Category Archives: Teatime

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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Filed under baking, bread, Britain, Easter, Festivals, food, General, history, Recipes, Teatime

To Make a Coburg (or Cob) Loaf

Here’s another recipe to add to the series of posts on bread and bread-making (see main post here).

Coburg loaves are a common sight in traditional bakeries, but are rarely spotted outside of them these days. A Coburg is a round loaf that is not baked in a tin like your basic loaf (see recipe here), but as a round plump crusty loaf on a tray. On the top there are cuts in a cross shape that open up when it bakes. It can be made with pretty much any flour you like – white, whole-wheat, rye, oat, or whatever takes your fancy. I class it as one of the basic loaves because it contains just flour, yeast, salt and water.

Technically, a Coburg is a kind of cob, the only difference being that a cob does not get cut before going in the oven, though these days, there is no real distinction really. There are variations on the Coburg cuts though; sometimes several cuts are made in a chess board fashion which expands to make a porcupine loaf, which is also known as a college loaf or a Manchester loaf. Alternatively, the top of the dough gets quickly stabbed with a piece of wood spiked with lots of nails. A bit hardcore that one.

The Coburg loaf became popular in the Victorian era, and I assumed the loaf was named after Queen Victoria’s hubby Prince Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, as many things were in those days. The British public were fascinated by the royal couple, and really took to many German traditions (especially a Christmastime). However, it may not be the case. There was such a thing as Coburg material; cheap and coarse and used for making mourning clothes that predated Albert so the word is older. The most likely explanation is that a German baker living in London, as many did, gave it his family name, though no baker actually knows who this was. The loaves themselves were certainly around before the Victorian era, centuries earlier in fact. They were made from courser grains than today and went by the name of a Brunswick loaf. So it seems all that occurred was a name change.

The good thing about baking these loaves is that you need no tin and consequently you achieve a good crust all over the surface. The recipe below is based on one from Elizabeth David and I haven’t provided massive detail on the making of the dough as I have already done that in the recipe for baking a basic loaf, so if you are new to bread-making, it might be worth having a little of that post first (you’ll find it here).

Also, this method asks you to put the loaf in a cold oven and then timing the bake from the time it gets to temperature, this way you get an extra-fluffy loaf. There is a little oil or butter to add if you like too; fat helps the bread keep fresh an extra day.

 

Ingredients

up to 15 g fresh yeast or 8 g easy-bake yeast (see method)

400 g strong white flour (or a mix of up to 50% other flour(s) if you like)

10 g salt

25 g softened butter or olive oil (optional)

250 g blood-heat water

 

If using fresh yeast, cream it in a little of the warm water, adding a pinch of sugar and leave about 10 or 15 minutes until it is alive and foaming. Put the flour in a bowl, make a well in the centre and tip the yeast in along with the remainder of the water and the oil or butter.

If using dried yeast, make a well in the flour adding the salt to one side of the bowl and the yeast on the other side. 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.

Knock the dough back lightly and give it a brief knead. If you want, give it another rising.

The super-stretchy dough after its first proof

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.

Place the dough on a floured baking tray and cover with a large plastic bag or large bowl or pot.

Slash the top of the loaf with a sharp serrated knife to make a cross shape and place in a cold oven. Set the oven to 220°C and once the oven has got up to temperature, bake for 15 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 200°C and bake for a further 15 – 20 minutes, until brown and crusty. Check the loaf is cooked by knocking its underside and listening for a hollow sound. Cool on a rack and listen carefully for the sound of the crusts cracking!

A close-up of the cracking crust

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Pancake Day

Happy Shrovetide!

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the day before the 40 day long fast-a-thon that is Lent, so we best have a big-old festival, no?

No.

Where do you think this is? France? America? This is Britain, and whilst the rest of the Christian world is dancing, drinking, feasting and parading, we do not bow to such vulgarities, instead we have some pancakes and a nice cup of tea.

I jest of course; though between you and me, I would happily swap Mardi Gras for Pancake Day any day.

In Britain and Ireland, we make and eat pancakes before Lent because it is a very good way of using up main staple ingredients: flour, fat, eggs and sugar before the onset of Lent. By pancakes, we typically mean crepe-style pancakes, but the UK has a wide variety of different pancakes which are all delicious. I suppose you could add the griddle/girdle cakes to the list too as they typically use the same ingredients, but they are a little hit-and-miss, in my opinion.

