Chelsea Buns

Back in  2013 I wrote an article on the history of Chelsea Buns, ultimately included in my book Great British Bakes which culminated in a recipe suggestion for the original Chelsea Buns.

I based the recipe on anecdotes that appeared in various publications on the borough of Chelsea and its surroundings, mostly written in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

Before me appeared the shops so famed for Chelsea buns, which, for above thirty years, I have never passed without filling my pockets…. …….These buns have afforded a competency, and even wealth; to four generations of the same family; and it is singular, that their delicate flavour, lightness and richness, have never been successfully imitated.”i

To be good, it should be made with a good deal of butter, be very light and eat hotii

“The old Chelsea Buns were greatly in demand and were a superior kind to our common buns, more like Bath Buns. Old people say they were very rich and seemed full of butter. They were square in form and were made with eggs, with the kind of sugar, lemon and spice but without fruit.”iii

“Note that the true Chelsea Bun of the Hands family was by no means the darksome and dismal lump which is now sold us as a hot cross bun. On the contrary, it was specially famous for its flaky lightness and delicate flavour.”iv

“It was not round, but square in shape, and it came into the world in batches, the several individuals crammed as close together as the cells of a honeycomb…..Excellent they were—light, sweet, glistening as to their crowns in a sort of sugary varnish, and easy of digestion.”v

There was no mention of the fruit which adorns the modern version of the bun, neither was there mention of the spiral. The recipe I came up with was therefore fruitless and a regular bun shape. I couldn’t quite let go of the iconic spiral shape, though, so baked a version in this shape, too. Below is one of the original photographs taken for the book.

Chelsea Buns

Fast forward to 2020 and last week I discovered a recipe for Chelsea Buns in a manuscript (MS10979) held by the National Library of Scotland. This was very exciting, because the manuscript was dated circa 1827, which is a time when the original Chelsea Bun House was still in business. (It was eventually torn down in 1839). Prior to this, the earliest recipe available had been the one published in 1854 in George Read’s The Complete Biscuit and Gingerbread Baker’s Assistant (p103).

Recipe for Chelsea Buns from a c1827 anonymous manuscript (MS10979) at the National Library of Scotland.

The recipe itself is rather challenging to read, but there are a couple of details that I think deserve pointing out. The recipe title “Chelsea Bunds for shops” suggests that the recipe was for an independant baker, who sold his/her wares wholesale. Perhaps s/he only had a baking premises and not a shopfront. The other detail is the tiny diagram  on the bottom left of the page, showing how the buns are to be laid out: laying the buns like this will ensure the characteristic square shape once the dough has risen.

As luck would have it, and paraphrasing the well-known bus analogy, you wait seven years for a recipe, and then two come along at once. Also last week I spotted another early Chelsea Bun recipe, which had heretofore hidden from my internet searching by the cunning ruse of calling itself Chelsea Bunns. It appears in A Treatise on Confectionary, in all its branches, with practical notes, etc (1817) by Joseph BELL (p36, see below).

Chelsea Bunns

The previous recipe referred to is one for London Buns – flour, sugar, butter, yeast, and no spice. The shaping of the buns in this recipe is also unusual: I’ve never heard of Chelsea Buns being diamond-shaped, and it makes me wonder whether the author was confusing them with another bun, and if so, which?

I used to be rather evangelical about recipes for things being the PROPER recipe. Seven years ago, I was very firm in my conviction that a fruitless Chelsea Bun was the PROPER recipe and the fruit-filled, overblown, too-heavily-glazed monstrosities on sale in bakeries were borderline abominations. Now I’m much more laid back, having come to understand that, just like us, recipes have a lifespan, some longer than others, over the course of which changes happen. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the light and gently-spiced Chelsea Buns were extremely popular. Over time, personal taste, or possibly economics (costs of dried fruit & sugar) saw a change to fruit-filled buns being favourite. It is absolutely possible to like one style of Chelsea Bun over another, and liking one style doesn’t invalidate the other in the slightest.

So enjoy whatever floats your boat – or in this instance, fills your bun.

Chelsea Buns

This recipe doesn’t contain any lemon, as mentioned in one of the anecdotes. Since it was the only reference I found that did mention lemon, I’m reserving judgement on whether it was a regular ingredient in the original. However, if you’d like to include some, I suggest the zest of one lemon, and just one teaspoon of spice.

1 sachet fast-action yeast
150ml hot water
150ml milk
500g strong bread flour
75g unsalted butter
110g soft brown sugar
2tsp mixed spice

150g melted butter for glazing

1 large egg
50ml milk

3-4tbs icing sugar

  • Mix the milk and water together, then add the yeast, 1tsp of sugar (from the listed amount) and 3-4tbs of flour (again from the given amount).
  • Whisk all together thoroughly, and stand aside for 15 minutes until the mixture starts to froth.
  • Put the rest of the flour, sugar, butter and spice in a food processor and blitz until thoroughly mixed.
  • Combine the wet and dry ingredients and knead for 10 minutes. Add more flour if the mixture seems a little too soft. If using a machine with a dough hook, make the last 2 minutes maximum speed, to pull the dough together.
  • Tip out the dough and roll into a thin (5-10mm) sheet on a floured surface.
  • Cover the whole surface with melted butter, using a pastry brush.
  • Roll up the dough from the long side, keeping it tight. This will be a little tricky to start, on account of the butter making it slippery.
  • Brush the outside of the roll with more melted butter.
  • Grease a 24cm square tin.
  • Starting from the centre of the roll, slice off 4cm rounds and place them cut-side upwards in the tin. You should get 16 well-shaped slices. The smaller end pieces can be placed in cupcake tins to bake.
  • Whisk the egg and the milk together to make a glaze and paint the cut surfaces of the buns.
  • Cover the glazed buns lightly with greased clingfilm and allow to prove for 45minutes or until doubled in size.
  • Heat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Glaze the buns again just before going into the oven, and bake for 25-30 minutes until risen and golden. The smaller bun offcuts will only need 20 minutes
  • As the buns are baking, mix the sugar into the remainder of the glaze, and brush over the cooked buns as they come out of the oven. The heat of the buns will set the glaze and the sugar will make them extra shiny.
  • Cool in the tin to keep the sides soft. Cover with a clean cloth to cool if you like the tops soft as well.
  • Enjoy warm.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

