Friday, August 08, 2008

Shetland Bride's Bonn/Bun or Bridal Cake

Shetland bride's bonn/bun or bridal cake was traditionally baked by the mother of the bride. It was broken over the bride's head as she entered the marital home after the wedding ceremony and was intended to bless the marriage with prosperity and fertility. This breaking of cake was a wedding tradition observed in many parts of the country, and indeed is also a feature in the wedding traditions of other countries.

In Shetland, the bride's bonn/bun was also known historically as either infar-cake or dreaming-bread. F. Marian McNeill has a note regarding infar-cake or dreaming-bread: ‘A decorated form of shortbread is still [1929] the national bride’s-cake of rural Scotland, and was formerly used as infar-cake. The breaking of infar-cake over the head of the bride, on the threshold of her new home, is a very ancient custom, having its origin in the Roman rite of confarratio, in which the eating of a consecrated cake by the contracting parties constituted marriage. (Scots law, unlike English, is based on the old Roman Law.) Portions were distributed to the young men and maidens “to dream on”.’ At christening feasts a dreaming-bread may also be distributed to guests, for the same purpose of giving maids and young men a sneak preview of their future partner - dreaming-bread is also known as dumb-cake.

Mark Morton in 'Cupboard Love', further explains the Roman roots of the cake-breaking act: 'Romans solemnized marriages through the rite of confarreatio, a word literally meaning to unite with grain-cake (the far in the middle of confarreatio is the Latin far, meaning grain, a word that also appears in farina and farrago). In contrast, the English infare literally means to go in, deriving as it does from the words in and from the Old English verb faran, meaning to go or to travel. Before it was specifically applied to cake, infare could also refer to a feast provided for guests when someone, newly married or not, took possession of a new home.'

Although Shetland Bride's Bonn is generally classified as a shortbread, when cooked on a girdle (griddle), as it would have been historically, it is closer in form to a bannock or scone. When oven-baked the bonn would be crisper and more biscuit-like. My recipe comes from 'A Cook's Tour of Britain', by the Woman's Institute and Michael Smith (pub. 1984), and I have gone with the girdle cooking option.

110g/4 oz. plain flour
50g/2 oz. butter
25g/1 oz. caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon of caraway seeds
a little milk

1. Rub the butter into the flour.
2. Add the sugar and caraway seeds.
3. Mix to a stiff consistency with milk (get your hands in the bowl to achieve this, and add only a little milk at a time - start with a generous splash).
4. Roll out into a round shape. Now at this point the book suggests that you roll a round 5cm/2 inches thick, but this is way too thick for this small quantity of dough, plus it would never cook in the time given. My dough was about 2cm thick. Cut the round shape into triangles.
5. Bake on a fairly hot girdle for 3 minutes on each side, or in an oven at 180C/350F/Gas 4 for 20 minutes.

I gave the caraway seeds to my junior helper to sniff, but he promptly stuffed a few in his mouth and demanded more. That's my boy! He was less enthusiastic about the finished cake, but then he had just finished a rather large lunch. I must teach him the benefits of pacing your food consumption, and that chocolate buttons don't always have to be downed in one hand/mouthful. I found the cake pleasant enough, but as a cross between a pastry and a scone it is best eaten fresh. I forgot to sleep with a morsel under my pillow, but I would only have had to disappoint Johnny Depp by explaining I am already married.
For more information on the Shetland Islands and local food and drink - click on The Shetland Food Directory, or take a look at this site if you want to be completely seduced and find yourself moving north (west/east/possibly not south).

Monday, May 19, 2008

Deddington Pudding-Pie, Oxfordshire

Earlier this month I was in Deddington, Oxfordshire. Deddington is a small market town with many interesting old buildings, houses and much history. I was there for a family get-together, so I had little time to explore - only enough for a short walk, and to take two scene-setting photos (taken with one hand whilst straddling a struggling toddler). During my walk I found a shop selling Banbury cakes as per my previous post. The picture below shows the town hall (front left) and the parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul. It also shows how, sadly, many old country towns have become overwhelmed by the motor car. Contrast this (carefully cropped) scene, with the second image. Spot the car park.