These days, of course, we don’t really fast for the run up to Easter, but I do like to follow traditions, at least when it comes to eating food (I happily ignore the abstinence bits). I remember as a child, my family always had pancakes for tea on Shrove Tuesday and I don’t think we ate them any other day, I remember thinking you weren’t allowed to eat them unless it was Pancake Day. I have made up for this as an adult, especially now I am living in America.

It is traditional to take part in a pancake race on Pancake Day, which involves running a course whilst flipping pancakes. I have very hazy memories of doing this when I was little, but I don’t think that I have seen nor heard anything about pancake racing in the last 20 years, maybe more. It’s a shame that these things are dying out, I know many think it’s a little naff or twee, but I love stuff like that. It enriches life. Next year I shall hold a pancake race I think.

Pancake racing in the chemistry lab of

Westfield College, London, 1963

Shrove Tuesday is really the final day of a two-day period known as Shrovetide which was part of an unofficial festival called Carnival that ran from Epiphany. It was essentially a period of time for a lot of gluttony and frivolity in order to prepare for the nightmarish 40 days of misery beginning on Ash Wednesday.

Welsh Light Cakes

I love all types of pancakes, but the best ones come from Wales. This recipe from Jane Grigson for Welsh light cakes is excellent; they are made with soured cream, which gives them a wonderful tang. I have never found a pancake recipe to beat it, so I urge you to give it a go. If you make these with British soured cream, the resulting pancake batter is thin, giving them a frothy frilly texture. If you make them with American soured cream, the batter is much thicker, making them fluffy. Either way results in deliciousness.

Ingredients:

6 rounded tbsp. flour

2 rounded tbsp. sugar

3 tbsp. soured cream

a pinch of salt

3 eggs

½ tsp. bicarbonate of soda

1 rounded tbsp. cream of tartar

4 tbsp. water

¼ pint buttermilk or milk

fat or oil

butter

golden syrup

Beat together the flour, sugar, cream, salt and eggs. Next, mix together the bicarbonate and cream of tartar with the water and as it froths, tip it into the batter and stir it in. Add the milk or buttermilk to produce the desired consistency. Less for thick and fluffy, more for thin and lacy.

Heat the fat or oil on a suitable frying pan, swirl it around so the pan is coated and pour out any excess. Add a ladelful of batter and fry until golden brown, then carefully, quickly and confidently flip the pancake and cook the other side.

Stack the pancakes on top of one another and keep them warm in the oven, adding a pat or two of butter to each one.

Cut the stack into quarters and eat with golden syrup and more butter if you like.

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An Everyday Loaf

All that bread wants is time and warmth.”

After writing a post on bread a while ago, I thought I should follow it up with some bread recipes. I was going to go in a chronological order and find the earliest recipe for bread I could, but then I thought against that idea; a recipe for a delicious, but basic loaf is what we need to start with.

I try to bake all my own bread these days, but admittedly, I don’t eat a large amount of it, making a loaf every couple of weeks. However, I do believe that baking your own bread several times a week is possible and not the huge pain the arse you might expect. For many years, I tried to bake bread and it always had good flavour, but it was always a little tough or stodgy. I was rather disappointed thinking one had to practise, ptractise, practise to get the knack. It turns out that I was doing everything correctly, the only ingredient I was missing out was time

…and this is the problem with today’s factory-made bread; it is mass produced to the extreme, hurredly leavened, containing additives that preserve, emulsify and rise. The slices are always far too light and fluffy – “flabby” is the word I think Jane Grigson used. Of course, these days there are bakery sections in our supermarkets, but Elizabeth David was very suspect of them even in 1977.

Now don’t be thinking me a big old snob: I actually like some factory bread, and much instore bakery bread is very nice and crusty, but having realised I can make bread that is better tasting and so much cheaper, I can’t go back. Admittedly, it doesn’t last as long in the bread bin, but then bread shouldn’t!

Here is the recipe I use for a basic loaf – it requires little elbow grease, unless you have a food mixer with a dough hook. The best thing is that it should be made the evening before you actually want to eat it, so there’s no getting up at the crack of dawn. It contains only four ingredients too: flour, water, salt and yeast. There is the option of adding a little fat to keep it fresh and soft an extra day. You can enrich the bread by swapping some or all of the water for milk, but I think there’s no need. There are so many variations on the theme and as I discover them and try to perfect them, I shall add them to the blog.

