirmish to see who could select the largest of these substantive delicacies.

The Refectory, 1964. Photograph taken during the making of a BBC documentary. Credit: LSE Library

The Refectory, 1964. Photograph taken during the making of a BBC documentary. Credit: LSE Library

In 1966, just before interrupting my doctoral studies to return to Iowa for a year, I persuaded Mrs Ellis, the chief of the refectory, to write down her rock cake recipe. She wiped her hands, got out a stubby pencil and then, failing to find a piece of paper, tore off a bit of brown paper towel from the dispenser and gave me her estimate for “a modest” quantity. She was, after all, used to baking them by the gross.

Refectory Staff, c1970. Left: Mrs Ethel Gladding, Mrs Ellis (refectory manager). Picture from Mrs Gladding. Credit: LSE Library

Refectory Staff, c1970. Left: Mrs Ethel Gladding, Mrs Ellis (refectory manager). Picture from Mrs Gladding. Credit: LSE Library

Periodically throughout the years I have attempted rock cakes to Mrs Ellis’s scaled down specifications.  I’ve discovered that the process isn’t as simple as it seems. I once mistook our salt tin for sugar and I’ve burned the bottoms more than once.  I also have produced rock cakes that seemed altogether too airy-fairy. The perfect rock cake, as I remember it, had heft and density and could knock over a professor at 15 paces. Mrs. Ellis’s recipe deserves its place in the lore of the LSE. So here it is, as passed down for posterity on that bit of paper towel (with a few editorial additions by the author).

Mrs Ellis’s Rock Cakes

(recipe for 12)

1/4 pound margarine and

1/8 of pound of lard [or Crisco]

3/8 pound of demerara (or brown) sugar

2 eggs

4 ounces of milk

1 pound flour

1 1/2 ounces each of currants, sultanas (or raisins) and candied peel

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg

1. Mix the margarine, lard (Crisco) and sugar well together; then add the eggs and milk.  Mix again, slowly adding all the dry ingredients (flour, currants, sultanas, peel, cinnamon and nutmeg).  [Author’s note:  Do not over mix or it will cause listless rock cakes.]

2. Lightly grease a flat pan and make each rock cake about the size of a small fist.

3. Bake at 375˚F for about 15 minutes, but watch to make sure the bottoms don’t burn.

[Note:  These rock cakes have staying power and will be almost as good to eat after four days as they were fresh out of the oven.]

Contributed by James Thomas (Tom) Emmerson (LSE PhD 1974 International History, Professor Emeritus Journalism & Mass Communication, Iowa State University)

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