Many traditional recipes require fresh or dry breadcrumbs; they are an integral part of many puddings and savoury dishes. They are present in small amounts in sausagemeat, terrines and other early meat puddings absorbing the fats, or may be the main constituent in the stuffing for a roast bird. They are also sometimes used in dumplings instead of wheat flour. In sweet puddings they provide body and structure to custards such as Queen of Puddings, or the cheese and egg mixture in aYorkshire Curd Tart.
Dried breadcumbs can be sprinkled over the tops of dishes (such as myMacaroni Cheese) or used to coat something ready for deep or shallow-frying. I have memories of my mum buying those oddly-orange coloured packs of dried breadcrumbs to coat her fish before frying it. Well, needless to say, making your own will not result in everything it touches look like a Findus Crispy Pancake.
Making Fresh Breadcrumbs
Fresh breadcrumbs require stale bread, and I think that only
real bread – i.e. a loaf made at home or in a real traditional or artisan
bakery – makes decent breadcrumbs. Factory-made supermarket bread and tends to
go mouldy before it goes stale due to its high-water content.
The type of bread is typically white bread, but you can use
any you want, especially if there is only a small amount required, but wholemeal
and sourdough breads will impart their own flavours if the main constituent. White
bread and brioche are best for sweet puddings.
Unless the bread is very well-coloured, I don’t usually
remove the crusts, even if the recipe says I should. Feel free to remove them
yourself, I don’t mind the odd brown speckle in the final dish.
Making them couldn’t be easier. If you have a blender or food processor, simply tear the bread in small chunks and blitz. Usually slower speeds work best. Regular blenders can be a little tricky because they taper at the blades; however, dust off that Nutri-Bullet; they work excellently for breadcrumbing.
If you don’t have a food processor or blender, you can go
old-school and grate the bread by hand with a large cheese grater with a good
grip on it. Good quality bread will crumb easily, so it isn’t the chore you
might expect it to be.
Your breadcrumbs can be used straight away or frozen for later. Whenever you have stale bread in the house, crumb it and freeze it and it’s there waiting for you the next time you have the uncontrollable urge to make a Treacle Tart!
Making Dry Breadcrumbs
If dry breadcrumbs are what you are after, just take your
fresh crumbs and spread them on a dry baking tray and pop them in the oven set
to around 110°C. Check them after 20 minutes
and give them a mix around. Keep baking in bouts of 20 minutes until you are
satisfied that they are completely dry. Let them cool and place in an airtight
box. They will keep happily for several weeks.
If the crumbs are not fine enough, blitz in a clean but
bone-dry food processor until they are as fine as you desire, and great for a
posh Scotch Egg.
King Alfred, exhausted and lost in the woods after beating the Danes in a vicious pitched battle, stumbles, bedraggled, upon a herdsman’s hut. The huntsman’s wife invites him in, and not recognising him, just assumes he is merely a soldier of Wessex, not the King! She kindly offers him rest and nourishment, as she has just put some cakes in the embers of her fire to bake.
Alfred is chastised for burning the cakes
The housewife pops out to collect some more firewood, and instructs the soldier to keep an eye on the cakes whilst she is away lest they burn, but almost as soon as she is leaves, poor Alfred falls asleep. A few minutes later the housewife returns, greeted by the smell of burning cakes and a sleeping soldier:
“What sort of careless man are you, who neglects to attend to burning bread? Never have I seen so negligent a man – one who doesn’t even know how to turn ash-baked bread – and yet when it is put in front of you, you’ll no doubt rush to eat it!”
Well that’s him told!
It is assumed that this story is apocryphal, the earliest written example doesn’t appear until 300 years after the event, but I’m not so sure, it sounds like a story that would be passed down as gossip about the king. If it was made up years after the event, it would be a strange story to select; it’s not tale of derring-do, nor is it a tale of any religious significance. Is it supposed to tell us all how humble a man Alfred the Great was? What’s the moral – don’t bake cakes after pitched battle? It’s a lack of these elements, which usually appear in fantastical stories of early monarchs, that makes me think that it may be true.
