Mine was low key. I drank cider and made this massiveSpotted Dick.
2020 is finally over, and 2021 is here. I hope the blog has been a bit of escapism from all turmoil the last 12 months have brought us; I’ve tried not to mention it too much.
But the best thing about 2020 is you, my lovely readers: thanks for following and reading, AND using the recipes. I’ve had a lot of new followers and great comments. Not only did I have my one-millionth view, but I also had the best year ever – and by quite a stretch. I wouldn’t have made those milestones if you all didn’t visit it and use it. The blog went very quiet in the years the restaurant was open, and I was worried the blog had died a bit of a death, but I couldn’t have been so wrong.
I have lots of plans for the year ahead: I hope to bring back the podcast, and season 2 will be coming later in the year (though I’ll be re-releasing season 1 in February). I’ll let you know all about season 2 when I know more. I’m not sure if I’ll be doing any television though; since the Channel 5 show Amazing Cakes & Bakes*, the phone has never started ringing.
It is hard to think any way beyond my book, which is due at the end of this month so I feel the blog will be going a little quiet until I hand in the completed manuscript. Again, I shall keep you all abreast of developments with that too (and hopefully send out a few copies in competitions). It’s called A Dark History of Sugar, and it has taken over my life since March, and I shall be glad to let it go!
So, I thank you again: you might not be hearing from me much in January, but I’ll be posting again as soon as I can.
*and Christmas special. Link here in case you missed it
Last week I published a post all about how muffins and crumpets lie on a rather fluid continuum when you look at the from an historical perspective: names, methods and ingredients have all changed and been swapped which is very confusing for something that is rather straight forward today.
Last post I said that a crumpet today is:
Made from a pourable batter like a thick pancake
Slowly cooked on a bakestone
Slightly rubbery in texture, especially prior to toasting
Has characteristic bubble holes on one side
I’ve looked through many recipes and I have found that there are three things that do still vary: the liquid used is milk or water, or a mix – milk makes a soft crumpet and water makes a crisper one; plain or strong flour is used (or a mix) – the former makes a rubbery crumpet and latter makes one that’s a bit more pudding-like. The balance needs to be ‘just right’, but everybody’s Goldilocks zone is different, so feel free to alter the proportions in my recipe below, the resulting griddlecake will still be a crumpet so it comes down to personal taste. The third difference is to do with raising agents; should you add yeast alone or add some bicarbonate of soda too? Personally, I think the bicarb is a necessity because it gives you many pronounced bubbles – and therefore increased butter absorbency – which is what we have all come to expect from a modern-day crumpet.
Throughout the centuries crumpets seem to have been fairly constant: some ‘crumpets’ turn out to be pikelets from time to time, but if it’s called a crumpet you can be fairly sure it is a crumpet. This minor confusion is easy to bear but just you wait for the muffin post next week – they’re all over the shop!
Elizabeth David called supermarket crumpets a “travesty”, but I must confess to love them dearly; home-made ones are a very different beast, more golden in colour, and more crisp on the outside and softer on the inside. They do tend to become rather stodgy in the centre, which could be because of too high a ratio of milk-to-water and plain-to-strong flour, but in my experience it comes from overfilling the rings: a one centimetre depth is all you need. Another reason they might be stodgy is that you turn them over too quickly: crumpets are griddle cakes that cannot be rushed, they need a gentle bake on the griddle and to be turned at the right time. I used to turn them too soon, but then I received some good advice from Gary Rhodes in his classic book Great British Classics; he tells us they are ready to turn when “small holes appear and the top has started to dry.” Much more helpful than timings.
To make crumpets you need crumpet rings, but if you don’t have any you can use shallow mousse/chefs’ rings, and if there really is nothing at all suitable in your kitchen cupboards, you can go free-form and make pikelets.
How to eat a crumpet
Almost every writer seems to think that to experience crumpet perfection, one needs to eat them fresh off the griddle. I disagree and firmly believe they are best cooled on a rack, then stored in a tin or tub and toasted the next day. Each to their own, I suppose. They must be toasted until crisp on the outside yet soft on the inside which occurs very rapidly compared to supermarket ones, so watch out!
