Category Archives: bread

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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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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Favourite Cook Books No.5: ‘English Bread & Yeast Cookery’ by Elizabeth David

The cover of the 1st edition of English Bread & Yeast Cookery

The great food writer Elizabeth David wrote several extremely popular and influential cookery books about food and food culture in France , Italy and the Mediterranean, introducing to the people of Britain a vibrant food culture of which they could only dream: her first being published when the country was still in the grip of post-war rationing.[1] However, less well known to many are her more scholarly books that she wrote in the latter half of her career. Most celebrated of these is English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977).

I was introduced to Elizabeth David via Jane Grigson as I was cooking my way through Grigson’s book English Food for my blog Neil Cooks Grigson. Grigson was very much influenced by David, and several of her recipes appear in English Food, including three from English Bread and Yeast Cookery.[2] I bought myself a copy (the 2010 Grub Street edition). I distinctly remember the day I received it I the post: I was immediately struck by both the sheer amount of research and her wonderful evocative writing style. I then spent the next few hours, flicking the through the book, poring over her words and the wonderful illustrations.

Elizabeth David in her kitchen (Elizabeth David Archive)

But she was on a mission: she was depressed at the state of Britain’s bread and other baked goods, and she wanted to communicate just how good bread can be. She looked to France to show us that good, affordable bread was being baked today, but she also travelled back into our past to demonstrate just how good, varied and culturally important our own breads were.

Elizabeth split her book into two halves: the first being the history, not just of bread, but every single element of it: milling, yeast, salt, ovens, tins, weights and measures, the list goes on. The second half focusses upon the recipes themselves. Usually she provides several historical recipes taken from a variety of sources, showing us how the food has changed over the years, and then, at the end, she provides us with her own recipe updated for modern kitchens, measures and ingredients. No stone is left unturned. There is an astounding variety of different enriched buns and teacakes, many of which are regional and working class. I particularly love her introduction to the section on lardy cakes, saying they ‘are just about as undesirable, from a dietician’s point of view, as anything one can possibly think of. Like every packet of cigarettes, every lardy cake should carry a health warning.’ She tells up about the shapes of traditional loaves, and the cuts that were made upon them; and the weights of various loaves from our past – how many of us have been puzzled over an old recipe asking for ‘the crumbs of a penny loaf’ or some such, having no idea to how much to add? Well Elizabeth David has got your back. One of my favourite of her rabbit holes is the account of Virginia Woolf’s excellent bread making skills, something about which I have already written.

One very important section is Elizabeth’s chapter regarding payndemayn, the refined white loaf that furnished the dinner tables of the upper classes. They were eaten in the High and Late Middle Ages, morphing into manchet rolls by the early modern period. There are few examples or complete descriptions of these breads, other than that they were made of white flour (or the whitest that was possible at the time). In writing this chapter, David managed to piece together a method for them. Her work in this area is still the ‘go-to’ piece for food historians today.


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There are a couple of downsides to her approach however; sometimes I find her a little too acerbic, I go away after reading some passages feeling both personally attacked and responsible for the state of the country’s bread, essentially blaming the English’s preference for cheapness, whiteness and shape of their bread, over nutrition and taste. In part, I suppose, she has a point: it might not be our fault, but we do hold the power to change it on a personal basis at least. Just buy or make better bread: it doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming, and as I often say, two slices of home-made bread and butter are so much more filling than two slices of factory-made bread. The latter is really a false economy. But this brings me to my second point, and it might be a little controversial: I don’t think her bread recipes are very good. Her cooking tips are great (e.g. baking bread in a cold oven, or by covering it with a cloche) but her descriptions of the bread-making process are not clear. In reading this book I have learnt everything about bread except how to make a loaf of it.

