As I promised in my last post, I have a second cheese recipe for you that uses a traditionally-made British cheese. Harvey & Brockless sent me a whole loads of excellent cheeses and other goodies, and tucked in there was probably my favourite British blue cheese, Isle of Wight Blue:
‘Established in 2006 by mother and son Julie and Richard Hodgson, Isle of Wight Cheese Co. flagship blue is soft and creamy with a bluey green natural rind and blue veins.’
It’s strong, yet mellow and very creamy. Nothing like a Stilton at all (I love a good Stilton too, of course).
This is exactly the sort of cheese Professor Peter J. Atkins and I were talking about in my podcast episode about the British cheese industry, and how there is a resurgence in traditional styles and methods: softer cheeses made in small batches in small farms – before the behemoth that is Cheddar came along!
This cheese, because of its blue cheese flavour, low acidity and smooth consistency, is perfect to make into an ice cream. Cheese ice creams used to be popular, hitting a peak in the Regency period: indeed, the Prince Regent himself tucked into Parmesan cheese ice cream. My ice cream, like Prince George’s, is sweetened, but it is not over-sweet. It’s very simple to make – a case of mixing soft cheese into some cream and sugar. A curdy, hard or crumbly cheese would not work here.
I’ve combined it with a dessert classic: pears poached in red wine. There’s a recipe in Forme of Cury for it, so it really does have quite the vintage. The poaching wine is sweet and spiced and is reduced to a delicious, tart and slightly fiery spooning sauce. On the side: a nice digestive biscuit.
This is a well tried-and-tested recipe: it’s popped up on restaurant and pop-up restaurant menus in the past, but I originally made it as part of The Telegraph Fabulous Foodie competition all the way back in 2015. It was judged by none less than Xanthe Clay, John Gregory Smith and Jeremy Dixon and it took me to the grand final. So if you are still unsure as to whether you’ll like it, take it from them, not me, that it is good!
Give it a go, you won’t be sorry. Also, see below for an excellent way of using up left over ice cream and sauce.
In a bowl, break up the cheese as best you can and beat into it one third of the cream. You won’t be able to blend it in perfectly, but a little texture is no bad thing.
Sift the icing sugar with the reminder of the cream in a second bowl and whip until just slightly floppy, then fold into the cheese.
Freeze it in an ice cream churn if you have one. Alternatively, place in a tub, pop in the freezer and beat it with a small whisk every 20 to 30 minutes or so until it becomes too difficult; at that point you are done, and it can be left in the freezer until required. If you don’t want to freeze it, you can whip the cream a little more and use it like clotted cream.
For the pears:
4 to 6 unripe conference pears
500 ml red wine
100 g caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 long peppers (or ¼ tsp black peppercorns)
¼ tsp ground ginger
Peel the pears, leaving the stalks intact. Slice the bottom so that the pear is able to stand up sturdily. If you have one, use a melon baller to remove the core from beneath.
Bruise the cinnamon stick and long pepper (or crack the peppercorns) and place in a pan with the wine and sugar. Put over a medium-low heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Once dissolved, add the pears.
Bring to a simmer and cover the pan, turn down the heat and poach until tender. This will take around 20 minutes. The pears won’t be completely submerged, so to ensure an even colouring from the wine, turn them half way through cooking.
Remove the pears and set aside. They can be stored in the fridge for up to four days.
Now make the syrup: turn up the heat and bring the wine to the boil and let it reduce by around three-quarters or more, until viscous. Pour into a jug or jar and allow to cool.
Remove the ice cream from the fridge around half an hour before you want to serve. Place a pear in the centre of a plate – it may need another trim at the bottom if it’s been in the fridge a day or two – and carefully spoon a couple of teaspoons of the syrup over the tip of the pear.
Place a biscuit next to the pear – I used a homemade digestive (post coming soon), but a hob-nob would also work very well – and place a scoop or quenelle of ice cream on top the biscuit.
