On my other blog I recently posted my version of the classic Leek and Potato Soup, which is a firm favourite not only because of its deliciousness but also its simplicity to make. I thought it would be nice to complement it here with an equally delicious and equally simple-to-make soup from three centuries ago.
This Fasting Day Soup comes from the manuscript recipe and household book of the Coley family (MS1711), and is held in the archives at the Wellcome Library.
It would have been served on one of the many fasting (i.e. non-meat) days that used to be observed in the church calendar, and as such is eminently suitable for vegetarians and, with a little adjustment, vegans. It is so speedily made, it takes only about 30 minutes from start to finish.
In the original recipe, it is thickened through a combination of breadcrumbs and egg-yolks. For simplicity, I would recommend choosing just one of these, and to keep the soup accessible to anyone with a gluten intolerance, the yolks are the obvious choice, adding both richness and silkiness of texture. Vegans will obviously need to choose breadcrumbs, or a different thickener, or indeed no thickener at all.
The main flavourings are of lettuce, spinach and chervil, which are unusual for a soup, but their delicate nature allows for the soup to be quickly made. As already mentioned, the soup is enriched with egg yolk and also the addition of bright green pistachios. When purréed smooth, the colour is truly glorious, something not accurately reflected in the photo, alas.
I particularly liked the serving suggestion of a toast and a poached egg, to which I have added only a scattering of chopped pistachios.
Fasting Day Soup
50g unsalted butter
4 gem lettuce
200g baby spinach
1 bunch fresh chervil – or 3tbs dried
50g shelled pistachios
1 onion – peeled
1 litre boiling water
3 large egg yolks
60ml white wine
juice of 1 lemon
to serve: per person
1 slice of bread, toasted
1 poached egg
a few chopped pistachios
coarse-ground black pepper
Shred the lettuce, spinach and chervil finely.
Melt the butter in a pan and heat gently until browned.
Add the greens and stir until wilted.
Stick the cloves into the onion and add to the pot with the pistachios, salt and hot water.
Simmer for 15 minutes.
Take about a cup of liquid from the pan and remove the onion. Blend the soup smooth using either a liquidiser or use a stick blender.
Whisk the yolks with the white wine, then slowly add the cup of liquid to the yolk mixture, whisking thoroughly.
Pour the egg mixture into the soup and stir over a medium heat until the soup thickens. Do not let the soup boil.
Taste and adjust seasoning, adding some or all of the lemon juice to taste.
Serve with toast, a poached egg and a sprinkling of chopped pistachios.
A trip down my own personal memory lane this week, with a classic of the school dinner repertoire, Cornflake Tart.
In the 1970s and 1980s, long before the advent of the dreaded turkey twizzler, my mother was a supervisor of a kitchen that cooked dinners for seven schools in the local area, including the one I attended, so I am perhaps more familiar than most with the full range of tasty, economical and wholesome home-cooking-style meals of that era.
Whilst some dishes (spamspamspamspam) left me cold and some serving decisions (tinned tomatoes + cheese tart always = soggy tomato-juice pastry) lacking in thought, the desserts were almost (I’m looking at you, semolina-and-red-jam-blob) universally adored.
I’ve written before about Gypsy Tart and Butterscotch Tart, and today we have to join them, the classic, even iconic, Cornflake Tart. I also want to take a few moments to discuss ingredients because, when they are this few in number, they can make or break a dish. By the same token, just because ingredients are humble, doesn’t mean that you should treat them carelessly, and that paying attention to the small details with the same care that more expensive ingredients might warrant, can reap rewards just as great with only a fraction of the cost.
Cornflake Tart has four main ingredients: shortcrust pastry, jam, cornflakes and caramel.
Shortcrust pastry. You can use any recipe you like, even buy ready-made if time is short, but I would like to strongly recommend my cornflour shortcrust for this particular tart, for a number of reasons. Regular shortcrust usually uses half butter and half lard as the fat in order to give the best texture and flavour, but this prevents it being enjoyed by vegetarians. My cornflour shortcrust is made with all butter, making it vegetarian-friendly, and the cornflour adds the crispness. You can make delicious gluten-free pastry by substituting Doves Farm gluten-free flour for the regular flour. I actually prefer the pastry in this recipe to be gluten-free, as the crumbly texture is fantastic against the sharp jam and sweet, crunchy cornflakes.
