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Oat Cakes

I’m using the recipe for these oatcakes as an example of the pitfalls of projecting 21st century understanding onto 17th century recipes.

Mention the word ‘oatcakes’ and most people will think of small, crisp biscuits that are enjoyed with cheese, pate and the like.

These oatcakes, however, come from an altogether different origin, resembling as they do, what we nowadays would call a muffin. And here is where I have to hold my hand up and make a confession.  Back in 2011, in this post, I had a bit of a chuckle at Hannah Glasse’s distracted recipe for Muffins and Oat-cakes, that never mentions oatcakes beyond the title, and her mistake at the end of the method where she writes

Observe, muffins are made the same way.

However, upon reading this and several other early oatcake recipes, it became clear to me that Hannah’s method had actually been describing the making of oat-cakes, which are muffins made with a significant proportion of oat flour. I’d just assumed she was in error because I was thinking of the wrong kind of oatcake, putting the modern notion of a biscuit onto her 18th century recipe.

Oat Cakes recipe
Oat Cakes recipe, circa 1700, MS7788, Wellcome Library

The manuscript in which I found this recipe dates from around 1700, which makes them of the time of Queen Anne, last of the Stuart monarchs. The spicing and flavouring make them deliciously decadent and aromatic, perfect for an elegant afternoon tea-table. They are best enjoyed warm, with just a little butter. If you’re not eating them fresh from the pan, then the outsides should be lightly toasted under a grill before gently pulling apart and buttering.

These take a little longer than regular muffins in the initial cooking, but my guess is that is down to the oat flour. Speaking of which, I made these by sifting fine oatmeal, which is also sometimes sold as oat flour. It is coarser than wheat flour, being somewhere between brown flour and stoneground wholemeal flour in texture.  I firstly sieve out the coarser particles and then whizz these coarse siftings in a blender/spice grinder (the offset blades are more efficient than a food processor) and re-sieve in order to get the maximum amount of ‘flour’. This process is a little tedious, and frankly, you could just use the oat flour as is and they would be fine, but by using only the finest quality of oat flour ensures the delicacy of their texture matches the delicacy of the flavourings.

Oat Cakes

Makes 14

300g plain flour
300g oat flour
20g fresh yeast
150ml whole milk
150ml water
1 large egg
2 large yolks
2tbs sweet sherry/Madeira/Marsala
1/3 nutmeg, grated
1/4 tsp ground mace
1/2tsp salt
20g caster sugar

  • Put the dry ingredients and the yeast into a bowl. I use my stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.
  • Whisk the milk, water, egg, yolks and alcohol together then add to the dry ingredients.
  • Mix thoroughly for 10 minutes.
  • Mix on high for 2 minutes, then and leave to rise for 1 hour.
  • Deflate the dough gently then divide it into 75g portions.
  • Cup your hand over each piece of dough and roll it in small circles, shaping the dough into a smooth ball. Set the ball on a flour-dusted surface to rise. Don’t put the balls of dough too close together, or they might rise into each other.
  • Allow the dough to rise for 30 minutes from the moment the first ball of dough is shaped. They will take time to cook in batches, so with the staggered batch cooking, the last few will have risen just in time to be cooked.
  • Put a heavy-based pan onto a large ring on a medium heat. On my 1-9 induction hob, I use 6.
  • Cook the muffins in batches. Depending on the size of your pan, you can cook 4 or 5 at a time.
  • To transfer the risen dough to the pan, gently slide a thin spatula underneath and transfer it to the pan turning it upside down as you do so, so that the top of the oat cake cooks first. This will help create the perfect muffin shape. If you cook the base first, the top will continue to rise and curve, and since the radiated heat from the pan will dry the surface of the dough as it cooks, this will thus make it ‘reluctant’ to flatten into the traditional muffin shape. Cooking the soft top first, the weight of the dough pressing down allows it to settle like a gently deflating cushion, into the flattened shape, and a partial hardening of the already flat bottom (which has become the top) is fine.
  • Cook for 6-7 minutes, then gently turn the cakes over and cook for another 5-6 minutes. When done, they should sound hollow when tapped.
  • Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
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Damson Preserves

Here’s a trio of preserves that champion one of my favourite sorts of food – free stuff!