Leftovers: there will probably be leftover ice cream and syrup, the latter of which keeps for weeks. Treat yourself to a very grown-up ice cream cookie sandwich using digestives instead of cookies, cheese ice cream instead of vanilla, and red wine syrup in place of raspberry sauce.
This post complements the episode ‘Cheddar & the Cheese Industry’ on The British Food History Podcast:
Britain’s cheese industry has certainly been through its peaks and troughs over the centuries. As Peter Atkins and I discuss in the podcast episode Cheddar & the Cheese Industry there was once a great variety of local cheeses, but as urban populations grew and there was the need for cheap cheeses for the masses, Britain underwent a cheese bottleneck. The reason? The ‘cheddarfication’ of the industry: our lovely Cheddars were stripped of their character in the 19th and 20th centuries, massed produced and insipid. Not only that, but other cheeses became more like Cheddar, i.e. sharper and harder: Cheshire, Dunlop and Wensleydale all became more like Cheddar. The latter, now a mild and curdy cow’s milk cheese was once a soft, blue ewe’s milk cheese! Writing in the 1950s, Dorothy Hartley thought our cheese industry was dead: ‘the sub-standard cheese is so poor that it invites contrast; so the good cheese standard must be lowered till both are “standard mediocre”. The industrial revolution of the dairy is complete! And our really fine cheeses are lost to England.’1
But then old cheeses and old methods returned with gusto from the late 1980s. How? You’ll have to listen to the podcast! Writing in the 1990s in the third edition of her book English Food, Jane Grigson was impressed by the ‘marvellous choice’ available by the end of the 20th century: ‘One of the happy developments since I wrote [the first edition of] this book has been the renaissance of cheesemaking in Britain.’2 She was particularly happy about the raw milk cheeses, and chesses made with ewe’s and goat’s milk. I’d like to add more soft cheeses and proper full-flavoured hard cheeses.
You are not going to find these cheeses in your local supermarket: you need a good purveyor. I can highly recommend Harvey & Brockless. They have some excellent cheeses, in fact some of my absolute all-time favourites. They sent me a selection of British cheeses through the post, and I must say I was impressed.* It wasn’t just the quality but the fact there was the full gamut of historical and traditional cheeses represented: a Romanesque fresh goat’s milk cheese (Rosary), a cheese that could have been Anglo-Saxon (Bix, a raw creamy cow’s milk cheese), my favourite blue cheese of all time (Isle of Wight Blue; just divine). There was too the oozy and very ripe Baron Bigod, and some traditional cheesecloth matured Cheddar and Devonshire Red (both by Quicke’s). There was even a jar of salty raw goat’s cheese in a herby and garlicky oil (Graceburn) which I made into a salad using the oil to make the dressing – excellent!
Excellent cheeses such as these require little help. It’s important you allow your cheese to come up to room temperature under a cheese cloche (or upturned bowl). Proper cheese is a living breathing community of bacteria and fungi and it can sit happily under cover for 2 or 3 days in a cool cupboard or larder.
Eat with simple crackers (H&B provided me with Fig & Sultana Toasts from the excellent Millar’s, and Peter’s Yard Sourdough Crispbreads) or good bread, oatcakes and digestive biscuits (recipe coming soon!). In Yorkshire cheese is eaten with fruit cake, apple pie and gingerbread. Add equally simple accoutrements such as fruit jellies, chutneys or pickles.
Using great cheeses in your cooking improves dishes immeasurably and I thought I’d provide you with a couple of good recipes that makes a small amount of cheese go a long way: a historical toasted cheese and a blue cheese ice cream which is excellent served with poached pears and home-made spelt digestives (that one will be coming in the next post).
Lady Shaftsbury’s Toasted Cheese
This is a recipe I have adapted slightly from Jane Grigson’s English Food. Jane was fortunate to receive the ‘receipt’ book that belonged to Emily Shaftesbury ‘wife of the great social reformer, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury’. They were relatively poor, at least as far as the aristocracy go, and were always in debt.2 Because of this, many of the dishes are cheap – again, as far as the aristocracy go – and this one is delicious. It would make an excellent savoury or starter, or even a ‘light’ lunch if served with a green salad on the side.