i“A Morning’s Walk from London to Kew”, p22, Sir Richard Phillips, J Adlard, London 1817

iiGentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume 11, 1839, p466.

iiiThe Village of Palaces (1880) Vol II, p191

iv“By Chelsea Reach: some riverside records” Blunt, R. 1921. London. p55

v“Some Savoury Reminiscences”, The People’s magazine, May 4th, 1867, p331

 

Barm Hot Cross Buns

This recipe is taken from George Read’s mid-nineteenth century “The Complete Biscuit and Gingerbread Baker’s Assistant” (1854). It is a comprehensive handbook of all the recipes a baker might need, covering biscuits both hard and soft, cakes, gingerbread, buns, muffins and crumpets. It is available as a free-to-download PDF here.

Obviously commercial bakers would be dealing in much greater quantities than home-bakers today, so the recipes need to be scaled down. This one I have scaled to 1/35 of the original.

This is a very understated recipe, with just a spoonful of mixed spice and some currants, but the dough, enriched with butter and sugar, benefits from a long overnight rise, and bakes to an ethereally light and tender crumb.

Another difference is the crosses, which, unlike modern recipes, require no second dough – they are cut into the rising buns. Victorian bakers would have a specialised tool called a bun docker, but I find a pizza cutter does the job just fine.

If you’d made curd cheese recently, or have had some milk turn sour, whey makes excellent soft buns. Alternately, use half milk and half water.

Hot Cross Buns

Makes 20 buns, ready by 8.30am(ish) Good Friday Morning. If you haven’t got barm, use regular yeast and adjust the liquid levels accordingly to give 400ml in total.

150ml barm
250ml whey/milk + water – warmed
500g strong white bread flour
80g soft brown sugar – dark or light
100g unsalted butter
0.5tsp salt
5g mixed spice
180g currants

1 large yolk for glazing

2tbs caster sugar
100ml milk

  • Maundy Thursday Night – 10pm or 1 hour before bed, whichever is earlier.
    • Mix 50g of the flour with the barm and the warm whey/milk &water. Set aside to work for 30 minutes.
    • Put the currants into a bowl and cover with warm water to plump them.
    • Put the rest of the flour into a food processor with the butter, sugar, salt and spice and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
    • When the barm mixture is showing bubbles, add the flour mixture and combine. Knead by hand for 10 minutes. If you’re using a mixer and a dough hook, set it to the lowest possible speed for 10 minutes, then the highest speed for two minutes. You want the dough to be elastic, but probably a little more moist than regular dough – the long rise time is very drying and if the dough is too stiff to begin with, it will restrict the rise.
    • Drain and dry the currants. Add them to the dough and knead them in.
    • Turn out the dough and divide into 60g pieces (should be around 20).
    • For each piece, fold in the edges to the middle, turn over and roll under a cupped hand to a ball. Arrange on a baking sheet¹ lined with parchment paper in four rows of five.
    • Spritz the buns with water. Grease the underside of some cling film by brushing it with oil and stretching it over the tin. The cling film will help keep the air around the buns moist. The buns shouldn’t rise high enough to tough the cling film, but if they do, having it greased will keep the dough from sticking to it, and being pulled out of shape when it is removed.
    • Slide the tray of buns into the oven to rise overnight.
  • Good Friday Morning
    • As early as possible, as soon as you get up (6.00am here), cut the crosses into the buns. Use the flat end of a palette knife or a pizza wheel. Dip your implement into some flour and press into the top of the buns twice, at right-angles. No back-and-forth motion is required. The cuts should be in the centre of the buns and not break the edges. Be sure to re-flour your implement before each cut.
    • Re-cover with the cling film and allow to finish rising. I left mine for  two more hours, making for a total of 9 hours rising. Yours might vary. Decide the time based on how your buns look. If they look ready to bake when you get up, brush them with the egg glaze and use a baker’s lame/razor-blade/sharp knife to lightly cut the crosses (don’t deflate the dough!) and bake immediately.
    • Heat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
    • Whisk the egg yolk with 1 tablespoon of water and brush lightly over the buns.
    • Bake for 15 minutes, turning the tray around half-way through to help them colour evenly.
    • While they are baking, heat the milk and sugar in a small pan until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool.
    • After the buns have baked for 15 minutes, brush them over with the milk/sugar mixture  and bake for a further five minutes until shiny and golden.
    • Remove from the oven, cover with a clean cloth (to keep them soft) and allow to cool in the tin.

¹ The best baking sheet, in my experience, is the shelf that (usually? sometimes?) comes with the oven, with a 4-5cm raised rim all around. This can be helpful to support clingfilm during the overnight rise (the buns are small and won’t rise too high).

 

 

Barm Bread

Here is a basic barm bread recipe for you to use with your home-made potato barm.

I am still experimenting with recipes other than loaves of bread, and will hopefully be able to post some other uses in due course, but in the meantime, I present to you a basic recipe, and some suggestions of how you can use it to adapt to what you have to hand. If you have multiple loaf tins, feel free to double or even triple this recipe.