Well whatever the source of the tale and the reasons for its retelling, it is a story that is almost taken for granted, but I thought I’d take a closer look at the food in this story – what were these cakes, and how were they made?
As with all food history, one needs to understand the broader historical context behind, serving as a backdrop to the food itself, setting the scene.
The Statue of Alfred the Great in London (bbc.co.uk)
King Alfred was a late 8th Century Anglo-Saxon king, he wasn’t king of England, because England was not yet joined into one united cohesive country, Alfred was king of Wessex. The other kingdoms in England – Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia and all been occupied and taken by the Danes, or if you prefer, the Vikings!
The security of theKingdom of Wessex and its King sat on a knife edge, and pressure from the Danes moving into the kingdom had forced Alfred and his household to hide in the marshes of the Somerset Downs. An alternative version of the story of the cakes, says that Alfred, who so lost in thought and worry about his kingdom that he wandered into woods, got rather lost and happened upon the herdsman’s hut.
Alfred plotted and planned and managed to communicate with his allies well enough to form an army. In the year 878 he fought the Danes at Edington, which he eventually won. It was in the aftermath of this battle that he discovered the herdsman’s hut. The Battle of Edington is one of the most important events in Anglo-Saxon history, because in the months afterwards, Alfred made a peace treaty with the Danes and forced them to convert to Christianity.
Alfred had reclaimed Wessex and the Danes began to settle and assimilate with the Anglo-Saxons, making England a more cohesive place, indeed Alfred’s nephew Athelstan was the first King of all the Kingdom within England, uniting the kingdoms until his death.
The British Isles in the late 9th Century (britroyals.com)
Ash-Baked Cakes – what they?
For folk in mediaeval times, a home-baked loaf of bread was usually out of reach, most homes lacked a suitable oven and so relied on the oven (and skills) of local bakers. For those that lived in the futher fringes of the towns – such as herdsmen – it simply wasn’t viable to make the long trek into town, it was much easier to bake cakes on their fire.
Cast iron equipment such as griddles or waffle irons, were expensive, so many had to bake little cakes of ground cereal grain (wheat, rye or oats) directly into the embers of their fires.
Baking these cakes required both an eagle eye and excellent judgement – the outside needed to be just scorched, and the inside fluffy and warm. I must admit that I am not one for making fires or having barbeques, so I’ve not had the chance to have a go at making these devilishly difficult ember cakes. However, as soon as the opportunity arises I will, and I’ll report straight back to you guys!
I often frequent the excellent vegan cooperatively-run supermarket Unicorn in Chorlton, south Manchester, to fill my food cupboards both at home and at the restaurant. One day, a couple of months ago, I spotted a very mediaeval ingredient: green pea flour. I had come across ‘peasemeal’ in several old books, but didn’t expect to ever see it for sale. (Another popular mediaeval ingredient is almond milk, used particularly on fasting days; it’s funny how these old ingredients are having a comeback as health foods.)
One of the mediaeval small-holder’s most important crops was his pea crop – they were not eaten as young sweet garden peas, but were left in the pods to mature and dry. The peas became starchy and packed with protein; an excellent nutritional source for the winter months. We use those dried peas today for mushy peas or split peas. Then, they were mainly used in pease porridge/pottage.
The pease were often ground to make peasemeal to thicken stews, and to make bread for cattle. People only ate it themselves in times of winter famine, and this peasebread was hated by all.
Peasebread and peasemeal stopped being produced in most of the UK, but it did live on until the mid-20th Century in the very North of Scotland and Orkneys, where very few crops can be grown in abundance (rye and oats are the only others really). Folk enjoyed pease scones, bannocks (flatbreads) and breads, but it was still associated with poverty.
Peasemeal is considered easy to digest, partially due to its lack of gluten, and is high in protein and carbohydrates. I quite like how some of these mediaeval ingredients are being re-examined during a time of vegan and paleo-dieting. It is strange to think how the poor were eating healthy vegetables with little fat, red meat, salt and sugar, considered then to have no nutritional value. Meanwhile, the bunged-up rich were chowing down almost entirely on meat, spice, white bread and sugar, in the belief they were eating properly. I bet their bedchambers sank in the morning.
