Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Cake (an escape to warmer climes)

This year I wanted to bake a Christmas cake - my first. I have made Christmas puddings and mince pies aplenty, but despite having polished off many a slice of Christmas cake I have never created my own. I love Christmas cake, love fruit cakes dense with fruit, nuts, peel, spices, and whatever other treasures can be packed in. I love the marzipan layer, and generally I like the royal icing on top (although sometimes this is too hard or too sweet). Lots of people don't seem too bothered about this element of Christmas food, some positively dislike rich fruit cakes of this type, and some (nutters) don't even like marzipan. Well, Christmas is a time of giving, and this year I wanted to give myself a lovely cake. Maybe I could also share a little of it if I felt the spirit of Christmas strongly enough.

I had a suspicion that the British Christmas cakes that enthusiasts such as myself tuck into, are not all that ancient as a tradition of the season. From my research I learnt that the oldest cake associated with the British Christmas period is the Twelfth cake (King cake or Bean cake). Many other countries have their take on this - such as France's La Couronne (or Galette) des Rois, Mexico's La Rosca de Reyes, Switzerland's Dreikönigskuchen or the Gateau des Rois of New Orleans. Twelfth cake was served on the Twelfth Day/Night of Christmas (Epiphany - the twelfth night after Christmas, a Christian holy day commemorating the visit by the Three Wise Men to the Christ child), and was a spiced fruit cake - originally a yeast-raised fruit bread or a light cake made from breadcrumbs, but by the 19th century had become more densely packed with fruit, heavier, and closer in consistency to the traditional Christmas Plum Pudding (which has a much older pedigree). Twelfth cake contained tokens (a dried bean for the King and a dried pea for the Queen) that would determine who had a one-night stand as a monarch, and those elevated could expect other party-goers to act out their every whim. The Twelfth Night feast was known also as the feast of fools, where misrule reigned and the lowest ruled over the highest, servants took precedence over their masters and chaos was celebrated. The feast itself predates Christianity and has links to the Roman feast of Saturnalia. The Puritans banned Twelfth Night activities, but with the Restoration the custom was also restored and the partying continued until late into the 19th century. In 1870 the revels came to Queen Victoria's attention and she deemed that they were irreligious and irreverent. She deleted the feast from the British calendar of feast days and festivals. But that, my friends, was not quite that. Victorian bakers, not wishing to miss out on the sale of the cakes that they produced for Twelfth Night, simply offered the same cakes for sale at an earlier date and rebranded them as Christmas cakes. According to the food historian, Bridget Ann Henisch, by the 1830s the bean and pea were no longer hidden within the cake, but instead were illustrated cards, slips of paper or ceramic figures, drawn from a hat or bag. Henisch suggests that by 1870 public enthusiasm for Twelfth Night had waned, and Christmas Eve and Day had become the focus of what had become a shorter (thanks to the Industrial Revolution) holiday period. Twelfth cakes were sometimes decorated with raised sugar figures or lattice designs, and these decorative elements continue in the use of marzipan, icing, and the odd rogue (although, some might say, obligatory) element of tastelessness on the top of Christmas cakes.

There is no single recipe for Christmas cake, and I imagine it is probably a recipe which most people feel free to adapt to suit what they like (less peel, more booze, no glace cherries, extra stem ginger etc.). It is not a recipe to be precious with, it is a generous cake both in terms of its content and its spirit. I have decided to take this notion and run with it, as the recipe I am going to bake comes from beyond the shores of Britain, I am also drawing upon the Victorian connection and my recipe comes from one of the countries that the Victorians couldn't help themselves but meddle with. That country was known by the Brits as Ceylon, and is now called Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Christmas cake is a local variation of what would have appeared on Victorian Christmas tables back home. The Sri Lankan cake is made with semolina, dried fruits, chow chow, cashew nuts, almonds, spices, rosewater, honey, brandy, butter and eggs. It is topped with a marzipan made from cashew nuts, icing-free, and is generally served cut into squares. Some of the ingredients betray the influence also of Portuguese and Dutch tastes, two other European countries that passed through.

My recipe comes from 'Cakes From Around the World'. I roughly halved the ingredients given as I only wanted to make one cake. This recipe omits the chow chow - probably because it is not an easy ingredient to find here. To see a recipe that includes it, click here.

Quantities given below will produce two 20 cm/8 inch square cakes.

115g chopped stem ginger
115g chopped mixed peel
225g raisins
225g sultanas
225g currants
225g chopped crystalized pineapple
225g chopped cashew nuts
115g chopped almonds
115g chopped bright red glace cherries
115g chopped dark red glace cherries
3 tablespoons brandy
3 tablespoons rosewater
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon ground cardamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
450g soft pale brown sugar
450g softened butter
225g semolina
12 large eggs, separated (you actually only use 6 of the egg whites, so keep the other 6 back for meringue making etc.)

For the cashew nut marzipan:

225g cashew nuts
450g icing sugar
1 egg white
4 tablespoons brandy
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon rosewater
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


1. In one large bowl put the peel, fruits, nuts, brandy, rosewater, honey, vanilla extract and spices. Give a good old stir up with a metal spoon, then cover and leave overnight for some flavour mingling.
2. Line two 20 cm/8 inch square cake tines with greaseproof paper, and preheat oven to 150C/300F/Gas 2.
3. Using a hand mixer, unless you have wonderfully strong wrists, cream the sugar and softened butter until light and fluffy. On a slow speed, add the semolina and egg yolks a little at a time to avoid curdling. Take a metal spoon and stir in the fruit mixture until blended.
4. Take the 6 egg whites and whisk until they stand in peaks, then using a metal spoon stir the egg whites gently into the cake mixture.
5. Divide the cake mixture between the two cake tins and bake until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out cleanly - about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Leave the cakes to cool in their tins, then wrap in foil and set aside for 3 or 4 days to mature (you can feed with brandy during this time).
6. To make the marzipan put the nuts into a food processor and whizz until finely chopped. Add the icing sugar and other ingredients, processing at the lowest speed until the mixture comes together into a ball (my mixture seemed quite wet so I used extra icing sugar to help dry the marzipan). Dust your work surface with icing sugar and roll out the paste - you want to create a sheet large enough to cover only the top of each cake (roll into rough shapes and trim).

I decorated the top of the cake with snowflakes cut from marzipan - which looked quite tasteful and therefore my fingers felt itchy for a bit of tinsel to strew around. It was served for Christmas tea, that meal not eaten for reasons of sustenance or nutrition, but somehow necessary a few hours after the consumption of the largest lunch of the year. Several of us managed to enjoy a small piece, and found although it was bursting to the seams with fruit and nuts it was lighter than many Christmas cakes. Despite the fruitfulness of the slice, the spices were still evident, and this helped to evoke warmer climes and banished Hertfordshire drizzle. The marizpan also benefited from the extra flavourings of brandy, rosewater, almond and vanilla extract it contained, it was sweet but it didn't have the single dominating flavour that almond marzipan. If you aren't keen on marzipan usually, then I do recommend that you give this one a go - and the cake too!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Parkin (or Perkin or Tharf cake)

To follow on from my Orkney Broonie baking I have journeyed a few hundred miles south to the north of England, with one foot remaining in southern Scotland. Parkin is an oatmeal gingerbread, usually made with the addition of black treacle, baked in the northernmost counties of England as well as over the border. Recipe variations are numerous and parkin can take the form of either a biscuit or a cake. Yorkshire and Lancashire both have their own favoured recipes (Lancastrian parkin has a larger proportion of oatmeal), and so do smaller communities and individuals (some add candied peel or other dried fruits and I have seen recipes with the inclusion of coriander seeds). The thar, tharf or thor cake also baked in the north of England – the word ‘thor’ is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon 'theorf' or 'tharf' meaning unleavened - is parkin by another name. Theorf/tharf cakes were made of oatmeal and water and cooked on the griddle, the ingredients were enlivened at feast times by the addition of spices and sweetening (originally honey). The southern Scottish and Northumbrian perkin is a griddle-cooked variety of parkin (now more usually tray baked in an oven), and elsewhere early recipes for parkin were similiarly cooked. This web-page has some old recipes if you would like to try making the griddle-cooked thar and parkin cakes. Parkin biscuits are a contemporary incarnation of the griddle-cooked cakes, and ingredients such as golden syrup give a modern flavour.