Both breads on this page, and the two white loaves on the previous page, were made according to this recipe. The above image is a cross-section of a loaf made with Stoneground Wholemeal Flour. The image below is from a loaf made with Stoneground Wholemeal Flour and Buckwheat Flour in a 50:50 ratio.

Buckwheat Wholemeal Barm Bread

 

Simple Barm Bread

350g bread flour(s)
150ml room-temperature barm¹
150ml warm water
1tsp salt

  • Mix 50g of the flour with the barm and the warm water. Set aside to work for 30 minutes. This is not strictly necessary with fresh barm, as it is full of life, but it is good to get into the habit for the future, be it weeks or months later, in order to check whether your barm is still lively. If there are no bubbles visible after 30 minutes, you can try and jump-start it by stirring in 1tsp brown sugar and waiting another 15 minutes.
  • When bubbles are visible, add the rest of the flour and the salt and mix thoroughly. Knead by hand for 10 minutes. If you’re using a mixer and a dough hook, set it to the lowest possible speed for 10 minutes, then the highest speed for two minutes. You want the dough to be elastic, but probably a little more moist than regular dough – the long rise time is very drying and if the dough is too stiff to begin with, it will restrict the rise.
  • Grease a large loaf tin well.
  • Tip out the dough and knead it into a loaf shape. I usually pat it flat(ish), then fold the ends in, then the sides in, then turn it over so the seal is on the bottom.
  • Lay the dough in your loaf tin. Brush the top of the dough lightly with a little oil or spray with water and/or scatter flour over the surface. This will help keep the dough from drying out.
  • If you have a plastic bag large enough, you could put your tin inside and ‘inflate’ it around the loaf to keep off any drafts. I usually just put it in the oven.
  • Set aside to rise. The rising time will depend on the age of the barm, the type of flour used and the temperature of the room.
    • I recently made white bread with a fresh batch of barm, and it took 5½ hours to rise during the day (warmer).
    • Stoneground wholemeal flour bread with some month-old barm took 10 hours overnight (cooler).
    • Enriched (with sugar and butter) dough with fresh barm (for hot cross buns) 9 hours overnight.
  • When the dough has risen sufficiently,² bake in a hot oven, 200°C, 180°C Fan for 50 minutes, turning the loaf around half way through the baking time to even the colouring.
  • For an extra crispy crust, remove the loaf from the tin and return to the oven for 5-10 minutes before cooling on a wire rack.

 

¹ Be sure to shake/whisk your barm up well before taking your measure out.

² This should be when it has doubled in size. For this amount of flour, in a large loaf tin, it will be when the dough almost ¾ fills the tin. The last bit of rise should be in reaction to the heat of the oven (oven spring). Don’t worry if you mis-judge it and let it go a little too long, bake the loaf anyway – it will be delicious, just with a rather flattened top.

Barm

Barm is what we used to use to make bread before the advent of solid, compressed yeast. It was skimmed off the top of fermenting beer and occasionally wine, and, back in the day when everyone was drinking small beer and ale because water couldn’t be relied on, was in ready supply.

Nowadays, it is a little tricky to obtain, unless you live near a brewery, but easy to rustle up your own due to the numerous recipes available in old books.

In general, a small quantity of hops is simmered in water for flavour, then flour and sugar and boiled, mashed potatoes are added to create the right consistency (a little like double cream). Frustratingly, when I was first looking into this, most of the recipes I found included an instruction something along the lines of: “then add a pint of good barm.” So yes, you end up with a large quantity of barm for all your baking needs, but only if you have barm to begin with. What about if you have no barm or, as I recently found, no yeast in the shops due to the random panic buying intially happening at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown?

To the rescue came a recipe in a Welsh-language cookery book “Llyfr Coginio a Chadw Ty”, (Wrexham, circa 1880), in which you can indeed start with no barm and end up with about a gallon.

I’ve made this a few times. The batch I made last year was in October, and after something of a baking frenzy spread over a couple of weeks, I left the remainder outside the back door in a closed, tupperare box. With the recent demise of yeast in the shops, I thought I’d try and resurrect it, and by jove it worked! The bread had a pronounced beery/yeasty flavour, which was due to the age, I think. Still, good to know it can keep for over 5 months in a cool environment.

Unlike a sourdough starter, it doesn’t need cosseting and feeding. Once mixed, and it has ‘risen and fallen’, it can be transferred to your container of choice and left alone. Before you use it, you stir it up (because it will settle over time), take what you need, then put the rest back.

Baking with barm is a little different from regular yeast. For starters, it takes a long time to rise, but on the plus side, it only needs to rise once. For wholemeal flour, it’s usually about 10 hours at room temperature for a loaf, and for white flour, around eight. This can be to your advantage, in that you can set a batch to rise at night, and it’ll be ready to bake by the morning. Also morning/afternoon rise, bake at night. If these times don’t suit, you could always go for an extra long, slow rise by putting the dough in a cool place, or even in the fridge (not tried this myself yet).

I have three hop bines planted in my garden, and if, like me, your garden is tiny, I can thoroughly recommend them as they are excellent producers of foliage for a tiny footprint of earth. I freeze some of the cones for barm making, others can be used in pillows to aid sleep. They also look fabulous hanging up and absorbing smells from the kitchen (although once dry, the droppage from the cones when you brush past is a housekeeping nightmare).