It is very important to use the appropriate amount of water. A cob loaf which just sits on a baking tray needs 60% water per volume, in other words 600 g of water for every 1000 g of flour, any more and you risk it spreading out as it proves and bakes. This loaf is going to be baked in a tin, so we can add a little more water – 62.5% for white bread flour. If you are using a mixture of wholegrain strong and white strong, you will need a little more water, around 65% water.

You will also need a 2 pound, or 900 g loaf tin.

Ingredients:

400 g strong white bread flour, or a mixture of at least half white, and a wholegrain bread flour

8 g salt

4 to 5 g grams of dried instant yeast

250 – 260 g warm water

25 g oil or very soft butter

Mix the flour(s), salt and yeast in a bowl, make a well and add the oil or fat if using, then pour on the water. Mix together using your hand or a wooden spoon. If you have a mixer with a dough hook, just mix on a slow speed until it comes together to form a dough.

Important note no. 1: try to make the dough more on the wet side, rather than the dry; just keep your hands well-floured so you can handle the dough. Work it for a few minutes whilst in the bowl. Of course, if you have a mixer with a dough hook, you can simply use that on a slow to moderate speed to mix and briefly knead it.

You’ll have a sticky dough that is hard to work with, but don’t worry. It is now time to knead the bread. You can sprinkle a little flour or spread a little oil on the work surface to help if you like, but really you don’t need anything. Use whichever you might prefer. I tend to go for a light sprinkle at the beginning of the kneading process.

To knead by hand, push out the dough with the heel of your hand, and then roll it up, give it a quarter turn and repeat. The dough will quickly start to become more stretchy and smooth, and soon you’ll find you don’t need any oil or flour to knead it.

Before rising…
….after!

After around 10 minutes, you’ll feel the dough suddenly get more difficult to knead; it’s a bit like when you chew gum too long and it suddenly becomes more effort to chew it. 

Using a dough hook, turn up the speed a couple of notches and mix around 6 minutes. Keep guard though, your mixer may tend to go for a dance or walk over your worktop and off the edge!

Form the dough into a tight ball by tucking it under itself. Pop it into a grease bowl, cover with a plastic bag or damp tea towel and leave it to rise in a warm place.

Important note no. 2: Do not leave it near a radiator or anything like that – unequal heat will not do the job – you need ambient warmth. I let my dough rise in my airing cupboard. If you don’t have a warm place, do not worry for the quickly-metabolising yeast will begin to generate its own heat.

The stretchy dough after its first prove

When it has doubled in size, knock it back, i.e. press the air out with your fingertips – a very satisfying thing to do. It should be squidgy and much more elastic. Make a ball with the dough by pushing the edges into the centre. Once it is round, stretch the circle into an oval shape, long side toward you.

Now roll the dough towards you from the far end, tucking in everything tight all around, like tucking in your bed. This ensures that the seam is at the bottom of the bread and so that the top is nice and tight.

Cover with a plastic bag and allow to prove again, until doubled in size – it should have risen above the rim of the tin and should spring back when pushed by your finger.

Sprinkle with flour and make some cuts on the crust so that it can unfurl as it bakes – I go for diagonal slashes. It’s important to do it quite quickly and in one direction. A sharp serrated knife like a bread knife is best for this.

There are many methods for baking your bread, and some require a lot of messing around with trays of hot water and crazily-high temperatures. I do something much less dramatic: I put the bread in a cold oven and then turn it on – you get some extra rise without faffing about altering temperatures and giving yourself steam burns. If you have to use a hot oven, spray the dough with water to stop it forming a crust too early.

Set the oven to 220-230⁰C and bake for 40 minutes. When ready, the loaf will sound hollow when knocked with a knuckle.

The seam you made can still be seen on the underside of the loaf

Important note no. 3: do not eat the bread when hot – try to resist! The still-hot steam can make it stodgy.