Historically, each community produced their version of parkin to be consumed as part of local events that took at the end of October or beginning of November. The cake was so intrinsic to the celebration that many of these events took the name of the food. In West Riding the first Sunday in November was known as Parkin Sunday. The 1st of November was known as Cake Night in Ripon and Caking Day in Sheffield. In Lancashire, the Monday after the 31st of October was known as Tharcake Monday. The 1st of November is All Soul's Day, and it was customary to give some form of Soul or Soul Mass Cake to callers (children or the poor of the parish) - in these areas the cakes given out were one of the variations on parkin. Over time the national celebration of deliverance from the gunpowder plotters (1605) has taken precedence over smaller events, and gingerbread cakes, already eaten by many in the North of England and Southern Scotland at this time of year, have become a fixture of November the 5th festivities.

I had many recipes for parkin amongst the books on my bookshelves, but I went with one from Sybil Kapoor’s ‘Simply British’ as I have not baked from this book previously (oh, and also, her recipe requires a whole tin of black treacle. This is the sort of excess that I like...).

170g plain flour
3 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons mixed spice
340g medium oatmeal
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
455g black treacle (tins come at a weight of 454g, but I think that overlooking the last gram is acceptable)
115g butter
140ml milk
30g soft brown sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Prepare a 25cm/10 inch cake tin (this needs to be oiled and fully lined with greaseproof paper).
2. Sift the flour and spices into a large bowl. Stir in the oatmeal and the bicarbonate of soda.
3. In a saucepan over a low heat, melt together the treacle, butter, milk and sugar. Stir occasionally until the butter and treacle are melted, and the sugar dissolved. Black alchemy (see below).

5. Immediately pour the warm and wonderfully dark mixture into the dry ingredients and beat thoroughly. Pour into your prepared tin, spreading mixture to fill tin evenly.
6. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes, or until firm.
7. Leave to cool in tin, then cut into squares. Again this is one of those cakes that need 'resting' before consuming in order for maximum moistness and deliciousness to be attained. In order to do this wrap cake in foil and store in an air-tight box.

I managed to be very obedient and restrained, and I left this cake for almost a week in its foil jacket before cutting a sample square. Although the flavour of the cake was good (with all that treacle it sure should be), the hoped for moistness was sadly lacking. In common with the Holywake Bake cake that I made last November the core of the cake was a little dry, enough to make the consistency cloying. This was disappointing, particularly after the seven day wait for a taste, and I wonder if the problem is down to my recipe, my baking, or perhaps I am expecting these cakes to have a moistness that they just don't have. Does the oatmeal greedily draw in all available dampness, but then refuse to share it round with the other ingredients. Did I treat oatmeal badly in a past life? I love the flavour and texture that oats and oatmeal can bring, but of my three attempts at oatmeal gingerbread, two have been damp squibs rather than fiesty firecrackers. Can anyone provide me with a tried and tested parkin or tharfcake recipe that produces a deliciously moist and flavoursome cake, a sparkler?

I started this post at the beginning of November, and here I am finishing off at the beginning of December. What excuse can I offer? Well, my junior baker is already crawling and keen to move on to the next stage. Looks like he will be heading to the kitchen all by himself very soon. Every morning he puts on his 'active trousers' (in the photo they are just about to go on), and they keep him moving all day long - and me away from the computer, the camera, and the cake tin.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Broonie (Orkney Gingerbread)

Orkney consists of about 70 islands and skerries, and is located to the north-east of the top of Scotland. In common with its Scottish neighbours and the northern counties of England, oats and barley (in Orkney a variety known as bere is grown, locally called corn) are the cereal staples used for breads and bannocks, and, less/more essentially, ale and whisky. Oatmeal is a primary ingredient in Broonie, a pale gingerbread made with black treacle, butter, brown sugar, wheat flour, egg, ground ginger (never!) and buttermilk.

Gingerbreads, although found throughout Britain, do seem to be particularly popular amongst those living at the top of the country and often include locally grown oats in the form of oatmeal. Parkin, traditionally eaten in the north of England on November the 5th, is another form of gingerbread that includes oatmeal, as does the Scottish Perkin. With Bonfire Night not too far off (fast followed by the big December event that I need not name) I feel a follow-up gingerbread baking session coming on already.

F. Marian McNeill's 'The Scots Kitchen' carries a recipe for Broonie - just one of 67 recipes that the book contains that make use of oats or oatmeal. Under her recipe is the note 'Correctly, Brüni, a thick bannock (Orkney and Sheltand)'; Brüni is a Norse word for a thick bannock. As I have touched on previously, bannocks are a very old form of bread and also the forefathers of the scone. Bannocks were historically cooked on the girdle, but more recent recipes are oven-baked. F Marian McNeill's recipe for Broonie and that of Julie Duff in 'Cakes - Regional & Traditional' are oven-baked. Both recipes contain identical ingredients (although Julie Duff uses self-raising rather than plain flour with the addition of baking soda), but McNeill uses less butter and ginger, and she uses equal quantities of flour and oatmeal (175g each), whereas Duff uses 225g of self-raising flour and 115g of oatmeal. McNeill unfortunately has omitted the amount of sugar required for her recipe, so I am unable to bake two Broonies for comparative purposes/filling a large Broonie-sized hole in my tummy. This is probably for the best...

Broonie (from Julie Duffs 'Cakes - Regional & Traditional)

225g self-raising flour
2 level teaspoons ground ginger
115g medium or pinhead oatmeal
115g butter (cubed, at room temperature)
115g pale brown sugar
2 tablespoons black treacle
1 egg
150ml buttermilk

1. Preheat oven to 160c/325F/Gas 3. Prepare a 900g/2 lb loaf tin (grease and line - you know the routine).
2. Sift the flour and ginger into a bowl and stir in the oatmeal. Add the cubed butter and rub in using your fingertips until you have the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and stir well.
3. In a small saucepan gently melt the treacle over a low heat and set aside to cool slightly (daringly, I warmed mine in the microwave). Beat the egg into the treacle and then add to the dry ingredients together with the buttermilk. Mix all the ingredients together thoroughly.
4. Pour into your prepared tin and bake for approximately one hour (until well risen and a skewer comes out clean).
5. Leave to cool in the tin.