Deddington Market Place - image taken between 1860 and 1922

Historically, Deddington had two annual fairs. One on the 10th of August (St. Laurence's Day) and the other held in November. This latter fair was known as the 'Pudding-Pie Fair' after the pudding- or pudden-pies sold there, and was held principally for the sale of livestock and the hiring of servants/labourers. The date was originally the 11th of November (St. Martin's Day/Martinmas), changing to the 22nd (St. Cecilia's Day), and then reverting back to the 11th of November in more recent times. The Pudding-Pie Fair was still being held at the beginning of the 20th century, but by the 1930s it had diminished and since has evolved into a fun fair. The pudding-pie is now as rare as a Deddington parking space.

The Deddington pudding-pie appears to have been a hard pastry case (the pie) with a pre-cooked filling that included fruit (the pudding), the whole was then baked. Pudding-pies are known elsewhere in the country and often had an association with Lent.

An early mention of the Deddington Pudding-Pie is in 'Notes & Queries' (1869). This records that the pies 'are made by setting up a crust composed of flour mixed with milk or water, and mutton suet melted and poured into it hot. These crusts, which are set up like meat-pie crusts, are then placed in the sun for a day or two to stiffen. They vary in size from about three to four inches in diameter, and are about one inch deep. When thoroughly hard they are filled with the same materials as plum puddings are made of, and when baked are sold at twopence, threepence and fourpence each.'

In the archive of the Deddington News, November 1976, Monica Sansome writes of the Pudding-Pie Fair, drawing on the personal reminiscences of a Mr. Lewis.

From its early days the Martinmas Fair was known as the Pudding-Pie Fair because of the pies made specially for the occasion. Mr. Lewis bought these pies in the early 1900s. They were about the size of a small pork pie, consisting of plum pudding surrounded by pastry. The pastry was made with mutton fat and formed an extremely hard crust "like thick parchment" according to Mr. Lewis, who doesn't remember them as being outstandingly palatable! He thinks they were sold for 2d and 4d depending on size.

Just after 1900 the only bakers in the village to make these pies annually were Thomas and Ruth Fowler. The family had their bakery originally on the premises of Mr. Lewis' shop, then in the Old Bakery, New Street, finally moving to Mr. and Mrs. Beardsley's house next to the Crown and Tuns in New Street... Thomas and Ruth Fowler, like their family before them, guarded the pudding-pie recipe carefully and their recipe died with them.

However, a recipe IS then supplied in this same article, courtesy of Mrs. Ella Marshall who has provided a recipe from 'Traditional English Cooking' (pbl. Angus and Robertson Ltd. 1961) This recipe creates a shortcrust pastry case, but the filling is of cooked ground rice over jam or coconut, and the whole is dusted with ground cinnamon. Quite different to the description of the pudding-pie as a plum pudding in an hardy pastry piecrust.

Shortcrust pastry:
1/2 lb. flour
4 oz. mixed lard and butter
4 tablespoons cold water

To make the filling:
Heat 1 & either 1/2 or 1/4 cups milk (it is impossible to decipher the precise measurement from the original article), add 2 rounded tablespoons caster sugar. Mix 3 level tablespoons ground rice and 1/2 (? same problem) teaspoon salt with 3 tablespoons water. Stir this into the warm milk. Cook and keep stirring until it thickens. Continue cooking "pudden" mixture for a further 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Beat two eggs in a bowl and stir into rice mixture. Flavour with 1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence. Roll out pastry and line greased saucers with the pastry. Cover pastry with jam or dessicated coconut, then pour gently a little of "pudden" mixture over. Bake 20 mins. in medium oven 325F until pastry is cooked underneath. Remove from oven and if liked dust very lightly with ground cinnamon. Nowadays these could be made in an 8" flan about 2"deep. Serve hot or cold.

Born in 1903, Fred Deely, a life-long resident of Deddington, had his boyhood memories recorded by Dorothy E Clarke:

Fred once saw the famous 'Pud', which featured at Deddington's Pudd'n & Pie Fayre, held in November and continued until shortly before the Second World War. It was about 9 inches across, fruit inside, and pastry outside. The lad next to the Three Tuns - Fowler was his name - used to be a baker. He had a sister, Ruth Fowler, she was a cripple, and it was common talk she had the recipe, and when she died nobody ever found it.

Mary Van Turner, in researching 'The Story of Deddington' (1933) spoke with Ruth Fowler, holder of the secret recipe and by this date an elderly lady. From her we learn how the pies were made in the early twentieth century.