Damsons grow wild in the hedgerows and along the canal banks and lanes of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire, and the only cost is your time to pick them. They are tart, wild plums, about the size and shape of a large grape, with a soft, hazy-blue bloom to the skin. NB The size/shape is key to identifying true damsons – if the fruit is round and apple-shaped, it is a different wild plum known as a bullace.

I had an especially impressive haul of damsons this year, from three difference sources, so aside from the obligatory Damson Gin, I had enough to make batches of the above preserves for the first time, the recipes for which I have had bookmarked for years. Whatever your toothsome preference, there should be something for everyone here.

If you’re unable to find damsons, then all of these recipes will work with any kind of small, tart plums.

Damson Conserve

MS1795
From MS1795, circa 1685, Wellcome Library Collection

First up is the oldest of the three recipes, found in a household manuscript book at the Wellcome Library. Sadly for those of us interested in people as much as recipes, it is anonymous,  and dates from around 1685. It caught my eye because of the slightly unusual method it employs. Usually, the vigorous boiling in the making of damson jam renders the delicate fruit into a pulp, but the method in this recipe is strikingly similar to that employed by the modern queen of jam-making, la fée des confitures, Christine Ferber. Sugar is used to both draw out the juices of the fruit, and to infuse the delicate flesh, so that it can all the better withstand the cooking process. The result is beautifully whole damsons in a richly flavoured syrup.

You can make any quantity you like, by scaling up the recipe to suit the quantity of fruit you have. I have altered the recipe slightly, based on my experience of working with Madam Ferber’s recipes.

1lb damsons
1lb granulated sugar
120ml water

  • Remove the stalks and with a sharp knife, cut the skin of the damsons around “in the crease” as the recipe puts it.
  • Sprinkle a layer of sugar in a pan and set the damsons into the sugar, to draw out the juice.
  • Sprinkle the remainder of sugar over the top.
  • Pour over the water.
  • Cover and leave overnight.
  • Next day, heat very gently until the sugar has melted.
  • Lift the fruit out of the syrup and bring it to a boil.
  • Return the fruit to the now hot syrup and allow to steep overnight.
  • On Day 3, lift the fruit out of the syrup and bring it to a boil again.
  • Return the fruit and simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Transfer to warmed pots and seal while hot.

Miss Milward’s Pickled Damsons

19th century

Alison Uttley’s fictionalised autobiographical book The Country Child was one of my favourites growing up, and it remains so to this day. The book details her childhood growing up on a Derbyshire farm in the late nineteenth century – I highly recommend it.

Ms Uttley came across her mother’s recipe book whilst researching Country Hoard, and in response to encouragement from her published, produced Recipes from an Old Farmhouse in 1966. This recipe was made in vast quantities, to ensure there was a ready supply for the many mouths fed at the farm.

Almost equally sweet and sharp, they are equally good served alongside cold meats and cheeses, as spooned over ice cream.

You can halve or even quarter this recipe if liked.

3.2kg damsons
1.8kg white, granulated sugar
2 x 5cm cinnamon sticks
20g whole cloves
malt vinegar to cover

  • Layer the damsons and sugar in a casserole.
  • Add the spices and vinegar enough to just submerge the fruit, and cover with a lid.
  • Place in the oven and turn the heat to 120°C, 100°C Fan.
  • Bake gently for 1 hour to draw out the juices.
  • Set aside to cool.
  • When cold, drain the fruit from the syrup.
  • Heat the syrup until boiling, then pour over the fruit and allow to stand until the next day.
  • Repeat this draining/boiling each day for the next 7 days (for a total of 8 days).
  • Allow the damsons to stand in the syrupy pickle for seven  more days.
  • Spoon the damsons into warmed pots, boil the syrup and pour over the fruit.
  • Seal at once.
  • Cherries may also be pickled in this way.

Mrs Musson’s Baroda Chutney

This recipe, from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, won first prize in the Farmer and Stockbreeder Competition in 1950, and it is my new, favourite chutney. It can be found in a delightful little book entitled “Cook it the Farmhouse Way” by Barbara Wilcox. A digitised copy of the book can be borrowed for 2 weeks from The Internet Archive – click here.

The damsons give it a beautiful, rich colour, and the chutney can be eaten immediately. It is fantastic with both cold meats and cheeses.

