Category Archives: Festivals

Twelfth Night Cake

 

Upon the table was an immense dish, and in the dish was the biggest Twelfth-cake that the eyes of childhood had ever beheld. It was a positive monster, and whitened sugar of the most approved kind encrusted it all over.

From Little Grub, E H Knatchbull-Hugesson 1874

Twelfth Night, on the fifth day of January, is on the last day of Christmastide and was once the party highlight of the twelve-day long festival. In fact, Twelfth Night used to be the big day where gifts would be exchanged, and folk would make much merriment, very aware of the austere months ahead of them. All of this, including the cake, has moved to Christmas Day, of course.

The focal part of the Twelfth Night side-table was the elaborately-decorated Twelfth cake, essentially a rich fruit cake containing brandy, covered in a layer of rock-hard royal icing, the top groaning under the weight of sugar figures and other intricate sculptures and piping. Inside each Twelfth cake a large dried bean or pea would be baked; on the big day those who discovered them would be proclaimed king or queen for the rest of the day.

Queen Victoria’s 1849 Twelfth cake

Some Twelfth cakes were extremely expensive, and every baker or confectioner in the land worth their salt would produce a breath-taking, awe-inspiring shop window filled with cakes of differing sizes, all covered in wonderful sugar-work. There was huge competition between confectioners to produce the best displays; and no wonder, selling any number of these bespoke cakes meant some real money had been made that winter!

Many people, of all ages and conditions, – young and old, gentle and simple, giddy and thoughtful, – stepped every hour to look through the large plate-glass window, and see the grand show of Twelfth-cakes.

From The Queen of the Twelfth-Cakes, Cuthbert Bede 1857

The Twelfth Night cake began life – like many traditional cakes did – as a yeast-leavened bread, enriched with dried fruit and ale (see also Simnel Cake). Over time, the cakes were enriched further with brandy or rum and sugar, giving it a close texture. Eventually, chemical raising agents were used to give the batter a lift.

Here’s a 1604 recipe from a lady called Elinor Fettiplace:

Take a peck of flower, and fower pound of currance, one ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of ginger, two nutmegs, of cloves and mace two peniworth, of butter one pound, mingle your spice and flower & fruit together, but as much barme [the yeasty froth from the top of fermenting beer barrels] as will make it light, then take good Ale, & put your butter in it, saving a little, which you must put in the milk, & let the milk boyle with the butter, then make a posset with it, & temper the Cakes with the posset drink, & curd & all together, & put some sugar in & so bake it.

I would love to have a go at this recipe at some point.

Twelfth Night cake has declined in popularity since the invention of the Christmas cake (which, incidentally, is a hybrid of a Twelfth Night Cake and Simnel Cake). Here’s the recipe that I use, which is slightly different to my Christmas cake. Notice that there are no raising agents used – I like the close-texture it gives, if you disagree, add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to the flour to give it a little lift.

I don’t decorate my cakes elaborately, preferring as thin a layer of icing as possible, so I use half a batch of royal icing, but if it is your thing, you might want to make a little more!

 

175 g softened salted butter

175 g caster or brown sugar

1 tbs black treacle

3 eggs

175 g plain flour

¼ tsp each ground cinnamon, nutmeg and mace

400 g mixed dried fruit (currants, raisins, sultanas, quartered prunes)

75 g candied peel

50 g slivered almonds

60 ml brandy, rum, strong ale (or milk)

1 dried butter bean (optional)

A half-batch of royal icing

 

Line and grease an 8-inch cake tin and preheat your oven to 160°C.

Cream the butter, treacle and sugar until pale and fluffy and beat in the eggs one by one before gently stirring in the flour and spices. Once incorporated, mix in the fruits, peel and nuts and stir in the booze (or milk).

Pour into the cake tin, pop in the king/queen bean, level off the top and bake for an hour. Cool in the tin.

Decorate the cake with the royal icing, being as elaborate as you like.

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Simnel Cake

 

A Simnel cake is a type of fruit cake that contains plenty of marzipan and is eaten at Easter, although it used to be specifically associated with Mothering Sunday. When folk were fasting during Lent, Mothering Sunday, appearing in the middle of the fast, offered a respite from 40 days of religious austerity.