There it is – sorry it’s rather long, but hopefully it is a good guide to baking proper bread. If anyone has any extra tips, let me know…

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Our Daily Bread…

Recently I have very much gotten into bread-making so I thought I would try to tackle a post on its history. Within about 3 minutes of researching, I realised that there is quite literally volumes off stuff and there is no way I could do it any justice in a single post. But I have to start somewhere, so I thought the symbolism of bread and its early beginnings might be a good place to start…

Bread was the one food that everybody depended upon, and it has been the focus of our daily lives for hundreds of years. We talk of ‘earning a crust’ and ‘dough’ is a slang word for money. When taxes get too high, we complain that we are having ‘the bread taken from our mouths’. Bread itself meant food.  Our lives are so linked with bread that many of our words have roots in bread or bread-making: the word lord is from the Anglo-Saxon hlaford, meaning ‘loaf ward’ and lady from hlaefdige, or ‘loaf kneader’; companion and company come from the Latin companio which means ‘one who shares bread’. Jesus’s flesh is bread, and when we pray, we ask Him to give us ‘our daily bread’ and should we get it, we’re ‘truly thankful’.

The Infant Jesus Distributes Bread to Pilgrims by Murillo 1678

I am not a religious person and don’t say Grace or anything like that. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does, but I remember as a child when we had to say the Lord’s Prayer at assembly, thinking that it was strange that we wanted bread (‘Give us this day our daily bread’). Surely there were much better things than boring old bread like cakes and fizzy pop. Plus we would get dinner anyway, so what was the point?

The Georgian essayist, George Lamb, brings up this very point:

The indigent man, who hardly knows whether he shall have a meal the next day or not, sits down to his fare with a present state of the blessing, which can be feebly attached to the rich…The poor man’s bread is his daily bread, literally his bread for the day. Their courses were perennial.

Do such people exist still today? I don’t think so. I’m not suggesting that there is no poverty of course, but the food of the poor is no longer bread. There is certainly more variety of food if you are poor in this modern age, but cheap food is pretty bad. Is it best to spend your money on a load of insipid flavourless food full of additives, or to buy the ingredients for a few loaves of proper bread? I actually don’t know the answer to that question.

You need only four ingredients to make bread: flour (though not necessarily wheat flour), water, salt and yeast. The first three ingredients were not that easy to come by; producing flour was a labour-intensive activity, salt was expensive and good quality fresh water might not even have existed in your town or village. Yeast, however, was easy, it could be found happily residing naturally on wheat. When dough is left for a certain amount of time it will begin to naturally ferment and rise as the yeast grows and anaerobically respires to produce bubbles of carbon dioxide. The earliest evidence for making leavened bread comes from Egypt and dates 4000BC, though it didn’t reach Europe until 400BC in Greece where barley flour was used over wheat. According to Aristotle barley bread was bread so white that it out does the ethereal snow in purity. Tone it down, ‘Totle.

Baking Bread by Helen Allingham, 19th Century

Bread wasn’t always sustaining; in the cities, we have been guilty of baking notoriously bad bread. Its peak was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bakers were displaying very fraudulent behaviour. Additives for whitening were very common; London bread was a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution. One pamphlet author even accused the bakers of using ground human bone! We reached this level state because flour wasn’t available to everyone and so there was no choice. Today there are food standards, but for the main part, most of the bread we consume is in no way near what bread could be. However, perhaps we shouldn’t expect it – millions of people need mass-produced foods, so perhaps this is the best, and only way, to do it.

Peel’s Cheap Bread Shop, Punch cartoon from 1846

According to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, the French food historian, there were four evolutionary steps that led toward the ‘invention’ of leavened bread.

  1. Pounded grains: raw or fire-roasted grains were eaten crushed or whole.
  2. Decoction, mash or porridge: the raw or cooked grains were pounded or ground and mixed with water to make a dough. The mixture was then either eaten or drunk.
  3. Maza: a thick dough is moulded into the shape of a flat cake and baked on embers, a griddle, an oven or in a glass dome. These were common in the Stone Age and their little-changed descendants still exist today in the form of pitta and chapatti.
  4. Bread: cereals suitable for bread-making are used such as wheat, spelt, oats, rye and buckwheat. Left over dough from a previous baking – the leaven – is added and the dough is left to rise and improve in flavour and texture. It is then cooked in a preheated oven or a glass dome.