Pudding pies have not been made in Deddington for the past six years. Miss Ruth Fowler of 'the Old Bakery', whose family had the original recipe from the Bennetts, who were baking in 1852, undoubtedly made that historic delicacy just as it should be, for in sampling one I found it corresponded exactly with the jesting descriptions which every elder Deddingtonian, including Miss Fowler, delights to give.

'They say you could tie label to one and send it through the post a hundred miles - so hard it was.'

'Deddington folk were supposed to save up all the scrapings from the candle drippings in the lanterns and put them in the pudding pies.' This was also repeated to me by another baker, Mr. W. Course.

Miss Ruth Fowler, herself, quotes a story that gives a quaint, medieval flavour to their peculiar character - a King was journeying from Woodstock to Banbury through Deddington. At Woodstock they gave him gloves and at Banbury light cakes, but in Deddington something between the two, like leather but to be eaten.

Actually they contain a sort of glorified bread pudding in a very hard case. Miss Fowler told me that the outer crust has suet as an ingredient, this is filled with boiled plum pudding, the whole being afterwards baked. Once all the bakers here made them and they were sold at the Stalls. Boiled and baked like Simnel cakes, but with what a different result!

So, according to Mary Vane Turner's account, Deddington pudding-pies have not been made by local bakers since 1927. In the 1970s a version of the 'pudden pie' was baked for the Deddington Festival, held in late summer. In an archived piece from the Deddington News from June 2007, recalling an item from the Deddington Society's Newsletter dated September 1973 and focusing on the Deddington Festival held that month, it was reported that:

The highlight for gourmets at the Festival was the sale of Deddington Pudden pies specially made from a centuries-old recipe by the local baker. The pies, which were made in saucers and sold at the annual Deddington Fair many years ago, have a sweet filling of nuts, ground rice, chopped fruit and eggs and are served with cream. The baker, Mr. B. Wallin, figured in the Festival and a bread book used by his forefathers in the baking trade was displayed in the history exhibition at the parish church.

The pies described here are clearly very different to the robust pies created by the Fowlers and other Deddington bakers at the turn of the twentieth century. They certainly sound more appertising. Curiously, the only other recipe I could find for the pudding-pies is pretty close to the the description of the saucer-baked puddings. I have a sneaky suspicion that the local baker may have seen a copy of Florence White's 'Good Things in England', which is where the recipe I cooked is from. It is here called Deddington Pudden Pie, and although the 'pie' is made of puff pastry, the filling is first boiled and then baked. Perhaps the inedible pastry crust was done away with for the purpose encouraging bakers to revive the pudding.

'A Deddington Pudden Pie was.. made by Miss R. F. Fowler and exhibited at the first English Folk Cookery Exhibition... on January 16th, 1931. The following recipe was published in the Daily News in 1930.

Ingredients: Puff pastry: ground rice 4 oz. [110g]; milk 1 quart [2pints]; eggs 3; lump sugar 6 oz. [175g]; lemon 1; currants 4 oz. [110g]
I baked with half of this quantity of ingredients.

Time: 10 to 15 minutes to boil and 15 to 25 minutes to bake in a moderate oven [180C/350F/Gas 4].

1. Grease some large saucers and line them with puff pastry.
2. Make the rice into a cream with 6 tablespoons of the milk.
3. Add the eggs well beaten to it.
4. Boil up the remainder of the milk with the lump sugar, and the thinly pared rind of a washed lemon.

5. When this boils add the rice mixture and keep stirring for 10 to 15 minutes; then
6. Lift out the lemon peel, and add the currants.
7. Pour into the lined saucers to within one inch and a half of the edge of the crust.
8. Bake in a moderate oven until the pastry is nicely coloured and the mixture set. They can be eaten hot or cold.

Although Florence White does not say whether she has managed to get Ruth Fowler to divulge her family recipe, I wonder if the recipe she gives, leaving aside the pastry element, is close to it. A 19th century recipe for Folkestone Pudding Pies given by Mrs. Beeton in her 'Book of Household Management'(1861) is so very close to the Deddington Pudden Pie recipe in 'Good Things in England', that I would like to think that Florence White's recipe is authentic. My theory on the rock hard pudding-pie casing is that it was not designed to be eaten, but was to transport the filling home from the fair where it could be consumed. I believe that the pastry casing on the Scottish Black Bun served a similar purpose, keeping the cake from going stale, but intended to be discarded.

