Sunday, April 23, 2006

Putting the Feast Back into St. George's Feast Day

So just who was Saint George? Most sources agree that there are very few hard facts known about the man who became the saint; perhaps not surprising as he was supposed to have lived during the 3rd century. Born in Cappadocia (Turkey), he attained high rank within the Roman army under the Emperor Diocletian. Diocletian was a ruthless and bloody-thirsty persecutor of Christians. George was a Christian and stood up to the Emperor, refusing to carry out his commands. He admitted his own faith and was tortured and then put to death - on the 23rd April 303. The story of his bravery and martyrdom quickly spread across Christian Europe. It was the Roman Catholic church that beatified him, but he is also recognised as a saint in the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches.

English soldiers have fought under the spiritual lead of St. George since the first of the Crusades in 1098, when St. George was apparently seen on the battlefield at Antioch, and he helped the Crusaders to win the day. The Crusading knights wore a red cross on a white or silver background to identify them on the battlefield - this ensign became the emblem of the flag England, and was known as the St. George's Cross.

In 1348 King Edward III of England established the Knights of the Garter. The Order of the Garter was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Edward the Confessor (the King) and St. George. St. George's chapel in Windsor Castle was built as a chapel for the order. It is believed that it was King Edward the III who declared St. George patron saint of England.

After the battle of Agincourt in 1415, the 23rd of April was declared a national feast day for St. George (and to celebrate victory over the French). As a Catholic saint, this day of feasting fell out of favour after the reformation, which probably accounts for why it has become such an understated event. I trust that a merry band of food bloggers will be able to put the 'feast' back into 'feast day'.

The dragon slaying part of St. George's legend stems from Medieval stories of other battling heroes, and this was given a polish by the Victorians who also liked a good tale of chivalrous daring-do. It is likely that the dragon in the tale is symbolic of the evil persecution of Christians, or alternatively be representative of the Devil. The beautiful damsel is the personification of Christian truth.

So what to cook to mark St. George's Day? As a soldier, and as a 'leader' of English knights, I thought that the pudding dish 'Poor Knights of Windsor' might be an apt choice for our man George. The dish consists of slices of bread soaked in sherry, milk and sugar, dipped in egg yolk and fried in butter. Served with cinnamon powder mixed with a little sugar, and jam if you're feeling indulgent, this is a 'poor man's' pudding - no rich egg custard, pastry, or serious quantities of sugar went into the making of it. The real-life Poor Knights of Windsor were impoverished military veterans, nominated by members of the Order of the Garter, who were given accomodation and provisions by Windsor Castle. They are now known as the 'Military Knights of Windsor'. Unfortunately nobody seems to know why the dish has the name it has, nor what association it might have with retired soldiers, but it is nice to imagine a rusty swordsman or two tucking into a slice of Poors Knights, talking about the old days and fair maidens that once they wooed.

My recipe came from here.

Use your best knife to cleft the bread in twain.

I am not a big fan of eggy bread (too eggy), but this was much more delicate, soft and delicious. The cinnamon sugar reminded me how much I used to like cinnamon toast once upon a time (another English tea-time classic). I used organic white bread - fresh not stale. In 'English Food' Jane Grigson suggests slices of brioche, which I can imagine would be perfect taste-wise, but rather too French for use today. A perfect indulgent Sunday breakfast/brunch or tea-time treat.

And to keep my Poor Knights company, what better than a few Maids of Honour? These are sweet curd cheese pastries that also have an royal association, this time with that great lover of tarts - Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn naturally also had a hand in this, as it was during the time that she served as a Lady-in-Waiting that Henry developed a taste for Maids of Honour (or very little). Click here for a little more history. The original recipe is associated with Hampton Court, and nearby Richmond-upon-Thames. The Richmond bakery purporting to be the Original Shop of Maids of Honour closed in the 1950s, but on the road that leads from Richmond to Kew Bridge is the shop of the Newens family, where Maids of Honour are still baked and sold.

I made a detour enroute to work to photograph the Newens tea room, so I have yet to sample the 'Original Maids of Honour', but I might make another trip there next weekend as a birthday treat for myself.

The 'Original' recipe, and that followed by the Newens tea room is, of course, top secret. Instead I followed the second recipe on page 2 of this article. Rather than make junket, I bought some curd cheese from Waitrose, Devon Gold cheese made from milk of Jersey and Guernsey cows. I'd never seen curd cheese before, so thought it worth an image. The cheese looks very like thick double cream, but has a sour taste.

When my Maids went into the oven they quickly proved to be blowsy madams, with their skirts puffing up almost to neck height. Perhaps I should have pricked the bases of the tarts? Upon cooling they sunk back down a little, regaining modesty (although some were still a little giddy as you can see).

My Maids were bite-size ladies. Very light and delicately flavoured companions for my Knights. I think that they got on rather well. The lemon zest in with the curd cheese gave the filling a flavour similar to lemon curd, yet subtler. I came across a recipe by Delia Smith that includes lemon curd along with the cheese, that would give a much more powerful hit of lemon and sugar - maybe too overwhelming? I will have to try it and see. A cook's work is never done...

Five Maids-in-Waiting (to be eaten).