Mothering Sunday occurs on the fourth Sunday of Lent; a special day when people visited their mother church or cathedral. Don’t confuse Mothering Sunday with Mothers’ Day; it is only in the last century that this day is associated with showing enforced appreciation to our mums (though I assume that you met up with your mother on return to your original diocese).

Like most British food eaten during winter and early spring, the Simnel cake contains lots of dried fruit, but it is much lighter than boozy Christmas cake and contains a layer or marzipan both on top and within, and is decorated with eleven marzipan balls, each symbolising Jesus’s disciples (minus the treacherous Judas of course).

To trace the origin of Simnel cake, you need to go right back to mediaeval times where it began life as a yeast-leavened bread, which may or may not have been enriched. This doesn’t sound that much like a special bread, you may think, but what made it special is that it made out of the highest quality flour possible; simnel derives from the Latin simila – the whitest and finest of flours.

Fast forward to the 17th and 18th centuries, and the bread mixture had been swapped for a pudding batter, not dissimilar to spotted dick, enriched with dried fruit, spices and almonds. It would be boiled like a pudding. When cooked, it was wrapped in pastry, glazed with egg and baked until a good hard crust formed. It would be like the Scottish black bun, a traditional Christmas food north of the border.

It is only when you get to the tail end of the 19th century that it starts to look like something we would recognise as a cake, though surprisingly it is not until the 20th century that the familiar marzipan layers and decorative disciples appear.

Simnel cakes themselves seem to be disappearing from our Easter tables altogether and are getting more and more difficult to find in British bakeries. Below is the recipe I use – I can’t claim it as my own, but I don’t know where I got it from, so if you recognise it let me know, you know I always like to credit my sources!

This is a very straight-forward cake mixture made using the all-in-one method; it is very important that you use very soft butter so that the cake batter creams quickly without developing the gluten too much. If you don’t want to make your own marzipan, you can buy some ready-made, but I do urge you to make your own, it really is worth the (really quite little) effort required. The marzipan recipe below is different to my previously published one and I think much better. I shall try to remember to update the other post.

 

For the cake:

225 g softened butter

225 g caster sugar

4 eggs

225 g plain flour

2 tsp ground cinnamon

zest of 2 oranges

zest of 2 lemons

325 g mixed fruit (currants, sultanas, currants)

125 g glacé cherries, quartered or left whole

500 g orange marzipan (see below)

icing sugar for dusting

apricot jam

1 beaten egg

 

Begin by greasing and lining an 8-inch cake tin and preheating your oven to 150°C.

In a large bowl, beat together the softened butter, caster sugar, eggs, flour, cinnamon and zests. Using a hand mixer, beat together until smooth. Now fold in the mixed fruit and cherries with a spatula or wooden spoon.

Spoon half of the mixture into your tin and level it off. Take a third of your marzipan and roll it out into a circle the same size as the tin, trimming away any untidy bits. Use a little icing sugar to roll the marzipan out, just like you would use flour to roll out pastry.

 

Lay the marzipan in the tin and then spoon and scrape the remainder of the cake batter on top of that. Level off with your spatula and make an indentation in the centre, so that the cake doesn’t rise with too much of a peak.

Bake for 2 ¼ to 2 ½ hours. Use a skewer to check it is done. Cool on a rack for about 30 minutes before removing the tin and greaseproof paper.

When cold, roll out half of the marzipan in a circle slightly larger than the cake – the best way to do this is to use the outside edge of the tin it was baked in as a template.

Brush the top of the cake with some apricot jam (if it is very thick, you may want to warm some with a little water in a pan) and lay the marzipan on top, then brush the marzipan with the beaten egg. Divide the remaining marzipan and trimmings into 11 equally-sized balls and arrange them in a circle. Brush those with egg too and glaze the top using a chef’s flame torch (or a very hot grill).

 

For the marzipan:

90 g caster sugar

140 g icing sugar

220 g ground almonds

grated zest of an orange

1 beaten egg

Mix all of the ingredients except for the egg in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the egg. Using a mixer or your hand, form a dough. Knead in the bowl until smooth, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

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The Glorious Twelfth

red grouse

Today is the Glorious Twelfth! The day in the countryside calendar that many await, for it is the beginning of game season.

