Monthly Archives: December 2022

Black bun (Scotch Bun) Part 2: Recipe

My traditional yeast-leavened black bun

As promised, and carrying on from my last post, here is my recipe for the traditional yeast leavened black bun (Scotch bun). I must say I was really surprised with how well it turned out: it was enriched with so much stuff and was so huge, I thought the poor little yeast cells wouldn’t be able to do their job. I was wrong, but it did take two days to do two provings required before baking.

The white dough is essentially a sweet brioche made without eggs. When it was time to knock it back after its first rising, I was encouraged by the network of small yeasty bubbles that had formed inside the dough.

The tiny bubbles in my enriched basic dough

The bun was huge and made quite the centrepiece (though if you wanted to reduce the quantities and make a smaller one, go ahead). The cake inside was deliciously moist, and the brioche dough wonderfully buttery and thin and in such contrast with the treacle-black centre.


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It may have been big, but it kept well and was perfectly delicious well over a week after baking.

For the basic dough:

450 g plain white flour

450 g strong white bread flour

160 g caster sugar

10 g dried fast-action yeast

20 g salt

160 g softened butter

400 ml hand-hot full-fat milk

A smidge of flavourless oil

For the centre:

750 g basic dough

100 ml black treacle

400 g currants

400 g raisins

100 g candied peel

100 g slivered almonds

1 tsp mixed spice

½ tsp each ground cinnamon and allspice

2 eggs, plus 1 more for glazing

Butter for greasing

Granulated sugar

Two days before you want to bake your black bun, in the evening, make the basic dough. This is best done with an electric mixer, however don’t let me stop you attempting this by hand. Mix the dry ingredients – flours, yeast, sugar and salt – in your mixing bowl, make a well and add the butter and milk. Mix slowly with a dough hook until everything is mixed together, then turn the speed up a little and knead until smooth. Because it’s a low-gluten mixture and there’s all of that butter and sugar, it won’t be very elastic, but when it’s really smooth, you are done. It should take 8 to 10 minutes.

Paint the inside of a bowl with oil, then bundle up the sticky dough as best you can and cover with cling film. Leave to prove until around double in size. This took 18 hours: I use a low amount of yeast on purpose that the yeast ferments slowly. It may take less time for you if you used more yeast, and if your home is warmer than mine.

Knock back the dough and place 750 g of the dough in your food mixer, then add the treacle, dried fruits, candied peel, almonds, spices and eggs. Mix with a flat beater for a couple of minutes until everything looks smooth and like a Christmas cake batter. Set aside.

Take the remaining dough, form into a ball, place on a floured work surface and roll out into a large circle 32-35 cm in diameter. Make sure your pin is floured too; this will prevent sticking. With slightly wet hands, scoop the dark sticky dough and pop it in the centre of your circle. Now gather the dough so that the centre is completely covered – rather like a giant Eccles cake.

Cut away bits of the dough that have bunched up too much and glue any edges with a thin coat of beaten egg. Don’t worry if it looks a bit messy. Turn the bun over and flatten it with your hands, smoothing away any bulging bits to make a nice round shape.

Now liberally grease a 25 cm flan ring with butter and place on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper and then dusted with flour, and place the bun in the centre. Press the bun or lightly roll it with your rolling pin so that is just a centimetre off from touching the edge. Paint the top with egg and scatter over a little granulated sugar, then stab holes in the top with a thin, pointed knife right down to its base – this keeps it flat as it rises. Cover with a large plastic bag[1] and allow to prove until it has grown large enough to fill the ring. For me, this took 12 hours.

Preheat your oven to 175°C and place a heatproof tin on the bottom of the oven. When it’s time to bake the bun boil the kettle, then open the oven and slide your bun onto the middle shelf, gingerly slide the tin out enough so that you can pour in the hot water, slide it back in and close the door.

Bake at this temperature for an hour, then turn the heat down to 140°C and bake for a further 2½ hours. If the top is getting too brown, cover it with some kitchen foil.

Remove from the oven, and slide onto a cooling rack. Remove the ring when the bun is just warm.

The black bun will keep for weeks in an airtight box or tub. It is delicious eaten with sharp cheese.