I realise not everyone will be in a similar position, so I have spent some time exploring other options, and

  • you can buy hops on the internet from brewing supply stores. You only need 60g for one batch of barm – which makes a LOT – so don’t go mad with the quantities.
  • I have also been investigating whether hops are actually needed at all, and the good news is, they aren’t! I have successfully made a batch of barm using only sugar, flour, potatoes, salt and water. If I’m honest, the hop-less bread does initially seem to lack a little something flavourwise, so my workaround for this is a suggestion to use beer as some (up to 50%) of the initial liquid, in order to get the hint of brewery aromas. You can choose dark, strong beers if you like it really pronounced, or something from the ales aisle for a lighter flavour. Or, you could just wait a while – the lower bread in the picture was baked with 2 week old hopless barm, and it had already started to have its own yeasty flavour.

Home-made Barm

Day One
4.5 litres water or beer & water mixed
60g dried hops (optional)
225g brown sugar
4tbs salt
450g flour – a mixture of different flours if liked.

Day Three
1.5kg floury potatoes (Maris Piper, Wilja, etc)

Day Four
Put into container(s)

  • Day One. The aim on Day One is to get a mixture that will attract the natural airborne yeast that surrounds us. One method uses hops, another uses no hops, but beer and water, a third uses neither beer or hops.
    • With Hops: Add your hops to litres of water, bring the water to a gentle simmer and simmer for 30 minutes. If you want just a mild hoppiness, strain now, otherwise allow to cool to blood temperature and strain.
    • With Beer: Make up 4.5 litres of liquid using beer/ale and water. Bring the mixture to blood temperature.
    • No hops or beer: Bring 4.5 litres of water to blood temperature.
  • Weigh out 450g flour. It can be one type of flour or a mixture of flours. Generally speaking, bleached white bread flour isn’t the best, better to have a mixture of brown/wholewheat with a little rye or buckwheat for flavour.
  • Weigh out 225g brown sugar. Again, the type doesn’t matter, it’s more for colour and flavour. I prefer dark muscovado.
  • Mix the flour, salt and sugar to a smooth paste with a little of your warm liquid, then add the whole to the rest of the liquid and whisk together thoroughly.
  • Set aside and leave uncovered (so it can catch all the lovely natural yeast) for 48 hours. I use my preserving pan and leave it on one of the back rings of the hob.
  • The flour will eventually sink, so keep a whisk handy and give it a good stir every now and then.
  • Day Three
  • Peel and boil 1.5kg mealy potatoes.
  • Put the cooked potatoes through a ricer, or mash thoroughly.
  • Add the mashed potatoes to the flour mixture and mix thoroughly. If you’re concerned about there being lumps of potato, I’ve found a stick blender is very efficient at smoothing out the mix.
  • Leave for at least 24 hours. NB essentially what you are doing here is feeding the yeast your delicious flour/sugar mixture caught in the previous two days with a carb-fest of potatoes. The yeast will enjoy this so much, it will start working overtime, but will eventually fall into a carb coma. This is my very unscientific explanation of the ‘rise and fall’ that needs to happen before you confine your barm in a container. Failure to let this initial activity work through completely will result in exploded containers (see Exhibit A: my bathroom walls/ceiling/shower screen a few weeks ago….).
  • You can pre-empt any overflows by continuing to whisk vigorously during this 24 hour period, to knock out the air in the mixture. If you’re concerned that your pan might overflow overnight, put it in the (empty) kitchen sink before you go to bed. I’ve done this every time, and it’s never overflowed, but I’ll bet the one time I don’t do it, I’ll regret it.
  • Day Four: You will see a distinct ‘tide mark’ around your pan indicating both the high point your mixture got to, and confirmation that it has indeed ‘dropped’.
  • Stir your mixture one last time, and put into your container(s). I use a large, 5 litre tupperwear box for a whole batch, but large (1.5 litre) plastic fruit juice bottles make for a handy size, with the added ease of a screwtop. VERY IMPORTANT do not screw the lids tight initially, just rest them on the top and only tighten them gradually, otherwise explosions, mess, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yaddah, yaddah…

Here endeth the lesson on the making of barm. Next up, what to do with your gallon of barm !

 

Cornish Pasties

Usually I like to begin by talking about the history behind a recipe, but there’s not much hard evidence with Cornish pasties. I would, however, like to clear up a few potential misconceptions before getting to the interesting stuff.

Over the years, there has been much discussion over what the proper filling for a Cornish Pasty should be, but it is now all rather academic since the standard for Cornish pasties has been both established and published online by the Cornish Pasty association.

The filling ingredients number just four – beef skirt, potato, swede and onion – and are used raw, with generous seasoning. Meat forms the largest quantity, making up just over one third of the filling. But the filling is only half the story, and I’d like to discuss the half that rarely gets a mention, namely the pastry.

Pastry is made up of a mixture of fat and flour in varying proportions, bound together with a liquid. It is probably common understanding that by varying the proportions of fat to flour, different types of pastry can be made, from crisp shortcrust to butter puff. What is easy to overlook is the role the type of fat plays in the end result.

A ratio of 50% flour/butter  makes for delicious pastry, but the end result is rather delicate. Puff pastry’s crisp, light flakes crumble at the slightest touch. A more sturdy result is achievable by reducing the proportion of fat to flour (either 3/4 fat to flour for rough puff/flaky pasty, or half fat to flour for shortcrust) and substituting lard for half of the butter. This produces a tasty pastry thanks to the butter, and also crispness due to the lard. Lard is also the fat of choice for hot water crust used mainly for pork pies.

