Sally Lunn Cakes are not actually cakes at all. Rather, they are large white plain bread rolls made in and around Bath, England.
The bread roll is about as wide as a sandwich plate, and 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12.5 cm) tall. The texture is light, and almost but not quite, crumbly.
The yeast-risen dough is enriched with a good deal of butter and egg.
They are best served warm. Split them open, and slather with butter, cinnamon butter, a spooning cream, jam, or with savoury toppings such as smoked salmon, cheeses, or anything that you might like to put in a sandwich bun.
They are meant to be served with tea as the accompanying beverage.
Sally Lunn Cakes are not particularly well-known in other parts of England such as the Midlands.
Some sources feel that Sally Lunn Cakes were first made by Huguenot (French Protestant) refugees from France who began arriving in England from 1685 on. One version says they made bread rolls called “soleil et lune” (“sun and moon”), which got anglicized to “Sally Lunn”. Another version says that Sally Lunn was a real person, a refugee herself, whose name was actually “Solange Luyon”, and that she worked for a baker in Lilliput Alley, Bath.
Whether she was real or not, there is a shop in Bath at 4 North Parade Passage (built 1620) today called “Sally Lunns” that purports to have the original kitchen where she baked.
Sally Lunn Cakes were popular in the southern states of America. American versions liked making it all as one loaf of bread.
Literature & Lore
“A Sally Lunn Cake: This cake is called after the inventress. Sift into a pan a pound a half of flour. Make a hole in the middle, and put in two ounces of butter warmed in a pint of milk, a salt-spoonful of salt, three well-beaten eggs, and two table-spoonful of salt, three well-beaten eggs, and two table-spoonfuls of the best fresh yeast. Mix the flour well into the other ingredients, and put the whole into a square tin pan that has been greased with butter. Cover it, set it in a warm place, and when it is quite light, bake it in a moderate oven. Send it to table hot, and eat it with butter.” — Eliza Leslie. Directions for Cookery: Being a System of the Art, in Its Various Branches (1837)