Tag Archives: baking

How to Make a Steamed Sponge Pudding: a Step-by-Step Guide

Last year I threatened to write some instructional posts that focus on technique rather than history. First up, a step-by-step guide to making a steamed sponge pudding, complete with instructions on how to cook one if you don’t have a steamer.

This recipe is for a basic sponge to fit a 2 pint / 1 litre mould or basin. It will serve 6 to 8 people; you can multiply up or down the amounts and cooking times very easily, though if you are making a really big one (1 ½ litres or more) you’ll need to add a teaspoon of baking powder. Any mould can be used, but a basin is best for sponges.

There are an infinite number of variations, and I have included some examples for you after the basic recipe.

225g softened butter, plus extra for buttering the mould

175g caster sugar

4 eggs

225g self-raising flour, or gluten-free flour mix[1]

Pinch salt (if using unsalted butter)

30ml liquid: e.g. milk, lemon juice

Start by buttering your mould well; if you are using a basin with a lid, butter that too.

Now beat the butter and caster sugar with an electric mixer, or a wooden spoon, until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time into the butter and sugar – use a high speed if using an electric mixer. When fully incorporated, add the next egg. If the mixture refuses to mix properly and curdles, add a tablespoon of flour and beat well.

When all four eggs have been added, tip in the flour (and salt if using) and mix on a low speed until just incorporated. Add the liquid and mix again. The mixture should now be of ‘dropping consistency’, i.e. if you take a large spoonful, the batter drops from it when you turn the spoon on its side. If it doesn’t, add a little more – just a couple of teaspoons may be all you need. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and don’t add more liquid.

A mixture with the correct ‘dropping’ consistency

Now it is time to fill the basin. If you like, place a circle of greaseproof paper in the bottom of the basin to prevent the pudding, or any topping, from sticking. This is more important if you are using a metal, porcelain or glass basin, plastic ones are typically see-through and can be massaged to help the pudding to release itself.

This is also the time to add any toppings, should there be any: see suggestions below. Once added, scrape the mixture into the basin and smooth the top.

Put the lid on the basin, if it has one, or place a pleated double layer of greaseproof paper and kitchen foil – the pleat allows for any expansion – then secure it in place with string.

How to make a pleat in a piece of paper or foil

You may want to make a simple handle with the string too if you suspect the pudding will be tricky to remove from its steamer.

Now prepare the steamer. If you have one that fits the pudding basin, simply add boiling water straight from the kettle to the base to a depth of a few inches/ 10 cm deep, then place the basin in the steamer, sit it on the base and put on the lid. Turn the heat high and allow it to come to a rolling boil

If you don’t have a steamer you can make one: Take a pan large enough to comfortably fit your basin. Before you add any water, place an upturned saucer on the base of the pan (add some scrunched material under the saucer to prevent clattering). Place the basin inside your pan and pour boiling water straight from the kettle into the basin to come around a third of the way up the basin. Cover and turn the heat to high to achieve a rolling boil.

Whichever way you have made your steamer, once a rolling boil has been reached keep the pudding boiling well for 20 minutes, then turn the heat to medium-low. The total cooking time for this size of pudding is 90 minutes.

Don’t be tempted to remove the lid as it drops the temperature. That said, it is also important that the pan or steamer doesn’t boil dry so do check after 45 mins or an hour if you think it may do. If so, top up with water straight from the kettle.

Turning the pudding out: one of the most satisfying kitchen tasks

When it is done, remove the basin from the steamer and leave for 10 minutes before turning it out onto a serving plate or dish, slide a knife around the inside edge to loosen it if you suspect it may be stubborn.

Serve the pudding with proper custard.


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Variations

You can add flavour by using different sugars or swapping 60g sugar for a syrup, by adding citrus zest, or by adding ½ tsp flavouring or extract.

Toppings can be used with aplomb: they need to be 1 or 2 cm in depth, about 100g, and added before the sponge mixture.

