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.