Unfortunately for some people, this makes pastry something of a forbidden fruit as the use of lard makes pastry unsuitable for vegetarians. Doubly unfortunate is that with the lower fat/flour ratios, an all-butter pastry becomes flabby and tough. Some years ago I discovered a solution in an old Victorian baking book, which is the use of cornflour in an all butter pastry. By substituting 20% of the flour with cornflour, it restores the crispness of a lard/butter pastry, but, to the joy of vegetarians, without the animal fat. Using this principle, I have made a very delicious all-butter, hot water crust.

Despite the butter/lard combo being recommended by the Cornish Pasty Association, I’d like to suggest something a little different, which if you have never tried, is a serious gap in your taste experiences: beef dripping pastry.

Matching the fat of the pastry with the protein in the filling, is a great way to enhance the flavour of the whole pie. Collecting and clarifying your own is obviously the best option in terms of flavour and cost, but you can get blocks of beef dripping in the supermarket. Although it flakes very nicely when sliced thinly, it is a bit lacking in flavour, as evinced by it’s dazzling whiteness. If you know a butcher who renders their own, the flavour would be greatly improved. Otherwise, in the UK, the Morrisons chain of supermarkets stock their own jar of golden beef dripping.

As with lard and butter, beef dripping has it’s own characteristics when it comes to pastry. Firstly, you need less of it, just 40% fat to flour. The price you pay for this positively healthy option is the slight increased effort required to make the pastry. The dough is initially mixed with just ¼ of the fat, then it is rolled out and the remaining fat added by the puff pastry method, i.e. three successive rolling/dotting of fat over the surface/folding/turning. Finally, the dough should be fully rested in the fridge before use. There is no need to use stong bread flour for this pastry, regular plain flour is fine.

What you end up with is a robust (but not heavy or tough), flaky, crisp pastry that can be rolled relatively thinly (5mm), perfect for keeping the filling moist and flavourful. Brushed with a little beaten egg before baking, the pasties come out of the oven bronzed and beautiful.

Cornish Pasties

The filling is essentially proportional – almost equal parts meat and potatoes, half quantities of swede and onion, so whilst this recipe has specific quantities, you can make Cornish pasties with whatever quantities you have to hand.

500g plain white flour
200g beef dripping
1tsp salt
ice water to mix

400g beef skirt
300g potatoes – whichever type/texture you like. I prefer mealy Maris Piper
150g swede
150g onion
salt
pepper

1 egg for glazing

  • Put the flour, salt and 50g of beef dripping into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • With the motor running, gradually add the ice water, a spoonful at a time, until the mixture comes together in a ball.
  • Tip the pastry out onto a floured surface and knead once or twice until smooth. Don’t work it for more than about 15 seconds, otherwise you’ll get tough pastry.
  • Roll the pastry out into a long rectangle and dot 50g of beef dripping over 2/3 of it.
  • Fold the plain pastry down over half the fat-covered pastry, and then over again. Turn the pastry 90° and repeat until all the fat is used (3 rollings in total).
  • To keep the final block of pastry neat, make the final fold a book fold (fat covering the centre half, fold both ends into the middle, then fold in half like a book.
  • Wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
  • Cut the meat neatly into 2cm cubes. Although this is larger than the rest of the ingredients, the meat will shrink a little during cooked, and so even everything out.
  • Cut the potatoes and onions into slightly smaller cubes, and the swede into 1cm cubes.
  • Mix the meat and vegetables together thoroughly and season well with salt and pepper.
  • Roll out your chilled pastry to a thickness of 5mm.
  • Cut circles of the desired size – whatever size you like is fine, as you can adjust the cooking time accordingly.
  • For each pasty, dampen the edges with water, and place a suitable quantity of filling on half of the pastry.
  • Gently lift the pastry over the filling. Don’t pull or stretch the pastry – if it won’t meet, then remove some of the filling. Stretched pastry will shrink back and run the risk of tearing or bursting open in the oven.
  • Press the edges of the dampened pastry together to make a firm seal.
  • Now here’s a bit of heresy: I don’t like the folded and crimped edge – it makes the pastry excessively thick and consequently is rarely cooked properly by the time the rest of the pasty is ready. So I don’t do it. I use the tines of a fork to press down on the edges of the pastry. It makes a nice, simple pattern and means the edge is both sealed properly and not overly thick.
  • When all the pasties are done – or you run out of either filling or pastry – set them aside to rest while the oven is heating up.
  • Heat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Whisk the egg and brush generously over the pasties.
  • Cut a single vent slit in the top of each pasty. The heat of the oven and the moisture from the vegetables will create the steam that cooks the filling, but you don’t want it to be trapped in their otherwise your pasties are going to burst.
  • Bake your pasties until the filling is cooked and the pastry is golden brown. Large pasties will take 50-55 minutes, smaller ones 30 minutes. Check the undersides are fully baked before you remove them from the oven.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

Sultana Tarts

This recipe comes, once again, from the pen of Frederick T. Vine. I like it because it shows how much can be achieved with a very small number of ingredients.

I chose it because ’tis the season and is also a great way to present mince pies, making the most of each component.

Mince pies are delicious, but they can be fiddly – especially if you have sausage fingers like me. Trying to get the pastry rolled thin enough, and neatly into the tins, is a challenge. Then too, with a very rich filling, a little variation in cooking times and they can either be a little greasy, or overcooked and dry, and an overall disappointment. With Mr Vine’s approach, everything is prepared separately, and then merely assembled when required. This allows for everything – mincemeat, cream, pastry – to be at it’s absolute best and remove much Faff and stress.

The pastry is baked by itself: rolled slightly thicker than usual – although ready-rolled is fine – the pastry is glazed and baked in whatever shape you like. Once cooled, you can decorate with royal icing (optional), split them open and add your filling.