I use inverted commas when I write ‘light’ because it is actually pretty heavy going; essentially it’s a fondue of good Cheddar cheese, egg yolks and cream that is grilled before serving with toast. The small amounts given are enough to feed four people.
A good strong melting cheese is required, and I used Quicke’s mature clothbound Cheddar. It is perfect: potent, yet creamy with just the merest hint of blue. Just one 150g piece is needed for four people.
Be warned, Jane points out that toasted cheese can cause nightmares,2 so don’t eat it too close to bedtime.**
50 g butter
5 tbs double cream
150 g grated mature Cheddar cheese such as Quicke’s mature clothbound Cheddar
2 medium egg yolks
Freshly ground pepper
Optional extras: pinch of Cayenne pepper or 1-2 tsp smooth or wholegrain mustard
4 slices of toast cut into soldiers
Preheat your grill to a medium-high heat.
Gently melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium-low heat, then add the cream, cheese and egg yolks.
Stir to combine so that the cheese melts and the egg yolks thicken the mixture to produce a smooth, thick mixture like a thick pouring custard. On no account let it boil, otherwise the cheese may split and the egg yolks scramble. Slow and steady wins the race.
As the sauce is melting, season with pepper and add the Cayenne or mustard if using.
Divide the cheese mixture between four ramekins and grill until a golden brown colour, around 3 minutes.
Serve immediately with the toast soldiers.
Hartley, D. Food in England. (Little, Brown & Company, 1954).
Grigson, J. English Food. (Penguin, 1992).
* I should point out that I am asked fairly often to do this sort of thing, but I usually turn the company/producer down, the products on offer not being my thing at all, but the brands sold by Harvey & Brockless are genuinely the ones I purchase anyway. You can be sure I would never endorse a product I didn’t think was excellent. I am no cynic!
Hello! I’m back after two-month hiatus. Did you miss me?
It’s British Pie Week this week so I thought I’d post a recipe for a favourite of mine. The trouble is, I have many favourites, so I came up with a list of four and let Twitter decide. I was very glad to see my favourite won.
Later, I saw the cheese and leek/onion pie was tenth in the top ten favourite UK pies, receiving just 1% of the vote!* Shocking. I think there may be a north-south divide effect at work there; back in the days of my market stall and restaurant, cheese and leek pie was by far the favourite.
The cheese and onion pie or pasty used to be a very important food for the working classes of Northern England, especially Yorkshire and Lancashire: it’s easy to make and the ingredients are cheap compared to meaty fillings. It’s the pie equivalent of the Welsh Rabbit/Rarebit.
The simplest of fillings were made of cooked onion, thinly-sliced raw potato, or cold mashed potato, and grated cheese. On the fancier side, a thick white sauce is used instead of mash. For my recipe I am going somewhere in between to hopefully enjoy the best of both worlds. I use onion and leek interchangeably because either (or both) can be used: I make leek pies as I’m intolerant to onion.
As for the cheese, use a mature kind that melts easily: Cheddar, Lancashire, Double Gloucester etc. The pastry should be a simple shortcrust made with half butter, half lard, but all butter is good too.
Serve the pie with mashed potatoes or chips, with peas and gravy as is traditional, but this pie eats very well just warm with a dressed green salad and some good old salad cream.
Makes one large pie to serve 6 people (or 4 greedy ones who always have seconds)
For the filling:
50 g butter
1 leek, trimmed and sliced, but with the green left on; or 2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
350 g (approx.) potatoes, peeled and diced (about 2 medium-sized ones)
Salt and pepper
1 tbs plain flour
1 tsp English mustard powder
275 ml hot milk
150 g grated cheese
Pinch Cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tbs double cream
For the pastry:
400 g plain flour
200g salted butter, or 100 g each butter and lard (or shortening)
120 ml water or milk
Start with the filling. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the leek or onion and potatoes, season with half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Cook over a medium heat until the leek or onion melts right down. Do this slowly, turning down the heat if necessary – you don’t want to fry them, though a pale golden brown colour is fine.
