Category Archives: baking

Medlar Tart

It’s medlar (aka openarse) season at the moment, and I thought I would try the recipe I mentioned in the medlar post from last year.

There’s quite little to go on with medlar preparation in books and the internet as people don’t really eat or cook with them these days, beyond medlar jelly, so every year, I learn a little more about eating and cooking them.

This year I have been more patient and waited for them to get fully-bletted. Medlars are a strange fruit in that they cannot be eaten until they have gone very dark, ripe and soft, a process called bletting. Any other fruit would be thrown away in this state, but medlars are unique because they go from sour and astringent to a tart, soft date-like fruit. They can be sliced in two and the soft flesh can be squeezed or spooned out. Within there are 5 large seeds, so you have watch out for them.

This medlar tart recipe comes from the 1597 book The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson. It is a very simple paste made from medlar pulp, cinnamon, ginger and sugar baked in a pastry case. Here’s the recipe as it appears in the book:

Take medlars that be rotten and stamp them. Then set them on a chafing dish with coals, and beat in two yolks of eggs, boiling till it be somewhat thick. Then season them with sugar, cinnamon and ginger and lay it in the paste.

Back in Tudor times (Elizabeth I was on the throne when the book was published), sugar was not always as refined as today, so to replicate this I used soft light brown sugar. I decided to use rough-puff pastry as my ‘paste’, as it was often used for the more delicate desserts and posh pies. I changed the method slightly and instead of thickening the medlar mixture in a pan, as you would for pouring custard, I put the uncooked mixture into the case and baked it in the oven.

I did have a look for other recipes and found that things like butter, nutmeg, candied fruit or citron, sweet cider and musk powder (that final one might be a little tricky to source) were all added merrily.

This tart is very good indeed, evocative of the American pumpkin pie. I would certainly give it a go should you happen upon a medlar tree.

For the tart:

Blind-baked shallow 8-inch pastry case

750 g well-bletted medlars

75 g caster or soft light brown sugar

3 egg yolks

1 tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger

 

Cut the medlars and twist in half widthways, as you might do with an avocado (except there are 5 pips rather than one large one). Scoop or squeeze the soft flesh into a bowl, removing pips as you go. I tried to pass the squeezed flesh through a sieve, which was a little tricky and boring but realised quite quickly that I wasn’t patient enough and decided instead that the flesh was smooth enough straight from the fruit.

Beat in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the pastry case and bake for 20 minutes at 175°C.

Eat warm with thick cream.

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King Alfred Burns the Cakes

It’s a story familiar to most of us:

King Alfred, exhausted and lost in the woods after beating the Danes in a vicious pitched battle, stumbles, bedraggled, upon a herdsman’s hut. The huntsman’s wife invites him in, and not recognising him, just assumes he is merely a soldier of Wessex, not the King! She kindly offers him rest and nourishment, as she has just put some cakes in the embers of her fire to bake.

Alfred burns the cakes

Alfred is chastised for burning the cakes

The housewife pops out to collect some more firewood, and instructs the soldier to keep an eye on the cakes whilst she is away lest they burn, but almost as soon as she is leaves, poor Alfred falls asleep. A few minutes later the housewife returns, greeted by the smell of burning cakes and a sleeping soldier:

“What sort of careless man are you, who neglects to attend to burning bread? Never have I seen so negligent a man – one who doesn’t even know how to turn ash-baked bread – and yet when it is put in front of you, you’ll no doubt rush to eat it!”

Well that’s him told!

It is assumed that this story is apocryphal, the earliest written example doesn’t appear until 300 years after the event, but I’m not so sure, it sounds like a story that would be passed down as gossip about the king. If it was made up years after the event, it would be a strange story to select; it’s not tale of derring-do, nor is it a tale of any religious significance. Is it supposed to tell us all how humble a man Alfred the Great was? What’s the moral – don’t bake cakes after pitched battle? It’s a lack of these elements, which usually appear in fantastical stories of early monarchs, that makes me think that it may be true.

Well whatever the source of the tale and the reasons for its retelling, it is a story that is almost taken for granted, but I thought I’d take a closer look at the food in this story – what were these cakes, and how were they made?

As with all food history, one needs to understand the broader historical context behind, serving as a backdrop to the food itself, setting the scene.