One curious thing I noticed when trying to make her breads is they are often too salty (as a lover of saltiness, this is a view I rarely hold) but in researching this post, I found I was not the only one with this opinion, with one critic saying of her book ‘the facts are impressive and so is the amount of salt.’[3] David gives her reason for this; she uses unsalted butter and therefore makes her bread saltier to make up for it. However there is another reason why she was liberal with her salt: in 1963, Elizabeth suffered a cerebral haemorrhage after which she lost the sensation in many of her tastebuds. This experience made her change tack in her own work, withdrawing to her personal library to focus upon research. As writer Melissa Pasanen put it: ‘[this] may explain the emphasis on history over flavour.’[4]

But none of this matters: the book is wonderful, and her beautiful writing more than makes up for its short-fallings, and if you don’t own a copy, please get hold of one, you will not be disappointed.

Next post I will go for a deep dive into her payndemayn recipes.


Notes:

[1] Her first being A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950.

[2] These are ‘Rice Bread’, ‘Wigs’ and ‘Elizabeth David’s Crumpets’

[3] Pasanen, M. (2003) ‘Enough Saffron to Cover a Sixpence: The Pleasures and Challenge of Elizabeth David’, The Art of Eating.

[4] Ibid.

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To Make (English) Muffins

Here we go…the third part in my trilogy of posts about muffins and crumpets.

Of the two, muffins do seem to be the most labile of the tea cakes: sometimes they are a crumpet in all but name, and other times they are somewhere in between, and because I am a total geek, I have decided to illustrate this observation in a table.

In the columns are six characteristics of muffins and crumpets and then compared old recipes and given them a score out of six for each match. Full marks means it is what we would call a classic muffin today, zero marks means it’s a crumpet and I have put these in the first two rows as controls. As you can see, muffins are all over the shop, achieving the full gamut of scores:

Muffin recipe100%
strong flour
Added egg?Added butter?Dough is cut out
or made into rolls?
Cooked in rings?A batterMuffin score
/6
Proper muffins (2020)YYYYNN6/6
Proper crumpets (2020)NNNNYY0/6
Delia Smith (1983)YNYYNN5/6
Elizabeth David (1977)YYYYNN6/6
Florence Jack (1914)NYYNYY2/6
Mrs Beeton (1861)NNNYNN2/6
Elizabeth Hammond (1817)NYYYNN5/6
Hannah Glasse (1747)NNNNYY0/6

The oldest recipe I found appears to actually be a crumpet, but for the next one we seem to have a proper muffin – it doesn’t quite achieve full marks because plain flour is used, but 200 years ago strong flours were much less common than today, so I’m prepared to forgive that one. As we move up the table there’s a bit of a wobble, settling down again in the 1970s to become proper muffins once more.

One thing that has changed is the amount of liquid used for the dough, in the nineteenth century, it was so soft that it required a seasoned professional: “Practice and judgement are required to make one proficient in muffin-making” said Robert Wells in the Bread and Biscuits Assistant 1929.

The dough was almost batter, and it had to be deftly formed into blobs that were then set to prove inside dimples made in thickly spread flour. They were then gingerly lifted onto an iron griddle, bakestone or oven bottom.

A muffin man c. 1910. Muffin men were a dying breed at this time

In the Victorian era, the muffin was the essential teacake for teatime and they often bought from the muffin man who would ring his bell a little before tea, summoning the occupants of the houses who would rush out to purchase some of his muffins (or where they crumpets!?) “well swathed in flannel” to keep them warm. Then, in the 1840s a Parliamentary Act was passed prohibiting ‘costermongering’ by the beating of a drum or ringing of a bell. I’m pleased to say that no one took a blind bit of notice and a clandestine trade in warm muffins continued unabashed. By the 1910s the muffin was seen as old-fashioned by many:

“Muffins are essentially an old-fashioned fare…They are not now regarded as essentials on the tea tables of the present generation…The ordinary baker sells so few that it is not worth his while to keep a hot-plate for their manufacture”

John Kirkland, The Modern Baker, Confectioner and Caterer, 1907

Doughs became easier to handle in the twentieth century, requiring less skill and labour, and in the days of mass-manufacture they became more bread-like.