Stir in the flour and mustard and cook for a minute before mixing half of the milk. When the milk combines with the flour to make a smooth sauce, add the remainder of the milk and combine again.
Simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Mix in the Cayenne pepper. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper. It’s a good idea to slightly over season the filling to make up for the comparatively bland shortcrust pastry. Finally stir in the cream and allow to cool completely. I usually make my cooked fillings a day or two ahead of time.
Now make the pastry. Rub the fat(s) into the flour. If you are using unsalted butter, add half a teaspoon of salt. If you are making pastry by hand, unless you have forearms like Popeye, use fats that are at room temperature. If using a mixer, use the flat beater and use cold fats straight from the fridge. Either way, once it resembles breadcrumbs add the water a couple of tablespoons at a time until you have a soft but not sticky dough. Knead very briefly, wrap in cling film and leave it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
After resting, take around a third of the dough and roll out on a lightly floured worktop. I used an 18 cm cake tin because I like deep-filled pies, but a shallow pie dish or flan ring of around 25 cm would work too. Roll out a third of the pastry into a circle. Leave the pastry to rest again for a minute or so before laying it in the tin. Be careful to press the pastry into the corners without stretching it: lift it in carefully. If using a deep dish as I have it’s helpful to fold the pastry into quarters, placing it in the dish or tin and then unfolding it.
Roll out the remainder of the pastry to make a lid. Cut a steam hole in the centre and set aside.
Spoon in the pie filling, but don’t fill it too much – it does expand as it cooks. Now brush the edges with egg wash (I use an egg, or egg yolk, beaten with half a teaspoon of salt). Glue the lid in place, pressing the lid down well.
Trim the excess pastry with a sharp knife and then crimp the edges or use a fork to seal the lid. Paint with more egg wash, and if you like add a bit more black pepper. Place in the fridge to set the pastry.
Preheat your oven to 220°C and pop a baking tray on the centre shelf.
(If you have any left-over pastry and filling, make a pasty with it (see here for my Cornish pasty recipe) and bake it with the pie, or freeze it. Both pastry and filling freeze well separately.)
Take the pie out of the fridge and place in the oven on the hot baking tray (this prevents a soggy bottom from developing) and bake for 45 minutes, turning down the heat to 180°C when the pastry is a nice golden brown.
This post complements the episode ‘Christmas Special 2021: Christmas Pudding’ on The British Food History Podcast.
I used to believe that brandy butter – that infamous accompaniment to Christmas pudding and mince pies – was far too rich and sweet, and always preferred custard. I made a traditional Christmas pudding from a 19th century recipe and because it wasn’t as rich as modern day puds, I found the buttery sauce complemented the dessert perfectly – though I still prefer the rum butter.
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I fed the pudding a couple of tablespoons of rum (but brandy is also good) twice, and I found the best way to do this was the untie the pudding, open the top and sprinkle in the rum, before retying with fresh string.
On Christmas Day, get your big pot of boiling water just like you did for the first boiling. Simmer the pudding for 2 hours, making sure the pudding doesn’t touch the base of the pot and scorch.
When ready, remove from the pan and gingerly cut away the string and carefully unwrap the pudding; don’t worry too much about it breaking because it develops a skin made from the flour that had been dredged on the cloth before its first boiling, keeping it all together. Pop it on a serving dish with a sprig of holly.
When you want to serve it, flame with rum or brandy, turn the lights down and carry it into the dining room. There will be applause.
I served the pudding with rum butter, but you can also serve it with brandy butter (which I must admit, I don’t like as much as the rum butter), or good old custard. I’ll be publishing a post tomorrow with my recipe for brandy or rum butter.