I imagined that the 'pudding' would be solid, but it was a cross between a wet cheesecake and a stodgy custard tart (hmm, that will get you all rushing for the kitchen). Maybe I needed to cook the filling for longer, or maybe that was the desired consistency. I baked my pudding-pie for 35 minutes, with another 10 minutes in the oven whilst it cooled - plenty long enough to get a 'set'. Whilst baking the filling rose like a plump Chesterfield, but became the cushion favoured by the dog when it hit cold air. It wasn't unpleasant to eat, just a tad bland and a little too mealy in the mouth for my liking. On the positive side, the currants were nice and juicy and had imbibed the lemon flavouring. Maybe mid Lent or after a hard day flogging cattle it would hit the mark.

Deddington has the most comprehensive and exhaustive website of local information that I have ever come across during my web research. If you have any interest in learning more about the town and its history, then I do urge you to take a good look at

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Banbury Cakes Revisited

Whilst in Deddington, Oxfordshire, and already feeling inspired for my next post (I am obviously on a roll at the moment!), I came across a shop that sold genuine, 100% authentic Banbury Cakes. Banbury is just up/down the road from Deddington. Having previously made these, I bought myself a packet so that I could see how the original compared to the home-baked.

From a visit to the Brown's Original Banbury Cakes website, I was delighted to learn that the current owner/baker, Phillip Brown, is related to Banbury Cake bakers dating back to the early 19th century. He himself is a direct descendent of E.W. Brown who ran 'The Original Cake Shop' from 1868 - her name appears over the door in this photo from 1902. Phillip Brown hand bakes his Banbury Cakes, and they are available for purchase online, and from a select number of shops (including A. Gold in London).

Since I wrote my earlier post about Banbury Cakes I bought Florence White's book 'Good Things in England'. She has a 'modern' recipe (dated 1929) for Banbury Cakes (alongside Gervase Markham's recipe from 1615), that is apparently for the 'same type of cake as those sold by E.W. Brown'. An indiscreet plug for the cakes reads, 'Anyone who wants to buy the best Banbury Cakes ever made can buy them from E.W. Brown, 'The Original Cake Shop', 12 Parson Street, Banbury, Oxfordshire. The recipe given is almost identical to the one that I baked for my Banbury Cakes.

My purchased Banbury Cakes were oval in shape but lacked the three slashes on top that my recipe had instructed I cut (as does the one in Florence White's book). The tops were crusted with sugar, but differed from my efforts in that they were most likely brushed with egg white and then dusted with caster sugar. I used demerara, but this may have been an embellishment of my own devising.

The pastry was, unfortunately, a little travel weary. The Banbury Cakes had only a short excursion in Ellis' changing bag, but this did compress the cakes a little. I felt that the cakes were probably best enjoyed as fresh as possible, and although they had a best-before date of almost four weeks hence, the pastry was a little dry. However, the filling of fruit, spices and sugar was positively fudgy, my only complaint was that there wasn't more of it. All in all I felt my own efforts were pretty decent - certainly in terms of the outer (hmm, to be fair I bought my pastry), and if I were to remake the cakes I would make the fillings with a little more sugar so that they could melt on the tongue in the way Mr. Brown's cakes did.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Digestive Biscuits

Digestive biscuits are one of our most popular commercially-baked biscuit varieties - the chocolate-coated version gets wolfed down in the UK at a rate of 52 biscuits a second, according to the website of United Biscuits, one of the major producers. Don’t look at me. I can probably only manage that level over the course of a full minute.

According to United Biscuits’ website; ‘The first ever digestive biscuit was created by a new young employee, Alexander Grant [in 1892 according to a United Biscuit’s Press Release, but this site, dates the biscuit to 1839]. The name Digestive was derived from its high content of baking soda as an aid to food digestion.’ This idea that baking soda aided digestion is contemporary with creation of the biscuit, and manufacturers no longer make any such claim.

As an aside, Mrs Beeton writing in 1861 says of biscuits; ‘Biscuits belong to the class of unfermented bread, and are, perhaps, the most wholesome of that class. In cases where fermented bread does not agree with the human stomach, they may be recommended: in many instances they are considered lighter, and less liable to create acidity and flatulence.’ No wonder we are such a nation of biscuit eaters (without flatulence... possibly).