Broonie is one of those cakes for which the instruction is given - 'this improves after a few days wrapped in foil and stored in an air-tight tin' - all very well, but a real test of self-restraint when faced with a freshly baked cake of fragrant and warm charm. Naturally, I cut a few slices to try fresh, and then wrapped the rest of the loaf to try again in a day or so. The Broonie was surprisingly light in the mouth, but was a little dry in texture - something that the day or so of resting helped a little -so a generous topping of butter was a good addition to each slice, but for less indulgency serve with a cup of tea.

Ellis, my young Junior taster (yep, he is now on solids, can't believe we are here already) tried a cube of Broonie, but decided it was not for him. This followed on from the failure of oatmeal porridge, so perhaps I should take note of his lack of enthusiasm for oats. Sweet potato on the otherhand... If anyone has a sweet potato cake recipe?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Win Chocolates for Someone Special (Sadly Not Yourself)

Because we all need a little luxury once in a while, Baking For Britain has teamed up with Hotel Chocolat to offer you the chance to win a decadent box of chocolates from their summer range, AND a bottle of champagne, for a loved one. If you choose your loved one carefully (and I hope you have) then hopefully they woud be kind enough to share their prize with you.

To enter, click here and tell us in 100 words or less why we should surprise your loved one with this luxury gift. It’s time to tug on the heart strings and get out your violin, as the most compelling entry will win! The competition closes on 5 October and entries will appear live on the Hotel Chocolat site.

Small Print: No chocolates were paid to Baking for Britain for the running of this competition (more's the pity). Hotel Chocolat are a company based not far from Baking for Britain HQ, so I am pleased to support them as a local business. If you don't have someone special to surprise, please consider me for the position...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Welsh Harvest Cake / Teisen y Cynhaeaf

I have written of apple cakes before, and have also indulged in a cider cake, but as soon as British apples hit the shops once more then I feel duty bound to honour them with a spot of baking. The start of apple season and the completion of the year's harvest overlap, and a celebratory Harvest Cake using apples seems to me a fine idea. My recipe comes from Julie Duff's book 'Cakes - Regional & Traditional'. Grub Street Publishing very kindly sent me a copy of the book, astonishingly one that I had not previously indulged myself by purchasing. The same book contains a photograph of a coffee cake that my husband claims matches with the ideal coffee cake that he holds in his head - I guess that is a hint that I should unearth the Camp coffee...

There are many regional recipes for cakes to be baked at harvest time, with variations aplenty. Some of these cakes were cooked to fuel the workers during the hard manual labour, and some were produced to be enjoyed as part of post-harvesting celebrations. Before industrialisation bringing in the harvest would be muscle-wrenching, dirty, hot and exhausting; our boys and girls in the fields needed all the calories they could get, and traditional harvest foods went some way to providing these. The Harvest Supper (served by the farmer or land-owner after the harvest was completed) was very likely second only to Christmas in terms of what was provided for workers to consume. For the poorest labourers such food was a very welcome change from their usual monotonous diet. In the novel 'Adam Bede' by George Elliot (published 1859), there is a lovely description of a Harvest Supper, hosted by the farmer, Martin Poyser, who regards his workers with a paternal eye:

It was a goodly sight - that table, with Martin Poyser’s round good-humoured face and large person at the head of it, helping his servants to the fragrant roast-beef, and pleased when the empty plates came again. Martin, though usually blest with a good appetite, really forgot to finish his own beef to-night – it was so pleasant to him to look on in the intervals of carving, and see how the others enjoyed their supper; for were they not men who, on all the days of the year except Christmas Day and Sundays, ate their cold dinner, in a make-shift manner, under the hedgerows, and drank their beer out of wooden bottles – with relish certainly, but with their mouths toward the zenith, after a fashion more endurable to ducks than to human bipeds. Martin Poyser had some faint conception of the flavour such men must find in hot roast-beef and fresh-drawn ale. He held his head on one side, and screwed up his mouth, as he nudged Bartle Massey, and watched half-witted Tom Tholer, otherwise known as ‘Tom Soft’, receiving his second plateful of beef. A grin of delight broke over Tom’s face as the plate was set down before him, between his knife and fork, which he held erect, as if they had been sacred tapers; but the delight was too strong to continue smouldering in a grin – it burst out the next instant in a long-drawn ‘haw, haw!’ followed by a sudden collapse of gravity, as the knife and fork darted down on the prey.

Martin Poyser and his wife, also served plum pudding at their supper, but this was brought to the table ahead of the roast beef. Adam Bede, arriving late to the meal, misses out on the pudding. Plum pudding or plum cake (this could mean a pudding or cake of dried vine fruits) was traditional accompaniment to the harvest feast, but I am unsure why the Poysers served theirs ahead of the beef. Any suggestions? Exuberant drinking followed the meal, so perhaps it was to allow the men to enjoy the ale without the delay of serving the ‘afters’. Of course, for those amongst us who are strong believers in puddings, to consume dessert first – and then see if you have any room left for the main course – perhaps makes better sense than operating in the traditional manner.

Welsh Harvest Cake / Teisen y Cynhaeaf

175g unsalted butter
175g soft brown sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
225g self raising flour
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
450g cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped into small pieces (I had 450g weight of fruit post-peeling, coring)
50g sultanas
50g currants
50g flaked almonds

1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. (Ours is a fan oven, so I baked at 170C for an hour). Prepare an 18cm/9 inch cake tin.
2. In a pan melt together the butter and sugar (the sugar won’t dissolve completely, this is fine, but do stir the mixture). Allow to cool slightly before beating in the eggs.
3. Sift flour and spices into a bowl. Add the melted ingredients and beat together gently.
4. Put the apples, sultanas, currants and almonds into a second bowl, and mix up.
5. Spoon half the cake mixture into the bottom of the prepared tin, and then add the fruit and nuts – at this point I thought that I had created a cake disaster, with a hugely disproportionate amount of apple, and not enough cake ‘body’ to bind the whole together – then finish with the remainder of the cake mix.
6. Lightly smooth the surface of the cake, to press down the contents. Place in oven to bake for about an hour, or until firm to touch and a skewer comes out clean (60 minutes worked for me).
7. Leave to cool in the tin for 30 minutes, before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Once the cake had gone into the oven I spent a bit of time worrying about how it would turn out. So much fruit had gone into the middle of my ‘sandwich’, that I could only imagine that the result was going to be a formless apple subsidence. I kept on peeking through the oven door, to see if I could determine the outcome , but whilst in the tin and baking the cake looked innocent of bad intent. When the hour was up, the cake exited the oven and then sat patiently for a further half hour whilst I plucked up courage to liberate it. Ta-daa! The finger-crossing paid off, and my cake stayed cake-like. In fact, I hadn’t needed to worry at all. When I cut into the cake I could see that the sponge mixture placed top and bottom had cleverly found a way to unite, and the fruit in the middle was self-supporting. From the outside of the cake was discreetly visible a seam of fruit, but inside the centre was a glorious moist windfall.

I served slices of this Welsh Harvest Cake as a pudding, slightly warm with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream – a well-stacked relative of the Eve’s Pudding. I think warmth enhances the juiciness of the fruit, and the spices are encouraged in their seductiveness. Cold, the cake was good, but warm it was pretty sensational.

Just think, the more you eat, the larger the portion of fruit that you are adding to your five-a-day checklist (I recommend this cake as part of a balanced diet – A very learned Dietician and Food Doctor).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bloggers For Positive Global Change

I have been nominated by Amanada of Figs Olives Wine for a Bloggers for Positive Global Change award. Wow! - what a honour to be so highly rated. Thank-you Amanda for the vote.