Alfred statue

The Statue of Alfred the Great in London (bbc.co.uk)

King Alfred – who he?

King Alfred was a late 8th Century Anglo-Saxon king, he wasn’t king of England, because England was not yet joined into one united cohesive country, Alfred was king of Wessex. The other kingdoms in England – Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia and all been occupied and taken by the Danes, or if you prefer, the Vikings!

The security of  theKingdom of Wessex and its King sat on a knife edge, and pressure from the Danes moving into the kingdom had forced Alfred and his household to hide in the marshes of the Somerset Downs. An alternative version of the story of the cakes, says that Alfred, who so lost in thought and worry about his kingdom that he wandered into woods, got rather lost and happened upon the herdsman’s hut.

Alfred plotted and planned and managed to communicate with his allies well enough to form an army. In the year 878 he fought the Danes at Edington, which he eventually won. It was in the aftermath of this battle that he discovered the herdsman’s hut. The Battle of Edington is one of the most important events in Anglo-Saxon history, because in the months afterwards, Alfred made a peace treaty with the Danes and forced them to convert to Christianity.

Alfred had reclaimed Wessex and the Danes began to settle and assimilate with the Anglo-Saxons, making England a more cohesive place, indeed Alfred’s nephew Athelstan was the first King of all the Kingdom within England, uniting the kingdoms until his death.

9th century britain

The British Isles in the late 9th Century (britroyals.com)

Ash-Baked Cakes – what they?

For folk in mediaeval times, a home-baked loaf of bread was usually out of reach, most homes lacked a suitable oven and so relied on the oven (and skills) of local bakers. For those that lived in the futher fringes of the towns – such as herdsmen – it simply wasn’t viable to make the long trek into town, it was much easier to bake cakes on their fire.

Cast iron equipment such as griddles or waffle irons, were expensive, so many had to bake little cakes of ground cereal grain (wheat, rye or oats) directly into the embers of their fires.

Baking these cakes required both an eagle eye and excellent judgement – the outside needed to be just scorched, and the inside fluffy and warm. I must admit that I am not one for making fires or having barbeques, so I’ve not had the chance to have a go at making these devilishly difficult ember cakes. However, as soon as the opportunity arises I will, and I’ll report straight back to you guys!

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Pease Pancakes

Hello there readers, sorry I’ve been a bit tardy with posts but I’ve gotten somewhat bogged with a post on the history of vegetarianism that currently looks to be about four posts long! I’m ignoring the writers’ block by writing this little easy post instead…

I was having a sort out of the kitchen cupboards and happened upon the bag of pea flour I had bought to write a post on peasebread a while ago. Researching for the post, I found that in the very north of Scotland, people ate a lot of peasemeal until recently, because very little in the way of cereals could be grown up there. These Scottish islanders would make pease pancakes amongst other things, so I thought I might have a go at them myself. Having no recipe, I just adapted my own recipe for American pancakes. They turned out pretty good – much better than the peasebread – and were delicious with some fried mushrooms and black pudding. They had a distinctive fresh pea and roast peanut flavour to them, and were slightly rubbery, but not in an unpleasant way.

Makes 10 to 12 pancakes:

½ cup pea flour

½ cup self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 tbs sunflower oil or 25 g melted butter

1 beaten egg

¾ cup milk, or half-milk half-water

sunflower oil for frying

 

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the oil or butter, egg and around half of the milk. Beat in with a wire whisk until the thick batter is lump-free, then carefully mix in the rest of the liquid.

Put a griddlepan or non-stick pan on a medium heat and allow it to get hot. Add a little oil and spoon in small ladles into the pan. You should be able to fit 3 or 4 pancakes in each pan.

Allow to fry for a couple of minutes before checking that they are golden brown. Once they are, flip and fry the other side.

Pile up and keep warm in a very cool oven. Add a little more oil to the pan if needed and continue to fry in batches.

Serve with typical breakfast things: bacon, sausage, poached egg, mushrooms etc.

