Sunday, October 30, 2005

Madeira Cake (with a glass of Madeira)

A slice of wine and a glass of cake. No, that's not quite right. A slice of cake and a glass of wine. What's not to like about that combination? You can tell I am already excited at the prospect, and I am not sure which I am looking forward to most. I bought a bottle of Malmsey (sweet Madeira wine) a couple of weeks ago, following a visit to Vinopolis, the wine museum near to the delights of Borough Market, London. I love Madeira, as well as sweet dessert wine (Tokaji - mmmm), and a good glass of Port. The best of them are rich with sugared fruit and spice flavours, and are like drinking a distillation of the most delicious Christmas cakes and mince pies that you have ever tasted. Malmsey is really an after-dinner drink - apparently Verdelho Madeira (medium-dry) is really the one to drink with cake - but I am sure that on this occasion it will do nicely.

So the purchase of a bottle of Blandy's Alvada 5 Year Old Rich Madeira was the inspiration for this posting. Madeira cake is not exported from the island of Madeira along with the drink, but is a butter and egg rich sponge cake, flavoured with lemon zest, supposed to be very well suited to eating alongside a glass of the aforementioned. Madeira cakes of this type date from the nineteenth century, and are eaten throughout Britain. Madeira wine has been imported into the country from at least the 1600s (legend has it that the Duke of Clarence - brother to Richard III - was drowned in a vat of Malmsey at the Tower of London in 1478).

The combination of wine with cake was first partaken of by genteel persons (mainly ladies) during the eighteenth century. The upper classes rose from their beds well after day break and had their first meal of the day (breakfast) fairly late in the morning or perhaps even after noon. Dinner (the main meal of the day) was taken early to mid-evening, and then a light supper might be enjoyed before bed-time. This meant that there was potentially quite a spell between breakfast and dinner, long enough to make me feel light-headed at the very thought of it. In order to keep the wealthy and delicate from keeling over, an additional light meal was eaten by some (and I'm sure that you could have counted me in on it). This new meal was called luncheon or lunch. The working classes had eaten a meal to serve a similar purpose from the Middle Ages onwards, but their snack was along the line of bread with ale. Georgian ladies would have instead eaten dainty cakes or sandwiches, and drunk either wine or tea. Moving into the nineteenth century lunch became established as a meal with its own time slot at mid-day, and the food eaten was more substantial, although the evening dinner was still the main meal of the day. The cake and wine/tea combination became a snack offered to and shared with visitors, whether they called mid-morning or mid-afternoon. A great incentive to visit your relatives or neighbours!

My recipe for Madeira cake came from Jane Grigson's English Food:

175g butter
175g caster sugar
275g flour (plain)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 large eggs
Grated rind of half a lemon
2 strips of lemon or citron peel (used for decoration)

1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.
2. Grease and line a cake tin (20cm/8inch).
3. Cream the butter and sugar together until mixture is light and fluffy, and your arm is heavy and weak.
4. Sift the flour and the baking powder in a bowl.
5. Beat the eggs into the butter and sugar, adding each separately with a little flour to stop the mixture splitting.
6. Stir in the rest of the flour and the grated lemon rind.
7. Put the mixture into the prepared tin, and bake for between 1 1/2 hours and 2 hours. After 1 hour place the two pieces of lemon or citron peel on top of the cake, and continue baking.

NB. I found that my cake was ready not long after an hour had passed, and it ended up a little too browned. Keep an eye on the performance of your own oven. The surface of my cake was cracked, and the application of decorative peel simply looked as if I was trying to distract the eye from the error, so I removed it.

According to the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book, if a cake has a peaked, cracked top it is a sign that either the oven was too hot; the cake was too high up in the oven; or the mixture may have been too dry or the tin too small. My suspicions lie with the oven as I have noticed my cakes tend to brown before they have finished cooking. Next time I make a cake I shall try the lowest shelf rather than the middle one.