The award was created by Climate of Our Future, a site that aims to be a forum for, and a catalyst to discussion about global climate change. The award is, "not limited to any specific ideologies, religions or philosophies." It is a thumbs-up for any blogger who "puts a premium on human compassion and the desire to make the world a better place for all of us, without exception."

If you visit the Climate of Our Future site you will see that the award takes the form of a Meme. I will hold my hands up now and apologise for not continuing this one onwards, as I am very time-poor at the moment. I shall just sneak in a mention for the website England in Particular, a site devoted to campaigning for and celebrating local distinctiveness. The book of the same title, published last year, is a must-have for anyone interested in English traditions (in all their weird and wonderful variations).

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bath Buns

And so we dance a graceful minuet across the country, to take our places within another of the eighteenth century’s spa pleasure resorts – Bath. That’s Bath with a capital B, home to the famous Roman baths, and spa holiday destination to Regency high society. We have the dandyish master of ceremonies, ‘Beau’ Nash, to thank for Bath becoming a beacon for those who came to revive both health and spirits – by taking the waters and pleasure in all forms during the course of the ‘season’. The season being the period between the opening and closing of Parliament, and the time when the fashionable upper-classes met to show off, swap gossip, carry on affairs, party, net a husband/wife, and escape from fossilization on a dusty country estate.

In its hey-day Bath had it all – glorious buildings, a bustling social life, fashionable company, the beauty of its setting in the landscape, and was easily accessible from most parts of the country by coach. Much of its magnificence is still retained, so long as you can see past the swarms of modern visitors. Today’s Bath bun, however, is often a very different fellow from the Bun served in the city during the 1700s, and may shamefacedly appear on the contemporary cake stand as a sorry blimp rather than with proud plumpnesss. Some accounts of the history of the Bath bun suggest that Dr. Oliver, originator of the Bath Oliver biscuit, also knocked up the original of the Bath bun in his Bath bakehouse. I am pretty certain that this is nonsense, not least because the good Doctor as creator of a plain biscuit designed for easy digestion - a salve for overindulged Regency stomachs - was hardly likely Jekyll and Hyde-like to also tempt Bath’s seasonal population with a sugar-topped, butter and egg enriched bun. Other histories attribute the bun to the mythical Sally Lunn – there is a tearoom in Bath of her name –the buns that bear her name are not so different from the Bath bun, both take the form of enriched dough cakes, but they are a separate entity. Laura Mason and Catherine Brown in ‘The Taste of Britain’, trace the origin of the Bath bun to recipes for caraway seed cake. In their book they mention a 1756 recipe given by Bath resident and cook, Martha Bradley, entitled Bath seed cake. Elizabeth Raffald in 1769 follows on with a recipe for Bath cakes, which were yeast-leavened rolls made with butter, cream and caraway seeds (in the form of caraway comfits – sugar coated seeds- some were used to flavour the cakes, and others strewn on top). Over the course of the eighteenth century eggs were added to the mix, as various recipes will attest. A recipe from 1807 reproduced in Andre Simon’s ‘Cereals’ instructs the cook to:
Rub 1 lb. of butter into 2 lb. of fine flour; mix in it 1 lb. of caraway comfits, beat well 12 eggs, leaving out six whites, with 6 spoonfuls of new yeast, and the same quantity of cream made warm; mix all together, and set it by the fire to rise; when made up, strew comfits over them.
During the next century the caraway seeds gave way to peel, citrus zest or dried fruit, and nibbed sugar became the customary decoration. Of the many modern recipes I have for Bath buns, nearly all contain these elements, and produce a yeast-raised, enriched bun, flavoured with lemon peel, topped with tooth busting sugar nibs, and cosy home to a small gathering of dried fruit.

According to the ‘The Taste of Britain’, Mountstevens Ltd. of Bath bake from an adapted version of a 1679 recipe (using mixed spice instead of caraway) – however a browse on the internet reveals that the Mountstevens business stopped trading in 2002 (‘The Taste of Britain’ was first published in its original form in 1999, and revised form in 2006) so whether buns of this historic recipe are still available in the town I do not know. If anyone can let me know, I would appreciate it.

Elizabeth David uses Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 Bath bun recipe for ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery’, although she has slightly altered the recipe, swopping cream for milk and topping the buns with sugar rather than caraway comfits (she gives the original form of the recipe in the book). Elizabeth David felt that the Great Exhibition of 1851 was responsible for the decline and devaluing of the Bath bun, as such large numbers of the bun were produced during the course of the Exhibition (nearly one million) and standards become sloppy. Commercial production of the buns often saw lard replacing the butter and cream, and cheaper flavourings used. Buns produced outside of Bath were sometimes known as ‘London Bath buns’ or ‘London buns’. Florence White gives two contrasting recipes for Bath buns in ‘Good Things in England’ – one from 1904 with peel, currants and crushed sugar, and one from the early eighteenth century with sack, rosewater and caraway comfits.

For my try at Bath buns I used the Elizabeth Raffald recipe as revisited by Elizabeth David. Considering the mixed success I have had previously with yeast-leavened buns and loaves, I was a bit nervous about giving the recipe go. But, with the acquisition of new house, new kitchen and new oven since my last attempt, I at least had a new set of circumstances to blame for any failure…

450g white flour (I used strong bread flour - E.D. says, that, or plain will work)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons caster sugar
225g butter
1 tablespoon caraway seeds (E.D. omits these, but I like the flavour and it is a more ‘authentic’ taste for the buns than lemon, peel etc.)
15 g yeast (fresh) or 7g (dried)
280g warm milk

For glazing:
1 tablespoon milk
2 tablespoons caster sugar
Brown sugar granules for coffee, lightly crushed in a mortar

1. Add the salt and sugar to the flour, then rub in the butter. Stir through the caraway seeds.
2. I used dried yeast so I added this to the butter rubbed flour. If using fresh, first liven it up by adding it to the warm milk.
3. Add the milk and mix ‘to a light dough’. Initially the mixture looks very like cake mix – very moist – but don’t be tempted to add more flour.

Referring to the ‘Leith’s Baking Bible’, the recommended method for hand-kneading soft dough (i.e. with a high butter/fat content), is to take a handful of the dough and pull upwards – then push back down onto the work surface.

You will see from my pictures that although the dough looks quite ‘wet’, it is not sticky and my kneading hand stays pretty clean.

4. Once kneaded, cover the bowl and leave to rise. E.D. suggests this takes about one and a half hours, but it took my dough about two and a half hours to double in volume (the consequence of an English summer, I expect...)
5. Prepare two baking sheets, and use a tablespoon to scoop out 12 portions of dough. Shape into buns and smooth the top surface using a palette knife (or finger). Cover and leave for quarter of hour to regain spring.

6. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes at 375F/190C/Gas 5.
7. Just before the buns have finished cooking, prepare the glaze. Warm the milk and sugar in a small saucepan. As soon as the buns are baked use a pastry brush to anoint the tops and sprinkle with a little of the crushed sugar.