1.35kg apples – peeled and cored
1.35kg marrow – peeled and chopped roughly
1.35kg tomatoes
900g damsons, counted
1.125kg onions – peeled
225g shallots
170g garlic
140g salt
1tsp dried chilli flakes
900g sugar
115g mustard seed – yellow or black
50g fresh ginger – sliced thin
15g whole cloves
1.7 litres malt vinegar

  • Chop the apples, marrow, tomatoes, onions, shallots and garlic. You can do this by hand or, as I did, by pulsing them 2 or 3 times in a food processor. You want  your resulting chutney to be fine enough to spread in a sandwich without any unseemly large pieces.
  • Put into a large bowl with the damsons, salt, chillies and sugar.
  • Mix thoroughly, then cover with cling film and leave overnight.
  • The next day, tie the spices and the sliced ginger in a muslin bag and add to the vegetables, together with the vinegar.
  • Mix thoroughly then pour everything into a preserving pan.
  • Bring slowly to the boil, stirring frequently, then turn the heat down and simmer until no excess moisture is visible – 4-6 hours – stirring regularly. Alternatively, you can cook this, uncovered, in a slow cooker. It requires less stirring, although the cooking time then increases to about 10 hours.
  • Remove the muslin bag of spices and fish out the damsons stones (optional – but you might want to write a reminder on the label if you keep them in). If you counted your damsons before cooking, you can easily keep track of how many stones you need to retrieve.
  • Pot and seal at once.

Wholemeal Oat Bread

For a number of years, my favourite brown bread has been the Grant Loaf, partly due to the almost ridiculously easy method of preparation, and partly due to its deliciousness, especially when either freshly baked, or lightly toasted.

However, even the most ardent of fans will admit that it is not a light loaf. It has certain brick-like qualities not limited solely to its shape. So the discovery of this loaf, which not only uses wholemeal flour, but adds oatmeal to it as well, and which results in a light and airy loaf, is a bit of a revelation. You’d think that mixing heavy, stoneground wholemeal with heavy oatmeal would be a recipe for a loaf of leaden qualities, but no – it’s almost as if these two ‘wrongs’ make a ‘right’. Fickle as I am, this is now my new favourite wholemeal loaf.

Like the Grant Loaf, it also takes advantage of the initial vigorousness of the yeast by being proofed only for two short intervals, making it much quicker than traditional bread.

The second difference is the shape in which it is baked. The recipe’s author, Sir Henry Thompson, was most famous for his expertise in the fields of medicine and surgery. However, as a recognised polymath, he was also knowledgeable in a number of other areas, including nutrition, exemplified by his book “Food and Feeding” (1879) in which he noted (on the subject of wholemeal flour)

it does not readily produce light agreeable bread when made in the form of ordinary loaves : a solid mass of this meal being a bad conductor of heat, will have a hard flinty crust if baked sufficiently to cook the interior ; or it will have a soft dough-like interior, if the baking is checked when the crust is properly done. Consequently the form of a flat cake, resembling that of the ordinary tea-cake, is preferable, since it admits of the right amount of heat operating equally throughout the mass.

4th Edition, p40.

The first edition of Sir Henry’s book suggested a mixture of wholemeal flour and fine flour. Later editions changed this to a recommendation of oatmeal – fine if using baking powder and medium if using yeast. I’ve tried both combinations and much refer the yeast version, as the baking powder version seemed to develop a sour taste quite quickly, although that might have been due to me using Sir Henry’s own version of baking powder which reversed the proportions we use nowadays, i.e. 1 part cream of tartar to 2 parts bicarbonate of soda.

This recipe can be baked in two Victoria Sandwich tins and produces deliciously airy bread, ideal for sandwiches. You can cut slices across the loaf, as in the photo, or cut it into quarters for a simpler, but less elegant, wedge.

You can make this bread with ordinary wholemeal flour, but bread flour gives the better result. If you’d like to try the baking powder version, the quantity recommended for this recipe is 15g.

You can download a free copy of Sir Henry’s book, “Food and Feeding” (4th edition) here.

