Hello! I’m back after two-month hiatus. Did you miss me?
It’s British Pie Week this week so I thought I’d post a recipe for a favourite of mine. The trouble is, I have many favourites, so I came up with a list of four and let Twitter decide. I was very glad to see my favourite won.
Later, I saw the cheese and leek/onion pie was tenth in the top ten favourite UK pies, receiving just 1% of the vote!* Shocking. I think there may be a north-south divide effect at work there; back in the days of my market stall and restaurant, cheese and leek pie was by far the favourite.
The cheese and onion pie or pasty used to be a very important food for the working classes of Northern England, especially Yorkshire and Lancashire: it’s easy to make and the ingredients are cheap compared to meaty fillings. It’s the pie equivalent of the Welsh Rabbit/Rarebit.
The simplest of fillings were made of cooked onion, thinly-sliced raw potato, or cold mashed potato, and grated cheese. On the fancier side, a thick white sauce is used instead of mash. For my recipe I am going somewhere in between to hopefully enjoy the best of both worlds. I use onion and leek interchangeably because either (or both) can be used: I make leek pies as I’m intolerant to onion.
As for the cheese, use a mature kind that melts easily: Cheddar, Lancashire, Double Gloucester etc. The pastry should be a simple shortcrust made with half butter, half lard, but all butter is good too.
Serve the pie with mashed potatoes or chips, with peas and gravy as is traditional, but this pie eats very well just warm with a dressed green salad and some good old salad cream.
Makes one large pie to serve 6 people (or 4 greedy ones who always have seconds)
For the filling:
50 g butter
1 leek, trimmed and sliced, but with the green left on; or 2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
350 g (approx.) potatoes, peeled and diced (about 2 medium-sized ones)
Salt and pepper
1 tbs plain flour
1 tsp English mustard powder
275 ml hot milk
150 g grated cheese
Pinch Cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tbs double cream
For the pastry:
400 g plain flour
200g salted butter, or 100 g each butter and lard (or shortening)
120 ml water or milk
Start with the filling. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the leek or onion and potatoes, season with half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Cook over a medium heat until the leek or onion melts right down. Do this slowly, turning down the heat if necessary – you don’t want to fry them, though a pale golden brown colour is fine.
Stir in the flour and mustard and cook for a minute before mixing half of the milk. When the milk combines with the flour to make a smooth sauce, add the remainder of the milk and combine again.
Simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Mix in the Cayenne pepper. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper. It’s a good idea to slightly over season the filling to make up for the comparatively bland shortcrust pastry. Finally stir in the cream and allow to cool completely. I usually make my cooked fillings a day or two ahead of time.
Now make the pastry. Rub the fat(s) into the flour. If you are using unsalted butter, add half a teaspoon of salt. If you are making pastry by hand, unless you have forearms like Popeye, use fats that are at room temperature. If using a mixer, use the flat beater and use cold fats straight from the fridge. Either way, once it resembles breadcrumbs add the water a couple of tablespoons at a time until you have a soft but not sticky dough. Knead very briefly, wrap in cling film and leave it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
After resting, take around a third of the dough and roll out on a lightly floured worktop. I used an 18 cm cake tin because I like deep-filled pies, but a shallow pie dish or flan ring of around 25 cm would work too. Roll out a third of the pastry into a circle. Leave the pastry to rest again for a minute or so before laying it in the tin. Be careful to press the pastry into the corners without stretching it: lift it in carefully. If using a deep dish as I have it’s helpful to fold the pastry into quarters, placing it in the dish or tin and then unfolding it.
Roll out the remainder of the pastry to make a lid. Cut a steam hole in the centre and set aside.
Spoon in the pie filling, but don’t fill it too much – it does expand as it cooks. Now brush the edges with egg wash (I use an egg, or egg yolk, beaten with half a teaspoon of salt). Glue the lid in place, pressing the lid down well.
Trim the excess pastry with a sharp knife and then crimp the edges or use a fork to seal the lid. Paint with more egg wash, and if you like add a bit more black pepper. Place in the fridge to set the pastry.
Preheat your oven to 220°C and pop a baking tray on the centre shelf.
(If you have any left-over pastry and filling, make a pasty with it (see here for my Cornish pasty recipe) and bake it with the pie, or freeze it. Both pastry and filling freeze well separately.)
Take the pie out of the fridge and place in the oven on the hot baking tray (this prevents a soggy bottom from developing) and bake for 45 minutes, turning down the heat to 180°C when the pastry is a nice golden brown.
One of my favourite seasonal foods are fresh Kentish cobnuts, and they are in season right now, so I thought I’d write a little post about them in case you see them at your local greengrocer’s shop. In the north of England they are difficult to get hold of, and when you do see them they cost a small fortune, but luckily for me, I was in London last weekend and spotted a fruit seller outside Borough Market selling big punnets at just £3.50 a pop. Up North, I’d have had to remortgage.