These are called Sultana Tarts because the original recipe has a crescent of puff pastry added as a garnishing flourish, held in place with royal icing, and with both pieces of pastry being  decorated with patterns also in royal icing. Neither is compulsory, of course, but the dazzling white of the royal icing and the glossy burnished surface of the pastry does make for a very striking appearance.

Iced Pies

I think the pies look just as attractive without the crescent of pastry and some dots of royal icing, in as simple or as elaborate a style as you can muster.

If you want to serve mince pies with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of impact both of taste and visual appeal, I don’t think you could do any better than to serve these delightful Victorian versions.

Sultana Tarts

Puff pastry – home-made, block or ready rolled.
sieved icing sugar for dusting
To serve:
mincemeat of choice – delicious vegan version here
cream – double, whipped or clotted

  • Heat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Roll out your puff pastry if necessary, slightly thicker than usual, about 8mm.
  • Cut your pastry into the shape you want, although it will probably change shape during baking. NB My circles never stay circles,  despite being fastidious in letting the pastry rest for ages.
  • Put the sieved icing sugar onto a tray or piece of parchment.
  • Wet the tops of the pastry with water, turn them over onto the powdered sugar, then set them right side up onto a baking sheet lined with parchment. The bit of moisture is enough to melt the sugar which will turn a rich, glossy brown during baking.
  • Now, a word or two about baking. Puff pastry is capricious and will rise like a phoenix, but all too often a phoenix that has been on the Christmas lollywater, i.e. in many a lopsided way. To mitigate this, you can balance a cooling rack over the top, resting it on top of some metal egg-cups or small pudding tins, to help control the rising to a set height. Due to the sugar glaze, it is probably best to have a layer of parchment between the rack and the pastry, to prevent any sticking.
  • Bake for 20-30mins, depending on size. Puff pastry can be tricksy, in that it looks done long before it actually IS done. It needs a surprisingly long time to both puff up and crisp up.
  • Cool on a wire rack.
  • Decorate with royal icing when cold.
  • Store in an airtight container until required.
  • Warm in a 160C, 140C Fan oven for  10 minutes before splitting, filling and serving. Be sure to warm your mincemeat enough to allow the suet to melt, before filling.

 

Mincemeat a la Royale

This recipe dating from 1900 sits right on the cusp of the centuries and comes from the pastry manual “Savoury Pastry” written by Frederick T. Vine.

I have a bit of a thing for Mr Vine and his manuals. Written for the bakery trade, they are packed with recipes for the variations and huge range of goods that made Victorian bakeries so amazing. Mr Vine also published books on ‘Practical Pastry’, cakes, biscuits, ‘Saleable Shop Goods’ (covering a range of small items), Christmas puddings and bread.

A little trouble needs to be taken in order to scale down the recipes to a more manageable domestic size (the original size of this batch was over 120kg), but it is well worth it in terms of flavour as well as delight in the sheer number of (to our 21st century eyes) innovative and unique baked goods.

Here’s the thing, though.

This traditional mincemeat contains meat.

Stop! Wait! Come back!

I thought it best to be up front about it, because I can then explain why I can thoroughly recommend you try it.

You don’t taste the meat. Well, actually you do, but you don’t realise that you do. It’s an underlying umami taste that makes the whole flavour experience much richer, deeper and just generally bigger. Can you honestly see the meat in the above photograph? No, I can’t either – and I made it!

Having read probably close to a hundred mincemeat recipes spanning five centuries of books and manuscripts, I feel confident in stating that, overwhelmingly, the best meat for mince pies, according to the recipe writers and my own taste testing, is ox-tongue. But I appreciate that that is a bit ‘full on’ for the meaty mincemeat novice, so I have chosen this recipe as a ‘gateway recipe’ to all the wonderful savoury-sweetness that traditional mincemeat recipes hold.

The recipe calls for lean beef. Some recipes I have read suggest that this should be beef fillet, but personally, I think that too extravagant, so my recommendation is for beef skirt, as it’s widely available, lean and economical.

Another reason why I like this recipe is the use of a couple of ingredients that don’t usually get included in modern recipes.

Mincemeat a la Royale

Makes approx. 1.5kg, enough for 36 individual mince pies. Be sure to read the ingredient notes at the bottom of the post.

140g beef skirt
170g fresh suet [1]
265g sharp apples
112g raisins
190g currants
95g sultanas
95g raw sugar [2]
60g citron peel
70g preserved ginger
50g glace fruits [3]
50g candied orange peel
50g candied lemon peel
25g brandied cherries [4]
25g chopped almonds
½ lemon – zest and juice
3tbs/45ml brandy
2tbs/30ml sherry
1/2 tsp each of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, allspice, ginger, salt

  • Trim any fat/silverskin from the meat and cut into 1cm cubes. The aim for mincemeat is for everything to be roughly the same size. Small, but not so small that it goes to a mush. The meat will shrink as it cooks.
  • Cut the suet into 5mm cubes (obviously skip this step if using dried).
  • Peel, core and cut the apples into 1cm dice.
  • Leave the dried fruit whole, unless, for example, the raisins are very large, in which case cut them in half.
  • Cut the preserved fruit and peel into small dice (5-10mm).
  • Mix everything, including the liquids and spices, together thoroughly.
  • Check the seasoning by heating some in a pan or by zapping in the microwave until the suet has melted, and tasting. Add more spices/salt/alcohol as you think fit.
  • Keep in an airtight container in the fridge until required.

 

 

[1] If you can’t get fresh suet, dried is absolutely fine. Atora is the main brand in the UK. NB If using dried, reduce the weight to 120g.

[2] Not 100% sure what Mr Vine means here, so since I had some in the cupboard, I used jaggery. Soft, light-brown or light muscovado is also fine.