The gentleman United Biscuits credits for creating the digestive biscuit worked for a Scottish bakery called McVitie & Price Ltd., founded in Edinburgh in 1830. In 1948 the company merged with another Scottish family bakery, Macfarlane, Lang & Co., Ltd., to become United Biscuits Group. Mcvitie’s name lives on as a United Biscuits’ brand, and it is the name generally synonymous with digestive biscuits in UK supermarkets - although there are many rival brands, plus supermarket-own versions.

A competing claim for the first digestive comes from another Edinburgh biscuit manufacturer. Robert Middlemass set up Middlemass’ Biscuit Factory in 1835. By 1896 production was mechanised and Middlemass produced the famous ‘Albert Biscuit’ during Queen Victoria’s reign (click here for a recipe) but the achievement he was proudest of was the ‘invention’of the digestive biscuit [sorry, I couldn’t find a date for this one]. The factory closed in 1974.

The chocolate digestive biscuit was first produced by Mcvitie & Price in 1925. They named it the ‘Homewheat Chocolate Digestive’ because the wheat used in the biscuit was grown in Britain, at a time when competitors were using imported ingredients. It was therefore (and still is) a proudly British biscuit - although perhaps the Scots should really get the lion’s share of the credit for coming up with the idea in the first place. Incidentally, it is only in the last few years that ‘Homewheat’ has been dropped from the packaging of the Mcvitie’s Chocolate Digestive after a rebrand, although a scan around the internet suggests that exported biscuits still carry this name - check out the ‘product features’ for a chocolate digestive on!. Don’t laugh, I think ‘snack’ , ‘teatime’,’easy dessert’ and not to mention ‘made in England’ are very important selling points.

In ‘The Oxford Companion to Food’ (Ed. Alan Davidson), Laura Mason describes the digestive biscuit as being, ‘of the pastry flour type, made from coarse brown flour. It is thick, fairly crisp, but also crumbly and, being only moderately sweet, goes well with hard English cheese. The biscuit has no particularly digestive properties and is banned for sale under that name in the USA. Alternative names are ‘wheatmeal’ and ‘sweetmeal’. Recipes for home-made digestives generally include oatmeal to give the required texture.’

I found various digestive biscuit recipes on my shelves. The earliest is from a book published in 1902 (The Queen Newspaper Cookery book series, No. 11 - Bread, cakes and biscuits, collected and described by S. Beaty-Pownall), reproduced in Andre Simon’s ‘Cereals’ (pub. 1943):

'Rub 1 lb. of butter into 5 lb.of wheatmeal; make a hollow in the centre and pour into this 4 lightly beaten up eggs, with 4 oz. sugar and 1/4 oz. of carbonate of soda; mix this all to a little pool of batter in the centre of the flour, then gradually draw down the latter from the sides with a circular motion of your fingers, moistening the dough this produced with about 1 quart of water, added by degrees, till you get it all to a nice workable consistency. Take up one-third of this dough and roll it out to the thickness of a penny; spread a clean cloth on the kitchen table; lift the dough on to the rolling-pin and roll it out again on the cloth, then cut out into oval or round cakes, prick these and place them in the oven. Finish off the rest of the dough in the same way.'

No baking temperatures or times given.

For cooking up commercial quantities (though not a batch to rival McVitie’s) you could turn to the recipe in ‘The Baker’s Repository of Recipes’, published in the late 1940s, and part of a collection of recipes representing Scotland’s bakery industry prior to 1939:

6 lb. soft flour
3 1/2 lb. wheatmeal
1/2 lb. oatmeal
2 1/2 oz. soda
2 1/2 oz. cream powder
1 1/2 lb. butter
1 1/2 lb. pure lard
4 oz. glucose
1 1/2 oz. salt
1 1/2 lb. sugar
22 oz. water

Rub fat finely through flour and make all into a dough. Allow the dough to rest, then run down through rollers. Cut out, preferably with a combination cutter. Lay on wires and bake. The dough is usually passed through rollers in canvas sheets.

This second recipe uses a combination of different flours and adds fats to the mix. It looks not too far removed from the content of today’s supermarket biscuits, but I fancied baking something a little homelier (and smaller in proportions).

