Tag Archives: bread

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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Filed under baking, bread, food, history, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, Teatime, The Victorians, Uncategorized

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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