To butter a crumpet, take a knob of butter (salted, preferably) and paint the pitted surface all over with it. Home-made crumpets are always less holey than shop-bought and as a consequence the butter takes a little longer to absorb, so the best strategy is to butter the remaining crumpets – because no one ever has just one – and then return to the first for a second dousing.
The best topping for a crumpet is butter and just the tiniest trickle of honey.
Makes 18-20 crumpets
250 g plain flour
250 g strong white bread flour
2 tsp instant yeast
1 ½ tsp salt
250 ml milk
500 ml warm water
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
A little butter
A little sunflower oil or lard
Mix the flours, yeast and salt in a bowl and make a large well in the centre of the flour. Mix the milk and water, reserving around 50 ml. Whisk the mixture well and when smooth, cover with a damp tea towel or some cling film and leave for around 90 minutes until very bubbly.
Dissolve the bicarbonate in the reserved water and whisk into the batter. Cover again and allow to bubble for another 30 minutes.
Place a thick based griddle or pan over a medium-low heat.
Grease your rings well with butter (or lard) then use just a tiny amount of lard or oil to lightly grease the griddle. Place the rings on the griddle and pour a small ladleful of batter in each ring: just a centimetre’s depth as they rise in the rings. After a while, large bubbles will appear on the top and as they pop, you will see the batter magically transformed into crumpet. Very satisfying.
Allow to gently cook for around 20 minutes or until the tops have dried out, then remove from the rings (use a palette knife to help), turn over and cook on the other side for a further 5 minutes.
Remove and cool on a rack, regrease the rings and continue in this way until all of the batter is used up.
If you don’t have rings, you can instead make pikelets, which take half the time to cook due to their thinness.
English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) by Elizabeth David
This week I made the great achievement of accruing one million views on British Food: a History, so this is just a very quick post to say thank you for subscribing to the blog, for reading and commenting on my posts and for cooking the recipes I put out there, even the weird ones!
A lot has happened in the last (almost) ten years since I started it – way back when I was living in St Louis as an evolutionary biologist – and there have been some major ups and downs between now and then. At low points I barely posted, but now I’m back in the swing and so chuffed about the lovely comments and discussions that get going on the blog.
All this writing has even landed me with a book commission which I am working on right now*, plus a smattering of recent television jobs. The podcast series which started earlier in the year (and will return once the book is written) was well received too it seems, so hopefully things are on the up, or will be once we have adjusted to our post-covid lives, whatever that will entail.
I know that none of this would be happening if you were not reading it, so thanks again! I’ll be toasting you all (or maybe wassailing you all?) this evening.
*obviously not right now, I’m writing this right now.
Hello lovely readers. Just a little post to let you all know that British Food: A History will be releasing its first podcast!
Season 1 is called Lent and the first episode comes out the Sunday before Lent starts – the 23rd February 2020 with new episodes out during every Sunday throughout Lent.
Just like my blog posts, the podcast will have plenty of food history and recipes, but mixed in their will be science, evolutionary biology, natural history and anthropology, as I look at how Lent has been like for people: the hardships, the special events, the lost and forgotten celebrations and practices. I’ve written about Lent and Easter a few times on the blog before, so go and have a look-see if you fancy.
A new tab has appeared on the website where I’ll be posting loads of background bit, photos sand extra material as well as links to each episode of course.
You guys can get involved too – if you don’t follow me on Twitter, find me – @neilbuttery – and post your thoughts and if you have any extra information and facts, or questions, let me know there. Alternatively, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
It would be great if you could listen and get involved. Don’t forget to keep an eye out on the Lent Podcast tab on 23rd February.
Cornish splits are soft and pillowy enriched bread rolls and were the original cakey element of the Cornish cream tea. Bread rolls such as these were – and indeed are– eaten all around the country. There were Devonshire chudleighs, Yorkshire cakes and Guernsey biscuits, for example. But it was the people of Devon and Cornwall who combined them with clotted cream and jam.
These light, fluffy rolls are enriched with butter and are
made extra soft by being made with milk rather than water and are covered with
a tea towel as soon as they come out of the oven – the captured steam softening
the exterior crust. Once cooled – or better, just warm – the rolls are not cut
open, but split open with the fingers, hence their name.