110g/4 oz. medium oatmeal [I used fine oatmeal as that was already in the cupboard. By all means try medium, but I think fine will prevent the biscuit feeling too much like chipboard]
35g/1 1/2 oz. caster sugar
110g/4 oz. wholemeal flour
75g/3 oz. butter
A pinch of salt
A small pinch of bicarbonate of soda
1/2 egg

Rub butter into flour and oatmeal, add sugar, salt and soda. Bind with the beaten egg, put the dough on pastry-board sprinkled with oatmeal, and roll out. Sprinkle lightly with oatmeal, roll it in, and then cut in oval shapes. Bake in a tin in a fairly hot oven.

Recipe from ‘Farmhouse Fare - Country Recipes collected by 'Farmers Weekly’, published 1973.

(N.B. The Reader’s Digest 'Farmhouse Cookery - Recipes from the Country Kitchen', carries an almost identical recipe under the name ‘Digestion Biscuits’. The text state; 'As their name suggests, Digestion Biscuits were considered good for the stomach. Certainly, the Victorians thought so, and the biscuits - made with oatmeal and wholemeal flour - were popular in many country households.

Digestions Biscuits were sometimes eaten as an alternative to bread. They are excellent with butter and cheese.'

It was this second recipe that I used for my biscuits. I used an oven temperature of 190C, and baked for 12-14 minutes. The observant among you will spot that I dipped one face of my biscuits into dark chocolate. Well, I had to really. I did try one or two undressed biscuits, and very nice they were too, but it would have been clear foolishness not to also have tried them with chocolate.

As a point of comparison, I purchased two packs of commercially made digestives. Everyone and their aunt produce their own brand of digestives, so I chose Doves Wholewheat Digestives as Doves make the point of stating on their packaging that the biscuits are ‘Made with English Wheat’; and I selected Nairns Oat Digestives as Nairns are an Edinburgh based Scottish bakery, plus the inclusion of oats made the recipe similar to the one I baked from.

This may have placed them at a disadvantage, but neither of the other two sets of biscuit had any chocolate anywhere about them...

The biscuit tasting was carried out by myself and my junior kitchen hand. In Ellis' honest opinion they were all much of a muchness, and all samples disappeared into his tasting hatch at a fast rate. I tried him with a cheese laden biscuit, but this proved unpopular and was quickly ejected from the tasting hatch. For myself, I found the commercial biscuits dryer and crisper, with a firmer 'bite'. I couldn't discern the flavour of honey in the Nairns biscuit, and found the Doves biscuit was of similar subtle sweetness. Both stood up well to a dunking in a cup of tea (a very traditional method of consumption). My home-baked digestives had an easier texture, more crumble about them and were more interesting in the mouth. I had been concerned that the home-made biscuits would end up a little penitential - obviously, the chocolate coating helped - but they were tasty and far removed from a dry cardboard state.

Go on, you deserve a cup of tea and a biscuit...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Happy Birthday to Ellis...

Our little boy turned one on Monday, and we held a family birthday tea the day before. Apart from the birthday boy himself, my attention over the previous week had been on 'the cake'. Having children is an excuse to bake fantastical celebration cakes and play with day-glo icing colours that normally would not grace the tea table. I choose to make Ellis a bumble bee cake as the buzzing noise made by the insect, as reproduced my his parents/Grandparents/our lovely next door neighbours, was one of the first sounds to really make him chuckle. This cake brought a smile to his face too.

I made the cake in two halves, using a recipe from Nigella Lawson's 'Domestic Goddess' (this contains a whole chapter of suggestions for baking for/with children - no jokes, please). The domed top half of the cake was baked in a silver foil lined colander (yeah, don't try it without that proviso), and the lower half was baked in a conventional sandwich tin. The whole was covered in super eye-catching orange buttercream, and the black icing I purchased from the supermarket in ready to pipe tubes. The wings were circles of netting, gathered and threaded onto cocktail sticks. Legs and feelers were sticks of soft liquorice.

