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Nelson Squares - A Recipe for a Delicious Wartime Cake Made From Scraps

Updated on October 6, 2017
Peter Geekie profile image

A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.

Use stale bread and cakes of any type
Use stale bread and cakes of any type
Typical Nelson Square. (These will vary according to content.)
Typical Nelson Square. (These will vary according to content.)
Another variation
Another variation

Writing the recipe for Gypsy Tart reminded me of another cake that children ate in the early 1950s. On our way home from school, we would call in the bakers' shop to see if they had a concoction they called Nelson Squares. Apparently, this was fairly common throughout the country and kids would buy a slice and eat it before we got home. We didn’t know the details of how they were made only that they were delicious and cheap. I think they charged 1 penny a slice which was just within the reach of most impoverished school children. The basic mix was any stale bread, cakes or buns that remained at the end of the day and for that reason, the flavour would vary more or less each time.

Every baker would have their own recipe and it would vary from county to county, according to local taste and what was left over.

The following seems to be about as close as can be remembered from those in the know.

Using a large mixing bowl put the equivalent of half a standard loaf of stale bread (or any old cakes or buns, it all adds to the flavour).

Add some cold water and mix by hand until it’s nice and moist (not too wet). When thoroughly mixed add mixed dried fruit (perhaps anything that’s left in the cupboard) then roughly a dessert spoon of mixed spice and any variety of sugar to taste (keep trying it until you like the flavour.)

Continue mixing by hand until it feels right, adding more ingredients to taste, if necessary. The filling mixture is now ready.

Make or buy some shortcrust pastry, roll out quite thinly and line a large baking tray with the pastry. On top add the Nelson Square mix making sure it is well filled with no empty spaces, brush beaten egg on the pastry rim and roll out more thin pastry to cover the top, seal around rim then brush the surface with beaten egg (wartime they would probably use whole milk or powdered milk mix) and sprinkle with a little sugar. Put into the oven and bake until golden brown on Gas Mark 3 or 160 degrees C or 325 degrees F.

When golden brown, turn the oven down to Gas Mark 1 or 135 degrees C or 275 degrees F and let it continue cooking for about three-quarters of an hour to an hour, sprinkling the top with sugar when cooked.

When cool cut into squares and serve with a nice cup of tea.

I was talking with my local baker who produces a huge selection of cakes but has to throw away many that have a short life (cream cakes, cupcakes etc). If you remove the cream and most of the icing the basic cake should make a good addition to the Nelson Square mix.

If I can find any more of these utility recipes or anything quintessentially British I will add them to my hubs.

© 2012 Peter Geekie


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    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 19 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Robert,

      I agree, i'm sure there is some sort of regulation to stop bakers using stale cakes or a 50,000 page EU guidance document. Only consolation is you can make them yourself, if you have enough stale cakes, which in our household is unlikely.

      kind regards Peter

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      Robert 19 months ago

      In the fifties my father often bought one for me and my brother at a 'coffee stall' on the way to his allotment. I bet they wouldn't taste as good now as they did then

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 20 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear David

      Can't buy them these days, hence the recipe. The very thought of their taste brings back memories of my childhood.

      Kind regards Peter

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      david shaw 20 months ago

      A local baker in Castle Donington in the 60s, used to bake these treasures! They were a real treat for us kids! You could also have them warm, with ice cream or custard as a pudding. (Not a dessert, a pudding!)

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 5 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Thanks very much scarytaff I will certainly have a look at these.

      Kind regards Peter

    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 5 years ago from South Wales

      This sounds like a great idea. Peter. The lengths people went to in the war to feed their families amazes me. Three of my hubs are dedicated to war time recipes so you may get some ideas from them. Feel free to use what you like from them. Here's the first one.