Happy St. George's Day!


Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Eating on Good Friday - Hot Cross Buns

'Happiness is a warm bun', as I believe John Lennon might have once said. He might also have written, 'make loaves not war'. So I think that he and I would be in agreement over the pleasures of a hot cross bun. In fact you would have to be something of a puritanal killjoy to issue a statement of 'ban the bun' (and bun puns), but this is what Oliver Cromwell did after he took power. One minute he was chopping off the head of a monarch, and the next vetoeing the simple pleasure of a sweet fruit bun. Sometimes that man just went too far.

Fortunately now normal service has been resumed, and I feel it is pretty likely that many of you will be enjoying a bun or two over the Easter weekend. As you eat and savour, please consider the ancient history and the mysterious powers said to be embued in your average humble hot cross bun.

The most obvious association that the hot cross bun has is with the Christian church, and the story of the crucifixtion of Jesus Christ. The cross on top of the bun is seen to represent the crucifix, but is also a celebration of the resurrection. However, the hot cross bun also has links with much older religions. Ancient Greek and Egyptian bakers cooked up buns at a similar time of year to celebrate the coming of Spring. Anglo-Saxon Pagans worshipped a goddess by the name of Eostre, who was their Goddess of Spring (if you type Eostre into Google, you will find one sponsored link - to Cadburys and their Easter eggs. Someone at the chocolate factory is obviously seeking to appeal to the intellectual and New Age Pagan consumer). The Saxons in their worship of Eostre would consume a round bun (symbolic of the moon), that was marked into four quarters (either representative of the phases of the moon, or symbolic of the sun). It was the Pagan celebration of Eostre that gave its name to the Christian festival, as with a sleight of hand one became the other.

Legend has it that it was a monk at St. Albans abbey who converted the cross topped bun to the Christian church. In 1361 Father Thomas Rocliffe baked spiced fruit buns, marked them with a cross and distributed them to the poor. Some sources claim the dough used was also used for the communion wafer, and as it had been consecrated this was why the buns bore the mark of the cross. It was the presumed sanctity of the dough that may have given rise to another bun tale, namely that buns baked on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday) would not grow stale nor become mouldy. It also may account for the fact that hot cross buns were thought to be capable of curing certain illnesses; that sailors took them to sea to protect against shipwreck; and that farmers believed they could keep the rats from their grain (acting as a distraction device I can see how this one might work).

I baked my hot cross buns to Dan Lepard's recipe from March issue of Waitrose Food Illustrated. The results tasted worthy of a Beatles' lyric, but I did have a little trouble in the making of them. Any advice gratefully received.

The thing about any home bread-making is that at first glance a recipe may look like a lot of time-consuming faff; but if you tot up the total time spent in the kitchen, it only actually involves about half an hour's work. OK, the rising part of the process may take 15 hours, but you are unlikely to spend that time sitting watching the bowl. Go out and enjoy life.

I started by weighing out and assembling the ingredients during commercial breaks the night before baking. I then went to bed for a night dreaming of warm buns(!). In the morning I got up and went to the hairdresser, and then came back and examined my dough. I had left the dough for a slow rise in the fridge, and although it had definitely changed in appearance from when I had popped it in 10 hours previous, it looked nothing like any previous bread dough I had made. The dough had been very wet and although the moisture had been absorbed, the rise was rather limited. I followed Dan Lepard's method of dividing the dough, and then repeatedly folding each piece (rather than kneading). The dough was very cold, and it felt quite solid and heavy rather than elastic. Perhaps the dough should have been left to come to room temperature?

I then left my dough buns to rise again. Off I popped to the shops to buy the ingredients for lunch (chicken and lime soup). When I came back I had another moment of worry as the buns hadn't got any larger. I put the trays next to the hob as I prepared the soup and this did seem to perk the buns up a bit. On went the flour and water paste cross (quite difficult to get the consistency right), and then into the oven.

I thought that the initial stage of baking might encourage a final swelling, but nope. Still, the smells coming from the oven were suitably spicey and hunger inducing. When the buns were done I glazed them - which really does finish the appearance of them off very nicely, although my crosses were a little difficult to make out.

The finished buns were dense but the consistency was perfectly OK. See top picture for a cross-section. I toasted a bun and topped each half with some beautiful Cornish butter - the flavour of the buns was superb. Happy Easter and welcome Spring!

One last story - In the East End of London there is a pub called The Widow's Son. In a cottage that stood where the pub is today, lived a widow whose son was a sailor. The son was due to return home from sea one Easter Friday, and his mother had set about baking his favourite treat - hot cross buns. Sadly her son's boat never returned to safe harbour, and the hot cross buns lay uneaten. Each year on Easter Friday his mother would bake another batch of buns, and would set one aside for her boy. The cottage became known as 'The Bun House',and when it was in 1848 demolished and a pub built in its place, the widow's tale lived on in the pub's name. Each year on Good Friday there is a ceremony within the pub, and a sailor will add another bun to a net of them hanging from the pub's beamed ceiling, before raising a glass or two to the Widow's son.

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, ' 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 butter
110g caster sugar
110g currants
1/2 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 egg
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?