Wholemeal Oat Bread

450g stoneground wholemeal bread flour
115g medium oatmeal
20g fresh yeast or 1 sachet fast action yeast
5g salt
30g unsalted butter
400ml-ish half milk, half water, warmed

  • Put all the ingredients into a bowl and knead together for 10 minutes on slow using a dough hook, or by hand.
  • If using a dough hook, at the end of the 10 minutes, switch the speed to High for 2 minutes to bring the dough into a ball.
  • Allow to rise for 20 minutes.
  • Divide the dough in half, and mould each piece into a ball.
  • Press the dough into two greased, Victoria sandwich tins (20cm diameter).
  • Set to rise for another 20 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan. Depending on how quickly your oven heats, you might want to do this as you set the bread for its second rise, or after it has been rising 10 minutes.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down by 20 degrees and bake for a further 15 minutes.
  • To crisp up the bottom crust, tip the bread out of the tins and return the loaves to the oven to bake for a final 5 minutes.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

Shaping Meringues

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with meringues. On the one hand they are extremely simple to make, with just two ingredients, but on the other, for the most part, they are almost universally blobby. Not such a defect, you might think, but it doesn’t help the elegance of a dish when one’s natural inclination is to the rustic.

So armed with one of my favourite baking books, I decided to experiment with trying to impose some order on these feather-light and versatile confections.

There are three basic types of meringue, which have come to be identified as French, Italian and Swiss, based mostly on how the sugar is treated in the mixing.

French meringue is the classic, with the egg-whites being whipped to soft peaks, before caster sugar is gradually added, then whisked to stiff peaks. This is a versatile meringue in that you can bake it by itself in blobs and nests an kisses or use it to top sweet-filled pies and tarts. However, it is not stable and will, over time, deflate back into a liquid. It needs to be baked after whisking.

Italian meringue has become very popular in recent times, due to its longer ‘shelf-life’ for want of a better word. The egg-whites are whisked together with a hot sugar syrup which cooks them enough to prevent them deflating once cold. Italian meringue can be folded into mousses and ice-creams to provide lightness and creaminess, can be piped directly onto cakes and pies and toasted either in the oven or with a blow-torch. It can also have butter whipped into it to make an indulgent filling/icing for cakes large and small.

Swiss Meringue is a method that falls roughly between that of French and Italian. The sugar and unwhipped egg-whites are stirred over simmering water until the sugar has dissolved, then they are removed from the heat and whisked vigorously until cool. This method makes for a firm, dazzlingly-white meringue that holds its shape exceptionally well, especially when piped with a patterned nozzle, which makes it the perfect meringue to use for adding a little more form and structure to your desserts.

This recipe comes from the Victorian baking book, “All about Biscuits” by H.G.Harris & S.P.Borella (c1900) and is listed only as a meringue mixture (one of many throughtout the book). It calls for caster sugar and the whites of eggs  to be whisked to a temperature of 66°C. Comparing this method with recipes available online, it is interesting to note that the ratio of sugar to egg-whites in modern mixtures varies, as does the temperature to which the mixture should be heated, from equal quantities by weight of sugar and egg-whites up to double the sugar to egg-whites, and in temperature from ‘until the sugar is dissolved’ as high as 80°C.

This recipe is a diplomatic middle-ground, but you should experiment to find the mixture that works best for you. What you do with the meringue after it is made, is really the main focus of this post, and my initial experiments are included below.  Most modern recipes stop after the mixing stage and either suggest the meringue be used as-is on top of pies and cakes, or that butter is whipped into the meringue to create a buttercream. Detailed below is a third option: that of baking the meringue dry to enjoy as they are or for use in other recipes. I hope to be able to add to the photographs as I discover additional suitable designs.

Use of silicone moulds

Meringue Shapes
Meringues shaped in silicone moulds

Use of flexible silicone moulds are the simplest way to give your meringues a professional look. Smooth the meringue into clean moulds, trying to ensure there are no air-pockets trapped between the mixture and the surface of the mould. The drawback of this approach is the length of time the meringues take to dry. The best method I have found, is to cook them at a slightly higher temperature initially (80°C), until the visible surface is cooked and firm, then gently ease them from the mould and allow them to dry overnight in an extremely low oven (mine will actually go as low as 30°C). They will be perfectly dry, dazzlingly white and will keep for days in an airtight container.