Of course, the cream tea as we know today it is made up a scone, clotted cream and jam. Some places sell them made with whipped cream, but that will not do. The phrase ‘cream tea’ meaning a scone/split with jam and cream (as opposed to tea with cream in) seems to be relatively modern – the earliest printed reference of one coming from a 1932 article in The Cornishman newspaper (see foodsofengland.com). The earliest mention of a combination of jam, cream and bread eaten together pops up in the Devon town Tavistock’s accounts dating from the tenth century!
Cutting from The Cornishman, Thursday 3rd September 1931 (foodsofengland.com)
Some establishments in Cornwall still serve a split instead
of a scone in their cream teas, but they are few and far between. Many folk
reckon that the split is superior to the scone in a cream tea, the scone winning
out by virtue of it being much quicker and easier to make. The Devonians apparently
turned to scones before the Cornish, presumably because Cornwall is more
cut-off. So, we have a situation where the rivalry between the two lands can be
stoked. The Cornish can claim they invented the cream tea because they invented
the split, but the Devonians can claim they invented it because they came up
with the cream tea we think of today.
The bakery where I grew up in Pudsey, West Yorkshire sold Cornish
splits filled with whipped cream, thin seedless raspberry jam and lots of icing
sugar. I used to love them, so I was keen to make them myself and have a proper
Cornish cream tea.
This enriched dough is a little trickier to work with than regular white bread dough, but you can make it by hand without things becoming too much of a horrible sticky mess. I prefer to use the dough hook these days I must admit. I use strong bread flour to gain a nice rise, but older recipes use regular plain flour; feel free to use it too, but whilst your splits will be more historically authentic, they will be less light for it: your choice!
Makes 12 splits:
500 g white strong bread flour
8 g instant yeast
10 g salt
60g caster sugar
75 g softened butter
280 g warm milk
I’ve written before about making and forming bun dough in more detail before, so if there’s too much brevity here, click this link.
Mix the flour, yeast, salt, sugar in a bowl. Make a well and
add the butter and then the milk. If you have a food mixer with a dough hook, mix
slowly to combine, then turn up to speed 4 and knead for around 6 minutes or
until the dough has become tight and smooth and no longer sticky.
You can of course do all of this by hand, using a little
flour for kneading at first until the dough loses its stickiness.
Using your hand, form the dough into a tight ball, pop in a
lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film or a damp tea towel. Leave
somewhere warm until it doubles in size, which could take 90 minutes depending
upon the ambient temperature.
When ready, divide into 12 equal sized pieces, form them
into balls and arrange on a baking sheet. Cover with a large plastic bag or tub
and wait for them to prove. Once doubled in size again – it should take much
less time than the first rising – place in a cold oven and turn it to 200°C.
Bake for 25 minutes, but if at any point, the splits look like they getting too
brown, turn the temperature down to 175°C.
When ready, remove from the oven to cooling tray and quickly
place clean tea towels over the buns to prevent them crisping up.
When cold, you can sprinkle with sugar if you like, then slice
or split and fill with jam and cream.
I was kindly given part of a large crop of gooseberries by my friends Kit and Ellie, their two bushes have been prolific this year. Earlier in the summer, I used some of their underripe berries to make a sauce to accompany mackerel, but now they were large and quite sweet.
I made the lion’s share of them into gooseberry jam and
thought I would give you a recipe, as it is so easy to make, and you are
unlikely to find it in the shops. If you don’t know of any gooseberry bushes,
try a greengrocer – I have spotted them in quite a few shops this year.
The great thing about gooseberry jam is that the
gooseberries change in colour, adopting an appetising warm pinkish hue with the
intense heat of jam-making. This change is apparently due to the anthocyanins
in the gooseberries interacting with metal ions leached from the cooking vessel
Gooseberries are not as juicy as their red, white and blackcurrant relatives so they need a bit of extra added water to help dissolve the sugar. Gooseberries are high in pectin, especially when young, so there should be enough to set the jam. However, if they are late season and ripe, you might want to replace a small proportion of the sugar with jam sugar, which contains pectin, to give them a helping hand.
The jam I made is simple: gooseberries, sugar and water, but
if you have any of the extras in the ingredients list below, feel free to add
them if you like.