So bread is what one’s world revolved around, and it has – in the most part – become a flabby mass-produced pre-sliced affair that somehow turns back into dough when you squash it. In the past, a huge amount of effort was required to bring together the four ingredients and bake them. Future posts will tackle those ingredients and the ways they were cooked, the machines built, the microbes or chemicals used to flavour or leaven, the holy days they were often baked for, and how village and city life depended on the producers of the ‘staff of life’.

Bread recipes added so far:

An Everyday Loaf

Coburg

Hot Cross Buns

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To make mince pies…

A few posts ago I gave the recipe for Mrs Beeton’s mincemeat, so I thought it only right to give a little instruction in making mince pies. I have to tell you that it is really worth the trouble of making your own mincemeat and mince pies – any bought ones are incomparable and always too sweet. The secret to an excellent mince pie is two-fold: you need homemade mincemeat and you need shortcrust pastry that is made with half butter and half lard. many people recoil in horror these days at thought of using lard, but it isn’t that bad really, at least not in small doses.

A recipe by Roger Twysden from the times of Charles I (c. 1640) says that larger Christmas pies were also made using a mixture made of meat, sugar, dried fruit and spices. He then says: “put them in coffins or pyes, and bake them”. The word coffin was used to describe the pastry-shell of pies. The reason they were called coffins is because, in earlier times, the pastry simply served as a casing intowhich the meat could be cooked; the pastry itself actually being inedible. They weren’t actually coffin-shaped, except for the Christmas Pie as Charles Dickens, writing in 1877, tells us: ‘ The coffin shape…is not now familiar to us. There is good reason to believe that, in old times, the form was symbolic of the manger at Bethlehem; and that Christmas Pie, whether mince or not, had religious as well as a gastronomic association with this particular season.’

 

For more typical mince pies, they are based upon Jane Grigson’s instructions from English Food, and they are excellent.

Roll out your pastry and use cutters to line…tart tins [I actually use muffin tins, cutting a large circle for the base, and a smaller one for the top]. Add…[a dessertspoon] of the mincemeat – not too much though the suet and sugar expands quite alot. Use some beaten egg to glue on lids of pastry, pinching as you go. Lastly brush the top with more egg, make a little cross in the top of the pie so steam can escape and sprinkle with a little sugar.

Bake at 220⁰C (425⁰F) for 15 to 20 minutes. Eat warm or cold. If you are feeling extra-Christmassy and if your stomach can take it, add a blob of brand or rum butter. Personally I go for a blob of lightly whipped cream or even some custard if any is to hand [and I concur!].

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Decorating the Christmas Cake

Once your Christmas cake is nicely matured and well-fed on brandy, it is time to decorate the bugger. In my opinion it is best to go all-or-nothing; either don’t decorate at all or go crazy. Traditionally, in England at any rate, you need a layer of marzipan and a layer of royal icing. Though I have seen recipes that have a bakeable marzipan and no icing, which I must admit is attractive, but I keep it traditional, even though I am not really bothered about the icing. No, I do it simply for tradition’s sake.

I gave the Christmas cake recipe that I use in the previous post, so if you have made one or have a bought undecorated one that you want to put your own stamp on, I have recipes for marzipan and for royal icing too. Don’t forget to add some festive bits and bobs too.

Marzipan

Marzipan is essentially a paste made of ground almonds and sugar and it found its way in Europe from the Middle East via the Crusades. It was the Italians – specifically the Milanese – that really took to the stuff, refining the techniques to produce a very high quality product that was excellent for making into extravagant sculptures. Leonardo da Vinci was quite despondent after making some amazing and intricate marzipan sculptures for the Milanese court as he ‘observed in pain that [they] gobble up all  the sculptures I give them, right down to the last morsel.’

Aside from being used as a sculpture material, marzipan also became a popular sweetmeat used by chocolatiers and bakers. Some of my favourite cakes use marzipan: Battenburg, stollen and simnel cake. The Christmas cake got its layer of marzipan because the Twelfth Night cake – traditionally covered in it – was banned by the Puritan and Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell as too frivolous, so people added the marzipan they loved so much to their Christmas cake instead.

Here’s the recipe I always use these days. What I like specifically about this recipe is that it is not too sweet, which I think the bought stuff always is. Also, when you make your own marzipan, it has a much better texture as well as flavour. You can add extra things to the mixture if you like, such as the grated zest of an orange, or a couple of teaspoons of orange flower water or rose water.