I know it may seem a little unsavoury to look forward to the shooting of thousands of birds and mammals, but it is so woven into the tradition of country life, that it seems a rather romantic pursuit. Not one that I have been privy to of course, as it is a posh person’s game.

Technically, the 12th of August is the opening of the game season for the red grouse, though a couple of other game species can also be legally hunted from this day (see the list of game species, below).

There are two broad types of game: furred and feathered, i.e. mammals and birds. Fish are considered game too, but they do not follow the same laws as the others.

On a typical hunt for grouse and other game birds, there is a basic set up of beaters that walk in a loose line across a heath, in the case of grouse, or scrub in the case of pheasant, beating the vegetation in order to scare the birds so that they fly up and away toward gunmen to be shot. The bird is then retrieved by a gun dog such as a springer spaniel. I’m over-simplifying this, of course, but that is the basic process.

quarry

 A hunter after her quarry (Lax-A)

The hunt is such a huge event and requires such a large amount of organisation, that single hunts often cost up to £50 000 per day, raking £50 million into the local economies of Scotland and Northern England each year.

How Glorious is it?

The Glorious Twelfth is controversial, with the game industry and conservationists constantly at loggerheads, but the fact is that the Moorland Association has protected many at risk species in the British Isles such as the golden plover and lapwing. They put a lot of effort into the management of heathlands by selectively burning areas and reducing the numbers of predators such as foxes and weasels. It is here that the Moorland Association has been hit with the most criticism; conservationists say they should not be culling predators so that we can have more grouse for posh men to shoot. It’s a fair point.

Then, on the really dark side are the accusations of the killing of some of our most rare birds of prey like the hen harrier.

So on one hand predator animals are often persecuted, whereas on the other, well-behaved waders are looked after.

I view the situation the same I do zoos. I know they do good work for the conservation of animals and habitats, yet I can’t help but feel sad every time I see a poor old bored elephant, or a majestic tiger walking laps around its pen. They are part of our heritage, like it or not, but they can do good work.

The Game Act, 1831

This Act of Parliament was brought in to protect game birds by bringing in closed hunting seasons, and imposed game licences (hares and deer have their own Acts, which follow similar principles). Some species were protected completely, such as the common bustard (now extinct in the UK, but there are attempts to reintroduce it).

The Game Act was brought in to replace the outdated ide of their being Royal Forests, brought in during the 11th Century during the reign of William I, where it was illegal to hunt game unless you had permission from the king. As the centuries rolled on, the laws slackened more and more until they were pretty much useless.

At the time of writing the Act, hares were not given a closed season as they were a pest. The imposing capercaillie was not included in the Act as it was extinct in the UK at the time, being reintroduced to Scotland in the 1837.

Game seasons

Feathered game is further subdivided into two groups: game birds and waterfowl & waders. Some of the species are familiar and other are not, and of the ones I have tried, all taste delicious (unless they’ve been hung for too long, then they are decidedly rank).

Game Birds

Red grouse, ptarmigan                 August 12 – December 10

Black grouse                                    August 20 – December 10

Partridge (grey and red-legged)  September 1 – February 1

Pheasant                                           October 1 – February 1

As laid out in law, it is illegal to shoot wild birds between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise. In England and Wales, game cannot be killed on Sundays or Christmas Day. If the 12th of August lands on a Sunday, the season will officially begin the next day.

I have never come across a ptarmigan to buy, so if anyone knows how I can nab one, do let me know.

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Game birds are often sold as a brace – a male & female. Partridges in this case

Wildfowl &Waders

Snipe                                                  August 12 – January 31

Ducks & Geese                                 September 1 – January 31 (inland); til Feb 20 at low tide

Golden plover, coot & moorhen   September 1 – January 31

Woodcock                                         October 1 – January 31

Several species of duck and goose can be legally hunted, though many in reality, are ignored by hunters, or shot in very small numbers, such as: gadwall, goldeneye, pintail, shovelers and tufted ducks, though pintails have been spotted in my butcher’s shop before now. You are much more likely to see mallard, wigeon and teal.