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Forgotten Foods #6: Pease Bread

I often frequent the excellent vegan cooperatively-run supermarket Unicorn in Chorlton, south Manchester, to fill my food cupboards both at home and at the restaurant. One day, a couple of months ago, I spotted a very mediaeval ingredient: green pea flour. I had come across ‘peasemeal’ in several old books, but didn’t expect to ever see it for sale. (Another popular mediaeval ingredient is almond milk, used particularly on fasting days; it’s funny how these old ingredients are having a comeback as health foods.)

One of the mediaeval small-holder’s most important crops was his pea crop – they were not eaten as young sweet garden peas, but were left in the pods to mature and dry. The peas became starchy and packed with protein; an excellent nutritional source for the winter months. We use those dried peas today for mushy peas or split peas. Then, they were mainly used in pease porridge/pottage.

The pease were often ground to make peasemeal to thicken stews, and to make bread for cattle. People only ate it themselves in times of winter famine, and this peasebread was hated by all.

Peasebread and peasemeal stopped being produced in most of the UK, but it did live on until the mid-20th Century in the very North of Scotland and Orkneys, where very few crops can be grown in abundance (rye and oats are the only others really). Folk enjoyed pease scones, bannocks (flatbreads) and breads, but it was still associated with poverty.

Peasemeal is considered easy to digest, partially due to its lack of gluten, and is high in protein and carbohydrates. I quite like how some of these mediaeval ingredients are being re-examined during a time of vegan and paleo-dieting. It is strange to think how the poor were eating healthy vegetables with little fat, red meat, salt and sugar, considered then to have no nutritional value. Meanwhile, the bunged-up rich were chowing down almost entirely on meat, spice, white bread and sugar, in the belief they were eating properly. I bet their bedchambers sank in the morning.

I had to have a go at the derided peasebread, just to see how bad it was. I did cheat a little bit and mixed the peasemeal with some strong bread flour. It was pretty straight-forward to make, though the dough was very sticky was hard to knead. The resulting bread was dense and a little crumbly, but had a delicious sweet pea flavour, with hints of roasted peanut butter. Probably too dry to eat on its own, it was great toasted, buttered and dunked in soup.

So, here’s my recipe for peasebread. It made two flattened cobs.

(Notice all my liquid measurements are in grams rather than millilitres; for greater accuracy, it’s much easier to weigh your liquids, a tip from Elizabeth David.)

250g green pea flour

250g strong white bread flour

10g salt

10g instant yeast

30g sunflower or olive oil, or softened butter or lard

330g hand-hot water

In a wide mixing bowl mix together the two flours. To one side of the bowl place the salt, and place the yeast to the opposite side. Make a well in the centre and pour in the oil/fat and the water. Mix with your hands to form a dough. Leave to settle for ten minutes.

Spread a little oil on a work surface and knead until smooth. This is pretty tricky because it is so sticky, so use a dough scraper to help.

Oil a bowl and place in the dough inside and cover. Leave to rise until it has doubled in size, about 2 hours. Knock back the dough, divide into two pieces and form in to two taught, round cobs. To do this, roll into balls with oiled/floured hands, then tuck in the dough underneath whilst turning the ball, tautening the surface. Place on greased baking trays, flour generously and cut a cross in the centre. Cover with large plastic bags and leave to rise again for about an hour.

Place the cobs in a cold oven, then set the temperature to 230⁰C and bake for 40 minutes. Cool on a rack.

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Sixth Course: Pompion Pye (1658)

The Compleat Cook

So here we are at the final course of the Dinner Party Through Time. It was suggested that, seeing as the meal was but a day after Hallowe’en, it should be an English pumpkin pie. I didn’t expect to find one, but after a brief search I found a recipe for ‘Pompion Pye’ in The Compleat Cook, published in 1658 by the mysterious W.M during the time of the Protectorate when England was under the control of misery guts Oliver Cromwell. It is the first ever recorded recipe of a pumpkin pie that we know of. It reads:

To make a Pumpion  Pye. Take about halfe a pound of Pumpion and slice it, a handfull of Tyme, a little Rosemary, Parsley and sweet Marjoram slipped off the stalks, and chop them smal, then take Cinamon, Nutmeg, Pepper, and six Cloves, and beat them; take ten Eggs and beat them; then mix them, and beat them altogether, and put in as much Sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froiz; after it is fryed, let it stand till it be cold, then fill your Pye, take sliced Apples thinne round wayes, and lay a row of the Froiz, and a layer of Apples with Currans betwixt the layer while your Pye is fitted, and put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it; when the Pye is baked, take six yolks of Eggs, some white-wine or Verjuyce, & make a Caudle of this, but not too thick; cut up the Lid and put it in, stir them well together whilst the Eggs and Pumpions be not perceived, and so serve it up.