The pudding was delicious, I must say, and it will forever be my standard, so thanks again to Sam Bilton for her letting me use the recipe.
Listen to the podcast episode for more information, including the history and folklore surrounding Christmas pudding, plus a cooking spot, and a handy guide to flaming your pudding safely and effectively!
This post complements the episode ‘Christmas Special 2021: Christmas Pudding’ on The British Food History Podcast.
Today is Stir Up Sunday, traditionally the day Christmas pudding is made. The day was also a cue to local grocers to begin to make their orders and get ready for the 12-day long Christmastide feast.1 As they mixed, the children would sing:
Stir up, we beseech thee
The Pudding in the pot,
And when we get home,
We’ll it it all hot!
Stir Up Sunday is always the Sunday before Advent; which isn’t 1 December despite what manufacturers of Advent calendars would have you believe. Advent actually begins on the sixth day before Christmas, so this year (2021) Advent begins on 28 November. The day has a deeper meaning beyond reminding us to prep our puds; the children’sl song was sung on the day comes from a hymn: Stir up, we beseech thee O Lord the wills of my faithful people… and is call for everyone to stir up their pious and spiritual feelings in preparation for Advent – a period of fasting and reflection before the festivities begin.
When you make your Christmas pudding (whichever day you make it on) there are various superstitions which should be held. First, each member of the family should add at least one ingredient to the mix, give it a good stir and make a wish. The stirring must either go from east to west (like the Sun).2 The pudding should be made up of 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples.
There are trinkets too of course: a sixpence to represent financial success or good luck in the New Year, a ring to represent romance or marriage, or a thimble – bad luck! No romance for you, spinster!
I love Christmas pudding, but whenever I’ve made my own (I have used Delia Smith’s and Jane Grigson’s recipes in the past) I’ve always been rather disappointed. I reached out to Twitter for inspiration and food historian (and podcast alumnus) Sam Bilton very kindly let me use her Great Aunt Eliza’s recipe taken from her handwritten recipe book. Sam has cooked it for a demonstration at Petworth House, West Sussex.3Click here to find out more about Sam’s Great Aunt, and how she adapted and recreated the recipe. Here’s the original:
Note there are indeed 13 ingredients!
I decided to adapt the recipe myself, only later looking at Sam’s interpretation and we took a similar approach, which is pleasing.
I took the recipe and converted it into metric and then divided everything by 3, making a huge pudding with a 15 hour boiling would have been craziness. I could have made one good-sized pudding from my one-third mix, but decided to make 2 smaller ones. I used vegan suet because I already had that in. Fresh beef suet would have been best, but there’s no point buying more if there’s some already in the cupboard.
I hedged my bets on the plums and used half prunes and half raisins, and swapped out almond extract for the bitter almonds. Feel free to toss in some slivered almonds for texture though.
Making a Christmas pudding batter couldn’t be easier: mix all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl, i.e. everything on the list from plain flour down to the soft dark brown sugar, then add all of the remaining wet ingredients to a jug and give them a good whisk.
Make a well in the centre and pour in the eggy mixture then stir until combined. If after a few minutes’ mixing things still seem a little bit dry, add an extra slug of milk, brandy or rum. Mine needed a bit more rum.
Cover the mixture and leave it somewhere cool overnight to let the flavours develop – if you’re in a rush, leave for an hour.
Next day (or next hour) make you puddings. First get a large pot of water on the boil; deep enough for two puddings to cook without touching the base of the pot. Next, cut two pieces of muslin (cheesecloth) into rectangles of around 30 x 60 cm, place in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. When cool enough to handle, remove one and squeeze out excess water. Fold it in half to make a square shape, then lay it in a bowl.
Dust the muslin very well with plain flour, leaving no bare patches, then spoon in half the mixture, then gather up the corners and twist to tighten. Use some good quality string to tie the pudding tight. If there are folds in the cloth, they can be easily smoothed out. Repeat with the other piece of cloth.