[3] Don’t splurge on expensive boxes of preserved fruits just for 50g for this recipe, use a mix of any sweetened and dried fruit you have to hand – glace cherries, pineapple, mango, etc.

[4] I didn’t have any of these, and couldn’t find any in the supermarket, so I used dried cherries and soaked them in brandy. Verr’ nishe. *hic!*.

Brown Bread Drops

Brown Bread Drops, circa 1900, Harris & Borella, All About Biscuits

A large part of my interest in old recipes is driven by always being on the lookout for something a little bit different. People tend to be a little wary of old recipes, in part due to the “Ew!” factor of TV programs on historic food tending to choose the most unappetising-sounding recipes to show – Yes,  Stefan Gates, I’m looking at you and your Calf’s Head Surprise.

In my first book (shameless plug: Great British Bakes, available at all good bookshops, or indeed Amazon) I made a real effort to walk the line between the old and the new, and chose recipes that were both recognisable and appetising to someone in the 21st century, but also a little different in terms of ingredients and flavours, in order to provide both interest and reassurance that a good recipe is a good recipe no matter its age. I’m a firm believer that a delicious recipe shouldn’t be dismissed merely for being three or four hundred years old.

Which brings me to this recipe, which isn’t three or four hundred years old, merely about 120 years – a positive youngster. It’s a sandwich biscuit of to crisp ‘drops’ joined together with buttercream; not exactly custard cream or bourbon, but in the same ball park. So that’s the reassuring bit, now for the interesting bit: the biscuits are light and crisp and made (mostly) from wholemeal breadcrumbs, and the buttercream is flavoured with green (as in unroasted, as opposed to colour) coffee beans. All of which sounded pretty intriguing to me, and I hope it does to you too.

The method of making the biscuits is similar to sponge fingers – essentially a fatless sponge where wholemeal breadcrumbs are used in place of most of the flour, although a little flour is still required to provide cohesiveness. The buttercream is what we today call French buttercream, where yolks are tempered with a hot sugar syrup and then butter is beaten into them. In this recipe, the sugar syrup is infused with the flavour of green coffee beans.

If you can get your hands on a small quantity of green, unroasted coffee beans locally, from a local coffee bar that roasts their own, then great. Otherwise, like me, you’ll have to order online. You’ll also probably have to order far more than this recipe calls for, but I feel confident that the delicate and unusual flavour they provide will mean you’ll want to make this again and again, as well as infusing them into milk for desserts and puddings.

You can also leave the biscuits unadorned. They are crisp and airy, like almond ratafias or macaroons, which makes them perfect if, like me, you like the crunch of ratafias, but aren’t a fan of their intense almond flavouring. Enjoy plain, or use them to add texture to trifles and puddings.

Brown Bread Drops

75g dry, wholemeal breadcrumbs for the biscuits¹
40g dry wholemeal breadcrumbs for sprinkling²
2 large eggs
75g caster sugar
40g plain flour

  • Line a baking sheet with parchment.
  • Heat the oven to 205°C, 185°C Fan.
  • Put the eggs and sugar into a metal bowl and whisk over simmering water until warmed to 38°C.
  • Remove from the heat and continue to whisk until the mixture is cooled and light.
  • Mix the flour with the 75g breadcrumbs and fold into the mixture (use a balloon whisk or the whisk attachment of your mixer).  Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 1.5cm plain nozzle.
  • Pipe oval shapes onto the parchment. They will rise and spread a little in baking, so approx. 2cm x 3cm is my suggested size.
  • Sprinkle with the reserved breadcrumbs and bake until crisped and browned (8-12 minutes).
  • Allow the biscuits to cool on the tin.

Green Coffee Buttercream
I’ve scaled down the biscuit recipe to 1/6 of the original, but the buttercream is just half of the original, because even though it makes more than enough to fill the above batch of biscuits, it can also be used for cakes and desserts, or even frozen for later use. Working with even smaller quantities would be impractical.

30g unroasted coffee beans
15g unsalted butter

150ml water
170g sugar
2 large yolks
210g unsalted butter in small dice

  • Melt the 15g butter in a pan and add the coffee beans.
  • Stir over medium-low heat until the beans turn a rich, golden colour.
  • Drain the beans from the butter and crush to small pieces in a mortar or with a wooden rolling pin.
  • Add the crushed beans to the water and bring to the boil.
  • Simmer for 5 minutes, then cover, remove from the heat and allow to infuse for  30 minutes.
  • Strain the beans from the water and discard. Add the sugar to the water and heat gently until dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer until the temperature reaches 116-120°C.
  • While the sugar syrup is heating, whisk the yolks until light and frothy.
  • When the syrup reaches temperature, remove from the heat and while whisking, pour in a steady stream into the eggs down the side of the bowl. Try and avoid getting the syrup onto the whisk.
  • Continue whisking until the mixture has cooled.
  • Switch the attachment from whisk to beater and slowly beat in the butter, one cube at a time until smooth.
  • To serve: Spread or pipe the buttercream onto the base of a cooled biscuit and sandwich together with a second biscuit.

 

¹ You can make your breadcrumbs as follows. Tear 5 or 6 slices of fresh wholemeal bread into pieces and blitz to breadcrumbs in a food processor. Spread the breadcrumbs onto parchment-lined baking sheet and dry in a low oven (100C/80C Fan) until crisp. You will need to stir them every 5 minutes or so to ensure they dry evenly. Allow to cool, then blitz in the food processor again until fine.

² The breadcrumbs you reserve for sprinkling can be as fine as those in the biscuits themselves, but you could also set some aside after drying in the oven and before blitzing them a second time, in order to give a more textured appearance.