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To Toast a Muffin:

Of course you can eat your muffin as soon as it comes of the griddle, but should you wish to toast them later it is important you get it right: “I should like to draw attention to the old method of toasting the muffin in the North of England” says a Mr Dupois Brown in 1931, who suggests “slightly opening its joint all around before toasting it both front and back; then tearing open and buttering the inside halves liberally…but in all the teashops where I have ordered muffins it was toasted on the inside, thus causing it to be tough, leathery and indigestible.” You have been warned.

Circumferential incision made ready for toasting!

My recipe uses more liquid that other muffin recipes out there, but the dough can still be rolled and cut out with relative ease – you’ll need a mixer for kneading the dough though as it is very soft and sticky. One batch makes between 8 and 12 muffins depending upon the size of cutter you prefer. As Jane Grigson notes, it is very satisfying to watch them “rise and swell rather like a puffball fungus.”

500 g strong white flour

2 tsp instant yeast

1 ½ tsp salt

30 g softened butter

1 egg

330 ml milk, warmed

A little sunflower oil

Semolina or polenta for dusting

Mix the flour, salt and yeast in a bowl, make a well and add the butter, egg and milk. Then mix to combine. It is best to use a dough hook attachment on a food mixer for this; start on a slow speed, and then once fully incorporated, turn up the speed to knead until smooth and elastic, around 6 minutes.

Smear a little oil on the inside of a bowl then oil your hands and gather up the soft dough and pop it in. Cover with cling film or a damp tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place; because of the added butter and egg it will take a little longer than for a regular bread dough, about 90 minutes.

Lay out a piece of greaseproof paper or a tray and scatter with the semolina or polenta.

Knock back the dough and roll out on a floured surface to a centimetre’s thickness, then cut out. I wanted quite large ones, so I went with a 9 cm one, but feel free to use whatever size you like. Because the dough is soft, it’s a good idea to dip the cutter in flour between cuts to prevent sticking.

Lay the muffins on the polenta/semolina and turn them over so that both sides get a coating. Knead the trimmings together and cut out more muffins. Cover them and leave to prove for 30 minutes.

Heat your pan or griddle over a medium-low heat and cook the muffins in batches. Cook on one side for around 10 minutes until golden brown, and then turn over and cook for a further 6 to 8 minutes.

Eat straight away or cool on a rack and store in a tin or tub.

References

English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) by Elizabeth David

English Food, Third Edition (1992) by Jane Grigson

Good Things in England (1932) by Florence White

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To Make Crumpets


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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.

Anatomy of a 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.

Almost – but not quite – ready for turning

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.

References

English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) by Elizabeth David

Great British Classics (2001) by Gary Rhodes

‘How to cook the perfect…crumpets’ (2013) by Felicity Cloake, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2013/mar/21/how-to-cook-perfect-crumpets

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The Muffin-Crumpet Continuum

This is the first part of a three-part post.

How I wish I had a roaring fire; if I did it would be a great big one equipped with all of the paraphernalia; poker, skuttle and, of course, toasting fork. Pierced upon the fork would be the king of all the toasty-bready things, the crumpet. No, the muffin! It’s an almost impossible choice, and if you go back in time just a little, the decision is made even more difficult because there wasn’t a fixed idea of what either were, and they changed in name and form all across the country. Today, in a world of mass-production, standardisation and consistency I think we would all agree wherever we live in the country which is which. But just in case we’re not agreed on which is which I’ll describe the two:

A pack of supermarket muffins

Muffins* are:

  • Definitely fluffy and bread-like in the centre, their name originating from the Old French word moufflet, meaning soft.
  • Cut out into circles or rolled into cakes
  • Slowly cooked on a bakestone
  • Dusted in semolina

There may be a few from the North-West of England saying, “Hang on, what about oven bottom muffins?” Don’t worry, I’ll get to those late. Aside from that, pretty straight-forward I hope.

Crumpets are:

  • Made from a pourable batter like a pancake. Indeed, the word (probably) comes from the Welsh word for pancake, crempog
  • Poured into rings
  • Slowly cooked on a bakestone
  • Slightly rubbery in texture, especially prior to toasting
  • Has characteristic bubble holes on one side

It’s very obvious by etymology and their look that the two things are very different to each other. Now I’m going to muddy the waters slightly with a variant upon the crumpet, the pikelet – it’s important for later. Pikelets are simply crumpets cooked without a ring, producing a large, flat holey pancake.