Meringues shaped in silicone moulds can be hollowed out to shorten baking time and provide room for a surprise filling

If you hollow out the meringue shapes, as seen above, not only does this reduce the drying time, but you can then use this for a hidden filling underneath, or turn the meringue the other way up and use it as a bowl for a moist and creamy filling: Eton Mess becomes Eton Tidy in an instant!

Use of piping tips

Spooned into a piping bag fitted with a shaped piping tip, Swiss Meringue is fantastic for creating shapes and designs with crisp details that hold their shape whilst baking. A few simple examples are listed below.

Meringue Ruffles made using the ‘leaf’ piping tip
Meringue Batons and Shells piped using an open star tip.
Meringue Feathers piped using an open star tip.
Meringue Swirls piped using an open star tip.
Meringue Fleur de Lys and Hearts piped using an open star tip.

Swiss Meringue

450g caster sugar
300g egg-whites

  • Put the egg-whites and sugar into a clean, dry bowl and set it on top of a pan of simmering water.
  • Be sure that the bowl doesn’t touch the surface of the water.
  • Gently stir the ingredients together until the sugar is dissolved and the temperature has reached 66°C.
  • Remove the bowl from the pan and whisk the contents briskly until the mixture is cold, firm, billowy and dazzlingly white.
  • Pipe onto parchment-lined baking sheets or into silicone moulds as you see fit.

To bake

The whiter you wish your meringues, the lower the temperature they need to bake, or rather, dry out. The shape will also dictate how long they require in the oven.

  • Preheat the oven to 100°C, 80°C Fan.
  • Bake for 1-2 hours, depending on shape, until set and firm. If you’re using silicone moulds, now would be the time to ease the meringues from the moulds.
  • Reduce oven temperature to 50°C, 40°C Fan and allow meringues to dry out.
  • Once cooled, store in an airtight container until required.

Mini Chicken and Bacon Pies

Jane Newton, circa 1675

Jane Newton’s 17th century manuscript recipe book (MS1325 at The Wellcome Library) is unusual for the time, because it appears to have been written by the lady herself. It is meticulously set out, beginning with an alphabetical index and progressing through a range of recipes, informally grouped together: potages, roasts, boilings, collarings, puddings, picklings, tarts, wines and preserves.

The handwriting is regular, the lettering exaggeratingly flourished – Jane loves an upper-case letter and refuses to confine them to the beginning of sentences – the spelling quirky and capricious. The ink has faded to brown, but the scarlet margins and meticulously underlined titles are still bright and bold.

The recipes have a very informal tone, and on reading them it is possible to hear Jane chattering away about her cookery recipes, complete with interruptions to her train of thought. In the recipe for Taffety Tarts, she gets as far as rolling out the pastry only to leave the instructions hovering unfinished on the page as she then gets distracted into starting a recipe for Manchet. This too appears incomplete, as after setting the dough to rise, the seventeenth century save-all of “yn bake itt.” is used to hurriedly end the recipe.

Two incomplete recipes from the pen of Jane Newton
Two incomplete recipes from the pen of Jane Newton

The title of this mini pie recipe is a perfect example of the informal tone of most of the book. In the early pages,  Jane closes out a recipe for Partridge Pottage with the following comment:

This Pottage is proper to bee Garnished wth Pitti Patties or Little Pa∫sts a thing never yet in Print And I shall give yow the be∫t diretton for the makeing them when I treat of Bakemeates wch wil bee thereafter given yow

It takes more than twenty pages for this recipe to turn up. Rather than a succinct yet descriptive title, Jane opts for To make the Pufes I was Speaking of before in my Pottage. I don’t know about you, but I can almost hear Jane’s vague introductory “Oh…you know…. those things…. pastry bits…. whatchamacallits…. the ones I was talking about earlier!” and see the accompanying distracted, flapping hand.

Jane was – justifiably – very proud of these tasty morsels:

The∫e are a thing wch is delightfull to the Eater & is not a u∫uall thing at many Tables to be had and Invented by an Italian

These pies are a true Deja Food recipe because they include cooked meat in their composition. Although I’ve gone with just chicken, the original recipe suggests a combination of chicken and veal. Alternatives include turkey or pork.  The filling also differs from most modern pies in that it has neither sauce nor gravy, and is neither heavy nor cloying, but bright and fresh. A squeeze of orange juice, possibly a Seville, and the moisture in the fresh ingredients keeps the filling from both drying out and making the pastry soggy during baking. Once baked, a few drops of chicken stock are poured into the pies after baking to add both seasoning and lusciousness.