Cobnut season runs from late August to October in the UK, and they can – or, at least, their wild cousins can – be found growing on wild hazel trees all around the country – in fact they grow in abundance near me in Manchester. Unfortunately, the squirrels beat me to them every year. Nutting season traditionally started on 20 August on St Philibert’s Day.1
There’s a little confusion regarding nomenclature here, as is so often the case, some call these nuts cobnuts, others filberts, and some call them simply hazelnuts. Are there any real differences between the three or are they just regional names for the same thing? Well that all depends upon whom you ask, and when in time you ask.
Let’s start with the wild tree, the hazel, or to give its Latin name Corylus arellana. These nuts are hazels, or hazelnuts, they are elongate and flatter that the supermarket variety, but they still have the same smooth shells. This is what many people today would call a cobnut. This common tree produces nuts that was an important foodstuff for Neolithic humans, and they have been cultivated since Roman times.2,3 These cultivated trees were bred for greater yields and larger nuts changing making them more spherical in shape. These round nuts were called cobs, or cobnuts, and they are what we would call hazelnuts today. They grow so well in Kent that at one point 7000 acres of land was put aside for their cultivation, plenty to export a significant number to the United States.3
Okay, let’s, for the sake of argument, say that hazels are the wild nuts and cobnuts are their cultivated cousins, where do filberts fit in? Well, these are a larger cultivated nut from a completely different species of hazel (C. americanus).4 They were regarded as a rather upmarket orchard fruit, whilst cobnuts were considered more suitable for the hedgerow (or did they mean hazels!?).3
Today, cobnuts appear to be a catch-all term for any of the elongate forms of hazelnuts. The great thing about getting them fresh is that they have a lovely crisp, refreshing flavour, rather like water chestnut but with a mild hazelnut flavour. They are still covered in their green protective coats (shucks) and sometimes even the shell is still green. They store well and can be dried and eaten months later. An alternative to drying is to shell the fresh kernels and store them in honey. I expect the fresh kernels would make very successful pine nut replacement in pesto.
The best known traditional food made with cobnuts is Kentish cobnut cake. A dense cake flavoured with ginger and sweetened with some kind of unrefined sugar or honey. Some are made like a sponge cake by creaming butter and sugar, others are made by melting butter and syrup/sugar together. I go for the latter method. I found a few recipes that include a good dollop of double cream in the mix, so I’ve added it my recipe. This produces a dense cake, which I prefer, but if you want to make a lighter one, mix a teaspoon of baking powder into the flour and swap the cream for around half its volume of milk (i.e. 80 ml). Being a syrupy cake, it benefits from a couple of days’ maturing time in an air-tight box. You can use any syrup you like, or indeed any unrefined sugar. Honey works very well, especially if you have stored within it some cobnut kernels. As far as the nuts go: hazels, cobnuts or filberts all work equally well.
Makes one 8 inch/23 cm cake.
180 g butter
120 g golden syrup or honey
80 g Demerara, or any brown sugar
150 ml double cream (or 80 ml milk, if going for the lighter option)
3 knobs preserved ginger, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
240 g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder (optional; use if going for the lighter option)
1 ½ tbs ground ginger
100-150 g whole cobnuts, shelled weight
Preheat oven to 160°C and line a 20 cm round cake tin.
Melt the butter, syrup or honey and sugar in a saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Take off the heat and mix in the cream (or milk), chopped preserved ginger and then the eggs.
Mix the baking powder, if using, into the flour, then mix in the ground ginger and cobnuts. Make a well in the centre and pour in the butter-sugar mixture, stirring slowly with a whisk until the batter is smooth.
Pour into the lined cake tin and bake for anywhere between 1 and 1 ¼ hours. Test it is ready using a skewer. Cool in the tin.
1. Wright, J. River Cottage Handbook No.7: Hedgerow. (Bloomsbury, 2010).
2. Vaughan, J. G. & Geissler, C. A. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. (Oxford University Press, 2009).
3. Mason, L. & Brown, C. The Taste of Britain. (Harper Press, 1999).
4. Johnson, O. & More, D. Collin’s Tree Guide. (Collins, 2004).
Miss Lavinia and Miss Clarissa partook, in their way, of my joy. It was the pleasantest tea-table in the world. Miss Clarissa presided. I cut and handed the sweet seed-cake – the little sisters had a bird-like fondness for picking up seeds and pecking at sugar; Miss Lavinia looked on with benignant patronage, as if our happy love were all her work; and we were perfectly contented with ourselves and one another.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1849
I do love a seed cake, once a key element of a British teatime table. Sadly, it’s largely either forgotten, or worse, ignored in our modern world of ‘instagrammable’ drizzle cakes, or multi-coloured creations slathered with luxurious buttercreams and frostings. With that sort of competition, the poor old seed cake doesn’t get a look in, bless it. As a result, the only way you are going to taste is to make one.