Treacle sponge: add 100g golden syrup (or a mixture of golden syrup and black treacle) to the base, use soft dark brown sugar for the sponge and add the zest of a lemon.

Jam or marmalade sponge: add 100g of your favourite jam or marmalade, add orange or lemon zest to the sponge mixture if liked.

Lemon: add a layer of lemon curd to the base, flavour the sponge with the zest of a lemon. Use lemon juice to thin the sponge mixture.

Bakewell: add 100g of morello cherry or raspberry jam to the base. For the sponge, add ½ tsp almond extract and swap 60g flour for ground almonds.

Rum and raisin: soak 100g raisins in 2 tbs spiced rum overnight, add to the mixture after the flour has been incorporated, thin the mixture with more rum.

Chocolate: substitute 60g of the flour for cocoa. Serve a chocolate sauce or chocolate custard separately.

Fruit: add 100g of any sweetened stewed fruit or fruit in syrup. Soft fruits like gooseberries, blackcurrants, etc., can be mixed with sugar and added raw.


Notes:

[1] I regularly make these puddings gluten free and the flour mixture I use is the following: 60g ground almonds, 175g gluten-free bread flour mix (I use Dove Farm), 1 level tablespoon gluten-free baking powder and 1 level teaspoon ground psyllium husk.

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Black bun (Scotch Bun) Part 2: Recipe

My traditional yeast-leavened black bun

As promised, and carrying on from my last post, here is my recipe for the traditional yeast leavened black bun (Scotch bun). I must say I was really surprised with how well it turned out: it was enriched with so much stuff and was so huge, I thought the poor little yeast cells wouldn’t be able to do their job. I was wrong, but it did take two days to do two provings required before baking.

The white dough is essentially a sweet brioche made without eggs. When it was time to knock it back after its first rising, I was encouraged by the network of small yeasty bubbles that had formed inside the dough.

The tiny bubbles in my enriched basic dough

The bun was huge and made quite the centrepiece (though if you wanted to reduce the quantities and make a smaller one, go ahead). The cake inside was deliciously moist, and the brioche dough wonderfully buttery and thin and in such contrast with the treacle-black centre.


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It may have been big, but it kept well and was perfectly delicious well over a week after baking.

For the basic dough:

450 g plain white flour

450 g strong white bread flour

160 g caster sugar

10 g dried fast-action yeast

20 g salt

160 g softened butter

400 ml hand-hot full-fat milk

A smidge of flavourless oil

For the centre:

750 g basic dough

100 ml black treacle

400 g currants

400 g raisins

100 g candied peel

100 g slivered almonds

1 tsp mixed spice

½ tsp each ground cinnamon and allspice

2 eggs, plus 1 more for glazing

Butter for greasing

Granulated sugar

Two days before you want to bake your black bun, in the evening, make the basic dough. This is best done with an electric mixer, however don’t let me stop you attempting this by hand. Mix the dry ingredients – flours, yeast, sugar and salt – in your mixing bowl, make a well and add the butter and milk. Mix slowly with a dough hook until everything is mixed together, then turn the speed up a little and knead until smooth. Because it’s a low-gluten mixture and there’s all of that butter and sugar, it won’t be very elastic, but when it’s really smooth, you are done. It should take 8 to 10 minutes.

Paint the inside of a bowl with oil, then bundle up the sticky dough as best you can and cover with cling film. Leave to prove until around double in size. This took 18 hours: I use a low amount of yeast on purpose that the yeast ferments slowly. It may take less time for you if you used more yeast, and if your home is warmer than mine.

Knock back the dough and place 750 g of the dough in your food mixer, then add the treacle, dried fruits, candied peel, almonds, spices and eggs. Mix with a flat beater for a couple of minutes until everything looks smooth and like a Christmas cake batter. Set aside.