Unfortunately after removing the cake from the tin, I discovered that the surface browning also extended to the sides and underneath of the cake. The Good Housekeeping Cookery Book had a recipe for Madeira cake which baked at the same temperature as Jane Grigson's, but the recipe recommended a baking time of 1 hour, rather than up to 2. I think my cake ended up on the overcooked side. For the photo I did trim a little off the base of the cake, and I suppose it doesn't look TOO bad. The sponge was a bit dry, and rather dull. The slice was best eaten from the inside out, and the 'crust' left at the side of the plate. The glass of Madeira was sorely needed to boost proceedings. If the cake were to be moister, and there was more of a hint of the lemon zest to the flavouring, then I think this cake could be quite nice. I can see how it provides a foil to the in-your-face sweetness of the Madeira wine. In the meantime I will pour myself another glass and have a think about what I can do with the rest of the cake...

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Banbury Cakes from Oxfordshire

Banbury, Oxfordshire, may be a familiar place name to those who know the children's verse:

'Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse,
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.'

The town still retains its landmark cross, although the Puritans pulled down the original. The cross today stands in the middle of a traffic roundabout, and was erected in 1859 to commemorate the wedding of the then Princess Royal to Prince Frederick of Prussia.

Banbury cakes although not mentioned in the well-known verse, have become just as much of a symbol of the town. They have been made there from at least the early seventeenth century. At one time they were exported to places as far afield as India, Australia and America. A modern local newspaper makes use of the name as its title.

The cake shop in Banbury most closely associated with the cakes for many years was known as The Original Cake Shop, at 12 Parsons Street. The building dated back to the seventeenth century, and this served as a cake shop until it unfortunately fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1968. Also well known was Betts' Cake Shop at 85 High Street, run by a great grand-son of Betty White who set up The Original Cake Shop. See also the second postcard on this page.

There are many recipes for the cakes. The earliest one I could find via the internet is that from Gervase Markham's 'The English Hus-Wife' of 1615:

'To make a very good Banbury Cake, take four pounds of Currants and wash and pick them very clean, and dry them in a cloth; then take three Eggs, and put away one yolk, and beat them, and strain them with Barm, putting thereto Cloves, Mace, Cinamon and Nutmegges, then take a pint of Cream, and as much mornings milk, and set it on the fire till the cold be taken away; then take Flower, and put in good store of cold butter and sugar; then put in your eggs, barm, and meal, and work them all together an hour or more, then save a part of the paste, and the rest break in pieces, and work in your Currants; which done, mould your Cake of whatever quantity you please, and then with that paste which hath not any Currants, cover it thin, both underneath, and aloft. And so bake it according to bigness.'

This recipe would make something closer to an enriched sponge or bread, with a piece of dough containing currants sandwiched between two currant-free pieces of dough. The modern version of the recipe uses puff pastry, and the filling is a mixture of currants, peel and spices. The recipe used today in Banbury town is a secret, but is said to also include rum and brandy. The cakes have a distinctive shape, a pointed oval shape marked with three cuts.

I have to confess that I started off by following what claimed to be the recipe from Gervase Markham's 1615 instructional book (having at that point not seen a transcript of the original), but when I started weighing out the ingredients and I was a bit concerned by the small amount of currants for a 500g weight of pastry, that I went back to the computer to do a hasty bit of extra research. The recipe I had started following is here. If you click on the link you will also see a small illustration of the cakes, which are alongside a specially shaped basket used for transporting the cakes.

So having discovered that the 1615 recipe was not made with puff-pastry (perhaps I should have guessed that?), but having bought said pastry and already rolled it out, I decided to press on with the adapted recipe. I too had to tweak the recipe to work with a slightly smaller quantity of pastry. I used a proportionally larger amount of dried fruit because I didn't want the cakes to all pastry and no filling.

My recipe went like this:

375g puff-pastry
35g melted butter
160g of mixed dried fruit and peel (super handy bag from Julian Graves)
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
30g caster sugar (and some demerara for sprinkling)
1 dessert spoon of rum (shamefully I had to use Bacardi)
1 egg white

1. Pre-heat the oven 220C/425F/Gas 7.
2. Dig out a baking sheet and either grease or cover with a non-stick liner (what a great invention).
3. Roll out the pastry thinly (mine was pre-rolled - how lazy is that. In my defense the pre-rolled stuff was on buy-one-get-one-free at Waitrose).
4. Cut into circles. My recipe suggested 18cm/7 inch circles (i.e. draw around a saucer), but that would have used all my pastry up with three cakes. I found a small bowl in the drawer and drew round that. Even so I only managed eight circles.
5. Mix together the butter, dried fruit, spices and sugar, and put a small amount of this into the middle of each circle. Don't get too carried away else the filling will be too big for the cake.
6. Bring up the sides of the circle so that it looks as if you are creating a mini Cornish pasty. Crimp the edges together firmly, and then turn the cake over so the seam side is down. Press down on your cake to flatten it slightly. Put onto baking sheet.
7. When all your cakes are assembled brush with the egg white and sprinkle with the demerara sugar. Cut three slashes into the top of each cake.

8. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes.

The resulting cakes were a pleasing golden colour, and the pastry was very light (I can't take the credit for that unfortunately, but I shopped wisely!). The filling of spiced fruits made me think ahead to Christmas and mince pies hot from the oven, and I felt that I had got the proportion of filling to pastry just right. Some of my cakes had open bellies where my pastry crimping had come loose, which meant the fruit all fell out mid-way to my mouth. If I were to make them again I would keep an eye on this, or eat faster.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Dorset Apple Cake

It is apple season in Britain now, and for that reason I thought I should look out an apple recipe to test. It is also a good incentive to search out the more unusual varieties of native apple. Unusual in the sense of hard to find, thanks to the way that supermarkets operate (although consumers should recognise their own responsibility to demand a broader range of varieties). I did a quick lunch-time apple shopping test at Marks & Spencer and Waitrose - both of whom claim to support British producers. Marks & Spencer disappointingly could only offer Royal Gala, Cox and Bramley apples grown in England (pretty standard fare that are easy to obtain from all large shops). They had other varieties too, but these came from France and Australia. Waitrose however scored much better. In addition to Royal Gala, Cox, Bramley, they had Spartan, Egremont Russet, Early Windsor, Regal Prince and Meridian apples. All were grown in Kent, so have come a short distance up the road to be sold in London. Of the varieties sold in Waitrose, and grown in Kent, not all are native to Britain - for example, the Regal Prince was first discovered in Angers, France.

Clockwise from left: Early Windsor, Egremont Russet, Meridian, Regal Prince:

In Dorset, the areas around the towns of Bridport and Beaminster have a soil which particularly suits apple growing. Cider is made from some of the apples grown in the county, and in the past was used as a necessary supplement to farm labourers' wages.

Each year in October is held an Apple Day, to celebrate the season for best enjoying home-grown fruit. By complete coincidence (no, I am pretty sure that they haven't held it now to coincide with my Blog posting) in Dorset this year's celebration is being held today (15th October) in Symondsbury. 2005 has been designated Heritage Orchard year. For more information on events during October to celebrate English apples, click here.

There are many recipes for Dorset Apple Cake, as it seems to be one of those recipes which people find their own way with. As I have never tasted anyone's interpretation of the recipe, I have gone with the advice of a long-time Dorset resident, Marion Watson, who writes on The Great British Kitchen website that, 'most traditional recipes are based on the rubbed-in method mixed with milk to give a rather scone-like mixture.' My recipe comes from a page on, and it follows the method just described (I am not sure if the rabbit custard recipe on the same web page would be a good accompaniment to the cake - I think probably not).

225g plain flour
1-2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
pinch salt
110g butter, cut into small pieces
110g caster sugar
225g of peeled and diced apples (I used two smallish Early Windsor dessert/eating apples)
1 egg, beaten with 2 tablespoons of milk

1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4
2. Grease and line a square cake tin (I used a 20cm by 20cm square cake tin)
3. Sift the flour, baking powder and spice into a bowl, add the pinch of salt
4. Rub the butter into the flour mixture,
5. Stir in the sugar and the diced apples. Then add the egg and milk. Mix in to form a firm dough.
6. Fill the cake tin - the mixture will be quite shallow in the tin.
7. Bake for up to an hour - my cake was ready in 45 minutes,
8. Leave to cool in the tin.

Whilst my cake was baking I put to the test another bit of information that I had gained on English apples. The Egremont Russets which I had bought from Waitrose are part of a group known as russets because of their distinctive matt/rough golden skins. Russets have a nutty tannic flavouring which once made them popular as an after-dinner accompaniment to port. Well, frankly I didn't need to be told that twice before I poured myself a large one, and cut up an apple to eat alongside. Fantastic! If you like port, then try it for yourself.

