Sunday, October 22, 2006

Rock Cakes & Biscuits

When poorly advised persons think of British baking, it may well be that monstrously hard rock cakes, rejected by even the dog, are what such folk think of. The epitome of a lack of basic skill and care in the baking department. Rock cakes, admittedly, do have a bad reputation, and their title does make for easy mocking. However, the name is supposed to be for their appearance, NOT their solidity. I think that rock cakes also suffer from being seen as old-fashioned. One can imagine them on the station tearoom counter, under a glass dome, in the film 'Brief Encounter'. But think, this should lend them an air of illicit pleasure, should it not? When I mentioned to friends that I was planning to bake rock cakes, the common response was, "I remember making those at school." Good old domestic science - teaching us the skills for modern life. So why did we not grow up to bake rock cakes on a regular basis? Did we become sidetracked by chocolate brownies, American muffins and cookies? Or was it simply that rock cakes are, whatever the skill of the baker, a second rate cake?

Rock cakes were a ubiquitous feature of school fetes, church teas, railway refreshments etc. They don't have a specific geographic origination, and the OUP 'A-Z of Food' credits Mrs Beeton with the earliest documented recipe for them. Mrs Beeton's orignal 'Household Management' was published in 1861 Her recipe (no. 1747) is for 'Rock Biscuits' rather than cakes. I don't have a copy of 'Household Management' (seem to manage OK under my own rules, thanks), so I used the recipe from this website.

Now, at first glance I was a little horrified at the proportions of sugar to flour, and the large number of eggs involved. I decided to half the recipe. A wise decision it turned out. I had a lovely time whisking the eggs to form a good thick froth, and then adding the sugar gradually, and then the flour. It was at this point I could see an obvious flaw to the recipe - what I had in my bowl was a batter not a dough. It looked far too runny to be able to form into 'rocky' looking biscuits. I added some more flour, but then thought that if I am trying a recipe from the original context, then I should follow it to see how it turns out. So I added a couple of handfuls of currants, and then spooned some mixture onto a baking sheet. Mrs Beeton's instructions state that you should use a fork to make the mixture (she calls it a dough) look as rough as possible. Sorry Isabella, but this just was not possible. Baking sheet number one went into the oven, and I tipped more flour into my bowl (lost track of quantities by this point), and I mixed in enough to bring the mixture together into a more dough-like consistency. By this point I was concerned that I was undoing all my good whisking work, and I decided to spoon out the mixture, roughen surface with a fork, and stick baking sheet number two into the oven.

Neither sets of biscuits looked quite how I imagined that they would.

Baking sheet no. 1

Baking sheet no. 2

Unfortunately, nor were they good to eat. Dry, hard and despite all the sugar and eggs, very bland. Sorry Mrs B., but these biscuits did not rock.

So I turned to a cookbook published in 1948, just three years after 'Brief Encounter' was first screened. I felt confident that by this date, rock cakes had evolved into a more edible proposition.

Orange Rock Cakes (from Elizabeth Craig's 'Economical Cookery')

225g flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg - beaten well
75g fine sugar
75g butter or margarine
Grated rind and juice of 1 orange
25g candied peel - finely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
2. Prepare baking sheets.
3. Sift the flour and baking powder into a basin.
4. Rub in the fat.
5. Stir in the sugar, orange rind and juice, candied peel, and beaten egg.
6. Mix to a very stiff dough, then with two forks take pieces the size of a walnut and place a little apart on the baking sheets.
7. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden.

Success! Not only did the consistency of the dough prior to baking look right, but the finished cakes were golden and had a good cragginess to them. Each cake made a brief encounter with my plate before disappearing. Texturewise they were pretty similar to a scone, and the hint of orange was a nice touch. They were good the day of baking, but not bad a day later. Cakes/buns of this type can always be revived by the spreading of a decent bit of butter. Time for a rock cake renaissance I think.


chrispy said...

my sister in law is really into Harry Potter and I showed her that Rock Cakes were actual things. It was mentioned on a Harry Potter website

She wants me to try them since she is 15 and not much of a cook.

Anonymous said...

I've never tried a rock cake before. That last batch looks quite good. I'll have to try some someday.

Anonymous said...

well done; you insisted and succeed! I’ve also never had a rock cake - could I have one of yours? =)

Anonymous said...