 

140 g icing sugar

90 g caster sugar

220 g ground almonds

1 beaten egg

1 tbs apricot jam

1 tbs water

Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl and stir in the caster sugar and almonds. Stir in the beaten egg and lemon juice to form a paste. Knead the marzipan on a surface floured with icing sugar. Easy. Wrap and allow to chill in the fridge for a few hours.

To cover the cake with it, you first need to slice the top of your cake off so that it is a nice, flat surface. I always like that bit because I get to try the cake.

Next, turn it upside down and pop it on a cake base or plate. Warm up the jam and water in a pan and paint the whole cake with the glaze.

 

On a sheet of greaseproof paper, roll out a little over half of the marzipan into a round shape that is just a little larger than the cake itself. The greaseproof paper makes it easier to roll out, but you can use an icing sugar dusted worktop instead. Use the cake tin as a template and cut a circle.

Pick up the marzipan still stuck to the paper, place it on top of the cake and peel off the paper.

Next, take the remaining third of the paste and roll that out into strips the same height as the cake and secure them to the cake. Press the edges together as you go as well as any cracks that may appear.

You need to leave the cake for a couple of days to dry a little before adding the icing (should you want to).

Royal Icing

Royal icing is the classic icing for the Christmas cake – it is ‘royal’ because it was the British Royal Family that used in for their wedding cakes, and naturally if the Royals did it, then we copied it. Icing had been around since the eighteenth century; before that, there wasn’t the technology to refine the sugar appropriately. The first icing was similar to royal icing, it was spread over the top of the cake but then the cake was returned to the oven to set hard. The final result was a nice flat, shiny surface like that of a frozen lake, hence we call the stuff icing. Elizabeth Raffald mentions it in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) – the first written recording of the word.

Royal icing is the most popular icing because it can be piped and coloured easily. Plus it is easy to make , which a bonus. Here’s how:

2 medium egg whites

2 tsp lemon juice

500g icing sugar, sieved

Whisk the egg whites until frothy but not yet stiff and then stir in the lemon juice. Add icing sugar to the egg white bit by bit, mixing as you go – an electric beater comes in very handy here, but you can use a wooden spoon if your forearms are up to the job. The icing can be used straight away.

 

Spread the mixture all over the cake using a palette knife to smooth it out. Dipping the knife in very hot water is a good way of getting the icing super-smooth, but I like it a bit more rough-and-ready. You can reserve some of the icing for piping of course, but that has never really been my thing – I should have a go one time though!

A simple and effective way of decorating the cake is to use the side of a knife to make a nice spiky snow effect. When decorated, leave it for two or three days to set hard.

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Filed under cake, Christmas, Eighteenth Century, food, General, history, Recipes, Teatime, Uncategorized

Christmas Cake

 

Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, mince pies – if you don’t like dried fruit you are in trouble at Christmastime!

The Christmas cake as we know it comes from two Christian feast days: Twelfth Night and Easter.

When families in the sixteenth century made their Christmas puddings for the big day, they would often use some of the mixture, with the addition of flour and eggs, to bake and eat for Eastertime. These were obviously rather rich families. It was liked so much that the rich fruitcake was made for Christmas too. We also dropped it from the Easter menu for some reason.

The addition of the marzipan and royal icing (see here for recipes) came much later when a cake was banned from Christmas. The last day of Christmas is Twelfth Night (the 5th of January) and it used to be traditional to make a Twelfth Night cake that contained almonds and was covered in marzipan. Oliver Crowell, the Lord Protector of England, and the other Puritans banned the feasting on that special day in the 1640s (he also banned mince pies as well) complaining that there was too much excess. Christmas Day remained a public holiday and some feasting was allowed, so people simply made their Christmas cake and covered that in marzipan instead, and so the Christmas cake was born.

Britain’s biggest ever party-pooper: Oliver Cromwell

You don’t have to cover it with the marzipan and royal icing though, in Yorkshire (my home county) it is popular to eat the Christmas cake with some nice cheese such as Wensleydale or Cheddar instead.

I love Christmas cake, so I thought I would give you the recipe I always use – it is adapted from Jane Grigson’s English Food (click here to see my other pet project) – and it has never failed on me. As I said a couple of posts ago, if you want to eat top-quality food at Christmas, you need to make your own, or spend a fortune at Harrod’s. Plus the cake is made well in advance – I usually make mine 6 weeks before Christmas so it can mature. Once you’ve cooked it, you only have to feed it with a little brandy to make it nice and moist.

