Sunday, October 22, 2006

Rock Cakes & Biscuits

When poorly advised persons think of British baking, it may well be that monstrously hard rock cakes, rejected by even the dog, are what such folk think of. The epitome of a lack of basic skill and care in the baking department. Rock cakes, admittedly, do have a bad reputation, and their title does make for easy mocking. However, the name is supposed to be for their appearance, NOT their solidity. I think that rock cakes also suffer from being seen as old-fashioned. One can imagine them on the station tearoom counter, under a glass dome, in the film 'Brief Encounter'. But think, this should lend them an air of illicit pleasure, should it not? When I mentioned to friends that I was planning to bake rock cakes, the common response was, "I remember making those at school." Good old domestic science - teaching us the skills for modern life. So why did we not grow up to bake rock cakes on a regular basis? Did we become sidetracked by chocolate brownies, American muffins and cookies? Or was it simply that rock cakes are, whatever the skill of the baker, a second rate cake?

Rock cakes were a ubiquitous feature of school fetes, church teas, railway refreshments etc. They don't have a specific geographic origination, and the OUP 'A-Z of Food' credits Mrs Beeton with the earliest documented recipe for them. Mrs Beeton's orignal 'Household Management' was published in 1861 Her recipe (no. 1747) is for 'Rock Biscuits' rather than cakes. I don't have a copy of 'Household Management' (seem to manage OK under my own rules, thanks), so I used the recipe from this website.

Now, at first glance I was a little horrified at the proportions of sugar to flour, and the large number of eggs involved. I decided to half the recipe. A wise decision it turned out. I had a lovely time whisking the eggs to form a good thick froth, and then adding the sugar gradually, and then the flour. It was at this point I could see an obvious flaw to the recipe - what I had in my bowl was a batter not a dough. It looked far too runny to be able to form into 'rocky' looking biscuits. I added some more flour, but then thought that if I am trying a recipe from the original context, then I should follow it to see how it turns out. So I added a couple of handfuls of currants, and then spooned some mixture onto a baking sheet. Mrs Beeton's instructions state that you should use a fork to make the mixture (she calls it a dough) look as rough as possible. Sorry Isabella, but this just was not possible. Baking sheet number one went into the oven, and I tipped more flour into my bowl (lost track of quantities by this point), and I mixed in enough to bring the mixture together into a more dough-like consistency. By this point I was concerned that I was undoing all my good whisking work, and I decided to spoon out the mixture, roughen surface with a fork, and stick baking sheet number two into the oven.

Neither sets of biscuits looked quite how I imagined that they would.

Baking sheet no. 1

Baking sheet no. 2

Unfortunately, nor were they good to eat. Dry, hard and despite all the sugar and eggs, very bland. Sorry Mrs B., but these biscuits did not rock.

So I turned to a cookbook published in 1948, just three years after 'Brief Encounter' was first screened. I felt confident that by this date, rock cakes had evolved into a more edible proposition.

Orange Rock Cakes (from Elizabeth Craig's 'Economical Cookery')

225g flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg - beaten well
75g fine sugar
75g butter or margarine
Grated rind and juice of 1 orange
25g candied peel - finely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
2. Prepare baking sheets.
3. Sift the flour and baking powder into a basin.
4. Rub in the fat.
5. Stir in the sugar, orange rind and juice, candied peel, and beaten egg.
6. Mix to a very stiff dough, then with two forks take pieces the size of a walnut and place a little apart on the baking sheets.
7. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden.

Success! Not only did the consistency of the dough prior to baking look right, but the finished cakes were golden and had a good cragginess to them. Each cake made a brief encounter with my plate before disappearing. Texturewise they were pretty similar to a scone, and the hint of orange was a nice touch. They were good the day of baking, but not bad a day later. Cakes/buns of this type can always be revived by the spreading of a decent bit of butter. Time for a rock cake renaissance I think.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Kentish Cobnut Cake

...try saying that with your mouth full.

A cobnut is a type of hazelnut. The Kentish Cob variety, is ,however, not a hazelnut but a filbert - a slightly different species - according to the Oxford Companion to Food and the Oxford A-Z of Food and Drink (see also here. However, the websites of the Kentish Cobnut Association and, both state that Kentish Cobs are hazelnuts. If you know the definite answer please do let me know! Cobs take their name from the Old English 'cop' which meant head or 'cobbe' which meant any round object. The same descriptive word was also used for the cob loaf (a type of bread). Cobnuts were used as a predecessor to conkers in a similiar game called 'coblenut' (bet those 16th century schoolchildren didn't have to worry about Health & Safety leglislation).

A Mr. Lambert first cultivated the Kentish Cob in Kent in 1830, although other varieties of filbert and hazelnut were also planted commerically throughout the county and had been since the late 18th century. In Kent the orchards where the cob/filbert trees are grown are referred to as 'plats'. The harvesting of the nuts was traditionally carried out by itinerant pickers (just as the hops of Kent drew Londoners out to the countryside to earn some extra money); whether this is still the case I don't know, as the cultivation of cobs is carried out on a lesser scale now than in the early 20th century (7,325 acres pre 1914, and only 200-300 acres today). The first picking of the season is carried out in August, when the nuts are still very green and 'wet'. The second picking is about a month later, when the nuts have dried and ripened a little. A final sweep of the plats is done later to harvest anything still left on the trees. Both the green and the ripened nuts can be eaten, and at each stage the nuts can be roasted to enhance their flavour.

How to roast cobnuts (from the website of the Kentish Cobnut Association):

Crack and shell them, then cook them on tinfoil or a baking tray in an oven heated to about 150°C, 300°F, Gas Mark 2, for an hour or so; the cooking time depends on how ripe and how dry they are. First they become soft, but do not remove them until they have hardened, but have not blackened. They can also be cooked in a microwave oven; 4 oz of kernels will typically take 6 minutes on high.

I bought my Kentish cobnuts from Waitrose. I spy them each year, and as far as I know they are the only supermarket to stock them locally. I like the fact that they still have their husks on them. How nice to be able to buy something that hasn't been stripped, sanitised and wrapped in plastic. Duly roasted as per the above instructions, I proceeded with a recipe from 'English Teatime Recipes'.

225g self-raising flour
1 rounded teaspoon of ginger
110g butter (at room temperature)
110g brown sugar
50g Kentish cobnuts, roasted and chopped
1 large egg, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
2. Grease a baking tin of approx. 9" by 4". I used a loaf tin instead as my shallow (square) tin was too large.
3. Sift flour into a bowl with the ginger.
4. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
5. Add the sugar and the nut and mix well.
6. Stir in the beaten egg. The mixture will remain fairly dry and crumbly.
7. Put the mixture into the prepared tin and pat down gently with a fork.
8. Bake for 20 - 30 minutes. I took mine out after 20, but after cutting a slice I put it back in the oven for another 15 mintures. This was because the centre of the cake was very moist looking; however, after further cooking it still looked exactly the same so I concluded that this was how it was supposed to be.
9. If using a shallow cake tin, cut the cake into squares.

The cake has a very loose, crumbly texture - unsurprising considering the appearance of the mixure. Indulgent toppings for your slice of cake might be honey or nutella, alternatively a crisp, sharp tasting apple sliced thinly. A proper Kentish drink to accompany your cake would be a draft of cider - should you have any left over from last time's cake-making...

Check out for other recipe ideas - damson and cobnut mincemeat caught my eye. Make now in time for that only-to-be-mentioned-post-1st-of-December event.