Geese are a bit tricky to get hold of, unless you know someone personally that hunts, and the reason for this is that whilst geese can be shot, it is illegal to sell them. I presume this rule is an incentive to hunters to shoot the numbers they need. Legal game species are: white-fronted (England & Wales only), pink-footed, greylag and Canada geese.

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A brace of mallard

The furred game can also be split into two broad groups: ground game and deer.

Ground Game

This is basically your small and furry game species:

Rabbit & brown hare                      January 1 – December 31

Mountain hare (Scotland only)  August 1 – February 28/29

Rabbit and brown hare have no closed season, this is because at the time of the Game Act, they were both considered pests. These days, everyone considers rabbits to be a pest, but the hare does get an effective closed season from March to May, due to their fall in numbers in recent times.

brown hares - telegraph

Boxing brown hare (Telegraph)

Deer

There are six species of deer inhabiting the UK: red, sika, fallow, roe, Chinese water deer and muntjac. The seasons get pretty complicated here, but generally the open season runs from August to April for males (bucks & stags) and November to March for females (hinds & does). The exception being muntjac that have no closed season

Pests

There are a few pest species that can also be eaten such as rabbits, woodpigeons and grey squirrels. In the past rooks were eaten, though this is very uncommon these days.

So there you go, a whistle-stop tour of hunting in the UK. In the coming months I’ll be posting some game-related posts as I hunt around my local butchers’ shops for some delicious seasonal treats.

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Wassail!

Wassail

Wassail! Wassail! all over the town,

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;

With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

A Gloucestershire Wassail, dating to the Middle Ages.

Yesterday was the 6th of January, the final feast day of Christmas, the day of epiphany, Twelfth Night. Down in the counties of South-West and South-East England a very old and special ceremony takes place in the apple orchards; the Wassail was a way to celebrate the end of Christmas and to bless the trees so that they will bear plenty of fruit for the cider. It was a time of celebration and merry-making. All of this happened at dusk, a magical time of day, where the world faeries and spirits overlapped with the world of Man. In different parts of England, the day upon which the Wassail occurs changes: some celebrate it on the 5th of January (the Eve of Epiphany), and others on the 17th of January (this is day Twelfth Night would occur before the Introduction of the Gregorian Calendar, “Old Twelfthy Night”, as it was called).

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A blurry, dusky Levenshulme Community Choir leading our Wassail

For the Wassail ceremony a Wassail King and Queen are nominated who lead the other revellers a merry dance around the trees. In the largest trees, the Queen is lifted into the boughs so she can spear pieces of toast that have been soaked in Wassail punch (I’ll get to that in a moment or two) as an offering to the tree spirits of the orchard. As folk dance about the trees, other run around banging pots and pans to drive out the evil spirits.

Wassailing predates the Battle of Hastings and is thought to have its origins in Ancient Rome, where people would make sacrifices to the Pomona, the Roman Goddess of Fruits. The word Wassail originates from the Anglo-Saxon waes-hael, meaning “to your health” and the word is used just as we would use Cheers! today. Below is one telling of its origins by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 1135 book History of the Kings of Britain:

While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl’s face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is ‘drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”

I was lucky enough to go to a Wassail in Levenshulme in Manchester, which is not in the south of England, but the north. In Levenshulme there is a lovely community orchard, and it should be blessed just like any other. It was a great evening and really interesting to see just a glimpse of old England. If you have apple – or any fruit – trees, they why not have a Wassail. Indeed anything that needed blessing could wassailed like other crops like barley and livestock. Of course you’ll need to make some wassail to drink…

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Spiking the trees with toast offerings

The drink wassail is essentially a hot mulled cider or ale, sweetened with sugar and made aromatic with spices and made much boozier with sherry, brandy or sack (a sweet, fortified ale similar in taste to sherry) and sometimes thickened with eggs. An essential ingredient in the wassail drink is roasted apples, which would quickly burst and fall apart, giving wassail its alternative name ‘lamb’s wool’. Also floating on the surface would be plenty of toast.