The jam makes a great roly-poly or Victoria sponge filling.
The quantities below makes around 1 litre of jam, and it is
easy to scale up or down depending upon the amount of gooseberries you have to
1 kg gooseberries, washed, topped and tailed
1 kg granulated sugar (or 800 g granulated and 200 g jam
sugar, if the gooseberries are ripe
500 ml water
Optional extras: A dozen elderflower heads wrapped in
muslin, a good bunch of sweet cicely tied with twine or replace 250 ml of the
water with Muscat wine.
Before you start, place a saucer in the freezer.
Place all the ingredients in a large, heavy based saucepan on a medium heat.
Stir occasionally and when all of the sugar has dissolved, turn the heat up to bring the gooseberries to a really good boil. After around 15 minutes – by now they should have a pinkish tinge about them – test to see if you have got a set. Either take the jam’s temperature with a temperature probe and see if it is 105°C, or take a teaspoon of the mixture and place a few drops on your very cold saucer you had stored in the fridge, let it cool for a minute and see if the drops wrinkle when you push them with a finger.
You can use a candy thermometer instead of a probe, but I
find them imprecise. However, if you have a trusty one, by all means slot it
down the inside of jam before you start to boil it.
Leave the jam to cool for 15 minutes and skim any scum with
a large spoon or ladle.
Have some sterilised jars ready and ladle in the jam. A jam
funnel is helpful here. Alternatively, pour the jam into a Pyrex or stainless-steel
jug rinsed out with scalding water and carefully fill your jars. Seal when
still very hot.
Last post I wrote about the delicious gooseberry. Since I wrote it, I have seen them in quite a few shops, including Morrison’s, so I am feeling good about the gooseberry’s culinary future.
It is important to remember that gooseberries can be served
with meat and fish in rather the same way as tart Bramley apples are: oily fish
such as mackerel is the classic pairing, but I have found recipes that match it
with chicken, goose, pork and mutton or lamb. Sauces and stuffings are made
with the small new tart berries, with just a little sugar. The simplest sauce
being made from halved berries, chopped mint and sugar. The ingredients are
mixed, covered and left to macerate for several hours. Delicious with barbequed
mackerel or herring, and the fact it isn’t cooked means the gooseberries retain
their vibrant green colour.
I mentioned that in France it is known as the mackerel
currant, because it is only ever really served with the oily fish, and even then,
it’s considered particular only to Normandy. It did start life as an English
dish, but as there was much communication between England and Normandy during
the mediaeval period, it’s no surprise that they picked up some tips from the
English during centuries of toing and froing.
I’ve taken elements from three different recipes to come up with mine: Jane Grigson’s English Food (1992), Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1847) and Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book (1604). Talent borrows, genius steals and all that. Many of the ingredients are optional, so if you want a cleaner tasting sauce, omit the cream and maybe the butter too. If you are interested, there’s also a great recipe for a gooseberry stuffing for mackerel on my other blog.
It’s a delicious combination – simply grilled mackerel and
the tart sauce, and maybe a green salad on the side. It’s telling you that
summer is here! This pairing is largely forgotten now, but look in some older British
cookery books and you’ll see it crop up again and again.
Young, green, small gooseberries are required for recipes
that are served with savoury food – the later, large sweet ones are best used
in desserts (recipes for those coming soon).
250 g gooseberries, topped and tailed
50 ml water
50 ml white wine, or a dash of cider vinegar
50 g sugar, or to taste
good pinch of ground ginger
salt and pepper
a knob of butter (optional)
2 to 3 tbs double cream (optional)
Put the gooseberries, water, wine or vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and cook until the gooseberries go pale in colour and start to become very soft, crushing them against the side of your pan with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper.
If you want a very smooth sauce with no seeds or pulp, whizz
the whole thing in a blender and pass through a sieve. I like to leave mine
with some texture, but it’s up to you. If you did pass it through a sieve put
it in a clean pan and put it over a medium heat.
Smooth or pulpy, beat in your butter with whisk or spoon
until it becomes glossy, then add the cream.
Add more sugar if you like – remember it isn’t supposed to
be sweet like apple sauce.