Notes:

[1] I find a supermarket ‘bag for life’ is best for this task. I have one that I use only for proving things like this. Turn it over and turn up the edges, as you would your trousers to make it a sturdy shape and hey presto!

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Black Bun (Scotch Bun) Part 1: History

Before we begin: a big thank you to Scots chef and food writer Sue Lawrence for helping me out with the research for this post.

It has become a Christmas tradition of mine to ask my Twitter followers to select by Christmas post for me by way of a poll. I like to include both obvious and obscure options and was very pleased this year to see roast turkey receive no votes all (though I suppose I’ll have to write about it at some point!), and the most obscure on the list – the black bun – win out with 46% of the votes.[1]

The black bun – sometimes called a Scotch bun – is a Scottish speciality that has changed in shape and constitution through the years, but is today a type of fruit cake baked in a loaf tin lined with shortcrust pastry. It is then covered with more pastry, egg washed and baked. The cake was often made black with the addition of black treacle; Sue Lawrence says of these very rich black buns, ‘the malevolent appearance of the black inner of its shiny golden pastry case might be off-putting to some black bun virgins.’ It might come as no surprise that the bun ‘is almost invariably served with a dram of whiskey.’[2]

Black buns today are fruit cakes wrapped in pastry (pic: BBC)

It is traditional to eat black buns at Hogmanay, the Scots new year festival. Food writer and chef and Sue Lawrence writes evocatively of childhood experiences of the Hogmanay celebration:

‘As I grew up, Hogmanay…was always a time for friends and fun. Friends and neighbours would get together to have a drink and the traditional shortbread (often eaten with cheese), sultana cake, black bun and such delights as ginger and blackcurrant cordial.’[3]

For many Scots Hogmanay, was – and is – more important than Christmas Day is the Christmastide calendar. The black bun is actually the Scots’ Twelfth Cake, but the food and the party was, according to F. Marion McNeill, ‘transferred to Hogmanay after the banning of Christmas and its subsidiary festival, Uphaelieday or Twelfth Night, by the Reformers.’ Christmas Day saw a similar treatment, hence the importance of Hogmanay over other days.[4]

It’s worth mentioning that the black bun wasn’t eaten throughout Scotland: in the Highlands and islands the clootie dumpling was eaten instead.[5] I talk about the clootie dumpling and other Hogmanay foods and traditions with Ulster-Scots chef Paula McIntyre in a new episode of The British Food History Podcast published on 28 December 2022:

You may be wondering why it is called a bun. Well. If you look at older recipes, you’ll see that it was using an enriched white bread dough, a proportion of which is mixed with all of those ingredients one  might expect in a Twelfth/Christmas cake: currants, raisins (sultanas are avoided because of their paler colour), candied peel, etc. The mixture was then wrapped in the remaining dough, proved and baked. They were huge and ‘graced many a festive table in the big houses of Scotland over the centuries’, one recipe, provided by Sue Lawrence, used 15 pounds (6.8 kilos) of flour!

I first heard of the black bun, not in a Scottish cookery book as one might expect but in Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery.[6] She described it as ‘a remarkable confection’, and it is one of the few British, but not English, recipes included in the volume. Indeed, as I found out whilst researching this post, black buns were sold by Edinburgh bakers and sent as gifts all across the British Isles; so it was, at a time, well-known outside of Scotland. Because her book is on yeast cookery, Elizabeth only includes older recipes that use yeast as a leavening agent. She provides several recipes from several sources, and it is interesting to see how the bun became richer and fruitier as time went on. Black buns grew to be so enriched that it became almost impossible to leaven them using yeast, luckily this happened around the same time chemical raising agents were commercially available. At first the chemically-leavened buns were made with bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk – just like a soda bread – but over time, it became more like a regular fruit cake.[7] The pastry initially used was a huff paste – a pastry somewhere between a hot water pastry and a shortcrust. At first it wasn’t eaten, the paste simply protecting the interior, however as time went on, the pastry was swapped for a richer, more buttery shortcrust.[8]

The black bun also gets a special mention in another classic book of English food, Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England,[9] where it is described as a pastry-lined cake. Interestingly, in this book, there is a rare illustration showing the variety of shapes in which the black buns were made:

There are many fantastic recipes for the cake/pastry sort of black bun; Sue Lawrence has one in her forthcoming Scottish Baking Book, and there is one is F. Marion McNeill’s wonderful The Scot’s Kitchen[10] too, so I thought I’d give the yeast-leavened one a go.

