Tag Archives: cake

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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Summer Pudding

Summer pudding is one of the best and one of the most surprisingly versatile puddings there is. It’s also great fun to make and seeing as the first soft fruits crops are coming in, I thought I’d share my recipe with you. Before I do though, I should get the uninitiated up to speed on this quintessentially British dessert.

Summer pudding is typically a mix of red summer soft fruits lightly poached and set in a pudding basin that has been lined with berry juice-soaked white bread. For many, the thought of cold soggy bread makes them feel a little queasy, but they shouldn’t because the texture is not as one would expect; it is soft and giving and nothing like the texture of soggy bread in hot broth, for example. One way it is versatile, however, is that you can use other things in place of the bread, such as slightly stale slices of madeira or pound cake. Indeed, this is the way I prefer to make it because this way, you quickly dip the cake in the juices (otherwise it just breaks apart) unsoggy and much more pleasing in texture, rather like the base of a trifle, though a less vibrant colour. It’s swings and roundabouts isn’t it.

The other way in which it is versatile is in the fruit you can use. There are many who are purists who insist you use 100% raspberries, for others there must be at least 50% redcurrants, and some think there is no place for the strawberry. These people are all pudding fascists. I’m not picky and I go for what’s in season at the time: gooseberries, red, white or blackcurrants, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, whatever.

The summer pudding goes back to the nineteenth century as far as I can see, the earliest mention of something resembling it popping up in an American publication from 1875. It describes a hot pudding consisting of currants and sugar steamed in a basin lined with bread. I’ve also found a British ‘midsummer pudding’ that is also hot but uses a suet crust and is – oddly – more recent. A cold pudding made in the manner we know and love today appears around the turn of the twentieth century under the curious name of ‘hydropathic pudding’, so called because it was introduced to ladies at health spas as a low-calory alternative to regular stodgy suet puddings.

I have also found other recipes for autumn pudding and winter pudding, that have swapped the summer fruits for stewed apples, pears and dried fruit or blackberries, sometimes switching white bread for brown.

This is my recipe and it makes just one small pudding, unlike most other recipes that make a giant one using a re-mortgage worth of redcurrants, so this is the recipe for those who do not grow their own. In fact, all you should need are two or three punnets of soft fruit.

Serves 4:

300 g ripe soft summer fruits (raspberries, blackcurrants, red or white currants, blueberries, strawberries, gooseberries etc)

80 – 100 g caster sugar

A shot of an appropriate liqueur such as Chambourd, optional

2 or 3 slices slightly stale bread, crusts removed, or one stale madeira or pound cake, cut into 7 to 10 mm slices

To serve: clotted cream or lightly whipped double cream

Rinse the fruit, cutting any large fruits such as strawberries and gooseberries into halves or quarters as appropriate. Scatter in the sugar, but don’t make things too sweet, especially if using cake rather than bread. However, if you are using green gooseberries you many want to shake in the full quota. Pour in the liqueur if using, stir, cover and leave to macerate overnight.

Next day, put the contents of the bowl in a saucepan over a medium heat. Stir gently to dissolve the sugar, trying not to squish the fruit too much. When dissolved, bring to a boil and simmer gently for two minutes, then turn off the heat. Set aside to cool down.

Cut your slices of cake into enough pieces to line a 450 ml / 1 pint pudding basin. I cut rectangles that taper slightly at one end so that they fit nicely.

Dip each piece of cake or bread in the juicy warm fruit and press into the inside of the basin. Repeat with more slices until you have covered the sides, then cut a circle to fit in the bottom. Be careful if using cake at this point as they are prone to break when soggy.

Now spoon the fruit mixture into the pudding, packing everything in well with the back of a spoon.

Cut more cake or bread to make a lid, press down hard with fingers, then place a saucer on top with a suitable weight and place in the refrigerator overnight.

When ready to serve, loosen the pudding a little with a knife before inverting it on a plate. Be patient as the pudding leaves the mould – do not be tempted to hurrying things, lest disaster strikes. If using a plastic basin, massage it a little to help it along.

Serve with any remaining juice or fruit and the cream.


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References:

Cookery from Experience (1875) Sara T Paul

English Food (third edition; 1992) Jane Grigson

Pride and Pudding (2015) Regula Ysewijn

‘Summer Pudding’, Foods of England website http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/summerpudding.htm

‘Winter Pudding’, Foods of England website http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/winterpudding.htm

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Twelfth Night Cake

Upon the table was an immense dish, and in the dish was the biggest Twelfth-cake that the eyes of childhood had ever beheld. It was a positive monster, and whitened sugar of the most approved kind encrusted it all over.

From Little Grub, E H Knatchbull-Hugesson 1874

Twelfth Night, on the fifth day of January, is on the last day of Christmastide and was once the party highlight of the twelve-day long festival. In fact, Twelfth Night used to be the big day where gifts would be exchanged, and folk would make much merriment, very aware of the austere months ahead of them. All of this, including the cake, has moved to Christmas Day, of course.