I had to have a go at the derided peasebread, just to see how bad it was. I did cheat a little bit and mixed the peasemeal with some strong bread flour. It was pretty straight-forward to make, though the dough was very sticky was hard to knead. The resulting bread was dense and a little crumbly, but had a delicious sweet pea flavour, with hints of roasted peanut butter. Probably too dry to eat on its own, it was great toasted, buttered and dunked in soup.
So, here’s my recipe for peasebread. It made two flattened cobs.
(Notice all my liquid measurements are in grams rather than millilitres; for greater accuracy, it’s much easier to weigh your liquids, a tip from Elizabeth David.)
250g green pea flour
250g strong white bread flour
10g instant yeast
30g sunflower or olive oil, or softened butter or lard
330g hand-hot water
In a wide mixing bowl mix together the two flours. To one side of the bowl place the salt, and place the yeast to the opposite side. Make a well in the centre and pour in the oil/fat and the water. Mix with your hands to form a dough. Leave to settle for ten minutes.
Spread a little oil on a work surface and knead until smooth. This is pretty tricky because it is so sticky, so use a dough scraper to help.
Oil a bowl and place in the dough inside and cover. Leave to rise until it has doubled in size, about 2 hours. Knock back the dough, divide into two pieces and form in to two taught, round cobs. To do this, roll into balls with oiled/floured hands, then tuck in the dough underneath whilst turning the ball, tautening the surface. Place on greased baking trays, flour generously and cut a cross in the centre. Cover with large plastic bags and leave to rise again for about an hour.
Place the cobs in a cold oven, then set the temperature to 230⁰C and bake for 40 minutes. Cool on a rack.
Hot buttered toast must be the most popular British breakfast item, whether eaten on the run to the bus stop, or served up with a full English breakfast or posh scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on a Sunday. Elizabeth David described it as a ‘peculiarly English…delicacy’.
It is true that the wafting smell of freshly made toast combined with the sight of the slow melting of a good covering of salted butter is so comforting. Indeed, the first thing offered up to you after you’ve come round from an operation on the NHS (and I unfortunately have had many times) is tea and toast. (Digressing slightly, the first thing offered up to you after an operation in the USA is the similarly comforting cookies and milk.)
Most toast today is, of course, made from the flabby Chorleywood processed white sliced loaf, which produces quite depressingly poor ‘wangy’ toast. Proper toast requires proper bread; bread that has gone a slightly stale. Perfect toast is in the eye of the beholder: thick, thin, crisp throughout, soft in the centre, pale, dark, a scraping of butter or lashings of it.
Making toast was a way of using up stale bread, of course, so toast shouldn’t even be required now that we have the invention of Chorleywood processed bread. It’s ironic that our love of toast means we, on the whole, now make it with a product unsuitable for making it.
It won’t surprise you that there are some very detailed descriptions in old cookbooks as to the best way for making toast.
The earliest official piece of toasting equipment was the toasting fork. Here’s the flamboyant Victorian chef Alexis Soyer’s instructions from A Shilling Cookery for the People from 1854:
How to Toast Bread – Procure a nice square loaf that had been baked one or two days previously, then with a sharp knife cut off the bottom crust evenly, and then as many sliced you require, about a quarter of an inch in thickness. Contrive to have a clear fire: place a slice of the bread upon a toasting-fork, about an inch from one of the sides, hold it a minute before the fire, then turn it, hold it another minute, by which time the bread will be thoroughly hot, then begin to move it gradually to and fro until the whole surface has assumed a yellowish-brown colour, then turn it again, toasting the other side in the same manner; lay it then upon a hot plate, have some fresh or salt butter (which must not be too hard, as pressing it upon the roast would make it heavy),spread a piece, rather less than an ounce, over, and cut the toast into four or six pieces. You will then have toast made to perfection.
Next rung up on the evolutionary ladder of toast-making was the invention of the toast plate, a cast iron rack that could sit in front of coal-powered range cooker. My friend Andreas actually has an original coal range cooker with a toast plate built in. I am very jealous.