Serve alongside grilled or fried mackerel, but also pork,
chicken or goose.
Hello lovely followers. Just a quickie to let you know that the sister blog to British Food: A History, Neil Cooks Grigson has moved from Blogger to WordPress. It makes much more sense to have them on the same format.
If you’ve never checked it out, now is your chance – there’s over 400 recipes on there, all fully reviewed. There are some amazing ones, and a fair few disasters, warts and all. So if there’s a classic English dish or recipe you’ve always wondered about, chances are I’ve cooked it up.
Last post I wrote all about the mediaeval dish Blanc Mange, an almond and rice stew served with chicken or fish. Obviously, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to give you a recipe for the dessert blancmange we know and love (or hate).
Blancmange went from a savoury to a sweet dish somewhere
around 1600 – 1604 is the earliest recipe for it I can find that sounds like
the pudding we eat today.
When one thinks of blancmange, a shuddering over-sweet pale
pink mass doused with cloying raspberry flavouring is imagined. This is not a
proper blancmange. When I make one, I go back to basics.
Blancmange should be a simple affair: cream, milk, sugar and
almond extract set with gelatine. In the recipes from earlier than the 20th
Century, the gelatine would have been prepared in house from calves’ feet or
pigs’ trotters. There was an alternative setting agent called isinglass which
is made from the dried swim bladders of fish.
By the way, the pronounced almond flavour of almond extract is not supposed to emulate that of regular almonds, but of bitter almonds which were high in cyanide and therefore used in small, highly aromatic doses. Other things were sometimes added to this basic mixture: lemon zest, cinnamon, brandy and rose water all crop up in recipes through the centuries.
The blancmange went rather downhill once you could buy it in packet form. The almond extract or bitter almonds replaced with almond flavouring and instead of gelatine, cornflour was used. This is the dessert that many people hate. I must confess to quite liking the preparatory blancmange, but then, I’ll eat anything. It shouldn’t be called blancmange though, as it is quite a different beast; fake flavour and thick cornflour base making the final pud less jiggly and delicate. I suppose that after the realisation you could set custard with cornflour instead of egg yolks, the ‘magic’ formula was applied to blancmange.
I like to serve blancmange with a compote of cherries
flavoured with a dash of kirsch and some delicate shortbread biscuits, but it
is pretty good served all on its own. Who needs panna cotta!? If you want to
turn the blancmange out of its mould, it is worth brushing the inside with a
thin layer of sunflower oil so that it is easier to turn it out.
Makes 600 ml:
250 ml whole milk
gelatine leaves (see method)
100 g caster sugar
300ml double cream
1 tsp almond extract
Heat up the milk in a saucepan and as you wait, soak the gelatine leaves in cold water – check the instructions in the packet and use the correct number to set 600 ml except use one leaf fewer than instructed – you want a good wobble.
When the milk is very hot, squeeze out the excess water from
the gelatine and whisk it into the milk along with the sugar. Once dissolved,
add the double cream and almond extract. Pour into your mould or moulds, cover
with cling film or a plate and refrigerate overnight. If you like, you can whip
the cream until floppy and stir it through the milk when it is just warm. This
way you get a mousse-like consistency – good if you want to serve it at a
To turn out the blancmange, dip the moulds in hot water for
around 10 seconds. To make it release you may have to carefully coax the blancmange
from the inside edge of the mould with your finger; if you can move it away
easily, it should come out. Place a serving plate on top and quickly flip it
over – the blancmange should release, if not, simply dip it in the water for a
further 10 seconds.
Once turned out, you may find that some of the blancmange has
melted, so tidy up the plate with a piece of kitchen paper before serving.
I’m carrying on the medieval almond milk theme (I will move away from this topic, I promise) with another post on what could be described as mediaeval England’s national dish – blanc mange. Blanc mange – literally white food – was a simple stew of poultry and rice poached in almond milk. Over the centuries, it evolved into the wobbly dessert we know and love (or hate) today. In France almond soups thickened with rice or bread are still eaten, so it appears that the blanc mange diverged into two different dishes: cold pud and creamy soup.