E.D. suggests that if possible eat these buns fresh from the oven. Frankly, it seems quite criminal not to do this, and to waste an opportunity for warm bun savouring. However, if a dozen buns are beyond you in one sitting, then they are good later on split, toasted and spread with a little butter. Eaten fresh they are a bun triumph. The delicate crust has just the right degree of firmness to provide the teeth with the smallest of warm-ups, before sinking into the bun proper. The ‘crumb’ of the bun looks like that of a bread, not cake-like in the way of a brioche - but I think that is down to the strong flour I used, plain flour should result in a more spongey dough. Pre-chemical raising-agents (baking powder etc.) all cakes would have been made using yeast as a leaven, and therefore my Bath buns were a favourable demonstration to me of how such cakes would/could have been, and more successful I felt than the previously baked Saffron cake.

The Bath buns were resplendent with buttery richness, and the quantity of caraway seeds just enough to give extra warmth of flavour. I enjoyed also the occasional crunchy sugar ‘hit’, which allowed my tastebuds to find a counterpoint to the butter. Despite my bread-making inhibitions I found that this recipe (with thanks to my new kitchen?) worked a treat, and these buns were really very good. I am keen now to find another yeast-raised cake recipe to try my hand at, which is good, as I have a fair few tucked up my sleeve for later...

Nigel Slater visits Bath and samples Bath buns (amongst other things).

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Tunbridge Wells Wafers (or Romary Biscuits)

The family bakery of Alfred Romary was responsible for the wafer biscuit exported from the Kent spa town of Tunbridge Wells (Royal Tunbridge Wells, if you please) and sent out to Macy’s of New York, food stores in Belgium and Paris, and up to London for sale in Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Morel Bros. Cobbett & Son Ltd., and Jacksons of Piccadilly - all purveyors of fine foods. Queen Victoria visited Alfred’s shop just before Christmas 1876, and liked the wafers so much that she granted the company a Warrant of Appointment to Her Majesty, and subsequent monarchs continued the custom - high praise indeed. Framed letters proudly displayed on the shop walls were orders for biscuits from the Queens of Yugoslavia, Spain and Romania. Tunbridge Wells Wafers were clearly enjoyed by discerning women of grand quality – do all Queens like a biscuit with a cup of tea?

Alfred Romary set up in business in 1862 at 26 Church Road, Tunbridge Wells. Initially he was classified as a ‘Water cake maker’, but it was his wafers that made his name famous around the globe. In 1926 A. Romary & Co. became a limited company when W. A. P. Lane bought it. According to Dorothy Hartley in ‘Good Things in England’ the company was sold onto Freeman’s Norwich Hollow Biscuits prior to 1932, the year her book was published. I could find no corroboration of this in the other material I read, but Romary’s did at some stage start making and selling Freeman’s Norwich Hollow biscuits (a type of rusk). In 1935 Rowntree purchased the company and built a new factory in Tunbridge Wells, although some baking continued to be carried out at Romary’s bakery in Church Road. Rowntree stopped making the Tunbridge Wells Wafers locally in 1957, a result of wartime and post-war rationing. However, in 1963 production restarted at Rowntree’s factory in Glasgow (because the Queen liked the biscuits, apparently), and continued until 1981. A final batch of biscuits was made for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Rowntree was acquired by Nestle in 1988, so the Tunbridge Wells Wafers original recipe must lie deep in the archives of this Goliath.

What made Tunbridge Wells Wafers so good that they met with royal approval? (Maybe Duchy Originals should pick up the baton and manufacture them now.) Romary’s themselves described the biscuits in a trade advertisement: ‘As thin as lace, of a flavour so delicate as to be indefinable. The clubs serve them with port, but they are also excellent with ices or at afternoon tea. Many people prefer them to sweets and chocolate. In two flavours, Sweet and Ginger.’ ‘Good Things in England’ (1932) says of Romary’s Tunbridge Wells Wafers: ‘There are Ginger wafers, Royal wafers, water biscuits, Old English stone-ground wheaten wafer biscuits, etc., all unique and delicate eating, quite different from the ordinary biscuits however good; and distinctively English.’ Mary Ann Pike writing in ‘Town & Country, Fare & Fable’ (1978) states; ‘The wafers are about 3 inches in diameter, very delicate and lacy, and are good with cheese as well as wine.’

Wafer biscuits can be cooked by heating the raw mixture between two metal plates (think thin waffles), but Romary’s cooked their biscuits on metal trays in ovens. The paste was rolled to wafer thinness by hand, and continued to be so even after Rowntree introduced mechanisation. A spiked roller was used to make the perforations so the biscuits could be made rapidly, and quickly sent to the oven for baking. The booklet I obtained from Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery says that ‘trap ovens’ were used. Does anyone know what a trap oven is?

Although Romary’s Tunbridge Wells Wafers were a proprietary recipe, I found on my bookshelves not one, but two possible recipes for the biscuits (and thereby proving the point that, yes, I did need to buy that book). The first is a recipe titled ‘Tunbridge Wells Cakes’, in Dorothy Gladys Spicer’s collection ‘From an English Oven’ (1948). However on closer examination her recipe is for a shortbread type biscuit flavoured with caraway seeds. It looked as if it would produce a biscuit similar to the Shrewsbury Cakes I have recently posted about, and I was pretty certain that this is not what Romary’s famous wafers would have been like. I subsequently came across another recipe for Tunbridge [Wells] Cakes on the internet - this on a site relating to the era of Jane Austen (see no. 29) - the recipe (sourced from one of two cookbooks written between 1749 and 1796) is identical to the one in ‘From an English Oven’, and predates Romary’s Tunbridge Wells Wafers by 100 years. It would be interesting to learn more about this older biscuit – perhaps they were enjoyed by genteel Regency visitors attending the Spa?

The second recipe looked closer to the mark, as this was quite different in terms of method and ingredients and I reckoned it would produce a biscuit not too far removed from the brandy snap - so definitely a contender for the description ‘delicate and lacey’. This latter recipe is in Section IV (‘Cereals’) of Andre Simon’s ‘Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy’ (published by The Wine and Food Society in 1945), the recipe is ascribed to Doris Lytton Toye, who wrote for Vogue magazine at that time. I decided to go with this recipe, but I would love to hear from anyone with an ‘authentic’ recipe. I baked once, and then had to refine the recipe and instructions as my first batch of biscuits was not a happy one. Ingredients and method are my revised versions:

Tunbridge Wells Wafers

150g plain flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
55g treacle (I had to decide whether this meant black treacle or golden syrup, as the term ‘treacle’ has in the past been used for both substances. I went with golden syrup as I felt that black treacle biscuits would be more of an acquired taste and golden syrup more of a crowd-pleaser, but please feel freee to try black treacle if that tickles your tastebuds.)
55g butter
55g caster sugar or soft brown sugar

1. Preheat oven to 150C/300F/Gas 2 (D. L. T. suggests cooking in a ‘very moderate oven’, so this is my approximation of that instruction – we have a fan oven).
2. Prepare two baking sheets by lining with greaseproof paper.
3. In a medium sized saucepan melt the butter, treacle and sugar. Don’t allow the mixture to become too hot - as soon as the ingredients have blended remove from the heat.
4. Sift the flour, baking powder and ginger into a bowl. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the warmed mixture, stirring to combine after every spoonful and mix to a paste. D. L. T. recommends that it is easier to handle the paste if it is used while still warm.
5. Divide into three portions. On a floured surface roll out each portion as thinly as you can. I found that the best way to work was to roll the dough out directly onto the baking sheet, use my 3 inch metal cutter to mark out the biscuits, and then to remove the surplus dough. This meant that I didn't have to try and move very thin pieces of dough.
6. Bake for about 10 minutes.
7. Allow to cool for a few minutes only, before transferring to a wire rack.