The hot wassail is poured into a large carved wooden bowl and it is passed around the crowd so that everyone can take a good mouthful, raise it above their head and shout “Wassail!”. It is because of this celebration, we “raise a toast” when having drinks.

Two Wassail Recipes

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Here’s a recipe dating from 1722 that appears in the excellent book Food in England by Dorothy Squires:

Take 1 lb. of brown sugar, 1 pint of hot beer, a grated nutmeg, and a large lump of preserved ginger root cut up. Add 4 glasses of sherry, and stir well. When cold, dilute with 5 pints of cold beer, spread suspicion of yeast on to hot slices of toasted bread, and let it stand covered for several hours. Bottle off and seal down, and in a few days it should be bursting the corks, when it should be poured out into the wassail bowl, and served with hot, roasted apples floating in it.

I liked that it is diluted with beer! What brew it must have been.

Below is my rather pared down recipe for wassail:

Ingredients:

4 to 6 apples

3 litres of good cider

6 cinnamon sticks

dark rum, to taste

soft dark brown sugar, to taste

around 500ml of water

toast (optional)

Prepare the apples; cut around them a circle halfway down, this stops them bursting when cooking, place on a tray and bake in a moderate oven until they have begun to collapse, around 30 minutes. Whilst you wait for the oven to do its job, pour the cider into a large pan with the cinnamon stick, at least 3 generous tablespoons of sugar and 250ml of rum and half of the water. Bring to a simmer and add more sugar and rum, and dilute accordingly with more water. Lastly, for tradition’s sake, atop with slices of toast.

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Jane Grigson’s Orange Mincemeat

It’s just occurred to me that I haven’t put on a Christmas recipe and it is only just over two weeks until the special day. This month has flown by at a scarily quick pace.

Luckily two weeks is just enough time to make this delicious orange flavoured mincemeat. Last year I gave you Mrs Beeton’s recipe, but this one comes from the wonderful Jane Grigson. It is very moist and because of the brandy, orange juice and orange liqueur. It is also vegetarian if you want it to be; the suet can be the vegetable-based sort, or you can leave it out altogether. Give it a go.

Jane Grigson

Jane Grigson

It is extremely easy to make: there is no cooking required so all you need to be able to do is chop, grate, mix and weigh. When you pot the mincemeat, it is very important you sterilise your jars. To do this first wash them in soapy water, then rinse and allow them to dry. Place the jars on a tray, with their lids sat beside them, facing upwards and pop them in the oven for 30 minutes at around 130⁰C. Let them cool a little before potting. If this seems a lot to make in one go, you can easily reduce the amounts as you see fit.

Click here for the recipe I use for making mince pies.

 

Ingredients

250 g (8 oz) chopped candied peel

1 kg (2 lb) peeled, cored and grated apples

500 g (1 lb) suet (fresh or packed is fine, but fresh is best)

500 g (1 lb) currants

500 g (1 lb) raisins

500 g (1 lb) sultanas

500 g (1 lb) soft dark brown sugar

1 freshly grated nutmeg

125 g (4 oz) slivered almonds

Juice and zest of 2 oranges

4 tbs brandy

6-8 tbs orange liqueur

 

Mix all the ingredients together in a huge mixing bowl, then pot into sterilised jars. Store somewhere dark and cool, but not the fridge! Leave the mincemeat to mature for at least together before using it.

IMG_2519

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Shortbread

The history of shortbread goes back to at least the 12th century and originally started life as ‘biscuit bread’; biscuits that were made from left-over bread dough that was sometimes sweetened and dried out in the oven to form a hard, dry rusk. This practise took place over the whole of the British Isles, not just Scotland.

Over time the leavening was lost and exchanged for butter, making it an expensive fancy treat that was only bought for celebrations such as Christmas and Hogsmanay (Scottish New Year). There are similar ‘breads’ outside of Scotland such as Shrewsbury cakes and Goosnagh cakes.

The large amount of butter is what makes shortbread short: the term short, when applied to biscuits and pastry, means crumbly, like shortcrust pastry should be. It is the reason why the fat added to biscuits and pastries is called shortening.