The cake didn't rise very much, which was fine, but it would be interesting to see the difference that using self-raising flour would make. The sponge was fairly dense and reminiscent of scone consistency. My taster and I agreed that the cake was a little too subtly flavoured, and that it could easily have had another one, if not two, apples added to the sponge base. The nutmeg spicing was a little indistinct, although this could be more a matter of personal taste. I also felt that this could be served warm with thick cream or (non-rabbit) custard. YUM!

Remember what an apple a day does...
(...and I'm sure that a glass of port can't be bad either)

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Bara Brith - a Welsh fruit cake

Welsh language for beginners:

Bara means bread, and brith means speckled. So, Bara Brith means speckled bread. 'Os gwelwch yn dda' is 'if you please'. With your new linguistic abilities you can go into any bakery in Wales and order this national classic. The name Bara Brith was originally used in north Wales only. In the south, the name Teisen Dorth was used (teisen means cake, and dorth/torth is loaf). Bara Brith is eaten throughout Wales and is readily available from tea-rooms, cake-shops and food markets. I lived in south Wales for a few years, so have sampled one or two in my time!

Although Bara Brith is referred to as a cake, it is, as its name suggests, a bread. In the days before baking powder and other chemical raising agents most 'cakes' were in fact fruited breads. In this instance the bread is 'speckled' with currants, sultanas and dried peel.

My recipe comes from a book called 'Welsh Country Cooking', by Chris Grant. This book record recipes handed down from the author's great-grandmother to grandmother to mother. I was a bit put off by the idea of including lard, but for authenticity used this instead of butter. When I weighed it out I realised that most cakes I make use a much greater weight of butter, so 20g of lard is not such a big deal. Maybe it's just the word I don't like - lard - say it aloud and clearly it is a substance that is heavy, joyless and cholesterol inducing.

Makes one large loaf (900g/2 lb tin):

275g strong white (bread making) flour
1 level teaspoon salt
20g lard
25g sugar (I used golden caster)
1/2 teaspoon of mixed spice (I didn't have a jar of mixed spice, so used allspice)
1 large beaten egg
1/4 pint/150ml warm water
20g fresh yeast (I used a 7g packet of dried yeast)
225g currants
125g sultanas
25g mixed peel

1. Grease your loaf tin.
2. Sieve flour and salt into large mixing bowl, add the dried yeast if using. Rub in the lard with your fingertips. Make a well in the centre.
3. Mix the sugar and spice together and put into the well.
4. Add the beaten egg to the warm water. If you are using fresh yeast use 3 tablespoons of this mixture to mix the yeast to a thin paste, before adding the remainder of the liquid.
5. Pour the egg and water (and yeast) mixture over the sugar in the well. Mix the dry ingredient in with the liquid, then knead to form a smooth, elastic dough.
6. Mix your fruit in with the dough. (I had soaked my fruit overnight in tea to plump it up, and although I had drained it well mixing in wet fruit was a bit of a messy challenge. I had to use extra flour to lessen the stickiness of the dough.)
7. Put your dough into the loaf tin (or you can make a free-form loaf on a baking sheet), cover and leave to rise for 1 1/2 hours.
8. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.
9. Bake for 30/35 minutes, covering top with a foil hat after about 20 minutes. Loaf is done when underside sounds hollow when tapped (I just guess, as I have problems turning a piping hot loaf out of a tin).

This cake/bread gave off spicy and delicious smells whilst baking, and whilst cooling on a baking rack scented the rest of my flat with the same hunger inducing scents. Please only bake this after eating.

Fortunately my guess that the loaf had cooked fully was correct, and after waiting an age for it to cool it was ready for photography and sampling.

The loaf had a good weight, and felt moist rather than dry like a unfruited loaf. The slices cut neatly without the loaf crumbling away, demonstrating a good firmness. The crust on the top of the loaf was thin (rather than crusty) due to the fact that I covered the top up part of the way through the baking time. I have made fruit breads in the past and not shielded the top, ending up with a scorched crust with embedded charred currants - not so good. The Bara Brith was delicious, and didn't really need the addition of butter, however the butter currently in my fridge is Welsh so it seemed to make sense use it.