A ‘travesty’: the supermarket crumpet

Are we all on board with this? It does seem pretty cut-and-dry to me. Trouble is we are very used to factory-made products and are perhaps unaware of what either was like. This is what Elizabeth David wrote of the two in the 1970s in her classic book English Bread and Yeast Cookery: “crumpets, or at least travesties of them, can still be bought in England” and, “Sainsbury’s sell packets of a thing they call a muffin.” It seems that we are not being fed delicious traditional bakes, but pale – possibly cynical – imitations of them. But then she poses the following questions:

What is the difference between them? Which have holes, which are baked in rings? Which are made from a pouring batter, which from a soft dough…? Is a pikelet the equivalent of a muffin or of a crumpet? Should muffins and/or crumpets made from identical ingredients? If so, what are they? Flour, yeast, water and salt? Or flour and yeast plus milk, fat and eggs? Or flour, fat and eggs with a chemical raising agent?

She then goes on to say “anyone who knows the answers to more than two or three of these queries is wiser than I.” Today the answers to her questions are fairly straight-forward, but then you look at the old recipes. Take this one from 1914 for both muffins and crumpets.

To make crumpets: “Heat a girdle, and grease it with butter; drop on to it of the above [pancake] mixture, and brown first on one side and then on the other.”

That, I’m sure you’ll agree, IS NOT A CRUMPET, IT IS A PIKELET!

A pack of (rather small) supermarket pikelets

To make muffins:

“Grease some rings, and place them on a hot greased girdle; half fill them [with the same pancake] mixture, cook and brown them on the other side.”

THAT IS A CRUMPET, NOT A FLIPPING MUFFIN!

Oh lordy, I’ve opened up a can of worms here. Going through my old books, as well as the one provided by Ms David, it seems that muffins do not match the modern form at all. Some of them are at least made from dough, but one so soft it is verging on batter producing dough balls so delicate they had to be proved on layer of flour. They are so fiendishly tricky to make that they could only be made by hand, and a well-trained one at that, but in an age of machine production they have gone by the wayside, their mixture thickened into a dough that can be rolled and stamped out on a production line. Here are some instructions from Law’s Grocer’s Manuel, 1895:

“get ready a tray, spread it with flour about 2 ½ [inches] in depth, make impressions in the flour with a small breakfast cup, take portions of the light dough out with a large spoon and put them into the flour impressions to rise; make the muffin stone hot, let them cook on it a few minutes, pass the palette knife under, turn them over…and bake likewise, keeping them of a light colour.”

They exist today in the form of ‘Oven-Bottom Muffins’ still popular in Lancashire and Greater Manchester, but these too are pale imitations, essentially regular bread cakes** baked very pale. So really a muffin was almost a crumpet but not quite a bread, a spoonable dough hovering between two states producing a muffin filled with a honeycomb of holes, invisible until cut into. I now see why Ms David was rather terse about the supermarket variety.

Notice the lack of holes inside a factory-made muffin

In my copy of Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course from 1982, published just five years after Elizabeth’s book, we have a recipe for a modern muffin. Does anyone know of an earlier one?

For the next post or two, I shall continue the theme with some recipes for muffins and crumpets plus a look at some of the bakes that simply don’t know which side their bread is buttered on, as it were.


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References

English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) by Elizabeth David

Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (1983) by Delia Smith

*These are known as English muffins in the United States. Annoyingly, we don’t call American muffins American muffins, just muffins. These are cakes, and not to be confused.

**aka bread rolls, bread buns, stotties or barmcakes, but let’s not get started on that one.

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A Cottage Loaf

It is as hard to achieve the right shape and texture, crust and crumb, of an authentic cottage loaf as it is to reproduce true French baguette bread.