Happy Birthday poppet!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Shrove Tuesday Pancake Festival, Hitchin 2008

Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, is the final day pre-Lent. It is the day for clearing your cupboards of eggs and butter (historically both forbidden, along with other foods such as meat, during Lent), and for shriving (confessing sins and asking forgiveness). Pancakes have for many centuries, and in many countries, been a popular way of achieving larder cleanliness on Shrove Tuesday. In centuries past, pancakes made for the wealthy may have contained spices, scented waters, sherry, sack or ale, and could be brought to the table with bowls of flavoured cream or sweet cooked fruits. Fruit fritters - fruit dipped in batter - particularly apple fritters, were also a popular food on this day, and the name fritter can also be applied to the pancake. In contrast to these indulgent pancakes of the past, most of us in Britain are accustomed to eating plain flour, egg and milk pancakes with a sprinkling of sugar and a squeeze of tart lemon juice, quite austere by old standards! A few miles north of Hitchin, the small town of Baldock had a different tradition for Shrove Tuesday. Here the day was known as Doughnut Day, and fried doughnuts were eaten in place of pancakes. Was there perhaps a link with the Dutch tradition of Faschtnachts?

On Shrove Tuesday morning the church bell would ring to call parishioners to church to be shriven. Post-Reformation the bell also signified the beginning of festivities, the last chance for a jolly and a feast before the dry days of Lent. Reputedly, the first pancake race was run in Olney, Buckinghamshire in 1455, albeit unintentionally. One housewife cooking her pre-Lent batch of pancakes, heard the church bell ringing for the Shriving service, and realising she was late for the service ran out of the house arriving in church with the frying pan still in her hand. Olney still stages a pancake race each year, open to women over the age of 18, and happy to dress in the stereotypical garb of the housewife.

The Pancake Festival in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, is in its 10th year, organised by the The Rotary Club, raising money for the The Garden House Hospice and other local charities. Three pancakes races are run:

The men's race.

The women's race.

Fancy-dress, with the 118 guys - obligatory at all good charity sporting events.

In the town square I joined the queue for a pancake hot from the pan, serving to help me limber up for a pancake eating marathon later in the day. For pancake recipes both traditional and new, try this link. I can't record my own efforts, as I am afraid they were consumed all too quickly, only to say they were very good!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Scottish Shortbread

Shortbread is a biscuit ‘shortened’ by the prodigious use of glorious butter. The texture of the biscuit is crisp and snappable- hence ‘short’. The term 'bread' has been used interchangeably with 'cake' for many centuries (cakes, as we now know them, derive from sweetened, yeast-risen breads), and shortbread is the descendent of the short cakes baked from the the 16th century. One story has it that Scottish bakers used the name shortbread to argue the case against paying the government’s tax on biscuits (shades of Jaffa cakes v the VAT man/woman. VAT is currently not paid on cakes and biscuits, as they are deemed a necessity by UK law - the law is not always an ass it seems! - chocolate-covered biscuits, on the other hand, are considered luxuries and therefore are taxable). Short cakes were made from the same ingredients as we would use for a sweet shortcrust pastry (short, again refers to the texture), with the addition of a little yeast. The yeast in these early cakes could result in an uneven rise, remedied by the baker ‘docking’ or pricking the surface of the cake. Some modern biscuits have kept these pricked holes as decoration. Short cakes were eaten across Britain, and many local biscuits (i.e. Shrewsbury cakes, or Goosnargh cakes) are variations on the basic recipe. Shortbread, however, has a definite association with Scotland, and the best of its type has long been an export to the rest of the country, and to the rest of the world.

It is the quality of the ingredients that make shortbread so decidedly delicious, and a lightness of touch in the making. Classic shortbread is made from only flour, butter and sugar, so that gives three opportunities for buying the best, or three chances to produce a disappointing biscuit. F. Marian McNeill writes in 'The Scots Kitchen’ that,

‘Only the best ingredients should be used. The flour should be dried and sieved. The butter, which is the only moistening and shortening agent, should be squeezed free of all water. The sugar should be fine castor. Two other things are essential for success - the careful blending of the ingredients and careful firing.