Tie a longer piece of string to your puddings, drop them in the boiling water, and tie them so that they are nicely bobbing about in the water and not touching the bottom. Cover, bring the water back to a boil, and let things cook on a simmer for 2½ hours.
Remove and cool on a cooling rack and keep in a tub or tin. You can feed the puddings a few times if you like with more brandy or rum by untying the top and pouring some in, or by rolling them in a few tablespoons – they quickly absorb it!
Then it’s just a case of giving it a second boil on the big day…I’ll post that a few days before Christmas Day, along with a recipe for brandy or – even better – rum butter to go with.
1. Simpson, J. & Roud, S. A Dictionary of English folklore. (Oxford University Press, 2000).
2. Kerensa, P. Hark: The Biography of Christmas. (Lion Hudson Ltd., 2017).
One of my favourite seasonal foods are fresh Kentish cobnuts, and they are in season right now, so I thought I’d write a little post about them in case you see them at your local greengrocer’s shop. In the north of England they are difficult to get hold of, and when you do see them they cost a small fortune, but luckily for me, I was in London last weekend and spotted a fruit seller outside Borough Market selling big punnets at just £3.50 a pop. Up North, I’d have had to remortgage.
Cobnut season runs from late August to October in the UK, and they can – or, at least, their wild cousins can – be found growing on wild hazel trees all around the country – in fact they grow in abundance near me in Manchester. Unfortunately, the squirrels beat me to them every year. Nutting season traditionally started on 20 August on St Philibert’s Day.1
There’s a little confusion regarding nomenclature here, as is so often the case, some call these nuts cobnuts, others filberts, and some call them simply hazelnuts. Are there any real differences between the three or are they just regional names for the same thing? Well that all depends upon whom you ask, and when in time you ask.
Let’s start with the wild tree, the hazel, or to give its Latin name Corylus arellana. These nuts are hazels, or hazelnuts, they are elongate and flatter that the supermarket variety, but they still have the same smooth shells. This is what many people today would call a cobnut. This common tree produces nuts that was an important foodstuff for Neolithic humans, and they have been cultivated since Roman times.2,3 These cultivated trees were bred for greater yields and larger nuts changing making them more spherical in shape. These round nuts were called cobs, or cobnuts, and they are what we would call hazelnuts today. They grow so well in Kent that at one point 7000 acres of land was put aside for their cultivation, plenty to export a significant number to the United States.3
Okay, let’s, for the sake of argument, say that hazels are the wild nuts and cobnuts are their cultivated cousins, where do filberts fit in? Well, these are a larger cultivated nut from a completely different species of hazel (C. americanus).4 They were regarded as a rather upmarket orchard fruit, whilst cobnuts were considered more suitable for the hedgerow (or did they mean hazels!?).3
Today, cobnuts appear to be a catch-all term for any of the elongate forms of hazelnuts. The great thing about getting them fresh is that they have a lovely crisp, refreshing flavour, rather like water chestnut but with a mild hazelnut flavour. They are still covered in their green protective coats (shucks) and sometimes even the shell is still green. They store well and can be dried and eaten months later. An alternative to drying is to shell the fresh kernels and store them in honey. I expect the fresh kernels would make very successful pine nut replacement in pesto.
The best known traditional food made with cobnuts is Kentish cobnut cake. A dense cake flavoured with ginger and sweetened with some kind of unrefined sugar or honey. Some are made like a sponge cake by creaming butter and sugar, others are made by melting butter and syrup/sugar together. I go for the latter method. I found a few recipes that include a good dollop of double cream in the mix, so I’ve added it my recipe. This produces a dense cake, which I prefer, but if you want to make a lighter one, mix a teaspoon of baking powder into the flour and swap the cream for around half its volume of milk (i.e. 80 ml). Being a syrupy cake, it benefits from a couple of days’ maturing time in an air-tight box. You can use any syrup you like, or indeed any unrefined sugar. Honey works very well, especially if you have stored within it some cobnut kernels. As far as the nuts go: hazels, cobnuts or filberts all work equally well.