Doris Lytton Toye states that wafers are the ‘thinnest and lightest of biscuits’, but I have to tell you that initially this recipe produced a biscuit with neither of these qualities. The liquid and the dry elements of the dough did not marry well, the mixture appeared too dry and was impossible to form into a smooth paste.

I decided to add a little milk to bind the dough, which helped, but I struggled to roll the dough out as the mix continued to crumble apart. In the end I managed to use my rolling pin to both compress and roll enough of the dough to form a dozen biscuits, but there was no way of rolling to wafer thinness. The resulting ‘wafer’ was crisp to the point of hard, and although the flavour was not bad, it couldn’t make up for the tooth-snapping texture.

Compared to the brandy snap recipe I previously cooked (successfully), that uses a similar method of melting together sugar, syrup and butter, the proportion of flour seemed very high. Was the recipe in error, or was there a flaw in my technique? I had a look at a few brandy snap recipes, and I noticed that they instructed that you add the dry ingredients to the wet, whereas the recipe in 'Cereals' the contrary was the case. By working a spoonful of flour at a time into the warmed butter, treacle and sugar mixture I was able to form a smooth paste, and stop adding flour once the correct consistency had been acheived - this meant I had about 25g of flour left over - the 150g in the ingredient list above is my adjusted amount.

My adjusted recipe produced a far lighter biscuit, which still had a degree of rigidity, but in a thinner biscuit this translated into 'snap', or a delicate brittleness. The biscuits had a good tangy gingeryness. Look at how the light travels through my second wafer, compared to the sunlight neutralising first version. Now which do you think her majesty would prefer - and which would go to the corgis?

With thanks to Ian Beavis at Tunbridge Well’s Museum and Art Gallery, Karen Tayler at Tunbridge Wells Library, and ‘Anke’ at www.anke.blogs.com, all of who helped with information. Tunbridge Wells Museum sell a booklet entitled ‘Tunbridge Wells Biscuits – The Story of Romary’s’ – yours for £2.25 – please contact the museum to purchase a copy.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Shrewsbury Cakes from Shropshire

Much of my information about Shrewsbury cakes/biscuits has come from ‘The Taste of Britain’, by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown. For anyone with an interest in British foods and ingredients I recommend this book. The contents cover the produce of each region – vegetables, fruit, livestock and dairy products; and also documents traditional dishes, describing their ingredients (although no recipes are supplied), physical appearance (colour, size, weight) and their history. Brown and Mason originally drew together all of this information for an Europe-wide project that aimed to record traditional ingredients and dishes that are still grown, farmed or in production. It is therefore not an exhaustive list of traditional foods, but the book is incredibly impressive in both its breadth and its scholarship. It is also extremely readable and inspiring, making one want to go on a nationwide tasting spree.

According to Mason & Brown, Shrewsbury cakes (or biscuits) were first documented in the 1500s. The ingredients used at this time are unknown, but the cakes were renowned for their texture, being crisp and brittle. A couple of centuries later the Restoration playwright William Congreve used Shrewsbury cakes as a metaphor (“as short as a Shrewsbury cake”) within his play of 1700, ‘The Way of the World’. Another writer helped to popularise the cakes in the 19th century, . Richard Harris Barham writing as Thomas Ingoldsby penned a tale of ‘Bloudie Jacke of Shrewsberrie. The Shropshire Bluebeard - A Legend of the Proud Salopians’ (Salop is an abbreviation for the county of Shropshire). In this 1840 poem Shrewsbury cakes are attributed to Mr Pailin (“Oh, Pailin! Prince of cake-compounders! the mouth liquefies at thy very name”). If Mr. Pailin was a real person or not has not has as far I can tell been established, although a plaque on an old shop near to Shrewsbury Castle states that "This shop occupies the site of a building where Palin first made the unique Shrewsbury cakes to his original recipe in the year 1760” (alongside a quote from ‘Thomas Ingoldsby’ of 1840), and Mason and Brown write that a Miss Hill, daughter to a confectioner of the town, may have married a Mr. Palin(Pailin). Whether he was fact or fiction, Mr. Pailin's name was taken by a manufacturer, Thomas Plimmer & Sons in the town, who registered as a trademark the name ‘Pailin’s Original Shrewsbury Cakes’. Production up until the Second World War was by Phillip’s Stores Limited. Sadly, due to the rationing of key ingredients, in particular butter, the manufacture of the biscuits then finished. If anyone knows of a commercial manufacturer in the town today, please let me know.

According to ‘The Taste of Britain” the earliest written recipe for the cakes is in Eliza Smith’s ‘The Compleat Housewife’ in 1728. Ms. Smith’s recipe is for a sweet biscuit with nutmeg and cinnamon. However, my internet rummaging came up with an earlier recipe, and Florence White’s ‘Good Things in England’ (1932) has a recipe that may also predate Eliza Smith’s book. The recipe in ‘Good Things…’ come from a Colonel Plomer of Shrewsbury, and he supplied it from a family receipt (recipe) book kept from 1630 to 1750. The Plomer family recipe flavours the biscuits with caraway seeds, nutmeg, sack (or sherry) and rosewater.

The second, older, recipe I found is in Hannah Woolley’s ‘The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet’, published in 1672. She flavoured her biscuits with cinnamon and rosewater only.

I am going to follow Colonel Plomer’s recipe, and not only because he has a fine name. I do like the flavour of both caraway seeds and rosewater, so I am happy to try them out in combination in one biscuit. The Colonel’s recipe works with one pound each of flour, butter and sugar. This must make up a rather large quantity of mixture, so I shall halve the recipe.

225g plain flour
225g caster sugar
225g unsalted butter
5g caraway seeds
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 egg, beaten
1 and 1/2 tbsp sherry (I only used the measure of rosewater as the mix was so wet)
1 and 1/2 tbsp rosewater

1. Preheat oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3. Prepare two large baking sheets.
2. Rub the butter into the flour.
3. Add the spices to the sugar and then tip the whole into the flour and butter mixture.
4. Add the beaten egg, and also the rosewater. I did this ahead of adding sherry, and found the mixture already to be too wet for rolling out successfully. I had to add more flour and omit the sherry altogether. I then chilled the mixture, covered, in the fridge. I left mine overnight, as I had to return to my little man, but 30 minutes would probably do it.
5. Roll out the mixture on a floured work surface. This still might take a bit of doing as the mixture is still a little sticky. Using circular fluted cutters to press out your biscuits and pop onto baking sheets.
6. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, but keep an eye on them. With all that butter and sugar disaster could quickly strike should one go off for a nice cup of tea.
7. Leave biscuits to cool for a few minutes before sliding them onto a wire cooling rack.

The biscuits were very sweet and buttery, as you might well expect considering the proportions of ingredients. The rosewater added to this sweetness, but for me the nutmeg was completely lost. Caraway seeds have a distinctive flavour and they did manage to stand up to the rest of the biscuit, and retain a voice of their own. The biscuits had a rather nice denseness and the promised brittleness manifested itself in a good clean ‘snap’. That all said, I would next time round look at reducing the amount of butter (made the mixture difficult to work) and the sugar (I like my own teeth), perhaps adapting a more standard shortbread recipe as these biscuits are a form of shortbread.