A froiz is something that has been fried, usually with beaten eggs like a Spanish omelette. A caudle is a sweetened custard made of egg yolks, cream and sugar or with wine instead of cream; it is poured through the central hole of a pie when it is cooked. Sometimes, the pie is returned to the oven so that the caudle can set before the pie is sliced. Verjuyce or verjuice is the sour juice of either crab apples or unripe grapes was used extensively in Britain; it serves the same purpose as lemon juice. Here’s a previous post all about it.

I must admit, it was very worried about making this pie for the diners. I was especially worried about the froiz with all those spices and herbs mixed into the sweetened egg and pumpkin , fried until cooked through then baked. Overcooked eggs release a lot of water and turn somewhat rubbery (as anyone who has overcooked scrambled eggs can tell you). I was not expecting good things.

The only thing I changed in the recipe was the caudle – I swapped the wine for cream and made a proper custard to pour into the pie when it came out of the oven. I thought that after six other courses, a wine caudle just might tip folk over the edge.

As it turned out, this pie was delicious! The soft apples seemed to prevent the eggs from overcooking (maybe it was the acidic conditions, they provided?) and really set off the tender sweetened pumpkin mixture. The creamy custard helped the whole thing go down very well. Although there might be a few more stages to making this pie, compared to a regular dessert fruit pie, it is well worth the effort, so give it a go.

2014-10-31 21.15.45

Here’s how I interpreted the recipe:

Ingredients

8 eggs

500g pumpkin flesh, cut into 1 ½ cm cubes, then thinly sliced

1 tsp each of finely chopped thyme, rosemary, parsley and marjoram

½ tsp each of ground cinnamon, black pepper and nutmeg

¼ tsp ground cloves

75g butter

200g caster sugar

sweet shortcrust pastry

800g Bramley apples, peeled, cored and sliced

1 handful of currants

egg wash and demerara sugar

250ml double cream, or half cream, half milk

4 egg yolks

30g sugar

 

My pie is made in an 8 inch cake tin, so begin by frying the froiz in a non-stick frying pan of a larger diameter.  Beat the eggs together with the herbs, spices and caster sugar and stir in the pumpkin slices. Melt 50g of the butter in the frying pan and, when foaming, pour in the egg mixture. Continue to fry over a medium heat, and when the froiz is half-cooked, place under a hot grill until cooked through. Slide the froiz onto a plate and let it cool.

Line an 8 inch cake tin with 2/3 of your pastry, then scatter in half of the apples and currants. If you like, sprinkle on some more sugar if the apples are particularly tart.

2014-11-01 10.10.41

Trim around the edges of the cooled froiz so that it fits snugly inside the pie before adding a second and final layer of apple and currants. Dot the remainder of the butter on top, before rolling out a lid with the reserved pastry, gluing it in place with egg wash.

2014-11-01 10.19.33

Make a hole in the centre and decorate if liked  (traditionally, sweet pies are not decorated). Glaze with egg wash and sprinkle on the sugar.

2014-11-01 16.12.04

Bake at 200⁰C for around 20-25minutes until the pastry has browned, then turn the heat down to 160⁰C and bake for a further 30 minutes or so.

Just before the time is up, make the caudle just as you would for a custard tart by heating up the cream and milk, if using, and whisking it into the egg yolks and sugar.

Remove the pie from the oven, crack open the top of the pie and pour in the caudle. Return to the oven for about 8 minutes so that it can set. Alternatively, you can heat the caudle mixture in the pan until it thickens slightly and simply pour into the cooked pie.

pumpkin pie

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First Course: Tudor Salmon en Croute

tudor fisherman

The second dish in my Dinner Party Through Time menu, and we have moved along a couple of hundred years to Tudor Britain.

This is a recipe that is inspired by the Tudor love of combining fish with candied sweetmeats. Large medieval banquets had to contain dishes with lots of spice; after all how else could you display your vast wealth other than to use that exciting spice, sugar? When first brought to Europe from India, sugar was considered a spice and therefore medicinal. It lost its rank as a spice once it gained popularity as a more general addition to the dinner table; albeit a giant banqueting table.