I read through a few recipes and based mine on a recipe by Florence Jack, provided by Ms. David in her book. What I liked about it was that it seemed very black: loads of currants and raisins as well as added treacle. I did tone some of the ingredients down because it seemed to me that it enriched it simply wouldn’t rise.

I’ll let you know how I got on in the next post….


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Notes:

[1] The other two options were Brussels sprouts and buche de Noel which attained 21% and 33% of the votes respectively.

[2] Mason, L. and Brown, C. (1999) The Taste of Britain. Devon: Harper Press.

[3] Lawrence, S. (2003) Sue Lawrence’s Scottish Kitchen. Headline.

[4] McNeill, F. M. (1968) The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes. 2nd edn. Blackie & Son Limited.

[5] Mason, L. and Brown, C. (1999)

[6] David, E. (1977) English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Grub Street.

[7] Hartley, D. (1954) Food in England. Little, Brown & Company.

[8] McNeill, F. M. (1968)

[9] Hartley, D. (1954)

[10] McNeill, F. M. (1968)

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Eggnog

Merry Christmas everyone! It’s been yet another long and arduous year, but now it is time to kick back your heels – even if it is only for a short time – and to aid you in this I present my annual Christmas boozy drink post. This year, it one of my favourites: eggnog (regular readers will know of my love of anything custardy).

Eggnog isn’t really drunk that much in Britain, but it is very popular in the United States. Indeed, it is where I discovered it; I remember walking through the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in the winter term seeing several students chugging big cartons of the stuff on their way to lectures (it’s worth pointing out that the bought stuff in cartons contains no alcohol; you add your own later, should you wish to).

A selection of U.S. eggnog cartons

For those not in the know, eggnog is a thick, creamy drink made from a dark spirit, usually rum (though brandy, whisk(e)y or sherry can be used), cream or milk, eggs, sugar and spices. The ingredients are either whisked up and served chilled and frothy, or cooked like a custard and drunk hot or cold. Here’s a description of the process from nineteenth century American historian and politician Nathaniel Bouton, writing about the US in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

Another favourite drink was egg-nog, which was composed of an egg beaten and stirred together with sugar, milk and spirit…The stick used for this purpose was split at the end and a transverse piece of wood inserted, which was rapidly whirled around, back and forward, between the palms of the hands. Skilful men made graceful flourishes with…“egg-nog” sticks in those days.[1]

The drink was invented in the late colonial era, and was enjoyed all year round; it became associated with Christmas because two of the primary ingredients – eggs and cream – were expensive in wintertime and so could only be enjoyed as a treat. Therefore, it was saved for Christmastide (unless you were rich, then it didn’t matter). A tradition, one I whole-heartedly agree with, was quickly established to breakfast upon eggnog on Christmas morning. This was extended, for those who could afford it, to the full twelve days of Christmas.[2] So ubiquitous was it that eggnog was ‘consumed heartily by slave owners, slaves and children alike.’[3]

There was a drop in popularity during Prohibition,[4] but it has certainly since recovered because according to Indiana University ‘[i]n 2007, eggnog consumption nationwide was 122 million pounds with peak sales occurring the week before Thanksgiving, the weeks of Christmas, and just after Christmas.’[5]


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You may be wondering: “Er, why are you telling me about an American drink on a blog about British food history?”

Good question.

Well first you could argue that colonial America was a part of Britain, being part of its proto-empire; and second, eggnog is part of the evolution of a British drink called posset, something I have already written about. Possets were made[6] by beating or whisking alcohol – usually sweet wines and sack – with hot milk or cream, sugar and spices. Sound familiar? There was a problem for anyone making a posset in North America because sweet, imported wines were very expensive, prohibitively so for many, and so a cheap alternative was required. In eighteenth century America this was rum, and so the posset was adapted and became eggnog.

You can make your eggnog hot or cold. The hot version is a wonderful, luscious silky-thick custard, and with freshly grated nutmeg it’s just like a boozy, liquid custard tart. This you can enjoy cold too. The uncooked cold one is very different, the eggs, milk and cream froth up after a good shaking, to produce a surprisingly light and refreshing drink.