Take the remaining dough, form into a ball, place on a floured work surface and roll out into a large circle 32-35 cm in diameter. Make sure your pin is floured too; this will prevent sticking. With slightly wet hands, scoop the dark sticky dough and pop it in the centre of your circle. Now gather the dough so that the centre is completely covered – rather like a giant Eccles cake.

Cut away bits of the dough that have bunched up too much and glue any edges with a thin coat of beaten egg. Don’t worry if it looks a bit messy. Turn the bun over and flatten it with your hands, smoothing away any bulging bits to make a nice round shape.

Now liberally grease a 25 cm flan ring with butter and place on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper and then dusted with flour, and place the bun in the centre. Press the bun or lightly roll it with your rolling pin so that is just a centimetre off from touching the edge. Paint the top with egg and scatter over a little granulated sugar, then stab holes in the top with a thin, pointed knife right down to its base – this keeps it flat as it rises. Cover with a large plastic bag[1] and allow to prove until it has grown large enough to fill the ring. For me, this took 12 hours.

Preheat your oven to 175°C and place a heatproof tin on the bottom of the oven. When it’s time to bake the bun boil the kettle, then open the oven and slide your bun onto the middle shelf, gingerly slide the tin out enough so that you can pour in the hot water, slide it back in and close the door.

Bake at this temperature for an hour, then turn the heat down to 140°C and bake for a further 2½ hours. If the top is getting too brown, cover it with some kitchen foil.

Remove from the oven, and slide onto a cooling rack. Remove the ring when the bun is just warm.

The black bun will keep for weeks in an airtight box or tub. It is delicious eaten with sharp cheese.


Notes:

[1] I find a supermarket ‘bag for life’ is best for this task. I have one that I use only for proving things like this. Turn it over and turn up the edges, as you would your trousers to make it a sturdy shape and hey presto!

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Black Bun (Scotch Bun) Part 1: History

Before we begin: a big thank you to Scots chef and food writer Sue Lawrence for helping me out with the research for this post.

It has become a Christmas tradition of mine to ask my Twitter followers to select by Christmas post for me by way of a poll. I like to include both obvious and obscure options and was very pleased this year to see roast turkey receive no votes all (though I suppose I’ll have to write about it at some point!), and the most obscure on the list – the black bun – win out with 46% of the votes.[1]

The black bun – sometimes called a Scotch bun – is a Scottish speciality that has changed in shape and constitution through the years, but is today a type of fruit cake baked in a loaf tin lined with shortcrust pastry. It is then covered with more pastry, egg washed and baked. The cake was often made black with the addition of black treacle; Sue Lawrence says of these very rich black buns, ‘the malevolent appearance of the black inner of its shiny golden pastry case might be off-putting to some black bun virgins.’ It might come as no surprise that the bun ‘is almost invariably served with a dram of whiskey.’[2]

Black buns today are fruit cakes wrapped in pastry (pic: BBC)

It is traditional to eat black buns at Hogmanay, the Scots new year festival. Food writer and chef and Sue Lawrence writes evocatively of childhood experiences of the Hogmanay celebration:

‘As I grew up, Hogmanay…was always a time for friends and fun. Friends and neighbours would get together to have a drink and the traditional shortbread (often eaten with cheese), sultana cake, black bun and such delights as ginger and blackcurrant cordial.’[3]

For many Scots Hogmanay, was – and is – more important than Christmas Day is the Christmastide calendar. The black bun is actually the Scots’ Twelfth Cake, but the food and the party was, according to F. Marion McNeill, ‘transferred to Hogmanay after the banning of Christmas and its subsidiary festival, Uphaelieday or Twelfth Night, by the Reformers.’ Christmas Day saw a similar treatment, hence the importance of Hogmanay over other days.[4]

It’s worth mentioning that the black bun wasn’t eaten throughout Scotland: in the Highlands and islands the clootie dumpling was eaten instead.[5] I talk about the clootie dumpling and other Hogmanay foods and traditions with Ulster-Scots chef Paula McIntyre in a new episode of The British Food History Podcast published on 28 December 2022:

You may be wondering why it is called a bun. Well. If you look at older recipes, you’ll see that it was using an enriched white bread dough, a proportion of which is mixed with all of those ingredients one  might expect in a Twelfth/Christmas cake: currants, raisins (sultanas are avoided because of their paler colour), candied peel, etc. The mixture was then wrapped in the remaining dough, proved and baked. They were huge and ‘graced many a festive table in the big houses of Scotland over the centuries’, one recipe, provided by Sue Lawrence, used 15 pounds (6.8 kilos) of flour!

I first heard of the black bun, not in a Scottish cookery book as one might expect but in Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery.[6] She described it as ‘a remarkable confection’, and it is one of the few British, but not English, recipes included in the volume. Indeed, as I found out whilst researching this post, black buns were sold by Edinburgh bakers and sent as gifts all across the British Isles; so it was, at a time, well-known outside of Scotland. Because her book is on yeast cookery, Elizabeth only includes older recipes that use yeast as a leavening agent. She provides several recipes from several sources, and it is interesting to see how the bun became richer and fruitier as time went on. Black buns grew to be so enriched that it became almost impossible to leaven them using yeast, luckily this happened around the same time chemical raising agents were commercially available. At first the chemically-leavened buns were made with bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk – just like a soda bread – but over time, it became more like a regular fruit cake.[7] The pastry initially used was a huff paste – a pastry somewhere between a hot water pastry and a shortcrust. At first it wasn’t eaten, the paste simply protecting the interior, however as time went on, the pastry was swapped for a richer, more buttery shortcrust.[8]

The black bun also gets a special mention in another classic book of English food, Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England,[9] where it is described as a pastry-lined cake. Interestingly, in this book, there is a rare illustration showing the variety of shapes in which the black buns were made:

There are many fantastic recipes for the cake/pastry sort of black bun; Sue Lawrence has one in her forthcoming Scottish Baking Book, and there is one is F. Marion McNeill’s wonderful The Scot’s Kitchen[10] too, so I thought I’d give the yeast-leavened one a go.

I read through a few recipes and based mine on a recipe by Florence Jack, provided by Ms. David in her book. What I liked about it was that it seemed very black: loads of currants and raisins as well as added treacle. I did tone some of the ingredients down because it seemed to me that it enriched it simply wouldn’t rise.

I’ll let you know how I got on in the next post….


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Notes:

[1] The other two options were Brussels sprouts and buche de Noel which attained 21% and 33% of the votes respectively.

[2] Mason, L. and Brown, C. (1999) The Taste of Britain. Devon: Harper Press.

[3] Lawrence, S. (2003) Sue Lawrence’s Scottish Kitchen. Headline.

[4] McNeill, F. M. (1968) The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes. 2nd edn. Blackie & Son Limited.

[5] Mason, L. and Brown, C. (1999)

[6] David, E. (1977) English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Grub Street.

[7] Hartley, D. (1954) Food in England. Little, Brown & Company.

[8] McNeill, F. M. (1968)

[9] Hartley, D. (1954)

[10] McNeill, F. M. (1968)

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Manchets and Payndemayn

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As I mentioned last post, I used Elizabeth David’s research on the medieval and early modern bread roll called payndemayn (medieval period) or manchet (medieval and early modern), to recreate my own. The two words at one point, it seems, were interchangeable. There are many spellings of payndemayn, the root of this word being French, pain demesne, from the Latin panum dominicum, the lord’s bread.[1] The word appears in medieval manuscripts such as Forme of Cury. Manchet is believed to be a contraction of the word payndemayn – main – and cheat, the name for another, similar bread made from refined flour that wasn’t quite as white as the really good stuff. Main and cheat eventually became manchet.[2]