You can buy plates that lay over a gas burner on the stove top that I suppose achieves a flavour closest to the ones found on the coal ranges. Elizabeth David owned one (from English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977):
Part of the charm of the toast produced on this device is that every piece is different, and differently marked, irregularly chequered with the marks of the grill, charred here and there, flecked with brown and gold and black.
At home, the best way to make toast is by using a grill, preferably a gas grill; it produces a much more even heat and therefore even toasting than an electric grill. I love the flecked toast that David described, but an electric grill has hot spots that produce slices well done in one patch and hardly coloured in another.
You might think all you need to do is stick the bread under the grill and wait, right? Wrong. Here are Delia Smith’s instructions for making toast under a grill, though first you need to slice it (from How to Cook: Book One, 1998):
The key to slicing bread is to use gentle, rapid saw movements with the knife and not to push down too hard on the loaf. For toast, cut the bread into slices about ½ inch (1 cm) thickness. The crusts can be on or off, depending how you like them.
Pre-heat the grill for at least 10 minutes before making the toast, turning it to its highest setting.
Place the bread on the grill rack and position the tray 2 inches (5 cm) from the heat source.
Allow the bread to toast on both sides to your own preferred degree of pale or dark golden brown.
While that is happening, keep an eye on it and don’t wander far.
When the toast is done, remove it immediately to a toast rack…Putting it straight on to a plate means the steam is trapped underneath, making it damp and soggy. If you don’t possess a toast rack you really ought to invest in a modest one. Failing that, stand your slices of toast up against a jar or something similar for about 1 minute before serving.
Always eat toast as soon as possible after that, and never make it ahead of time.
Never ever wrap it in a napkin or cover it (the cardinal sin of the catering trade), because the steam gets trapped and the toast gets soggy.
Always use good bread, because the better the bread, the better the toast. It is also preferable if the bread is a couple of days old.
The toast rack is an essential. Before I owned one, I leant the slices against each other as you would for a house of cards.
So there we go, a definitive guide to making toast, well, as long as you’re not using an electric toaster!
As I spend most of my time in the kitchen these days. I find I listen to a heck of a lot of radio (and have less time for blog posts!). This morning, a programme called ‘In Our Time’ presented by the broadcasting legend Melvyn Bragg, was on BBC Radio 4 which discussed the 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Here’s a link to that very episode.
I happen to know that was as good a bread-maker as she was a novelist.
She used an oil cooker, called the Florence, and with it tutored her maid and cook to bake cottage loaves (a loaf I have never attempted as it appears to be of difficulty 10). Her cook, called Louise Mayer, recounts in the book Recollections of Virginia Woolf:
She liked trying to cook…but I always felt that she did not want to give time to cooking and referred to be in her room working.
But there was one thing in the kitchen that Mrs Woolf was very good at doing: she could make beautiful bread. The first thing she asked me when I went to Monks House was if I knew how to make it. I told her that I had made some for my family, but I was not expert at it. “I will come into the kitchen Louie” she said “and show you how to do it. We have always made our own bread.” I was surprised how complicated the process was and how accurately Mrs Woolf carried it out. She showed me how to make the dough with the right quantities of yeast and flour, and then how to knead it. She returned three or four times during the morning to knead it again. Finally, she made the dough into the shape of a cattage loaf and baked it at just the right temperature. I would say that Mrs Woolf was not a practical person – for instance, she could not sew or knit or drive a car – but this was a job needing practical skill which she was able to do well every time. It took me many weeks to be as good as Mrs Woof at making bread, but I went to great lengths practising and in the end, I think, I beat her at it.
Virginia gave Louise Mayer a top baking tip that I always use if it is possible; and that is to bake bread in a cold oven. The gradual heat increase gives you a really impressive rise before the outside crust develops, hampering it.
So there you go, a little window into the enigmatic lady’s life, which I thought might be of interest to you…
No, I haven’t died, so cancel the wake. I’ve been a little busy of late and the poor old blog has suffered from scant postings. For that I apologise. I need to catch up with a heck of a lot of food stories, recipes and history with you all; I may not have been blog-writing, but I have been eating!