The addition of the salmon, then, you might feel was also a mark of an ostentatious lord. It is not the case, back in the day, before such things as pollution and overfishing, streams were teeming with fish like salmon. In fact they were so common on the River Mersey that people used to feed them to their pigs! The same, of course, goes for oysters too, and yet we can now buy a pound of sugar for 30 pence. How times have changed.

This dish is very attractive: a lovely fish wrapped neatly in pastry with some sweet spice, fruit and nuts, plus a nice piquant herb sauce. It’s pretty easy to make to boot, as long as you have good shortcrust pastry. This was so good, that it became the main course at my last pop-up restaurant.

tudor salmon 3

Yours Truly, with the fish

This recipe is actually from Jane Grigson, who did the tricky bit for us and worked out a recipe. It comes from her book English Food and I suggest you buy a copy (see the other blog about that!). The only real difference I’ve made is to multiply up the amounts; I used a whole salmon, rather than just a piece as in the book.

You will need:

1 salmon, filleted, skin on or off

250g butter, softened

8 knobs of preserved ginger, chopped

1-2 tbs of the ginger syrup

2 heaped tbs raisins or currants

2 heaped tbs slivered almonds

salt and pepper

shortcrust pastry (see method)

beaten egg

For the herb sauce:

4 shallots, very finely chopped

2 tsp parsley, finely chopped

2 tsp of chervil or tarragon, or a mixture, finely chopped

125g butter

2 tsp plain flour

600ml double cream

2 tsp English mustard

salt and pepper

4 egg yolks

juice ½ lemon

 

Beat the softened butter with the preserved ginger, raisins and almonds. Sweeten with the syrup as you see fit. Use half of the mixture to sandwich the two pieces of salmon together and then spread the remaining half over the top piece. Season with salt and pepper.

Now you are ready to encase the beast in pastry. I used a batch made of 800g flour and 400g of fat (200g each lard and butter), 2 eggs and a little water, but you might need more or less, depending upon the size of your salmon. Roll out a third of the pastry into a shape larger than the fish and place it on top. Trim around it, leaving a two centimetre gap.

Next, roll out the rest and carefully place it over the fish, trimming the pastry away so there is a one centimetre gap between it and the lower layer. Brush with beaten egg all around the edges, and fold and crimp the pastry all the way around; rather like a huge pasty. Use the trimmings for decoration. There were a few small cracks in my pastry, but I hid them most cleverly with some pastry leaves that I placed here and there. I must say, I was quite impressed with my effort.

Make two or three slashes on the top so that steam can escape and bake for around 45 minutes at 220⁰C (425⁰F). To tell that it is done use a temperature probe; if the centre is around 50⁰C it’s ready to come out. As the fish rests, it will increase in temperature.

tudor salmon 1

As it rests, you can get on with the sauce. Gently fry the shallots and herbs in butter. When the shallots have softened, stir in the flour, then the cream (reserving a little for later). Simmer for around 10 minutes, then season with salt, pepper and mustard. Whisk the egg yolks with the reserved cream, turn down the heat in the pan and pour in. The sauce will thicken as the yolks start to cook – do not let the sauce boil, or your yolks will scramble. If it seems on the thick side, add a little water. Finally, lift the whole thing by adding a good squeeze of lemon juice.

The rested salmon can now by sliced up. The best way I find to do this sort of operation is to use a serrated knife. Slice the untidy end off, but keep it pressed up against the rest of the fish as you make more slices. Don’t take away any slices until you are finished cutting, otherwise everything will crumble and collapse.

The best thing to eat with this, I would say, is a green bitter vegetable such as broccoli or kale.

 

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Toast

toasting fork

from iggandfriends.wordpress.com

Hot buttered toast must be the most popular British breakfast item, whether eaten on the run to the bus stop, or served up with a full English breakfast or posh scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on a Sunday. Elizabeth David described it as a ‘peculiarly English…delicacy’.