For those in the dark as to what I’m banging on about, a seed cake is a plain, rather dry cake flavoured subtly with caraway. It’s texture is similar to that of a madeira cake; dry enough so that it is perfect to have with a nice cup of tea for your elevenses. It has just the right amount of clack, as we northerners say; a tendency to stick to the roof of your mouth. Don’t let this put you off – it’s plainness is what makes it perfect. Super-sweet cakes covered with their myriad fillings are fine, but often a little too much to take.
Seed cakes appear in cookbooks from the seventeenth century, but only really became a cornerstone of the tea table in the eighteenth. They were a different beast then; sugary cakes also said something of both your status and sensibilities, so other things were added. Hannah Glasse added allspice, cinnamon and ambergris in one of her recipes.1 It was a time before chemical raising agents too, so cakes at this time were made light by the action of live yeast. Seed cake, therefore, was reserved for those who had a taste for the finer things in life, such as Parson Woodforde, diarist and great lover of cakes, puddings, pies and confectionary. He loved listing what he’d had for dinner. Take this entry from 17 August 1778:
7 p.m. Hot hash, or cold mutton pies. Saturday night an addition of good seed-cake of one pound, covered with sugar and a quart of good beer poured over it.2
Fast-forward a century and we see that the seed cake is pretty much what we would expect to see; the only difference being that a splash of brandy, rather than milk, is used to slacken the mixture.3
A seed cake cannot be made with any other seed than caraway. Sure, you could swap them for poppy seeds or some such, but you will have made a cake with seeds in it, not a seed cake! What’s so special about caraway then? Well, caraway was used to flavour all sorts of foods ever since ancient times, because unlike the other spices* it grew happily throughout Europe. It is an essential flavouring in German sauerkraut for example. In Britain, folk seemed to prefer to use in sweet foods, as Elizabeth David noted: “Apart from seed cake, (why were those cakes always so dry?) once the great English favourite, and caraway sweets and comfits, caraway appears little in English cooking.”4
Elizabeth’s quote eludes as to why this cake fell out of favour – it’s viewed as boring, dry, stale perhaps, but I disagree. It is light, and because it contains very little liquid compared to, say, a moist Victoria sponge, it is paramount that the butter and sugar are well creamed together, the flour is carefully folded in without over-mixing, and that it is not over-baked. This is where I fear folk may go wrong: baking an extra ten minutes, just to be on the safe side, will produce a dry, boring cake. Done well, however, a seed cake can be as superlative as any Proustian madeleine.
175 g salted butter, softened
175 g caster sugar
250 g self-raising flour
1 tbs ground almonds
1 tbs caraway seeds
Around 3 tbs milk (or brandy)
Preheat your oven to 180°C and line a 2 pound loaf tin (usually around 23 cm long) with greaseproof paper, keeping it in place with a smear of butter or cooking oil.
In a mixing bowl cream the softened butter until pale and fluffy. Add an egg and one tablespoon of the flour and beat in until smooth. Repeat with all of the eggs. Mix the remaining flour with the ground almonds and caraway seeds and tip into the mixture.
Fold in carefully and when combined, add the milk (or brandy) to loosen the batter slightly – unlike a regular sponge, you are not looking for a dropping consistency with seed cake, so don’t go overboard: start with two tablespoons and see how it looks.
Spoon into the tin and smooth the top – you don’t have to be fastidious here, as the batter cooks it levels out all on its own.
Bake for around an hour – this will depend on the dimensions of your tin, in my wide one, it took just 55 minutes. Test with a skewer if it is ready – I’ll say it again: it’s important not to overbake seeing as the batter is on the dry side.
Let it cool in its tin for 15 minutes before removing and cooling on a rack. These sorts of cakes are best eaten on the day, or the day after, they are baked.
*Mustard also grows in Europe, hence its heavy use in British recipes throughout history.
1. Glasse, H. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. (Prospect Books facsimile of the 1747 original).
2. Woodforde, J. The Diary of a Country Parson Volume 2. (Oxford University Press, 1924).
3. Beeton, I. The Book of Household Management. (Lightning Source, 1861).
4. David, E. Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. (Penguin, 1970).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) by Elizabeth David
English Food, Third Edition (1992) by Jane Grigson
Last week I published a post all about how muffins and crumpets lie on a rather fluid continuum when you look at the from an historical perspective: names, methods and ingredients have all changed and been swapped which is very confusing for something that is rather straight forward today.