Blanc mange wasn’t just popular in England, but over the whole of mediaeval Europe. It began life as a Lent dish of rice, almond milk and fish such as pike or lobster, but people liked it so much that it was eaten at every meal, where the fish could be substituted with chicken or capon. Outside of Lent it could be flavoured with spices such as saffron, ginger, cinnamon and galangal, seasoned with verjuice, sugar and salt. It is thought that the dish originates from the Middle East, the part of the world we imported rice and almonds.
It’s worth mentioning that although a Lent dish, no commoner
could afford this meal even in its most basic form– imported rice and almonds
were very expensive, as were farmed chickens. This was commonplace food for the
richer folk of society.
Here’s an example of a blanc mange recipe from around 1430:
For to make blomanger. Nym rys & lese hem & washe
hem clene, & do þereto god almande mylke & seþ
hem tyl þey al tobrest; & þan lat hem kele. & nym þe lyre of
þe hennyn or of capouns & grynd hem small; kest þereto wite grese &
boyle it. Nym blanchyd almandys & safroun & set hem aboue in þe dysche
& serue yt forþe.
This recipe seems to be for a blanc mange served cold or warm;
the rice is cooked in the almond milk and cooled while the capon or chicken is poached
separately. Saffron and almonds are sprinkled over the dish before serving.
I’ve looked at a few recipes and they don’t really change over the next two hundred years – always chicken or fish, rice and almond milk and a few mild spices, sometimes served hot, sometimes cold and often adorned with slivered almonds fried in duck or goose fat and a sprinkle of sugar, all before being served forth. They also seem extremely bland with most recipes containing no spices at all. That said, many of our favourite foods are bland: white bread, mashed potatoes, avocados and mayonnaise all belong in the bland club, so bland does not equal bad. In fact, bland food is usually comfort food, and I strongly suspect that this is what is going on here, a bland white food, served at every meal no matter how grand. Blanc mange was mediaeval comfort food, the macaroni cheese of its day!
The blanc mange went from a chicken and rice dish to wobbly
pudding somewhere around 1600 it seems. A 1596 recipe uses capon meat, ginger,
cinnamon and sugar, and is pretty much identical to the recipes from 1400, but
then I find in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book of 1604 that she gives
instruction for a cold sweet. She describes a moulded dessert set with calves’
foot jelly (i.e. gelatine), almonds, rice flour, rosewater, ginger and cinnamon.
Mediaeval Blanc Mange
I’ve combined the methods of several recipes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The important thing to remember is that mediaeval almond milk would have contained sugar, salt and a little rosewater, so if you want to use the modern shop-bought stuff, you might want to add a little of all three for authenticity. Alternatively, you can have a go at making some yourself.
The spices I went for were ginger and cinnamon, but you can
add white pepper, galingale and saffron too if you like.
The only thing I have done differently to the original
recipes is to leave my chicken on the bone; bones stop the chicken drying out
in the cooking process and flavour the dish.
1 chicken jointed into 8 breast pieces, 4 thigh pieces and 2
drumsticks, skin removed
3 tbs duck or goose fat
white rice measured to the 300 ml line of a jug
½ tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger
1 ½ tsp salt
small handful slivered almonds
Demerara sugar and more salt for sprinkling
Pour the almond milk in a saucepan and heat up to almost
boiling. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan melt one tablespoon of the goose or duck
and when hot, tip in the rice. Stir to coat the rice grains in the fat, then
add the spices and salt. Add the chicken pieces and hot almond milk and stir
just once more.
Turn the heat down to low, place on a lid and simmer gently
for 25 minutes.
When the time is almost up, fry the slivered almonds in the
remaining fat until a deep golden-brown colour.
Serve the chicken and rice in deep bowls with the almonds, salt
and sugar sprinkled over.
There you go, pretty easy stuff really. And the verdict?
Well, it was quite bland, but pretty tasty with all of the adornments, and the
flavours developed a lot over night when I reheated some. The sugar wasn’t as
weird tasting as you might expect, and the mild scent of rose water really
lifted the dish. The almonds fried in duck fat were amazing, and I’ll certainly
be stealing that idea. Will I make it again? Probably not, I must admit, but it
was an interesting experiment. Next post, I’ll give you a very easy recipe for
a proper dessert blancmange, one of my favourite things to eat. Until then,