Makes one 8 inch/23 cm cake.
180 g butter
120 g golden syrup or honey
80 g Demerara, or any brown sugar
150 ml double cream (or 80 ml milk, if going for the lighter option)
3 knobs preserved ginger, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
240 g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder (optional; use if going for the lighter option)
1 ½ tbs ground ginger
100-150 g whole cobnuts, shelled weight
Preheat oven to 160°C and line a 20 cm round cake tin.
Melt the butter, syrup or honey and sugar in a saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Take off the heat and mix in the cream (or milk), chopped preserved ginger and then the eggs.
Mix the baking powder, if using, into the flour, then mix in the ground ginger and cobnuts. Make a well in the centre and pour in the butter-sugar mixture, stirring slowly with a whisk until the batter is smooth.
Pour into the lined cake tin and bake for anywhere between 1 and 1 ¼ hours. Test it is ready using a skewer. Cool in the tin.
1. Wright, J. River Cottage Handbook No.7: Hedgerow. (Bloomsbury, 2010).
2. Vaughan, J. G. & Geissler, C. A. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. (Oxford University Press, 2009).
3. Mason, L. & Brown, C. The Taste of Britain. (Harper Press, 1999).
4. Johnson, O. & More, D. Collin’s Tree Guide. (Collins, 2004).
This post complements the episode ‘Savouries’ on The British Food History Podcast.
When I asked Twitter what the best savoury is, I was surprised and very delighted that Scotch Woodcock was by far the most popular choice. Most of the other votes seemed to be for dishes containing lashings of anchovies too; I obviously need to write more about the popular, salty fish. I talk about Scotch Woodcock in the podcast, so I won’t repeat myself here, except I forgot to mention was that it was a Victorian invention and then, as now, one of the most popular savouries of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The earliest mention of the dish can be found amongst the pages of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and is pretty similar to mine except Gentleman’s Relish is swapped for simple drained anchovies which are mashed and spread on the toast and no spices are used.
If, by the way, you know not of Scotch Woodcock or the concept of the savoury, have a listen to the podcast episode. I also wrote a post about savouries a few years ago.
This makes enough for two for lunch and is very good with a green salad dressed only with salt, pepper and cider or wine vinegar.
Put a small saucepan on a medium-low heat. Pour in the cream and beat in the egg yolks (or whole egg) then the spices with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring until the mixture becomes scalding hot, but do not allow it to boil. You can tell when it’s ready if when you scrape your wooden spoon through the savoury custard you can see the base of the pan.
Spread the Gentleman’s Relish thinly over the toast (if you’re using my recipe, you can be a little more generous) then spoon over the savoury custard. Don’t worry if there are a few small lumps of cooked egg: it’s very forgiving. Use the back of a spoon to spread the custard right to the very edges of the toast, and grill until the top turns a delicious dark golden brown (or do as I did, and use a chef’s torch).
Miss Lavinia and Miss Clarissa partook, in their way, of my joy. It was the pleasantest tea-table in the world. Miss Clarissa presided. I cut and handed the sweet seed-cake – the little sisters had a bird-like fondness for picking up seeds and pecking at sugar; Miss Lavinia looked on with benignant patronage, as if our happy love were all her work; and we were perfectly contented with ourselves and one another.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1849
I do love a seed cake, once a key element of a British teatime table. Sadly, it’s largely either forgotten, or worse, ignored in our modern world of ‘instagrammable’ drizzle cakes, or multi-coloured creations slathered with luxurious buttercreams and frostings. With that sort of competition, the poor old seed cake doesn’t get a look in, bless it. As a result, the only way you are going to taste is to make one.