This recipe is of course for an English-style Christmas cake; the Scottish, Welsh and Irish have their own versions, all in a similar vein, but with a few differences. I’ll blog about them at some point.

I have realised that I don’t have any decent photographs of my Christmas cake (I had a hard-drive die on me and I lost lots of photos), but I shall take some next year when I shall be making this cake again…

Ingredients:

1 ½ lb mixed dried fruit

4 oz of whole roasted almonds

4 oz chopped candied citrus peel

4 oz rinsed glacé cherries quartered or left whole

10 oz plain flour

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp grated nutmeg

the grated rind of a lemon

8 oz salted butter

8 oz soft dark brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbs black treacle (or molasses)

4 eggs

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbs warmed milk

brandy

Preheat your oven to 140⁰C (275⁰F).

Begin by mixing all the dried fruit, almonds, candied peel and cherries in a large bowl. Next, sift in the flour, turning in and coating the fruit, then mix in the spices and fresh lemon rind.

Now cream the butter sugar in a separate bowl, then mix in the vanilla and black treacle. Beat in four eggs one by one until incorporated, and the mix in the fruit and the flour. For the final stage, dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the warmed milk, stir it in, and then add enough brandy to slacken the mixture slightly, so that it achieves a dropping consistency – you don’t want a dry cake, now do you?

Line an eight inch cake tin with greaseproof paper and pour the mixture in, hollowing the top a little to compensate for it rising in the oven.

Cover with a layer of brown paper to prevent scorching and bake for 3 to 3 ½ hours. Test it after 3 hours with a skewer. When done, leave to cool in its tin overnight. Wrap in greaseproof paper or foil and keep in an airtight container.

 

Ideally, the cake should sit for at least a month to mature, but 2 or 3 weeks is also fine. Whilst it sits, you need to feed it with a sprinkle of 2 or 3 tablespoons of brandy, turning the cake each time it is fed.

The cake is ready to eat when sufficiently fed and matured, however, you might want to add a layer of marzipan and royal icing.

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Filed under baking, cake, Christmas, food, history, Puddings, Recipes, Seventeenth Century, Teatime, Uncategorized

Traditional Mincemeat

To kick off the Christmas theme for December, I thought I would give you a couple of mincemeat recipes – one sixteenth and one nineteenth century. They cenrtainly different from the Robinson’s jarred stuff my Mum used when I was a child. Robinson’s were a strange brand of preserves with a ‘Golly’ mascot that was still being used in the 2000s. It’s a long story of how this was allowed that requires a whole entry to itself I think…

Modern day mincemeat is a preserve of sugar, dried fruits, nuts and suet used to fill mince pies. It is certainly in no way meaty. In fact, I think vegetarian suet used these days. The further back you travel in time however, the more meaty the recipes become. Originally, the idea was to make a pie filled with minced meat, heavily flavoured with spices and dried fruits. There were two main reasons for this; first it allowed one to show off about how much spice one could afford; and second, the sweet aromatics could overpower any meat that was past its prime. To show you what I mean, here’s how ‘to bake the humbles of a deer’ from The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson from 1598 (the humbles are the innards by the way):

Mince them very small and season them with salt and pepper, cinnamon and ginger, and sugar if you will, and cloves, mace, dates, and currants and, if you will, mince almonds, and put unto them. When it is baked you must put in fine fat, and sugar, cinnamon and ginger and let it boil. When it is minced put them together.

The last sentence is puzzling, but it seems to be a recipe that is possible to do these days, though in sixteenth century cook books there are never quantities mentioned.

The same cannot be said for the next recipe from Mrs Isabella Beeton. Mrs Beeton was the first recipe writer to have the great idea of listing the ingredients and the quantities before the recipe. In her magnum opus of 1888, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, she included  recipes for a regular one, an American one and an ‘excellent’ one. I have never tried the latter two recipes, but the regular one makes the best mince pies I have ever eaten in my life, so if you are thing of making your own mincemeat I urge you to give this one a go. It does contain beef which shouldn’t put you off as you can’t taste it, but it does give it amazing delicious qualities. The quanitities Mrs Beeton gives are huge, so it is best to half or even quarter them. Here they are:

2 lbs raisins

3 lbs currants

1 1/2 lbs of lean beeef such as rump

3 lbs of suet – fresh is best, put the packet stuff is also good

2 pounds of soft dark brown sugar

6 oz mixed candied citrus peel (cintron, lemon, orange &c)

1 nutmeg, grated

2 lbs of tart apples such as Cox’s Orange pippins, peeled, cored and grated

the zest of 2 lemons and the juice of one

1/2 pint of brandy

Mince the beef and suet (or get your butcher to do it).