Jam. You can use any kind of jam you have to hand, and strawberry seems to be a popular choice, but I recommend something sharp, to contrast with the sweetness of the caramelised cornflakes. Raspberry is good, as is blackberry (see photos), blackcurrant, cranberry, redcurrant, apricot or even apple butter. Also, it should be smooth and free from lumps, so warm and sieve/puree it before spreading onto the cooked pastry. This way you get the benefit of all the flavour and none of the distractions.
Cornflakes. Surprisingly, regular cornflakes aren’t gluten-free, due to the barley malt used as a flavouring. On the plus side, gluten-free cornflakes are both available and practically indistinguishable from their mainstream counterparts.
Caramel. I say caramel, but the addition of butter to the mixture pushes the sticky, golden glue that holds this tart together more towards a butterscotch than a true caramel. You can emphasize this even more by using soft brown or light muscovado sugar. Whatever sugar you choose, it is important to warm it slowly with the other ingredients until fully dissolved, so that the shine on your finished tart isn’t spoiled by visible sugar crystals.
These quantities are sufficient for a medium-sized tart that will serve anything between 1 and 10 people, depending on appetite.
225g plain flour or Doves Farm gluten-free flour
140g unsalted butter
ice-cold water to mix
200g sharp jam, warmed and sieved/pureed
60g butter – salted or not, your choice
60g sugar – caster, soft brown, light muscovado
60g golden syrup
110g cornflakes – regular or gluten-free
Make the pastry: Put the flours and butter into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
With the machine running, gradually add the cold water a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together in a ball.
Tip the mixture onto a floured surface and knead smooth.
Roll out thinly (5mm) and line a tart or flan tin lined with parchment. For the gluten-free pastry, roll it out onto parchment cut to size, then lift into the tin and shape the corners/edges with your fingertips.
Cover with cling-film and chill in the freezer for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
Remove the pastry from the freezer and prick the base with a fork to prevent blistering.
Line the pastry with baking parchment and rice/baking beads.
Bake for 15 minutes. Remove parchment and rice and bake for a further 5-10 minutes until pale but cooked.
While the pastry is baking, make the caramel syrup.
Put the sugar, butter and syrup into a small pan and heat gently, whilst stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Pour the cornflakes into a large bowl.
Allow the sugar mixture to simmer gently for 5 minutes then pour over the cornflakes and toss thoroughly to coat.
When the pastry is baked, spread the warm jam over the base of the tart and add the cornflakes. Spread the cornflakes evenly over the tart and press lightly but not enough to crush the cereal.
Return the tart to the oven for 10 minutes to ‘set’ the topping.
Allow to cool in the tin.
Slice the cold tart into portions with a sharp knife and store in an airtight container.
Bonus recipe – Gluten-free Scones
Switching out regular flour for Doves Farm gluten-free flour for pastry isn’t the only easy substitution you can make. Deliciously light and airy scones are just as easily made, using Mrs McNab’s 19th century recipe from Great British Bakes.
One slight variation to the method is that, due to the lack of gluten, there is a tendency for the dough to spread during baking. So to keep your gluten-free scones neat and for maximum lift, bake them in baking rings. If you don’t have baking rings, then do as I do and use the tins from small cans of mushy peas.
225g Doves Farm plain flour
1tsp cream of tartar
½tsp bicarbonate of soda
30g unsalted butter
1 large egg
80ml plain yogurt
80ml whole milk
milk to glaze
Preheat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan.
Grease 8 small baking rings/tins and line with parchment paper. Arrange the tins on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Put the flour, cream of tartar, bicarbonate of soda, salt, butter and egg into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Tip the mixture into a bowl.
Mix together the yogurt and milk.
Gradually stir the liquid into the dry ingredients. You might not need it all, but the mixture should be soft and moist rather than dry.
Divide the mixture between the tins. Each one should have about 55g of dough.
Brush the tops with milk and bake for 15 minutes, turning the baking sheet around after 10 minutes to ensure even baking.
When baked, if the tops are a little pale, if possible, switch the oven to top heat with fan, remove the rings/tins and brown the scones for 3-4 minutes. If your oven doesn’t have this function, then brown lightly under a grill but don’t leave them too long or they will burn.