Last post I said that a crumpet today is:
Made from a pourable batter like a thick pancake
Slowly cooked on a bakestone
Slightly rubbery in texture, especially prior to toasting
Has characteristic bubble holes on one side
I’ve looked through many recipes and I have found that there are three things that do still vary: the liquid used is milk or water, or a mix – milk makes a soft crumpet and water makes a crisper one; plain or strong flour is used (or a mix) – the former makes a rubbery crumpet and latter makes one that’s a bit more pudding-like. The balance needs to be ‘just right’, but everybody’s Goldilocks zone is different, so feel free to alter the proportions in my recipe below, the resulting griddlecake will still be a crumpet so it comes down to personal taste. The third difference is to do with raising agents; should you add yeast alone or add some bicarbonate of soda too? Personally, I think the bicarb is a necessity because it gives you many pronounced bubbles – and therefore increased butter absorbency – which is what we have all come to expect from a modern-day crumpet.
Throughout the centuries crumpets seem to have been fairly constant: some ‘crumpets’ turn out to be pikelets from time to time, but if it’s called a crumpet you can be fairly sure it is a crumpet. This minor confusion is easy to bear but just you wait for the muffin post next week – they’re all over the shop!
Elizabeth David called supermarket crumpets a “travesty”, but I must confess to love them dearly; home-made ones are a very different beast, more golden in colour, and more crisp on the outside and softer on the inside. They do tend to become rather stodgy in the centre, which could be because of too high a ratio of milk-to-water and plain-to-strong flour, but in my experience it comes from overfilling the rings: a one centimetre depth is all you need. Another reason they might be stodgy is that you turn them over too quickly: crumpets are griddle cakes that cannot be rushed, they need a gentle bake on the griddle and to be turned at the right time. I used to turn them too soon, but then I received some good advice from Gary Rhodes in his classic book Great British Classics; he tells us they are ready to turn when “small holes appear and the top has started to dry.” Much more helpful than timings.
To make crumpets you need crumpet rings, but if you don’t have any you can use shallow mousse/chefs’ rings, and if there really is nothing at all suitable in your kitchen cupboards, you can go free-form and make pikelets.
How to eat a crumpet
Almost every writer seems to think that to experience crumpet perfection, one needs to eat them fresh off the griddle. I disagree and firmly believe they are best cooled on a rack, then stored in a tin or tub and toasted the next day. Each to their own, I suppose. They must be toasted until crisp on the outside yet soft on the inside which occurs very rapidly compared to supermarket ones, so watch out!
To butter a crumpet, take a knob of butter (salted, preferably) and paint the pitted surface all over with it. Home-made crumpets are always less holey than shop-bought and as a consequence the butter takes a little longer to absorb, so the best strategy is to butter the remaining crumpets – because no one ever has just one – and then return to the first for a second dousing.
The best topping for a crumpet is butter and just the tiniest trickle of honey.
Makes 18-20 crumpets
250 g plain flour
250 g strong white bread flour
2 tsp instant yeast
1 ½ tsp salt
250 ml milk
500 ml warm water
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
A little butter
A little sunflower oil or lard
Mix the flours, yeast and salt in a bowl and make a large well in the centre of the flour. Mix the milk and water, reserving around 50 ml. Whisk the mixture well and when smooth, cover with a damp tea towel or some cling film and leave for around 90 minutes until very bubbly.
Dissolve the bicarbonate in the reserved water and whisk into the batter. Cover again and allow to bubble for another 30 minutes.
Place a thick based griddle or pan over a medium-low heat.
Grease your rings well with butter (or lard) then use just a tiny amount of lard or oil to lightly grease the griddle. Place the rings on the griddle and pour a small ladleful of batter in each ring: just a centimetre’s depth as they rise in the rings. After a while, large bubbles will appear on the top and as they pop, you will see the batter magically transformed into crumpet. Very satisfying.
Allow to gently cook for around 20 minutes or until the tops have dried out, then remove from the rings (use a palette knife to help), turn over and cook on the other side for a further 5 minutes.
Remove and cool on a rack, regrease the rings and continue in this way until all of the batter is used up.
If you don’t have rings, you can instead make pikelets, which take half the time to cook due to their thinness.
English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) by Elizabeth David
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), Elizabeth David
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.
In the final episode of the series we look at how the last Sunday of Lent was marked in the past, focussing on Fig Sunday and Palm Sunday.
Neil cooks up some historical pax cakes to give out to shoppers and traders at Levenshulme Market so see how then would go down today.
With Easter Sunday on his mind, Neil gets hold of some very special meat from a Hebridean sheep farm and has a chat with farmer Helen Arthan about what it’s like working with such characterful little sheep. On his return to Manchester, he cooks up some roast hogget for two friends of the show.