It was ‘the lord’s bread’ because the small bread rolls – weighing in at around only 7 ounces (200 grams) – were so expensive that only the lord, at the head of the top table, would receive one. The small loaf would be cut by the lord’s server as described here in the Boke of Keruynge (the Book of Carving) written in 1513:

take a lofe in your lyfte hand. & pare y lofe rounde aboute / than cut the over cruste to your souverayne, and cut the nether crust, & voyde the parynge, & touch the lofe no more after it is so served.[3]

The over crust, being considered the best part was eaten by the lord, and the rest divided up and given to whomever he so pleased. This is the origin of the idiom the upper crust we sometimes use when referring to the upper classes.

There are mentions of this bread all over, but there are no real recipes in the Middle Ages. There are several mentions of these loaves in recipes though, take this recipe for ‘Soppes Dorre’ from fifteenth century manuscript Harl.4016 (c.1430):

…take a paynmain, And kut him and tost him, And wete him in wyne, And ley hem in a dish, and caste [almond flavoured] syrup thereon.[4]

Elizabeth David went to great lengths in writing English Bread and Yeast Cookery to try and get an idea of what these breads were really like, gleaning cues from several sources and combining them. The earliest decent recipes and descriptions crop up in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but there are no complete ones: sometimes the ingredients are listed, but the amounts or the shape of the loaves are not given; other times, the shaping is described but the ingredients are missing. She also used artwork from the era to work out the likely shapes.

Elizabeth David’s oval-shaped manchet

It seems that they were also enriched with milk and/or butter and/or eggs, or none of the above, so perhaps something rather like a brioche (sometimes). Elizabeth took the information and created a flour mix of plain white flour, with some strong white flour and a little wholemeal flour, to replicate the lower gluten, not-quite-white nature of the wheat flour used at the time. She enriched her dough with butter and milk, avoiding egg. It put me in mind of my recipe for Cornish/Devonshire splits. She liked that in some descriptions the loaves were oval in shape. To replicate this, she made a deep slash in the dough before it went into the oven. However, I much preferred the sound of Gervase Markham’s 1623 way of shaping his loaves. He instructs us to take the risen dough and

mold it into manchets, round, and flat, scotch [cut] about the wast to give it leave to rise, and prick it with your knife in the top, and so put it into the Oven, and bake it with a gentle heat.[5]

He stabs their tops so that they wouldn’t rise too much in the oven.

My attempt at ‘scotching’ my manchet loaves

I used my Devonshire splits dough as the basis of my manchet recipe, which, as it turned out, was pleasingly very close to Elizabeth’s, except – of course – I used much less salt than she. I decided to make some in the oval shape preferred by Elizabeth, and some like those described by Gervase Markham.

By the way: coincidentally just as I was cooking and researching this post, esteemed food historian Ivan Day posted on his excellent Instagram page a photo of Markham’s manchet, showing that scotched waist, along with some other breads of the same era. Here’s a link to his post, if you want to take a look at those.

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References

[1] David, E. English Bread and Yeast Cookery. (Grub Street, 1977).

[2] Hieatt, C. B. & Butler, S. Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century. (Oxford University Press, 1985).

[3] de Worde, W. The Boke of Keruynge. in Early English Meals and Manners (ed. Furnivall, F. J.) (The Early English Text Society, 1897).

[4] Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books. (The Early English Text Society, 1888).

[5] Markham, G. Country Contentments, or The English Huswife. (I.B., for I Jackson, 1623).

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth David in her kitchen (Elizabeth David Archive)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Notes:

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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

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My Best Yorkshire Pudding Recipe

Carrying on from my conversation about Yorkshire pudding with Elaine Lemm on the podcast recently, I thought I should toss my hat into the ring with my own recipe.


This post complements the episode ‘Yorkshire Pudding with Elaine Lemm’ on The British Food History Podcast:


This is a simple affair, and after some rigorous recipe testing, using fewer eggs or different mixtures of milk and water, as well as different receptacles in which to cook the batter, I think it is both excellent and fool proof. It goes by the tried-and-tested equal ratio method: i.e. equal volumes of plain flour, milk and eggs, plus a good pinch of salt, and animal fat (in my case, lard).