Mary Queen of Scots

Today, shortbread is made from flour, butter and sugar, though other flavourings are added. Caraway was particularly popular; Mary Queen of Scots was particularly fond of them. Other extra ingredients included almonds and citrus fruits like this 18th century recipe from Mrs Frazer:

Take a peck of flour…beat and sift a pound of sugar; take orange-peel, citron, and blanched almonds, of each half a pound, cut in pretty long thin pieces: mix these well in the flour; then make a hole in the middle of the flour, put in three table-spoons of good yeast; then work it up, but not too much…roll out; prickle them on top, pinch them neat round the edges, and strew sugar, carraways, peel, and citron, on the top. Fire it…in a moderate oven.

In George Read’s 1854 book The complete biscuit and gingerbread baker’s assistant, there are fewer ingredients, but includes eggs for some reason:

1 ¼ lb. of flour, ½ lb. of sugar, ½ lb. of butter, 3 eggs, ¼ oz. of volatile salts…a little essence of lemon

FYI: Volatile salts were smelling salts, that could also be used to leaven dough.

Shortbread usually comes in three different forms: small round biscuits, fingers or large rounds. To make the fingers, dough is cut into a large rectangle and the fingers are scored with the back of a knife so they can be broken up easily after cooking. A pattern made with fork marks is always made too.

To make large rounds, the dough is pressed into a round earthenware mould or a tart tin to make petticoat tails. When making the petticoat tails, the dough is scored into triangular slices like a pizza. The term petticoat tails comes not from the French petites gatelles (‘little cakes’) as many think (though Scottish cuisine did have more in common with French food than English food during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots), but from the term petticoat tallies – the name of the triangular pattern used to make bell hoop petticoats like Elizabeth I would have worn.

You can still buy the earthenware moulds – I’ll be buying one when I move back to England later in the summer.

Basic shortbread

This recipe makes enough for two petticoat tails rounds made in a seven inch tart tin. It’s hard to say how many biscuits or fingers – it depends on how wide and thick you make them. The important thing is to take them out before they start to brown.

To achieve a nice melt-in-the-mouth crumbliness use cornflour as well as normal plain flour to make your shortbread. Somewhere between a 1:1 and a 3:1 ratio of plain flour to cornflour works well. You don’t have to do this; they are still good with just good old plain flour.

6 ounces flour mix

4 ounces salted butter cut into cubes

2 ounces icing or caster sugar, plus extra

extra caster sugar

Rub the butter into the flour using fingers, pastry blender, food mixer or processor; be careful not to overwork things though if you’re using a food processor – shortbread dough doesn’t like being handled too much. Stir in the sugar and with your hand bring everything together to make a pliable dough – it’ll feel like it won’t form a dough at first, but as your hands warm it will.

Now you can roll or press out your dough into whatever shape you like and then place in the fridge for 20-30 minutes to harden:

For petticoat tails you are best diving the two into two halves and pressing the dough into your fluted flat tin. Score lines to mark out the slices, using a ruler if you want to be really precise. Make a nice pattern with a fork.

For fingers roll out the dough to half an inch thickness into a vaguely rectangular shape. Use a knife and a ruler to cut out a large rectangle and then score the lines with your ruler and knife, making patterns with your fork prongs.

For biscuits you can really do whatever you like; thick, thin, round, square. I think a little under half an inch is a good thickness. Cut out the biscuits and make your all-so-important fork marks.

Heat the oven to 180⁰C (350⁰F). Place the biscuits onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Sprinkle with the extra sugar and bake until cooked but before any signs of browning. Petticoat Tails and fingers take about 15 minutes, individual biscuits can be variable, but usually about 12-15 minutes.

Variations:

For lemon shortbread add the zest of one lemon when you add the sugar, and for almond shortbread add 5 or 6 drops of almond extract. If you want to try it with caraway, sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds at the same time you add the sugar.

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Hot Cross Buns

Tomorrow is Good Friday and in England it is traditional to eat hot cross buns, or rather it was;  supermarkets and bakeries bring them out as soon as Christmas is over these days. And why not? They are delicious after all. The reason that Good Friday is the day these buns are traditionally baked goes back to Tudor times, when the sale of spiced buns was illegal, except on Good Friday, at Christmas and at funerals.