The most unusual detail for these little savoury pies, is the inclusion of a grape in the middle of each. These would have been taken from the thinnings of vines usually grown by the great houses  – there’s not enough room to allow every bunch of grapes to ripen – so they would be underripe and therefore quite sharp to the taste, not sweet. In the baking they would soften a little and provide a bright burst of tart freshness to the cooked filling.  Underripe green gooseberries would work equally well, if you don’t have a vine to hand.

Jane suggests serving these as garnishes to the aforementioned pottage (meaty soup) or even on a dish by themselves. My further recommendations are for including them in lunchboxes, picnics or as nibbles/appetisers.

Mini Chicken & Bacon Pies

Makes 20 mini pies

shortcrust pastry – made with around 300g flour
1 sheet ready rolled puff pastry.

150g cooked chicken
60g smoked, dry-cured streaky bacon – about 4 rashers
3tbs finely chopped fresh parsley(10g)
1tbs fresh thyme, stripped from the stalks
2 rounded tbs chopped shallot (1 round or ½ a smallish banana shallot)
¼ tsp ground white pepper
a pinch of salt
juice of ½ an orange – about 2tbs/30ml
20 small, sharp grapes/gooseberries

Egg for glazing

100ml well-flavoured chicken stock

  • Dice the chicken and bacon finely and stir together with the herbs, onion and seasoning.
  • Add the orange juice and stir to combine.
  • Preheat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan.
  • Roll out the shortcrust pastry, cut out 20 rounds and line the greased cups of a mini muffin tin.
  • Spoon a little of the mixture into the cups, place a grape in top, then cover with more of the filling mixture.
  • Dampen the edges of the pastry with a little water.
  • Cut out 20 lids from the puff pastry and press them gently on top of the mini pies.
  • Trim any excess pastry.
  • Brush over with beaten egg and cut a small hole in the top of each pastry lid – a plastic straw works well.
  • Bake for 15-18 minutes until the pastry is cooked, the lids puffed and golden.
  • Use a small funnel or teaspoon to pour a little chicken stock into each pie to moisten the filling.
  • Cool on a wire rack.
  • Serve warm.

Lemon Biscuits

One of my favourite sets of books is a series for the Edwardian baking trade written by H.G.Harris and S.P.Borella. Published as part of The British Baker Library in the first years of the twentieth century, the “All About…” books are a fascinating record of the sheer range and variety of baked goods both fashionable and available at the time. The full set of books in the series comprises volumes devoted to:

  • All About Biscuits
  • All about Pastries
  • All About Gateaux & Dessert Cakes
  • All About Ices, Jellies, Creams & Conserves
  • All About Genoese, Petits Fours, Glacés and Bon Bons

I’ve collected my copies of these books via eBay and AbeBooks, so I recommend checking out both of these sites if you’re interested in acquiring some for yourself.

With recipe quantities suited to commercial batches, a certain amount of scaling is required in order to use any of the recipes for the home, but the effort is invariably worth it. These recipes date from an era when biscuits were sold either individually priced or by weight and you could thus make a selection specifically tailored to your entertaining or just personal needs.

These biscuits come from the All About Biscuits volume, from the chapter Dessert and Wine Biscuits. The chapter is filled with biscuits both elaborate and plain that would have been served in a range of contexts. In general terms, the dessert course was a selection of fruits, nuts, sweetmeats and sweet biscuits arranged along the centre of the table throughout the meal, acting also as table decoration. In addition, biscuits were served alongside the popular cream, syllabubs, jellies and trifles to add some textural crunch and contrast against the softness and richness.

I chose these biscuits partly for their simplicity and partly because they were labelled ‘old-fashioned’ over a century ago and I was struck that even in an era of great change and innovation, there was still enjoyment of confections which harked back to earlier times. There’s no excessive icing, decoration or filling; they are just a simple, elegant and pure-tasting delight.