At the end of June, I popped down to the beautiful city of Bath for the weekend to visit friends and had a jolly old time. The great thing about Bath is that it has such history; you cannot help but find something to be amazed by at the turn of every street corner.
Entrance to the Roman Baths
The spa at Bath has attracted people for millennia – there is archaeological evidence of human settlement going back 10 000 years. The city of Bath itself was founded in 863BC by a chap called Bladud. Suffering from leprosy, he had been ostracised from society and found that bathing in the warm, muddy springs, after seeing pigs doing the same, cured him. It must have put him in fine fettle because he later went on to become the ninth King of the Britons and to father King Lear.
Of course it was the Romans that really transformed the place, creating Aqua Sulis with the baths that are still there today in fine working order.
From the point of view of food, however, Bath really came into its own in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when it was deluged by the middle classes that wanted to get away. The Roman Baths and Pump Room were restored to their former glories after centuries of neglect, making Bath the best of all the spa towns. This wasn’t just because of its locality to London, or that it was in a lovely part of England; it was because Bath simply had the best of everything. Bath was a trade epicentre: excellent salt marsh lamb from Wales, a seemingly endless supply of fruit and vegetables from Tewkesbury, cider from Glastonbury, apricots, cherries and plums from the Cotswolds, cream and junkets from Devon and Somerset, excellent freshwater fish – especially elvers – from the Severn Valley as well as sea fish from the ports of Cornwall, all came to one place. And that was just British produce! I haven’t mentioned the French brandy, the Spanish wine or the exotic spices from further afield.
All this has made Bath what it is today. Its food heritage, however, seems to have been boiled down into two things: Bath buns and Sally Lunns
I’ve never seen either Bath buns or Sally Lunns anywhere other than Bath itself, which just goes to show that we still have regional cooking in an age with a seemingly swirling and mixing population. I like that you don’t see them everywhere; it makes eating one a rare treat to be relished. There are, of course, stories attached to the invention of these enriched breads which should be taken with a huge pinch of salt.
A bath bun is a large fruit bun, made with dough similar to that of a Chelsea bun or hot cross bun. The bread dough is enriched with eggs, sugar and currants. At the bottom of each bun is a lump of sugar and the freshly-baked bun is finished with a sticky wash, extra currants and crushed loaf sugar or sugar nibs.
Anatomy of a Bath bun
The Bath bun is said to have been invented by a doctor called William Oliver in the 18th century. After his patients visited the Roman baths he would give them a nourishing Bath bun. It was soon apparent that his plan was not working as he expected when he realised his patients were getting somewhat portly. He withdrew the buns and replaced them with hard, dry water biscuits.
I must say that I would have become a hypochondriac if I was one of Oliver’s patients! I would have used any excuse to get my hands on one. They are so delicious – sweet and sticky and very bad for you. I can’t put the attractiveness of the Bath bun better than W Chambers, writing in his Edinburgh Journal of 1855:
The Bath-bun is a sturdy and gorgeous usurper – a new potentiate, whose blandishments have won away a great many children, we regret to say, from their lawful allegiance to the plum-bun. The Bath-bun is not only a toothsome dainty, but showy and alluring withal. It was easier for ancient mariners to resist the temptations of the Sirens, than it is for a modern child to turn away from a Bath-bun…Large, solid, and imposing, it challenges attention, and fascinates its little purchasers.
We can see from this quote that the Bath bun was popular, not just in Bath, but England and Scotland, so what happened to it? Enriched breads are still pretty popular in Britain, even with the advent of comparatively modern chemically-aerated sponge cakes. Strange.
A Sally Lunn is a large, round enriched bread, much plainer than a Bath bun, rather like French brioche. The story of its invention goes something like this:
A young French immigrant lands in Bath during the 17th century and gets herself a job in a bakery where she shows off some of her recipes and one in particular becomes very popular indeed. Her name? Solange Luyan.