The butter and the sugar should first be blended. Put eight ounces of butter and four ounces of castor sugar on a board, and work with the hand until thoroughly incorporated. Mix eight ounces of flour with four ounces of rice flour, and work gradually into the butter and sugar, until the dough is of the consistency of short crust. Be careful that it does not become oily (a danger in hot weather) nor toughened by over-mixing. The less kneading, the more short and crisp the shortbread. Do not roll it out, as rolling has a tendency to toughen it, but press with the hand into two round cakes, either in oiled and floured shortbread moulds or on a sheet of baking-paper. The most satisfactory thickness is three-quarters of an inch for a cake eight inches in diameter, or in such proportion. If you make a large thick cake it is advisable to protect the edges with a paper band or hoop, and to have several layers of papers underneath and perhaps one on top. Pinch the edges neatly all round with the finger and thumb, and prick all over with a fork. Decorate with “sweetie” almonds (for small cakes, caraway comfits may be used) and strips of citron or orange peel. Put into a fairly hot oven, reduce the heat presently, and allow the shortbread to crisp off to a light golden brown.’

Jane Grigson suggests having in the kitchen a jar of plain flour mixed with rice flour or cornflour with a 3:1 proportion so that you have this to hand for biscuit making and for light sponge cakes. She helpfully notes that the proportion of ingredients for shortbread are 3:2:1 - flour:butter:sugar.

Advice also comes from ’The Baker’s Repository of Recipes - With Special Reference to Scottish Specialities’, published post-WWII by The British Baker to help reinvigorate the baking trade by providing a comprehensive collection of national recipes:

‘Flour, butter, sugar, and sometimes eggs, was the order of the day at one time, but in shortbread making the type of ingredient used is the chief essential.

There are no spices, fruits, etc., to counteract in the matter of flavour, therefore a good-flavoured butter comes first in importance. Flour would seem to be of next importance, and a very soft flour is not to be recommended. A top-grade winter or blended flour is usually selected. Sugar chosen is usually somewhat hard in the grain.

The ingredients may be well chosen yet the results desired not obtained. This may be caused in the method of making up the dough. Good judges declare shortbread is often spoiled by overworking or overmaking the dough.

The butter, sugar and eggs should be roughly creamed, the flour added, and the dough just formed.

Finally, the baking must be correct. An oven of moderate temperature is used, but the exact temperatures have to be noted from experience. The thickness and type of shortbread being baking govern the baking temperature.’

There are variations on the classic recipe - Ayrshire shortbread also includes cream and eggs, Pitcaithly bannock has chopped sweet almonds and citron peel mixed in with the flour and is decorated with peel. Petticoat tails are a thin form of shortbread baked in a distinctive circular shape with a smaller circle cut from the centre, and then the remainder divided up. Shetland Bride’s Bonn/Bun is flavoured with caraway seeds and baked upon a girdle. I am keen to try out this girdle-cooked shortbread, but I feel that I should give the ‘original’ recipe a go first.

My ingredient quantities came from ‘A Cook’s Tour of Britain’, by the WI and Michael Smith (just a little more butter than Jane Grigson’s ratios), and the method I employed was from Marcus Wareing’s ‘How to Cook the Perfect...’

110g slightly salted butter (or unsalted butter with a pinch a salt) - use direct from fridge
50g caster sugar
150g plain flour
50g rice flour/ground rice

1. Sift the flour into a bowl (along with the salt if you are using unsalted butter), and stir in the ground rice and sugar.
2. Put the bowl of dry ingredients on the scales and return the dial/reading to zero and (here is the clever bit) grate in 110g butter from a chilled block .
3. Work the grated butter quickly into the flour by rubbing first with the fingertips, and then between the palms of the hands. Once the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, stop.
4. Press the mix into a 20cm by 20cm square baking tin and level the surface. Chill in the fridge for about an hour.
5. Heat oven to 160C/320F/Gas 3, and then bake shortbread until light golden (about 40 minutes, but keep an eye on it).
6. Remove from oven and prick all over with a fork, then mark out into pieces (squares or fingers) cutting through to the bottom of the tin. Dust liberally with caster sugar, and then leave to cool in tin.

I thought the idea of grating in chilled butter was a good one, and one that I have since also used for pastry making. It means that the butter needs very little work to properly introduce it to the flour. Putting a bowl-load of buttery flour ‘crumbs’ into the baking tin required faith that the end result would be a biscuit and not crumble topping, but, what do you know, my shortbread was appropriately ‘short’ and the texture was good. The shortbread was very butter-rich, and the scent of butter was also strong (but that might be down to the warmth of my kitchen). The biscuits were perhaps a little sweet for my taste, but that could simply be due to a over-exuberant sugar sprinkle.