The original biscuits are crisp, with a delicate lemon flavour, ideal for serving with fruit fools, possets and fresh fruit, or even for enjoying with a mid-morning or afternoon cup of tea. I also thought they could stand a little embellishment, for an extra special treat, should the occasions arise. After a bit of experimentation I came up with the following: once baked and whilst still hot, brush the biscuits with what is essentially a lemon drizzle mixture of lemon zest, lemon juice and sugar. As the biscuits cool, this topping hardens into a glittery, lemon-flavoured crust, sweet but still eye-poppingly sharp with lemon juice. It is delicious.

This recipe makes 20-30 biscuits, so there is more than enough to have a mix of both glazed and unglazed biscuits.

Old Fashioned Lemon Biscuits

The original unglazed biscuits are on the left of the photo, the lemon-glazed biscuits are on the right.

225g plain flour
115g unsalted butter
110g caster sugar
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 large egg – beaten

Lemon Drizzle Glaze – optional
zest & juice of 2 lemons
4-6 tbs caster sugar

  • Put the flour, sugar, zest and butter into a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Add the lemon juice and blitz again.
  • Whisk the egg and, with the food processor running, gradually add a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together in a ball. Depending on the moisture in your flour and butter and the quantity of juice you get from your lemon, you might not need to use all of the egg.
  • Tip out the mixture and knead smooth.
  • Wrap in plastic and chill for at a least an hour until firm enough to roll.
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C 180°C Fan.
  • Line two baking sheets with baking parchment.
  • Roll the chilled dough out thinly (3-4mm) and cut out lemon-shaped  biscuits. You can use a 7cm plain circular cutter and then use it to cut off a crescent of dough to make the lemon shape. Press the trimmings together and re-roll.
  • Lay the biscuits onto the baking sheets, 1-2cm apart – there is little spreading during baking.
  • Bake for 11-12 minutes, turning the baking sheet around after 6 minutes to help even colouring.
  • While the biscuits are baking, make the glaze (if using). Use a fine grater to remove the zest of the lemons. If using a microplane grater, you will need to then chop the curls of zest into smaller pieces to achieve an even coverage when brushing on the glaze. Add the lemon juice and sugar to the zest and stir all together. There’s no need to ensure all the sugar is dissolved, as this will contribute to the crunchiness of the layer.
  • When the biscuits are baked and starting to colour at the edges, remove and brush the glaze onto as many biscuits as you like. Leave to cool on the baking sheets for 10 minute, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.
  • The heat of the biscuits themselves, as well as that from the baking sheets, will help the glaze to set. After 30 minutes, if your biscuits aren’t as crisp as you would like, or the glaze isn’t fully dry, set the cooling racks into the oven, which should still be warm from the baking and allow the warmth there to work its magic.
  • Store in an airtight container.

 

Welsh Cakes

I’ve always had a fondness for Wales. The first family holidays were amongst the lush and rolling hills and I became an avid fan of rugby through watching Wales during the glorious days of the mid-1970s.

In food terms, I’m constantly frustrated by the existence of so few old books from which to draw recipes. I have three in the Welsh language, dating from the 19th century, and, disappointingly, not one of them has recipes for either Bara Brith or Welsh Cakes in them. I have a feeling that there must be a very rich hoard manuscript recipes lurking somewhere in storage, perhaps in a record office or some archive, just waiting to be discovered.

I have already brought you a couple of Bara Brith recipes, being unable to choose between the rich fruitiness of one and the delicate texture of the other. For years I have been in search of an authentic and worthy Welsh Cake recipe, with no joy, for with the best will in the world, the modern Welsh Cake can be a little on the heavy side. The more tactful descriptions suggest ‘close-textured’, other spade-a-spade critiques might go with ‘stodgy’. And the stodginess would seem to be almost necessary, as too long on the griddle and the pastry-like dough of the modern Welsh cake recipe is prone to drying out and becoming tough.

I have therefore been more than a little mollified somewhat by this week’s recipe, which I found in the digitised manuscript collection of the Welcome Library. It comes from the recipe book of Dorothea Repps (nee Fountaine), dated 1703, when she was just 21 and already married to John Repps. I am extremely fond of this manuscript book, for Dorothea’s handwriting is bold, confident and easy to read, adorned with swooping flourishes. This recipe for Welsh Cakes appears very early on in the book and consequently I feel confident that she must have recorded it  no later than 1710.