The pudding takes around 40 minutes to cook, the perfect amount of time to rest your roast meat before carving and serving.

In the podcast episode Elaine and I came to the conclusion that anything made in a muffin tin, isn’t really a proper Yorkshire pudding. Indeed, the consensus on my Special Postbag Edition of the podcast, cooking the batter in a tray achieves the best proportion of crispy, crunchy bits on the fringes and nice puddingy softness in the base. Listen to that episode here:

Have something to add to the debate? Please get in contact or leave a comment at the end of this post, I’m sure I shall be revisiting the subject in future postbag episodes.

A large pudding has both softness and crunch

Cooking in a dish that is good and thick is important for a good rise: you need something that will heat up in the oven, but also retain it when the cool batter is poured in. Don’t go for anything flimsy here: a really thick metal tin, or even better, an earthenware dish: it’s thickness and its property of retaining heat creates a pud with a fantastic rise: I got such a good one it almost hit the grill elements in my oven when put on the middle shelf! I give the dimensions of my dish in the recipe, but don’t worry if yours is slightly different; puddings like this are very forgiving with respect to dish size.


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Make the batter a few hours (minimum one) before you want to cook it.

Serves 6 to 8 if eaten with a roast dinner:

¾ cup (180 ml) plain flour

A good three-finger pinch of sea salt

¾ cup (180 ml) eggs

¾ cup (180 ml) milk, full fat, if possible

30 g lard, dripping or goose or duck fat

Put the flour and salt in a bowl, make a well in the centre and pour your eggs inside the well. Use a whisk to combine the eggs and flour, starting in the well, gradually mixing the flour into the eggs. This prevents lumps forming.

Once the flour and eggs are mixed, add the milk, whisking slowly at first, until it is fully mixed in, then give it a good thrashing for 30 seconds or so. Leave, covered, at room temperature until you want to cook it. If you like, pour the whole lot into a jug, for easier handling later.

When you are ready to cook your pudding, preheat the oven to 200°C.

Place the fat in your tin or dish – I used an earthenware dish of dimension 20 x 28 cm, with steeply sloping sides – and place on the centre shelf of your oven. Give the dish and fat plenty of time to get fully hot: I leave it in there for a good 25 minutes.

Now give the batter a final good whisking, quickly (but carefully) open the oven door, pull the shelf of the oven out slightly so that you can pour in the batter. The batter should sizzle and frill up in the fat.

Quickly push the shelf back into place and close the door. Do not open the door until 25 minutes have elapsed.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, depending upon how dark you like your risen crispy edges.

Remove and slice into squares, serving it up with your roast dinner.

A pudding of high proportions

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To Make Digestive Biscuits

Just like the workers of the 19th century, my work days are punctuated by tea & biscuits

I have been promising recently a blog post for subscribers containing my recipe for digestive biscuits, it’s taken me a little longer to write it up than I expected, but here it is.

This blog post complements the podcast episode ‘A Dark History of Sugar Part 2’ on the British Food History Podcast.

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Cheese and Leek (or Onion) Pie

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.


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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

Egg wash

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.

*The poll appeared in the Metro back in 2017: https://metro.co.uk/2017/03/09/the-most-loved-pies-around-the-uk-may-divide-the-nation-6498584/

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Cobnuts, Filberts & Hazelnuts (& Cobnut Cake)

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

Wild, unripe Mancunian hazel/cobnuts

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.


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Kentish Cobnut Cake

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.

References

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).

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Filed under baking, Britain, cooking, food, foraging, General, history, Recipes, Teatime

To Make a Seed Cake

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.

Hannah Glasse had several seed cake recipes

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


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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

3 eggs

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.

References:

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).

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