I’ve had a request for an up-to-date picture of Ellis. Just the one, but I only need to be asked once. Thank-you for indulging me my proud mumness! Here he is – 9 1/2 weeks young.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Easter Treat

For my first posting after my young man’s arrival, I am going to keep things fairly simple. I am also writing under a tut-tutting of disapproval from my husband, not due to neglection of the little ‘un, but because I have accepted a commercial freebie in the form of a chocolate Easter egg from Hotel Chocolat. Now I was quite flattered to have a company contact me and offer to send me a luxurious Easter egg gratis, in return for my reviewing said item on my blog. Mainly because it suggested that somebody believed the readership of my site extends beyond me, and my mum and dad. I couldn’t see too large a dilemma, or too fatal a blow to my integrity (do let me know if you disagree!), after all I might try the egg and promptly demand it be scrambled. Hotel Chocolat presumably banked on my taste buds coinciding with their own taste values, but a review can go either way, and an Easter egg is a sweet of two halves…

I knew of Hotel Chocolat, but had never before eaten any of their goodies. Their leaflets fall from the Sunday papers from time to time, and I have previously got as far as going for a drool on their website. I once idly thought about buying myself a subscription to their Chocolate Tasting Club – such a fabulous idea, to receive regular supplies of top-notch chocs by post. Just as one polishes off one box, there goes the doorbell with the postman bearing a new box. Fab. There were two reasons why I didn’t sign up. 1. The idea of buying oneself a chocolate subscription just seemed a little too self-indulgent, even for me. It would be a fabulous gift. 2. I would have had to share the chocolates with my husband, unless I could come up with a subterfuge that would result in the chocolates being delivered to a neutral third party (work would have been too risky). Not that I don’t like to share with my husband, but when it comes to chocolate sometimes a firm line needs to be drawn.

So, to the egg. I should say at this point that I have made chocolate eggs in the past, so perhaps I do have some ‘expert’ knowledge that I can call upon for this important egg assessment. One year I made small solid chocolate eggs, by emptying the contents of a hen’s egg, and using the shell as a mould. Nice and simple. Then last Spring I went on a chocolate workshop at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. During this day I learnt how to: 1. make a terrible sticky mess using chocolate and as many utensils as I could lay my hands on; 2. make some delicious truffles which resembled other brown objects not generally perceived as delicacies; 3. how to temper chocolate and create an Easter egg using a mould of two halves, and using a brush and melted chocolate to build up the shell. I recreated the moulded egg at home for my husband (you see, I can be generous sometimes), and ended up with an egg that needed a JCB to crack it open. The Hotel Chocolat egg claimed to have an extra thick shell, so I looked forward to seeing if it could compete with the bad boy I made.

I had been sent a British Classics egg. A 72% dark chocolate shell embedded with small fragments of cinder toffee, and filled with a selection of chocolate sweets chosen to be nostalgic but in a sophisticated way (a chocolate fondant mouse was included rather than a sugar one). The egg was carefully packaged in a very grown-up, although rather understated (I prefer a bit more campness) looking, black box, and this box travelled within another to arrive safely unbroken at my home. Each half of the egg is wrapped separately in foil and the chocolate goodies are in small bags within each half. A visit to the Hotel Chocolat website reassures me that the plastic element of their packaging will soon be replaced by a biodegradable alternative. However, the part that disappeared first in my home was the edible mouse. Cheeky devil - one minute on the table, the next nowhere to be seen. Chomp chomp.

I sampled first the sweets. Large discs of stem ginger encased in chocolate. Chocolate covered cinder toffee (think v.posh Crunchie bars, but don't tell that to Hotel Chocolat). Dipped brazil nuts (brazil nuts are so GOOD for one, aren't they?). Marzipan with orange in a chocolate overcoat - very nice, but I could have readily munched the marzipan naked as I love the stuff (take that how you will). Sorry, don't know what happened to the mouse, but it was milk chocolate and filled with smooth creamy praline. As to the the egg. Well, I was impressed to discover that this egg did exactly what it said on the box. It did indeed have a extra thick shell, almost immodestly so. If the egg had been served up whole instead of in two pieces, I think it would have taken some serious heavy tools to force entry. Instead I gave my hands and teeth a good work-out.

So if I wasn't enjoying a free treat, would I be prepared to pay £18 for the egg? Do you know, I believe I would. It is definitely an egg to eat slowly and enjoy, rather than one that you end up bolting down in the time it takes to boil a you-know-what (don't tell me I'm the only one capable of such naughty gluttony?). For me dark chocolate is more of an after-dinner taste, perhaps with a chilled glass of something sweet (and we're not talking chocolate milk). This egg should last me at least a week of after-dinners, and that may also allow for sharing!

P.S. I had high hopes to make an Easter egg offering of my own to conclude this post with. I had decided to make some marzipan, form an egg, and then present it beautifully coloured and gilded. Unfortunately the result looked more like an Easter potato, and not half as appetising as a painted golden spud. It is better therefore that I sign off with an image of one of my little solid chocolate eggs (prepared earlier), so that I can continue to hold my head up high and wish you (a belated) Happy Easter.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Truly Scrumptious

I have had a busy old time of it since my last posting. At the end of the second week of February, we at last were able to move to our new home in Hitchin. Two weeks after that, on the 25th of February, the really important event we had been looking forward to happened and we had a lovely little boy - Ellis Lloyd Graham. More delicious than the most delicious kitchen creation.

Thank you to everyone who has left comments on my site over the last month and a half. I have only just been able to log on and view them. Thanks to the efficiency of BT we have been without an internet connection since the beginning of February, until the middle of last week. I am hoping that in between topping up Master Ellis' fliud intake, and catching up on the odd bit of shut-eye, I will be able to continue on my baking quest (and maintain the yummy as well as the mummy).

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Honey Tea Bread

Motherhood shortly pending, last Friday was my final day at work. I am lucky enough to be able to take twelve months' maternity leave, and although currently the year stretches out ahead of me in a seemingly endless way, I expect that come the big arrival time will start to fly.

I was given a lovely send-off by my work friends, some of whom I have only had the pleasure of working with for a short time, but we had all bonded over coffee/tea and cake of a morning. Coffee and cake for one is never as fun (although it does mean more cake for me), so this posting I would like to write as a thank-you to the team and as a virtual coffee/tea-break for them to share in.

One of the presents I was given was a cup and saucer set, designed by someone who obviously also enjoys the finer, simple pleasures of life. The saucer has space on it for a slice of cake to accompany whatever warm beverage you are most partial to. What a work of genius.

I was also given a rather fine and cleverly designed mixing bowl. This is ergonomically shaped so that it sits both into the crook of the arm, and securely on the worktop by means of an angled base. Gary Rhodes has put his name to the range, and it is nice to think of Gary waking in the middle of the night with the idea fresh in his head, but possibly someone else did the night-time inspiration on his behalf. We shall never know…

So taking the lead from these two gifts, and also the long-standing tradition of mid-morning and mid-afternoon social refuelling, I have baked a suitable cake to accompany a pot of tea; or if you need a shot of something stronger pre-lunch, then a pot of coffee.