The recipe went missing in the 1800s, but was apparently found during the 1930s when it was discovered in a ‘secret cupboard’ in her original home. The owner of the house then decided to open up the original Sally Lunn Tea Room.
This is, of course, all complete nonsense. The most likely explanation is that Sally Lunn is a corruption of the French solielune, or sun and moon cake.
I visited the tea rooms and ate a delicious lightly-toasted Sally Lunn spread with sweet cinnamon butter and it was delicious. Like the Bath bun, its popularity had faded in the rest of the country.
I was recently bequeathed a lovely home-grown organic pumpkin from my good friends Simon and Rachel Wallace – they are slowly but surely building up a small-holding on a farm in the Derbyshire country. They are living the dream, and I am more than a little jealous. Anyway, I wanted to do the lovely pumpkin justice and make some nice meals. I remembered a recipe for pumpkin bread that appears in English Bread and Yeast Cookery by Elizabeth David. She takes it straight from the original manuscript, an 18th century periodical called The Family Magazine. Back then pumpkins were more commonly called pompions, and it is more like some advice rather than a recipe:
Slice a pompion, and boil it in fair water, till the water grows clammy, or somewhat thick; then strain it through a fine cloth, or sieve, and with this make your Bread, well kneading the dough; and it will not only increase the quantity of it, but make it keep moist and sweet a month longer than Bread made with fair water only.
The Family Magazine, 1741
It funny that the British have always had a thing for bread that stays ‘fresh’ for as long as possible; the French, for example, expect the opposite and buy there’s once or twice daily . It goes back to the days when the old brick bread ovens were lit but once a week so the bread – and other goodies – had to last. This love for bread with a long shelf-life is also often blamed for our love of the moist mass-produced packaged breads that go mouldy before they go stale, but I digress.
I thought I would give this pompion bread a go, but I felt that boiling the poor thing to death was a bit wasteful, and I wanted the bread to have some pumpkin flavour so I roasted it, mashed it up and added it to a basic bread dough along with a little sugar and some mixed spice. It turned out to be delicious so I thought I’d give you the recipe to try. I don’t think it resembles the original recipe, but it certainly inspired me to make it. By the way, it doesn’t stay fresh for a month, but it is very much moist and edible five days later. It goes great with soup and stews or with jam or just butter spread on it.
This recipe makes 2 good-sized loaves.
What you need:
600g piece of pumpkin or other squash, deseeded weight
Begin by roasting the pumpkin in a little olive oil until soft – around 30 minutes at 180⁰C (350⁰F). When cooked, remove from the oven, cool, remove skin and mash to a pulp.
Mix the flour, oatmeal, mixed spice and sugar in a bowl, then crumble the fresh yeast on one side of the bowl, and spoon the salt one the opposite side. Make a well in the centre and pour in the water along with the olive oil. Notice that I have given the weights of liquids here – I’ve taken to doing this with all my baking recently; you can be much more accurate that way. (For most water-based liquids one millilitre weighs one gram. You can thank Elizabeth David for that one.) Lastly, add the cool pumpkin.
Using you hand, mix everything to a sticky dough – it will be very sticky but don’t worry.
Rub a teaspoon or two of olive oil on your work surface and turn out your dough onto it; the oil makes it easier to knead without it all becoming a hideous sticky mess. Keep kneading and adding more oil if need be. If all this seems like too much effort and mess, use the dough hook on a food mixer instead.
When the dough is smooth, do a final kneading on a little flour, then pop into a clean bowl that has been lightly coated with oil to prevent sticking. Cover with Clingfilm (other plastic wraps are available) and allow to ferment away until it has at least doubled in size.
Knock back the dough and shape into two loaves – you can do round cobs on a greased baking sheet or in greased tins, whichever you prefer. i used two cake tins so that my cobs would keep some shape.
Cover and allow to prove. Make appropriate cuts and dustings of flour or oatmeal. When doubled in size put into a cold oven. Set the temperature to 220⁰C (425⁰F) and leave for 15 minutes. Turn the heat down to 180⁰C (350⁰F) and bake for a further 15 minutes. Allow to cool on a rack completely before breaking into it.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…