It is true that the wafting smell of freshly made toast combined with the sight of the slow melting of a good covering of salted butter is so comforting. Indeed, the first thing offered up to you after you’ve come round from an operation on the NHS (and I unfortunately have had many times) is tea and toast. (Digressing slightly, the first thing offered up to you after an operation in the USA is the similarly comforting cookies and milk.)

Most toast today is, of course, made from the flabby Chorleywood processed white sliced loaf, which produces quite depressingly poor ‘wangy’ toast. Proper toast requires proper bread; bread that has gone a slightly stale. Perfect toast is in the eye of the beholder: thick, thin, crisp throughout, soft in the centre, pale, dark, a scraping of butter or lashings of it.

Making toast was a way of using up stale bread, of course, so toast shouldn’t even be required now that we have the invention of Chorleywood processed bread. It’s ironic that our love of toast means we, on the whole, now make it with a product unsuitable for making it.

It won’t surprise you that there are some very detailed descriptions in old cookbooks as to the best way for making toast.

soyer

The earliest official piece of toasting equipment was the toasting fork. Here’s the flamboyant Victorian chef Alexis Soyer’s instructions from A Shilling Cookery for the People from 1854:

How to Toast Bread – Procure a nice square loaf that had been baked one or two days previously, then with a sharp knife cut off the bottom crust evenly, and then as many sliced you require, about a quarter of an inch in thickness. Contrive to have a clear fire: place a slice of the bread upon a toasting-fork, about an inch from one of the sides, hold it a minute before the fire, then turn it, hold it another minute, by which time the bread will be thoroughly hot, then begin to move it gradually to and fro until the whole surface has assumed a yellowish-brown colour, then turn it again, toasting the other side in the same manner; lay it then upon a hot plate, have some fresh or salt butter (which must not be too hard, as pressing it upon the roast would make it heavy),spread a piece, rather less than an ounce, over, and cut the toast into four or six pieces. You will then have toast made to perfection.

Coal range

Next rung up on the evolutionary ladder of toast-making was the invention of the toast plate, a cast iron rack that could sit in front of coal-powered range cooker. My friend Andreas actually has an original coal range cooker with a toast plate built in. I am very jealous.

range toasting plate

You can buy plates that lay over a gas burner on the stove top that I suppose achieves a flavour closest to the ones found on the coal ranges. Elizabeth David owned one (from English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977):

Elizabeth David

Part of the charm of the toast produced on this device is that every piece is different, and differently marked, irregularly chequered with the marks of the grill, charred here and there, flecked with brown and gold and black.

At home, the best way to make toast is by using a grill, preferably a gas grill; it produces a much more even heat and therefore even toasting than an electric grill. I love the flecked toast that David described, but an electric grill has hot spots that produce slices well done in one patch and hardly coloured in another.

THE WAY WE COOKED

You might think all you need to do is stick the bread under the grill and wait, right? Wrong. Here are Delia Smith’s instructions for making toast under a grill, though first you need to slice it (from How to Cook: Book One, 1998):

  1. The key to slicing bread is to use gentle, rapid saw movements with the knife and not to push down too hard on the loaf. For toast, cut the bread into slices about ½ inch (1 cm) thickness. The crusts can be on or off, depending how you like them.
  2. Pre-heat the grill for at least 10 minutes before making the toast, turning it to its highest setting.
  3. Place the bread on the grill rack and position the tray 2 inches (5 cm) from the heat source.
  4. Allow the bread to toast on both sides to your own preferred degree of pale or dark golden brown.
  5. While that is happening, keep an eye on it and don’t wander far.
  6. When the toast is done, remove it immediately to a toast rack…Putting it straight on to a plate means the steam is trapped underneath, making it damp and soggy. If you don’t possess a toast rack you really ought to invest in a modest one. Failing that, stand your slices of toast up against a jar or something similar for about 1 minute before serving.
  7. Always eat toast as soon as possible after that, and never make it ahead of time.
  8. Never ever wrap it in a napkin or cover it (the cardinal sin of the catering trade), because the steam gets trapped and the toast gets soggy.
  9. Always use good bread, because the better the bread, the better the toast. It is also preferable if the bread is a couple of days old.

The toast rack is an essential. Before I owned one, I leant the slices against each other as you would for a house of cards.

So there we go, a definitive guide to making toast, well, as long as you’re not using an electric toaster!

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