Across Britain home-bakers have created a wide gamut of cakes and breads well suited to accompany a nice cup of tea. I say tea, because historically we are a nation of tea drinkers. Coffee had its heyday here in the late 17th century, mainly amongst the wealthy and intellectual; but once tax on tea was reduced the coffee pot was drained and rarely refilled. Coffee remained a European preference and not an English taste, until we saw the introduction here of Italian-style coffee bars and then the emergence of the American coffee chain that I need not name; but this has been a slow percolation over the last fifty years or so. Tea is the drink of the people, a social activity as much as a refreshment. What would this country be without tea and cake; tea rooms; tea breaks; tea stops; flasks of tea; tea shops; tea and biscuits; tea dances; tea and sympathy; High Tea and Afternoon Tea? One can drink it by oneself, but a pot of tea is so much nicer placed in the middle of a table surrounded by other folk.

Tea breads come in as many different forms as there are ways of taking tea. Sweetened breads are the pre-raising agent equivalent of cakes, and the older forms of tea bread are yeast-raised doughs – think of such treats as Hot Cross buns, Chelsea buns and Saffron cake. With the introduction of baking powders in the mid-19th century, tea breads and cakes could take a different form, and could become as light as a Victoria sponge cake, or dense and delicious like Madeira cake. From these examples you will see that there are few cakes not suited to accompany a nice cuppa.

Jane Grigson gives a recipe for Fruit Tea Loaf in English Food. Ms. Grigson states that such cakes were particularly popular in Yorkshire and the North of England, where they were served at High Tea and at post-funeral get-togethers (wakes). High Tea is a Northern/Scottish meal, served early Sunday evening prior to church. It is a proper family sit-down, with copious amounts of tea and home-baked goodies. Jane also mentions that tea loaves are all the better for a few days keeping before eating – something I usually struggle with in my greed, but that I did manage to achieve this time (a big pat on the back to me).

My recipe is another take on the tea bread idea, for it makes use of tea as an ingredient – a key element in fact – the tea both rehydrates the dried fruits in the cake, and adds a depth of flavour. The recipe comes from the website of the Honey Association. I thought I would get a plug in for them ahead of National Honey Week, which runs from the 12th to the 18th of February. The recipe uses honey instead of refined sugar. As honey has a more distinct flavour than sugar, I was interested to see if I could still taste it in the finished cake – or would the tea flavour dominate?

I used Twinings Afternoon Tea in my cake. This may cause a shudder amongst tea-drinkers of a sensitive disposition, but I do have to confess that I used tea bags. We are coffee drinkers at home, so I swiped a few bags from the cupboard at work (tea tastes are far classier there). Twinings Afternoon Tea is a blend of Kenyan, Assam and Ceylon teas. It is described as having a character being 'bright and refreshing'. Well, I'm pleased to make your acquaintance.

The honey also has a link with my recently departed from company. An ex-fellow worker’s father has his own bees, and the honey I used in the cake is from him. The honey was produced by busy bees in Frome, Somerset. Which by coincidence is also the county where the butter I used for slice spreading was produced.

So I soaked my fruit, made my cake and then left it to its own devices for a few days, tightly swaddled in kitchen foil. The grand unwrapping came when I had the pleasure of having my mum here for the day, and we were able to sit down and enjoy tea and cake together. The cake was lovely and moist, and after some ladylike sniffing, we judged that there seemed to be a hint of honey scent to the cake. I couldn’t really determine a flavour of honey, nor of tea, but it was pleasant enough taste-wise, although I think it could have benefited from having a little more definite flavour.

My mum brought with her a box of homemade flapjacks, so I can now look forward to several morning-coffee ‘breaks’ with a flapjack at the side of my cup. It is a tough job not working.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Coventry Godcakes

Godcakes seem to be peculiar to Coventry, although similar pastries known as God's Kitchels (or Kichels) have an association with the Suffolk area (according to Florence White). Both Godcakes and God's Kitchels were handed out at the beginning of the year (or Easter), by godparents to godchildren. The idea was that when a godchild approached their godparent to request a blessing, they would come away with a double-whammy - a blessing and a cake. A fair deal for the godchild, I think. Many internet sources claim that Chaucer mentioned Godcakes, but from a speed through online transcriptions it appears that it is Godde's Kichels that are referred to - see The Sompnour's Tale (set in Holderness, Yorkshire).

From a glance at the photo at the head of this posting, many pastry fans will see that Godcakes bear more than a passing resemblance to jam puffs; and to be fair, aside from the filling they are identical. Jam puffs are known apparently known in the bakery trade as 'Coventrys', by reason of their descent from the Coventry Godcake. Godcakes are filled with mincemeat rather than fruit/jam.

Historically, Godcakes ranged in size and price, depending on the pocket and generosity of the godparent. The triangular shape, along with the three slashes in the top of the pastry, has led to speculation that the cakes were representative of the Trinity, but this is an assumption rather than a fact. Dorothy Hartley mentions this association with the Trinity, but says 'the origin is obscure'.

Godcakes are very easy for the heavily pregnant and time-poor cook to assemble. They are also a good way of using up any leftover Christmas mincemeat. Some recipes call for an addition of rum to the mincemeat; and if you fancy slipping a measure in, then please do so. If you purchase a pack of puff-pastry, then this recipe couldn't be simpler. Recipes and methods vary very little between sources - both Florence White and Dorothy Hartley carry recipes, but see also Town & Country Fare & Fable, and English Teatime Recipes.

Puff pastry
Dash of rum (optional)
1 egg white and some caster sugar to finish

1. Preheat oven to 220C/425F/Gas mark 7.
2. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface.
3. Methods divulge at this point, so you can either cut out squares (4 inches per side), and then cut the squares into triangles; or leave the squares uncut. It depends whether you want to make your Godcake using two triangles pressed together, or using a square folded diagonally. I tried both ways to see what worked/looked best.
4. Place a teaspoonful of mincemeat in the middle of your pastry shape. Don't be too generous, otherwise the mincemeat will squidge out when you press the pastry together. I found that if the quantity looked a little mean in my eyes, then it was sufficient.
5. Moisten the edges of the pastry with a little water, and press either the second pastry triangle on top, or fold the other half of the square over to form a triangle. Press the edges of the triangle to form a seal/eject mincemeat all over the worktop.
6. Cut three slashes in the top of your Godcakes. Brush with egg white and sprinkle with sugar.
7. Bake for approx. 15 minutes, or until golden and well puffed up.
8. Cool on wire rack.

The two triangles method produced a very neat looking cake - should this matter to you.

The folded square method produced a cake that distorted a little in the baking, but I rather like the way that the puffed pastry has an emphatic fold - like a big pastry duvet...

Needless to say, regardless of method, both sets of cakes were consumed very quickly, without either consulting godparents or considering the needs of those requiring blessings. Bless us.

One last thought on Godcakes. For Christmas my brother gave me a fantastic book called 'England in Particular', that is filled to the rafters with interesting lore and history on all aspects of England. Godcakes, according to this book, have a second meaning. A god cake (or jam puff) is a Warwickshire name for the triangle of grass at a road junction - created as the road splits to go left and right. I thought that this was probably a lost expression, but when researching Godcakes on google, I was extremely heartened to come across a note in July 2004 Parish Council minutes for Balsall, Warwickshire (not far outside Coventry), that read:

15.8 The Footpaths and Highways Committee will consider the request to re-plant the Godcake in Oldwich Lane.

Please no-one write and tell me that this doesn't refer to a large jam puff at a crossroads.