The focal part of the Twelfth Night side-table was the elaborately-decorated Twelfth cake, essentially a rich fruit cake containing brandy, covered in a layer of rock-hard royal icing, the top groaning under the weight of sugar figures and other intricate sculptures and piping. Inside each Twelfth cake a large dried bean or pea would be baked; on the big day those who discovered them would be proclaimed king or queen for the rest of the day.

Queen Victoria’s 1849 Twelfth cake


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Some Twelfth cakes were extremely expensive, and every baker or confectioner in the land worth their salt would produce a breath-taking, awe-inspiring shop window filled with cakes of differing sizes, all covered in wonderful sugar-work. There was huge competition between confectioners to produce the best displays; and no wonder, selling any number of these bespoke cakes meant some real money had been made that winter!

Many people, of all ages and conditions, – young and old, gentle and simple, giddy and thoughtful, – stepped every hour to look through the large plate-glass window, and see the grand show of Twelfth-cakes.

From The Queen of the Twelfth-Cakes, Cuthbert Bede 1857

The Twelfth Night cake began life – like many traditional cakes did – as a yeast-leavened bread, enriched with dried fruit and ale (see also Simnel Cake). Over time, the cakes were enriched further with brandy or rum and sugar, giving it a close texture. Eventually, chemical raising agents were used to give the batter a lift.

Here’s a 1604 recipe from a lady called Elinor Fettiplace:

Take a peck of flower, and fower pound of currance, one ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of ginger, two nutmegs, of cloves and mace two peniworth, of butter one pound, mingle your spice and flower & fruit together, but as much barme [the yeasty froth from the top of fermenting beer barrels] as will make it light, then take good Ale, & put your butter in it, saving a little, which you must put in the milk, & let the milk boyle with the butter, then make a posset with it, & temper the Cakes with the posset drink, & curd & all together, & put some sugar in & so bake it.

I would love to have a go at this recipe at some point.


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Twelfth Night cake has declined in popularity since the invention of the Christmas cake (which, incidentally, is a hybrid of a Twelfth Night Cake and Simnel Cake). Here’s the recipe that I use, which is slightly different to my Christmas cake. Notice that there are no raising agents used – I like the close-texture it gives, if you disagree, add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to the flour to give it a little lift.

I don’t decorate my cakes elaborately, preferring as thin a layer of icing as possible, so I use half a batch of royal icing, but if it is your thing, you might want to make a little more!

175 g softened salted butter

175 g caster or brown sugar

1 tbs black treacle

3 eggs

175 g plain flour

¼ tsp each ground cinnamon, nutmeg and mace

400 g mixed dried fruit (currants, raisins, sultanas, quartered prunes)

75 g candied peel

50 g slivered almonds

60 ml brandy, rum, strong ale (or milk)

1 dried butter bean (optional)

A half-batch of royal icing

Line and grease an 8-inch cake tin and preheat your oven to 160°C.

Cream the butter, treacle and sugar until pale and fluffy and beat in the eggs one by one before gently stirring in the flour and spices. Once incorporated, mix in the fruits, peel and nuts and stir in the booze (or milk).

Pour into the cake tin, pop in the king/queen bean, level off the top and bake for an hour. Cool in the tin.

Decorate the cake with the royal icing, being as elaborate as you like.

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King Alfred Burns the Cakes

It’s a story familiar to most of us:

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 burns the cakes

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.

Alfred statue

The Statue of Alfred the Great in London (bbc.co.uk)


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King Alfred – who he?

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.

9th century britain

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!

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Simnel Cake

A Simnel cake is a type of fruit cake that contains plenty of marzipan and is eaten at Easter, although it used to be specifically associated with Mothering Sunday. When folk were fasting during Lent, Mothering Sunday, appearing in the middle of the fast, offered a respite from 40 days of religious austerity.

Mothering Sunday occurs on the fourth Sunday of Lent; a special day when people visited their mother church or cathedral. Don’t confuse Mothering Sunday with Mothers’ Day; it is only in the last century that this day is associated with showing enforced appreciation to our mums (though I assume that you met up with your mother on return to your original diocese).

Like most British food eaten during winter and early spring, the Simnel cake contains lots of dried fruit, but it is much lighter than boozy Christmas cake and contains a layer or marzipan both on top and within, and is decorated with eleven marzipan balls, each symbolising Jesus’s disciples (minus the treacherous Judas of course).

To trace the origin of Simnel cake, you need to go right back to mediaeval times where it began life as a yeast-leavened bread, which may or may not have been enriched. This doesn’t sound that much like a special bread, you may think, but what made it special is that it made out of the highest quality flour possible; simnel derives from the Latin simila – the whitest and finest of flours.

