Thursday, April 06, 2006
Sedgemoor Easter Cakes, Somerset
Easter biscuits are made across Britain and are so ubiquitous that Marks & Spencer sell them as part of their seasonal fare (see below). Traditionally they are served after church on Easter Sunday, and are presented in a bundle of three biscuits to represent the Holy Trinity. They are eaten alongside hot cross buns, simnel cake and copious quantities of chocolate eggs as part of our Easter festivities. The feasting comes at the end of Lent, so the taste of rich foods is supposed to come as a treat. Similar biscuits eaten before Lent commences are known as Lenten biscuits, and are made to use up eggs, sugar etc. in the way that the Shrove Tuesday pancake does.
The West Country (from Gloucestershire, Avon, Wiltshire and Dorset westwards) has an association with Easter biscuit recipes, but my reading turned up more country-wide variations than there are days in Lent, so I think that this is one of those recipes with a central 'theme', but for which there are unlimited variations. The theme is spice and fruit. All Easter biscuits are spiced, either through a small addition of mixed spice or ground cinnamon. The fruit is either solely currants, or can be currants with a little mixed peel. Some recipes use grated lemon zest for extra zing. Biscuits made commercially may have oil of cassia added. Cassia is a part of the same (laurel) family as the cinnamon that you can pick up in the supermarket. It has a similar but stronger and more bitter flavour. An Bristol educated, Australian resident writes of making Easter biscuits at catering college in Bristol, that had oil of cassia as a flavouring. A quick scout around the net reveals it to be an ingredient you can pick up through retailers that stock essential oils etc. (should you wish to try it). I also found one commercial bakery that uses it as a flavouring, and proclaims the fact.
My recipe is from 'Good Things in England', edited by Florence White. This book first published in 1932 was in Florence's words, '...an attempt to capture the charm of England's cookery before it is completely crushed out of existence.' The book documents in recipe form traditional and regional dishes from all corners of the country. A similar study was made of Scottish food by F. Marian NcNeill in 1929 (I have yet to learn of a similar text covering Welsh food).
The post-war years encouraged a certain amount of introspection and a re-evaluation of English culture, but were also a forward looking age, and a generation that saw foreign culture as something to be experimented with and explored. Florence White did not seek to exclude the modern, but wished to record the riches of England's larder, and to talk with the people who were still preparing dishes with ancient credentials, and to ensure that such recipes were documented for future generations (such as ours - Florence, this posting is for you). The flypiece to the book reads, 'A Practical Cookery Book for Everyday Use. Containing Traditional and Regional Recipes suited to Modern Tastes contributed by English Men and Women between 1399 and 1932.'
Florence White set up the English Folk Association in 1931, and in the January of that year was held the first English Folk Cookery Exhibition in Kensington, London. My recipe for Easter biscuits was supplied for this exhibition by Mrs. Wyatt of Huish Episcopi, Somerset. Sedgemoor is a coastal region of Somerset, firmly in the 'West Country'.
Sedgemoor Easter Cakes (yep, biscuits can also be cakes)
225g plain flour
110g caster sugar
1/2 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp brandy
1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Prepare two baking sheets.
2. Rub the butter into the flour.
3. Add the sugar, currants, spice and the cinnamon.
4. Beat the egg and mix with the brandy - add to the dry ingredients ands stir until well incorporated.
5. Roll out about 1/2 inch/1cm thick, and cut into rounds.
6. Bake for about 20 minutes until golden brown.
There was no instruction to glaze with egg white and sprinkle with sugar, which most other recipes suggested. I thought that by doing so the finished biscuits might have looked a bit more appetising. They tasted rather fine, but the surface of them was very matt and had large dimples. However, on a closer examination of Marks & Spencer's efforts, I saw that their biscuits were identical in colour, also had large dimples, and although were speckled with sugar grains were equally matt. A taste test (tough job, but someone needs to address these things) revealed a bisuit with a drier consistency than mine, and more snap. The main flavour to my taste buds appeared to be aniseed with a hint of caramel. All in all they were no better, no worse, simply different (oh, alright then. My biscuits beat M&S's by a Easter bunny's whisker, but don't tell them).
Marks & Spencer's Easter Biscuits - flavoured with mixed spice (cinnamon, coriander, ginger, aniseed, dill, cloves, nutmeg), and a dash of lemon juice).
Easter chick. Who are you calling ugly?