My recipe makes enough for two people so that if you are going for the uncooked version you can fit the ingredients in a cocktail shaker. If you want to make more, you’ll have to froth the mixture in a bowl with your best eggnog stick, or failing that, a whisk.

If you want to make a cold eggnog, use sugar syrup,[7] if hot can use sugar syrup or caster sugar. Note that the cold one uses raw eggs, so buy good quality free-range eggs, and avoid giving the drink to anyone immunosuppressed.

Cheers! And a very merry Christmas

Serves 2

4 shots (100 ml) dark rum (or brandy, whisk(e)y, sherry etc.)

50 ml sugar syrup or 25-30 g caster sugar

2 eggs

150 ml whole milk

150 ml double cream

Freshly grated nutmeg

Ice cubes (if drinking cold)

To make cold: In a cocktail shaker filled with cubed ice, add the alcohol, sugar syrup, eggs, milk and cream. Shake very well indeed and strain the eggnog through a fine sieve into two glasses filled with more ice cubes. Grate some nutmeg over the top and serve.

To make hot: place the alcohol, three-quarters of the sugar or sugar syrup, eggs, milk and cream in a saucepan and place over a medium-low heat and beat with a small whisk. When fully mixed, keep stirring until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from the heat but continue to stir. Taste, and add more sugar if desired.

Pass through a fine sieve into two glasses, grate nutmeg over the top and serve.


Notes:

[1] Bouton, N. The History of Concord From Its First Grant in 1725, to the Organization of the City Government in 1853. (Benning W. Sanborn, 1856).

[2] Wondrich, D. The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. (Oxford University Press, 2021).

[3] Shanahan, M. Christmas Food and Feasting: A History. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019).

[4] Wondrich, D. (2021).

[5] Christmas by the Numbers. Indiana University https://www.ibrc.indiana.edu/studies/factoid/dec09.pdf.

[6] I say were made. Modern day possets are not really a drink, more a set dessert. Very delicious, but really quite different to those of the eighteenth century.

[7] To make a sugar syrup mix equal weights of white or golden caster sugar and hot water. Stir to dissolve and leave to cool. Easy.

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Season 5 of ‘The British Food History Podcast’

Baby, it’s [bloody] cold outside.

I hope everyone is managing to keep warm in this terribly long cold spell we’re having. It’s pretty miserable, but I hopefully have something for you to help distract you during these cold, long winter nights, at least for a little while: a brand new season of The British Food History Podcast.

Yes, season 5 has just launched with a very special Christmas special with food historian Dr Annie Gray, who came on the podcast talk about Christmas feasting and Christmas food through the ages.

Food historian Annie Gray (Kristy Noble Photography)

Annie is author of several books including the excellent Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria and Victory in the Kitchen: The Life of Churchill’s Cook. She is also a frequent panellist on Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, and has appeared on countless television shows, including the excellent A Merry Tudor Christmas with Lucy Worsley.

Her most recent, At Christmas we Feast: Festive Food Through the Ages, published by Profile Books, is out now in paperback, and she kindly came on the podcast to tell me about it. We talked about many things: the myths and misconceptions about the food we eat at Christmas; why and how we feast; how the feast of Christmas has changed through time; what the Victorian’s DIDN’T invent; jelly; wassail; the ancient Xmas centrepiece the boar’s head; trifle; Yorkshire Christmas Pye; and her favourite recipes contained within the book.

If you are a £3 monthly subscriber on the blog, there are three Easter Eggs associated with this episode:

  1. An excised discussion about the merits of making one’s own mincemeat for mince pies
  2. The uncut discussion about recipes and revelations, including Yorkshire Christmas frumenty
  3. The uncut discussion about the boar’s head and squeamishness.

Follow this link to get to the Easter Eggs page which is filled with all sorts of aural food history delights that you cannot hear anywhere else.


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I have some fantastic guests lined up for this season and quite the variety of topics, including Hogmanay with Paula McIntyre, Eighteenth Century Dining with Ivan Day, and London’s Street Food Sellers with Charlie Taverner. You heard it here first!