Then, mix all the remaining ingredients together well and pot into sterilised jars, making sure you push it down well to exclude any trapped air bubbles. Leave for at least 2 weeks before you use it. In a couple of weeks, I’ll give you recipe to make the perfect mince pie

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Filed under food, history, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, Sixteenth Century, Teatime, The Victorians

Yorkshire Parkin

God, I love Yorkshire parkin. If you are not familiar with it, it’s a strongly-spiced sticky gingerbread-cum-cake flavoured with treacle and dark brown sugar that is traditionally eaten on Guy Fawkes Night (the fifth of November, aka Bonfire Night) and for me, it is what makes that day complete. It seems like it should be a recipe that has always been, but the earliest mention of it I can find from a primary source in my research is from 1842; a certain Richard Oastler wrote a letter to Sir Thomas Thornhill (who would later become the High Sherrif of Suffolk and a Tory MP) telling him that  he’d recieved one on the 1st day of March from Mrs John Leach of Huddersfield.  The recipe does go back a little further than that though; most likely created some time during the Industrial Revolution by working-class folk as oats and treacle were important elements of the diet in those times. The word parkin was a popular surname in Yorkshire and means Peter. There are other parkins – such as Lancashire parkin – but it doesn’t contain oats and is not, in my very biased opinion, as good because of it.

Making this cake, really brought memories of Bonfire Night as a child growing up in Yorkshire and I must admit, I did have a massive pang of homesickness. Fireworks and bonfires are all well and good, but for me it is always about the food.

This cake has to be eaten to be believed; it will instantly make you feel a million times better if you are feeling down, now that the clocks have gone back. It has to be eaten with a piping hot cup of tea in one hand, preferable in front of a roaring bonfire. Failing that, a roaring fire inside with the dog.

The ingredients are very important here – any non-Brits may not be aware of two of the key ingedients: black treacle and golden syrup. Black treacle is essentially molasses so you can easily substitute there. However, many recipes that ask for golden syrup suggest using corn syrup as an alternative. Please, please, please do not do that. They are incomparable, find a shop with a British ‘aisle’ and get the real thing. Accept no substitute. The history of Lyle’s Golden Syrup is an interesting one and I shall tackle that in another post soon, along with some more golden syrup-based recipes. The recipe calls for weights of treacle and syrup – the best way to do this without creating a nighmarish sticky mess of a kitchen, is to place your saucepan onto the weighing scales, tare them, and then add the syrup and treacle directly.

One last thing… almost as important as the ingredients, is the aging of the parkin. No matter how tempting it may be, do not eat the parkin on the day you have made it. It needs to be kept in an airtight box or tin for at least three days. The cake needs a bit of time for the flavours and stickiness to develop.

Ingredients:

8 0z butter

4 oz soft dark sugar

2 0z black treacle (or molasses)

7 oz golden syrup

5 oz medium oatmeal (often sold sold as quick-oats)

7 oz self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

4 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp mixed spice

2 large egg, beaten

2 tbs milk

Preheat the oven to 140⁰C (275⁰F) and lightly grease a square 7 x 7 inch cake tin. In a saucepan, melt together the butter, brown sugar, black treacle and golden syrup. It is important to do this on a medium-low heat, you don’t the sugars to boil, just to meld together.

Whilst they are melding, stir all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and when the syrup mixture is ready, tip it in. Use a wooden spoon to beat the wet ingredients into the dry. Now incorporate the eggs – do this bit-by-bit, or you run the risk of curdling the mixture. Lastly, slacken the mixture with the milk and pour the whole lot into your cake tin.

Cook for 1 hour and 30 minutes and cool it in the tin. Once cool, keep the parkin in an air-tight cake tin or tub and keep for at least three days before cutting into squares.

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Filed under Biscuits, cake, food, history, Recipes, Teatime