For those in the dark as to what I’m banging on about, a seed cake is a plain, rather dry cake flavoured subtly with caraway. It’s texture is similar to that of a madeira cake; dry enough so that it is perfect to have with a nice cup of tea for your elevenses. It has just the right amount of clack, as we northerners say; a tendency to stick to the roof of your mouth. Don’t let this put you off – it’s plainness is what makes it perfect. Super-sweet cakes covered with their myriad fillings are fine, but often a little too much to take.
Seed cakes appear in cookbooks from the seventeenth century, but only really became a cornerstone of the tea table in the eighteenth. They were a different beast then; sugary cakes also said something of both your status and sensibilities, so other things were added. Hannah Glasse added allspice, cinnamon and ambergris in one of her recipes.1 It was a time before chemical raising agents too, so cakes at this time were made light by the action of live yeast. Seed cake, therefore, was reserved for those who had a taste for the finer things in life, such as Parson Woodforde, diarist and great lover of cakes, puddings, pies and confectionary. He loved listing what he’d had for dinner. Take this entry from 17 August 1778:
7 p.m. Hot hash, or cold mutton pies. Saturday night an addition of good seed-cake of one pound, covered with sugar and a quart of good beer poured over it.2
Fast-forward a century and we see that the seed cake is pretty much what we would expect to see; the only difference being that a splash of brandy, rather than milk, is used to slacken the mixture.3
A seed cake cannot be made with any other seed than caraway. Sure, you could swap them for poppy seeds or some such, but you will have made a cake with seeds in it, not a seed cake! What’s so special about caraway then? Well, caraway was used to flavour all sorts of foods ever since ancient times, because unlike the other spices* it grew happily throughout Europe. It is an essential flavouring in German sauerkraut for example. In Britain, folk seemed to prefer to use in sweet foods, as Elizabeth David noted: “Apart from seed cake, (why were those cakes always so dry?) once the great English favourite, and caraway sweets and comfits, caraway appears little in English cooking.”4
Elizabeth’s quote eludes as to why this cake fell out of favour – it’s viewed as boring, dry, stale perhaps, but I disagree. It is light, and because it contains very little liquid compared to, say, a moist Victoria sponge, it is paramount that the butter and sugar are well creamed together, the flour is carefully folded in without over-mixing, and that it is not over-baked. This is where I fear folk may go wrong: baking an extra ten minutes, just to be on the safe side, will produce a dry, boring cake. Done well, however, a seed cake can be as superlative as any Proustian madeleine.
175 g salted butter, softened
175 g caster sugar
250 g self-raising flour
1 tbs ground almonds
1 tbs caraway seeds
Around 3 tbs milk (or brandy)
Preheat your oven to 180°C and line a 2 pound loaf tin (usually around 23 cm long) with greaseproof paper, keeping it in place with a smear of butter or cooking oil.
In a mixing bowl cream the softened butter until pale and fluffy. Add an egg and one tablespoon of the flour and beat in until smooth. Repeat with all of the eggs. Mix the remaining flour with the ground almonds and caraway seeds and tip into the mixture.
Fold in carefully and when combined, add the milk (or brandy) to loosen the batter slightly – unlike a regular sponge, you are not looking for a dropping consistency with seed cake, so don’t go overboard: start with two tablespoons and see how it looks.
Spoon into the tin and smooth the top – you don’t have to be fastidious here, as the batter cooks it levels out all on its own.
Bake for around an hour – this will depend on the dimensions of your tin, in my wide one, it took just 55 minutes. Test with a skewer if it is ready – I’ll say it again: it’s important not to overbake seeing as the batter is on the dry side.
Let it cool in its tin for 15 minutes before removing and cooling on a rack. These sorts of cakes are best eaten on the day, or the day after, they are baked.
*Mustard also grows in Europe, hence its heavy use in British recipes throughout history.
1. Glasse, H. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. (Prospect Books facsimile of the 1747 original).
2. Woodforde, J. The Diary of a Country Parson Volume 2. (Oxford University Press, 1924).
3. Beeton, I. The Book of Household Management. (Lightning Source, 1861).
4. David, E. Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. (Penguin, 1970).