If you’ve never tuned in before, just search ‘The British Food History Podcast’ wherever you get your podcasts – it’s available from all providers. If you haven’t already, please follow, like and leave a review: every single one counts and helps the podcast move up those algorithms so that it become easier to find by others.

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Manchets and Payndemayn

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As I mentioned last post, I used Elizabeth David’s research on the medieval and early modern bread roll called payndemayn (medieval period) or manchet (medieval and early modern), to recreate my own. The two words at one point, it seems, were interchangeable. There are many spellings of payndemayn, the root of this word being French, pain demesne, from the Latin panum dominicum, the lord’s bread.[1] The word appears in medieval manuscripts such as Forme of Cury. Manchet is believed to be a contraction of the word payndemayn – main – and cheat, the name for another, similar bread made from refined flour that wasn’t quite as white as the really good stuff. Main and cheat eventually became manchet.[2]

It was ‘the lord’s bread’ because the small bread rolls – weighing in at around only 7 ounces (200 grams) – were so expensive that only the lord, at the head of the top table, would receive one. The small loaf would be cut by the lord’s server as described here in the Boke of Keruynge (the Book of Carving) written in 1513:

take a lofe in your lyfte hand. & pare y lofe rounde aboute / than cut the over cruste to your souverayne, and cut the nether crust, & voyde the parynge, & touch the lofe no more after it is so served.[3]

The over crust, being considered the best part was eaten by the lord, and the rest divided up and given to whomever he so pleased. This is the origin of the idiom the upper crust we sometimes use when referring to the upper classes.

There are mentions of this bread all over, but there are no real recipes in the Middle Ages. There are several mentions of these loaves in recipes though, take this recipe for ‘Soppes Dorre’ from fifteenth century manuscript Harl.4016 (c.1430):

…take a paynmain, And kut him and tost him, And wete him in wyne, And ley hem in a dish, and caste [almond flavoured] syrup thereon.[4]

Elizabeth David went to great lengths in writing English Bread and Yeast Cookery to try and get an idea of what these breads were really like, gleaning cues from several sources and combining them. The earliest decent recipes and descriptions crop up in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but there are no complete ones: sometimes the ingredients are listed, but the amounts or the shape of the loaves are not given; other times, the shaping is described but the ingredients are missing. She also used artwork from the era to work out the likely shapes.

Elizabeth David’s oval-shaped manchet

It seems that they were also enriched with milk and/or butter and/or eggs, or none of the above, so perhaps something rather like a brioche (sometimes). Elizabeth took the information and created a flour mix of plain white flour, with some strong white flour and a little wholemeal flour, to replicate the lower gluten, not-quite-white nature of the wheat flour used at the time. She enriched her dough with butter and milk, avoiding egg. It put me in mind of my recipe for Cornish/Devonshire splits. She liked that in some descriptions the loaves were oval in shape. To replicate this, she made a deep slash in the dough before it went into the oven. However, I much preferred the sound of Gervase Markham’s 1623 way of shaping his loaves. He instructs us to take the risen dough and

mold it into manchets, round, and flat, scotch [cut] about the wast to give it leave to rise, and prick it with your knife in the top, and so put it into the Oven, and bake it with a gentle heat.[5]

He stabs their tops so that they wouldn’t rise too much in the oven.

My attempt at ‘scotching’ my manchet loaves

I used my Devonshire splits dough as the basis of my manchet recipe, which, as it turned out, was pleasingly very close to Elizabeth’s, except – of course – I used much less salt than she. I decided to make some in the oval shape preferred by Elizabeth, and some like those described by Gervase Markham.

By the way: coincidentally just as I was cooking and researching this post, esteemed food historian Ivan Day posted on his excellent Instagram page a photo of Markham’s manchet, showing that scotched waist, along with some other breads of the same era. Here’s a link to his post, if you want to take a look at those.

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References

[1] David, E. English Bread and Yeast Cookery. (Grub Street, 1977).

[2] Hieatt, C. B. & Butler, S. Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century. (Oxford University Press, 1985).

[3] de Worde, W. The Boke of Keruynge. in Early English Meals and Manners (ed. Furnivall, F. J.) (The Early English Text Society, 1897).

[4] Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books. (The Early English Text Society, 1888).

[5] Markham, G. Country Contentments, or The English Huswife. (I.B., for I Jackson, 1623).

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