What I find curious, quite apart from it pre-dating most other Welsh Cake recipes by at least 150 years, is the fact that Dorothea spent her life in Norfolk, just about as far east and away from Wales as you can get without falling in the sea. There’s nothing else in her book that is particularly Welsh, so its presence is something of an enigma. Also curious is the form that Dorothea’s Welsh Cakes take: a single, large, layered yeast cake sprinkled with currants and sandwiched with raisins.

Welsh Cakes Recipe
From MS 7788, Wellcome Library Collection

As with many recipes of this age, the ingredients amounts are huge, and reflect the catering-size quantities required in a large house. I scaled them down to something more manageable and baked it as described and I have to be honest, it was a bit heavy. Nice, but decidedly door-stop. So I had another go, making even smaller, single-serving versions, with just two layers of the currant dough sandwiching the plump raisins. They were very neat, and baked to a lovely golden brown, but…..ordinary. Despite the richness of the mix, the oven heat, even without fan convection,  made the outsides of a crustiness that all the post-baking basting with milk failed to soften.

Having concentrated so much on the presentation, after carefully cutting and shaping these little filled cakes, I found myself left with quite a lot of trimmings. I can’t abide waste, so I decided to gather them together, re-roll and cut them like modern Welsh Cakes. Since the oven was in use baking the sandwich version, I thought I might cook these in a dry pan on the stove top. And this whim provided the secret to revealing the deliciousness of this recipe. For cooked in the traditional bakestone manner, they are extraordinary.

The crust that forms from contact with the warm pan (for a gentle heat is all they require) surrounds a yeast-raised interior so delicate and feather-light they almost disappear. They are at their best hot from the pan, sprinkled with a little caster sugar.

This combination of a centuries-old recipe, with a modern form and method of cooking produces a real tea-time delicacy.  Wherever she gathered this delightful recipe from, I’m grateful to Dorothea Repps for recording it in her book so that we can enjoy them today. If you’re in Norfolk, you can stop by and thank her yourself: she is buried in the place where she lived until the ripe old age of 78 and lies surrounded by her family, in a vault in the magnificent church  of St Peter and St Paul, in Salle.

Dorothea Repps’ Welsh Cakes

You can, of course, use your own favourite spicing/flavourings for these Welsh cakes, instead of Dorothea’s suggestion of nutmeg. I suggest no more than a total of 1 teaspoon of whatever spices you choose.

Makes 16-20

225g plain flour
pinch of salt
½-1tsp freshly grated nutmeg
15g icing sugar
80g unsalted butter
1 large egg yolk
50-100ml milk
10g fresh yeast
40-60g currants

caster sugar for sprinkling

  • Mix the flour, icing sugar, salt and spices in a bowl.
  • Whisk 50ml of milk and the yeast together, then add the yolk and stir thoroughly.
  • Melt the butter and allow to cool a little before whisking in the milk/yeast mixture.
  • Add these wet ingredients to the dry and knead until the mixture comes together in a soft dough. Add more milk if necessary.
  • Knead for 10 minutes until smooth.
  • Knead in 40g of the currants. If it looks a little sparse to your tastes, add more until the desired level of fruitiness is achieved. Oooh, Matron!
  • Cover and set aside to rise until the dough has doubled in size. Due to the richness of the mixture, this may take between 1.5-2 hours.
  • When risen, tip the dough out and pat gently to deflate. Use a rolling-pin to roll the dough out to a thickness of 1.5cm.
  • Use a fluted, 5cm cutter to cut out little cakes, making sure each one contains a sprinkling of fruit. Re-roll trimmings until all dough has been used.
  • Cover lightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for 30-45 minutes.
  • When ready to cook, gently heat a thick-bottomed, heavy pan on your stove. My induction hob goes from 0-9, and I cook these on 5. I also place the cakes around the edge of the pan, avoiding the concentrated heat of the middle. The dough is rich with butter, so no further oil is required.
  • Bake the cakes until lightly browned on each side and the centre is cooked through: around 7 minutes for the first side, and 6 minutes on the second. Turn them gently, as the uncooked tops will have risen due to the heat and will be extremely light and easily deflated.
  • Remove the cooked cakes from the pan and sprinkle the tops lightly with caster sugar.
  • Serve warm, or allow to cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight box. Warm gently before serving