“There is nothing that can transform a platter of cold meats and/or cheeses more easily than chutney.”
Me, just now.
Bold? Possibly, but with justification. Every chutney, from the lowest of the low-shelf, supermarket budget jars to the very best of hand-crafted and home-made pots contains a tantalising mix of sweet, salty, sour and spice.
Originating in India, the word was initially translated as ‘salad’ but was later refined into:
“CHUTNEE, a condiment, compounded of sweets and acids. Strips of ripe fruit, raisins, spices, sour herbs, cayenne, lemon juice, &c, are the ordinary ingredients pounded and boiled together, and then bottled for use. Chutnee is much eaten in India with curries, stews, &c.”¹
Modern recipes are bulky, favouring a consistency closer to marmalade, but early anglicised recipes are much more of a sauce. These three recipes date from the nineteenth century and November is a perfect time to make them, in order to spice up your Christmas table or to give as gifts that can be enjoyed immediately upon unwrapping.
The three recipes I have selected are:
Sweet Chutney (top): Similar in flavour and texture to a modern Brown Sauce, but with much more of a spicy, tangy kick. It is the only one of the three that recommends waiting before enjoying, a grand total of 2 weeks.
Mrs Benfield’s Bengal Chutney (front left): unusually pale and interesting, this chutney uses sour fruit, gooseberries if you have them in the freezer (I did) or sour apples instead. It’s sharp and tangy with just a hint of mustardy fire.
Mr Crawford’s Chetna (front right): my personal favourite. It wakes up your tastebuds with salty, sour, spiciness but doesn’t blow your head off with fire. Goes great with everything. I’ve even used it as a salad dressing. A taste sensation.
I love all three of these recipes because not only do they offer a delicious taste of times past, they’re eminently practical in that they neither take forever to make nor do they result in vast quantities. Perfect for individual use with 1 or 2 spares in the cupboard to spare, or plenty for half a dozen gift jars.
225g tamarind pulp
225g fresh ginger
115g fresh chillies without seeds
4tbs dark muscovado sugar
Put all of the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until finely chopped.
Transfer all to a blender and add sufficient malt vinegar to make a pourable sauce.
Rub through a fine sieve – or not, your choice.
Pour into sterilised glass bottles and seal.
The sauce will be ready in a fortnight.
Mrs Benfield’s Bengal Chutney
600g green gooseberries or 800g Bramley apples
300ml malt vinegar
115g soft brown sugar
30g fresh ginger
7g cayenne pepper
50g mustard seed – washed and dried
50g raisins – chopped fine
If using apples, peel and remove the cores. Chop.
Add the fruit to a pan with the vinegar and simmer until soft. Set aside to cool.
Put the cold fruit pulp and vinegar into a blender with the sugar, salt, garlic, onions, ginger, pepper and raisins and puree smooth.
Stir through the mustard seeds and bottle in sterilised jars or bottles.
Mr Crawford’s Chetna
170g green gooseberries or sour apple (peeled, cored and chopped)
115g dark muscovado sugar
30g fresh ginger
30g fresh garlic – peeled & left whole²
56g cayenne pepper OR 1 tsp dried red pepper flakes
Put all of the ingredients except the garlic into a food processor and chop finely.
Add sufficient malt vinegar to make a pourable sauce.
Add the garlic cloves and pot in sterilised glass jars.
¹ The oriental interpreter and treasury of East India knowledge, 1848, Stocqueler, J. H. (1800-1885), C.Cox, London, p63.
² When I first made this, the garlic I had was quite large, so I sliced each clove in half. This made the garlic flavour stronger than if the cloves had been left whole, but not overpoweringly so. I decided to keep this modification for my own use, but the recipe above is the original.
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.
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.
300g plain flour
300g oat flour
20g fresh yeast
150ml whole milk
1 large egg
2 large yolks
2tbs sweet sherry/Madeira/Marsala
1/3 nutmeg, grated
1/4 tsp ground mace
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.
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.
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 féedesconfitures, 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 granulated sugar
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
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.
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
900g damsons, counted
1.125kg onions – peeled
1tsp dried chilli flakes
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
450g caster sugar
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.
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.