Elizabeth David, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977

The cottage loaf is a vintage classic, and as far as I can see, a bread unique to England. I would say that most people have heard of one but have never clapped eyes on one in real life. I don’t think I have, my only interaction being with the salt dough loaf one that was part of the play shop my infant school teacher Mrs Bareham put together in the early 1980s. If you are not familiar with one, a cottage loaf is made up of two cobs – i.e. ball-shaped loaves – stacked one on top of the other, the upper loaf around half the size of the bottom one. The shape is curious, making even slicing difficult, which I suppose wouldn’t matter if you are just tearing off rustic chunks to dunk in your stew.

I’ve been meaning to have a go making one for years, but Elizabeth David writing in her classic tome English Bread and Yeast Cookery talked of how fiendishly difficult it is to make and impossible to reproduce at home. That is, unless you are Virginia Woolf, who made an excellent one. These days we have rather more time at home than usual, so I thought it wouldn’t be too much of a waste of time if it turned out to be a disaster. Then, I saw a tweet alluding to its trickiness from Foods of England, so I considered the gauntlet to have officially been thrown down.

The interior of a brick oven (photo: TripAdvisor.com)

I had a look into the history of it with a little trepidation, half expecting it to be a food with no vintage at all like the Ploughman’s Lunch. I needn’t have worried – it turns out to be an invention of the early nineteenth century at least, and a picture of one a little later in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). They were originally baked directly on the bottom of low, flat brick bread ovens like many cobs, muffins and breadcakes are still baked today. There were no shelves in these ovens, unlike modern combi-ovens, meaning one was rather restricted in the area one could bake crusty cobs. That’s where the upper loaf comes in for it made a larger loaf – two really – without taking up extra precious space on the oven bottom. It all makes perfect sense now.


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The trick to making a cottage loaf is to keep that top piece from falling off during proving and baking, though it does need to lean slightly to one side, says Ms David, like a jaunty hat. But, you can’t just sit one on top of the other, you have to fix it in place by taking floured fingers and plunging them through the top and bottom cobs two or three times. That’s what Paul Hollywood says anyway, Elizabeth David does the same, but proves the two loaves separately then attaches them in a similar way but includes extra cuts, crosses and a lot of manhandling. No wonder she found it difficult. Seeing as her baking recipes are hit-and-miss at the best of times, went for the Hollywood method.

I used my basic cobb recipe, but used 500 g of flour instead of 400 g.

For one loaf:

500 g strong white bread flour

10 g salt

10 g easy bake “instant” yeast

25 g oil or softened butter

320 ml warm water.

Place the flour in a bowl, add the salt and the yeast, then make a well in the centre of the flour. Pour the warm water into the well along with the butter or oil.

Mix together with a wooden spoon and then bring the dough together with your hands. Alternatively, you can use the dough hook on a mixer to bring it together. Knead well until the dough becomes tight and springy, around 5 minutes in a mixer, or 10 or so minutes if kneading by hand. It will be sticky, but persevere; sprinkle a little flour or a smear a little olive oil on your work surface if you like. Bundle the dough into a tight ball and place in an oiled bowl and cover to allow it to double in volume in a warm place.

When ready, press out the air and cut away a third of the dough. On a lightly-floured work surface, make the cob shape by forming a ball with the dough by tucking your hands under it, tightening the dough. If you twist the ball of dough slightly as you do this, it will be extra tight. Repeat with the other piece of dough.

Dust a baking sheet with flour and set aside.

Sit the small loaf directly on top of the large one, flour the first three fingers of one hand and plunge them right down through the dough right to worktop surface. Repeat one more time and your two pieces should be well-fused together.

At this point you can make some cuts with a sharp serrated knife, but to do so you have to pick it up, so avoid this step if you think it might be too risky. Sit in on the floured baking tray and cover with a large bag and leave to prove again, until twice the size and springy to the touch.

To achieve a really good crust, set your oven to 220°C as you wait for the loaf to prove and sit a roasting tin on the bottom of the oven. When the loaf is ready to go in, boil the kettle and place the loaf on the middle shelf, pull out the roasting tin a little and pour in the water – careful of the steam! – and quickly shut the door.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.