Fast forward to the 17th and 18th centuries, and the bread mixture had been swapped for a pudding batter, not dissimilar to spotted dick, enriched with dried fruit, spices and almonds. It would be boiled like a pudding. When cooked, it was wrapped in pastry, glazed with egg and baked until a good hard crust formed. It would be like the Scottish black bun, a traditional Christmas food north of the border.

It is only when you get to the tail end of the 19th century that it starts to look like something we would recognise as a cake, though surprisingly it is not until the 20th century that the familiar marzipan layers and decorative disciples appear.


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Simnel cakes themselves seem to be disappearing from our Easter tables altogether and are getting more and more difficult to find in British bakeries. Below is the recipe I use – I can’t claim it as my own, but I don’t know where I got it from, so if you recognise it let me know, you know I always like to credit my sources!

This is a very straight-forward cake mixture made using the all-in-one method; it is very important that you use very soft butter so that the cake batter creams quickly without developing the gluten too much. If you don’t want to make your own marzipan, you can buy some ready-made, but I do urge you to make your own, it really is worth the (really quite little) effort required. The marzipan recipe below is different to my previously published one and I think much better. I shall try to remember to update the other post.

For the cake:

225 g softened butter

225 g caster sugar

4 eggs

225 g plain flour

2 tsp ground cinnamon

zest of 2 oranges

zest of 2 lemons

325 g mixed fruit (currants, sultanas, currants)

125 g glacé cherries, quartered or left whole

500 g orange marzipan (see below)

icing sugar for dusting

apricot jam

1 beaten egg

Begin by greasing and lining an 8-inch cake tin and preheating your oven to 150°C.

In a large bowl, beat together the softened butter, caster sugar, eggs, flour, cinnamon and zests. Using a hand mixer, beat together until smooth. Now fold in the mixed fruit and cherries with a spatula or wooden spoon.

Spoon half of the mixture into your tin and level it off. Take a third of your marzipan and roll it out into a circle the same size as the tin, trimming away any untidy bits. Use a little icing sugar to roll the marzipan out, just like you would use flour to roll out pastry.

Lay the marzipan in the tin and then spoon and scrape the remainder of the cake batter on top of that. Level off with your spatula and make an indentation in the centre, so that the cake doesn’t rise with too much of a peak.

Bake for 2 ¼ to 2 ½ hours. Use a skewer to check it is done. Cool on a rack for about 30 minutes before removing the tin and greaseproof paper.

When cold, roll out half of the marzipan in a circle slightly larger than the cake – the best way to do this is to use the outside edge of the tin it was baked in as a template.

Brush the top of the cake with some apricot jam (if it is very thick, you may want to warm some with a little water in a pan) and lay the marzipan on top, then brush the marzipan with the beaten egg. Divide the remaining marzipan and trimmings into 11 equally-sized balls and arrange them in a circle. Brush those with egg too and glaze the top using a chef’s flame torch (or a very hot grill).

For the marzipan:

90 g caster sugar

140 g icing sugar

220 g ground almonds

grated zest of an orange

1 beaten egg

Mix all of the ingredients except for the egg in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the egg. Using a mixer or your hand, form a dough. Knead in the bowl until smooth, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

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Decorating the Christmas Cake

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

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

Marzipan

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

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

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

140 g icing sugar

90 g caster sugar

220 g ground almonds

1 beaten egg

1 tbs apricot jam

1 tbs water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Royal Icing

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

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

2 medium egg whites

2 tsp lemon juice

500g icing sugar, sieved

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

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

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

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Christmas Cake

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

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

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

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

Britain’s biggest ever party-pooper: Oliver Cromwell

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

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

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

It makes one hefty 8 inch/20 cm cake, for a smaller cake, half the amounts and bake in a 6 inch / 15 cm tin for 2 1/2 hours.

Ingredients:

900 g mixed dried fruit (currants, raisins and sultanas)

125 g of whole roasted almonds (or hazelnuts or walnuts, or a mixture)

125 g chopped candied citrus peel

125 g rinsed glacé cherries quartered or left whole

300 g plain flour

1 1/2 tsp mixed spice

the grated rind of a lemon

250 g salted butter, softened

250 g soft dark brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbs black treacle (or molasses)

4 eggs

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbs warmed milk

brandy

Preheat your oven to 140⁰C (275⁰F).

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Yorkshire Parkin

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

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

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

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

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


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Ingredients:

225 g butter

110 g soft dark sugar

60 g black treacle (or molasses)

200 g golden syrup

140 g medium oatmeal (often sold sold as quick-oats)

200 g self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

4 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp mixed spice

2 large eggs, beaten

2 tbs milk

Preheat the oven to 140⁰C (275⁰F) and lightly grease a square (21 x 21 cm) 7 x 7 inch cake tin. In a saucepan, melt together the butter, brown sugar, black treacle and golden syrup. It is important to do this on a medium-low heat, you don’t the sugars to boil, just to meld together.

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

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

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