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Don't know if you've ever seen the magazine, but we are a gorgeous, glossy celebration of all things foodie, distributed throughout the UK. We're also doing pretty well, with a circulation of around 100,000.
Having noted that food blogs are so popular and a growing trend, we've decided to introduce a food blog element to the magazine. We're hoping to do a kind of 'blogger of the month', which would unveil a different blogger each month, with a profile about them, their passion for food, how they got blogging etc and maybe a recipe.
At the moment it's just an idea - haven't got as far as deciding what money etc would be involved. But if you - or your fellow bloggers - are interested, I'd appreciate it if you could contact me as soon as possible so that we can have a chat.
Probably best to email me at first, with your phone details if that's OK.
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Kind regards, Helen

Maggie said...

I have followed your site with interest over the last few months, whilst I have started my own blog. Initially, I am reviewing some of Delia Smith's recipes but I expect to broaden out to include other popular chefs. I would like to be included in your reciprocal links, mine is Would you please let me know if this is of interest to you. Regards Margaret.

AnnaW said...

I'm afraid that they all got eaten (blame my hungry work mates)!

I look forward to seeing your site. I have been very lazy about constructing links to other blogger's sites, and tend to only link to any relevant posts. Sorry!

Anonymous said...

Oh I have just discovered your website tonight and have already made the rock cakes. The orange in them is pure heaven. I've just lost my mum this year, and I so want to share your website with her. Your writing is wonderful -- particularly enjoyed your cider sidebar. Thanks for doing this!

AnnaW said...

Hello Heidi,

So sorry to hear of your loss. I am guessing that your mother was a keen cook. I bet that every time you are in the kitchen her spirit is with you.

Glad you enjoyed the recipe.

A x

Jeanne said...

Hi Anna

Hmm, yes, rock cakes definitely suffer from soemthing of a PR problem, don't they. I rememebr them as being about the second thing we were taught to make in Home Economics (after the truly awful cornflour mould...) and I never touched them after that, despite their appearance (as you say) at every fete and tea party of my childhood. I like the idea of the biscuits as opposed to the cakes - must give those a try!

Anonymous said...

Where have you been all my life! I've searched long and hard for a real rock cake recipe and recently resolved to optimise the biscuit one I had, which had everything except it was a biscuit!!!

I'll be giving yours a go next chance I get.

Cheers, Mick (Perth, Australia)

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Nora B. said...

Anna, I LOVE rock cakes. They are something from my childhood - a very common bakery item in the local Chinese bakeries in Singapore. It is not as popular now though. I am sure that the rock cakes could be traced back to the Raffles era.

Isisdownunder said...

Help! Have you ever heard of "Ollie Bollins" or something similar? We bought some at my daughter's school fair but no-one seems to know who made them, and my daughter has her heart set on some for her birthday!

AnnaW said...

Sorry - never heard of them. Are they a cake, biscuit or bun? What arethe main ingredients? Do I take it that you live in Australia?

Give me some more clues and I will see if my recipe books can help.

Kay Hiller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kay Hiller said...

Ollie bollen are Dutch, and fried. Try this website: (Sorry about the last post; I made a mistake in it.)

AnnaW said...

Hi Kay,

Thanks for the information. Olliebollen sound rather good. I like the inclusion of the fruit - this must liven up the flavour - and just think how this means they would count toward your five-a-day (?).

Bonnie D said...

I'm an American Anglophile and especially love Jane Austen, Harry Potter and afternoon tea. I have been looking for a recipe for rock cakes. I tried yours today although an exhaustive search yielded no candied peel. I will make the peel myself next time but substituted finely chopped dried apricots in the cakes I made for afternoon tea today. They were quite good. Thanks so much for your efforts.

AnnaW said...

Hi Bonnie,

I think dried apricot must have been a good addition to the rock cakes. I find a lot of people are a bit sniffy about dried peel, so apricot would be an excellent alternative.

Best wishes.

galigirl said...

I tried these as I haven't had rock cakes since I left England 40ish years ago. They were OK, but I found the recipe awkward. I had to search for conversions & that in itself was not an easy thing.

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Lynn said...

definitely will try this recipe and write about the result in my blog, if u dont mind

Anonymous said...

Hi just cooked the ROCK CAKES. Just waiting now in the oven. I can aleady smell them.
Think I put more than a walnut size on my baking tray. They have cooked perfectly. Look like scones. Can t wait to try them.
Just tried one. Lovely texure, orange tangy taste. I don t know about butter with it yet. but they are nice and light to eat. Thank you

floral canvas art said...

Really amazing looking rocking cakes and the recipe is brilliant, must try these.

Marcus said...

I've never had rock cakes but these look great!

Anonymous said...

I love rock cakes,I have my Grandmothers hand-written recipe and I've been baking them for over 30 years,they are a family favorite.

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