As it turns out it’s not that tricky in the end, and it even leaned to one side without falling off just like Beeton’s!

References:

English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), Elizabeth David

‘Cottage Loaf’, Foods of England website http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/cottageloaf.htm

How to Bake (2012), Paul Hollywood

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), Isabella Beeton

The Taste of Britain (2006), Laura Mason & Catherine Brown

The cracked crisp crust

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Irish Treacle Bread

As I write this, we are still in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown. Everyone is baking bread and I must say it is lovely to see people making time to bake during these strange times. Many home bakers have resorted to making sourdough because one of the most difficult items to get hold of at the moment is bakers’ yeast. This is infuriating to regular bakers, as is the lack of string bread flour, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. Delicious Irish soda bread requires neither bread flour nor yeast, instead regular plain flour and a chemical raising agent. it’s perfect if the thought faffing about with sourdough starters is too much to bear. There are no proving stages and it is made in a trice, baking in just a little over half an hour.

Irish soda breads originated in eighteenth century America when settlers discovered that potash made an excellent instant chemical leavening agent. Forever ingenious, the early Americans worked out a way to refine the process easily and instead used bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). It caught on big time, especially because it meant travelling folk could made bread quickly and easily without the need to for long fermentations. It wasn’t before long that news of this magic raising agent got to Britain and Ireland.

Up until that point, the Irish and Scottish were used to dealing with very low gluten flours such as oat and barley, because they grow well in northern latitudes. Even flour made from wheat grown in Southern England had a low gluten content (our modern plain flour) and although great for pastry, it was never going to make the pillowy fluffy loaves that we think of as standard today; for that, high gluten flours imported from Canada were required. This lack of stretch from their doughs and batters prevented the slow-release bubbles produced by yeast from growing and remaining stable; it made much more sense to make unleavened breads and griddle cakes. These new baking soda leavened breads however, suited their low-gluten flours very well, and they were infinitely adaptable.

Soda breads are different to regular breads, they very crumbly, so a sandwich would be disaster, but they are great with soup, especially when still a little warm.

A cousin to soda bread is treacle bread which I think this is much superior so I thought I would share with you my recipe for it because I think it’s the best of all soda breads, and I have been making it a lot over the last couple of months.

With this treacle bread, you get a mild bitter sweetness and a lovely brown colour from the treacle, and a good nutty chew from the oats. It’s like a giant delicious cakey digestive biscuit and it goes excellently with a good farmhouse Cheddar or Stilton cheese.

It is easy to make, and it is easy to make substitutions too: buttermilk is tricky to get hold of in the United Kingdom at the best of times, so go for a mixture of milk and yogurt, or just milk. If you can’t find plain flour, use self-raising and add just one teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to the mix. Medium-ground oatmeal can also be substituted for porridge oats.

Makes one large round

250 g plain flour

250 g medium oatmeal

1 tsp salt

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tbs black treacle

250 ml buttermilk, or 200 ml milk and 50 ml yoghurt

Preheat your oven to 200°C and line a baking tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper

This could not be simpler: mix the flour, oats, salt and bicarbonate of soda in a mixing bowl, make a well and add the treacle then the liquid(s). Mix with a wooden spoon and when you have brought it together, tip onto a floured surface and knead just once or twice.

Make into a round, place on the baking tray and cut a deep cross in the dough going from edge to edge. Quickly slide into the oven on the centre shelf and bake until golden brown, around 30 to 40 minutes. Give it a little rap on the base with your knuckle – if it sounds hollow, it is done.

Cool on a rack.


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Cornish Splits (& More on Cream Teas)

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.


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References:

The Cornish split, original cream tea accompaniment, Cornwall Live website, www.cornwalllive.com/whats-on/food-drink/cornish-split-original-cream-tea-1336003

Good Things in England, Florence White, 1932

English Bread & Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David, 1977

Classic Meals: Cream Tea, Foods of England website, http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/creamtea.htm

The Taste of Britain, Catherine Brown & Laura Mason, 1999

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