The cross, people assume, is to denote the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. This is in fact nonsense; spiced buns with crosses were being produced throughout much of pagan Europe. Spiced buns have always been symbolic in worship and ones adorned with crosses were made for the goddess Eostre (where Easter get its name).

The Pagan goddess, Eostra

So that is the cross taken care of, but what about the hot? We don’t actually eat them hot that often. They were simply called cross buns, until that famous nursery rhyme was written sometime in the eighteenth century:

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns!

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

What if you have neither sons nor daughters? I suppose you eat them all to yourself like the miserable old spinster you are…

Ever since I started baking my own bread, I have sworn never to buy it again as it is just so delicious. Bought buns – like bread – are just shadow of their former selves, says Jane Grigson: ‘Until you make spiced hot cross buns yourself…it is difficult to understand why they should have become popular. Bought, they taste so dull. Modern commerce has taken them over, and, in the interests of cheapness, reduced the delicious ingredients to a minimum – no butter, little egg, too much yellow colouring, not enough spice, too few currants and bits of peel, a stodgy texture instead of a rich, light softness. In other words, buns are now a doughy filler for children.’

The recipe below asks for mixed spice, you buy a proprietary blend of course or make your own. I decided to make my own – simply because I didn’t have any. The good thing about making your own is that you can remove spices you don’t like, and enhance the ones you do. Typical spices are the warm ones: cinnamon, mace, allspice (pimento), nutmeg, cloves and ginger. I also think a little black pepper is good.

Here’s my recipe. It makes between 8 and 12 buns, depending upon how large you want to make them. The piped pastry cross is optional – cutting crosses with a serrated knife is fine, and closer to the original. I used to think the same as Elizabeth David, in that they ‘involve unnecessary fiddly work’, but that’s because I couldn’t get them right, I reckon to have worked it out now.

 

Ingredients

500 g strong bread flour

5 g dried, fast-action yeast

10 g salt

60 g caster or soft dark brown sugar

1 tsp mixed spice

50 g softened butter

250 ml warm milk, or half-and-half water and milk

1 egg

100 g dried fruit (currants, raisins, sultanas, etc.)

25 g candied peel

For the crosses:

50g strong white flour

70-80 ml water

For the glaze:

60g sugar

70 ml water

 

Mix together the flour, yeast, salt, sugar and mixed spice in a bowl, then make a well in the centre. Beat an egg into the milk, and pour it into the well, adding the butter too. If you have an electric mixer, use the dough-hook attachment and mix slowly until everything is incorporated, then turn the speed up a couple of notches and knead for around 6 minutes. The dough should be tacky, glossy, smooth and stretchy. If you don’t have one, get stuck in with your hands and knead by hand on a lightly-floured worktop. It’s a very sticky dough at first, so it’s a messy job, but it will come together.

Grease a bowl, tighten the dough into a ball, pop it in and cover the bowl with cling film or a damp tea towel. Leave to prove until doubled in size – this can take anywhere between 1 and 3 hours, depending upon ambient temperature.

 

Knock back the dough to remove any air and mix in the dried and candied fruits – again, either by using your hands or your dough hook. Divide the dough into 8, 10 or 12 equally sized pieces and roll up into very tight balls on a very lightly-floured board. This is done by cupping your hand over a ball of dough and rolling it in tight circles, takes a little practise, but is an easy technique to learn.

 

Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and arrange the buns on it, leaving a good couple of centimetres distance between each one. Cover with a large plastic bag and allow to prove again until they have doubled in size.

Meanwhile, make the cross dough. Simply beat the water into the flour to make a loose, but still pipeable batter. Put the batter in a piping bag (or freezer bag, with a corner cut away) and make your crosses. If you like, just cut crosses in the tops.

Put the tray in a cold oven, and set it to 200⁰C and bake for 20 to 25 minutes (you get a better rise if they go into a cold/just warm oven, if you have to put them into a hot over, knock 5 minutes from the cooking time).

When they are almost ready, make the glaze: boil the sugar and water to a syrup and when the buns come out of the oven, brush them with the glaze twice.

Eat, warm or cold with butter. To reheat them, bake in the oven for 10 minutes at 150⁰C.

 

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