 

 

 

Coventrys, Godcakes and Congleton Cakes

It’s all about triangular pastries this week.

Let us start with Coventreys (middle pastry in the above photo). Essentially, these are jam turnovers, but there are a few key characteristics that set them apart from your average turnover. For a start they are triangular, formed by cutting circles of puff pastry, adding a teaspoon of raspberry jam and folding in the edges of the pastry to form an equilateral triangle. These are then turned over and laid on the baking sheet with the seal underneath. The edges of the pastry are notched using either a flat-ended spatula, or a knife. This has two purposes. Firstly, it allows the steam to scape during baking, and secondly, it permits the jam to peek through in an attractive manner.

Godcakes (on the left in the above photo) also hail from Coventry, but according to Harris & Borella (All About Pastries, c1900) are actually more well known in their home town than regular Coventrys. Godcakes too are triangular, formed in the same way as regular Coventreys, but are baked with the seals upwards and visible. Their filling is of a rich mincemeat, and derived their popularity from being given as blessings by godparents to their godchildren, the three sides being symbolic of the Holy Trinity.

There’s some differing opinions as to when this gifting of pastries might have taken place. Harris & Borella maintain it was at Easter, whereas other sources claim New Year’s Day or even the festive season itself. This might be down to the filling. Nowadays we tend to associate mincemeat very much with Christmas, but originally it was eaten pretty much all year round, and a number of eighteenth century cookery writers, including Hannah Glasse, have recipes specially tailored for consumption during Lent.

There’s certainly a long history of symbolic cakes tied to the church. A ‘God’s Kichel’ is mentioned in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, and defined as

Kichel: A flat Christmas cake, of a triangular shape, with sugar and a few currants strow’d over the top – differing, only in shape, I believe, from a bun. Cocker says “Kichel is Saxon – a kind of cake of God’s Kichel, a cake given to God-children when they ask blessing of their God father.”¹

The third pastry is, I confess, something of a mystery in that I have not been able to find much detail about them at all. Congleton Cakes, aka Count Cakes, have long been celebrated. They are of triangular form, with a raisin inserted at each corner; and, from being eaten at the quarterly account meetings of the Corporation for more than a century, they are called ‘Court Cakes’. The three raisins are thought to represent the mayor and two justices, who were the governing body under the charter of James I. By others, they are supposed to symbolise the Trinity. ²

Aside from their shape, and the detail of the three raisins at the corners, there’s no further information that I have been able to find. The pastry, if indeed it is that, might be shortcrust, sweet shortcrust, puff or hot water crust. It might even be bread dough, either plain or enriched. The filling might be jam or mincemeat or apple or currants or something else entirely. I’ve gone with puff pastry and a mincemeat filling, as the names ‘court’ and ‘count’ have a whiff of expense. However, the high temperature needed to bake the puff pastry well and truly crisped the three raisins, which is what got me thinking the paste might be something plainer, shortcrust perhaps (like Chorley cakes), or even an enriched dough (like the original Banbury Cakes). They might not even be a filled pastry at all, but a fruited dough which has merely been cut into triangles, but it’s all guesswork unless someone can fill in the gaps.

If anyone has any information on these mysterious baked treats, please do get in touch.

Coventrys, Godcakes & Congleton Cakes

The instructions can easily be adapted to whichever of the three pastries you’d like to make, so it’s going to be a one-size-fits-all kinda recipe. To make about 8 cakes.

1 sheet of ready-rolled puff pastry
raspberry jam (Coventrys) OR mincemeat (Godcakes/Congleton cakes)
large raisins (Congleton cakes)
eggwhite (for glazing)
caster sugar (for glazing)

  • Heat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan.
  • Sprinkle the pastry with flour and roll out a little thinner (3-4mm).
  • Cut plain circles of pastry, about 10cmin diameter.
  • Dampen the edges with a little water to help with sealing the cakes/
  • For Coventrys, spread a teaspoon of raspberry jam in the centre, then fold the edges in over the jam to make a triangle. Press gently, then turn the pastry over and place seal-side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment.
  • For Godcakes, spoon a rounded teaspoon of mincemeat into the centre, then fold the edges in over the mincemeat to make a triangle. Press gently, then place seal-side uppermost on a baking sheet lined with parchment.
  • For Congleton Cakes, place three large raisins at equal distance around the edge of the pastry. Spoon a rounded teaspoon of mincemeat into the centre, then fold the edges in over the mincemeat to make a triangle, ensuring the raisins are closely folded in the pastry.
  • Whichever style you have made, brush over with lightly whisked egg-white and sprinkle with caster sugar.
  • Using a flat-ended spatula, or a knife, make notches in all three sides of each pastry. For Coventrys, don’t make the cuts too deep, as the jam might leak out during cooking.
  • Bake for 18-20 minutes, turning the baking sheet around after 10 minutes to ensure even colouring.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

¹ “Suffolk Words and Phrases: Or, An Attempt to Collect the Lingual Localisms of that County”, Edward Moore, 1823

² “The English dialect dictionary”, J. Wright, Volume 1 A – C, 1898

Sultan Cream Tart

This tart is a pleasant change from round or rectangular tarts and has the added advantage of being able to be made in any size required, from small, serving just one person to large, serving eight. Of course, if you’re feeling peckish, then one person could probably eat a large one, but I’m going to pretend I never said that – I’d hate to put ideas in your head.

This tart is also infinitely customisable. The original recipe (Harris & Borella, All About Pastries, c1900) filled the segments with delicately coloured and flavoured whipped cream, which makes for a wonderfully light and airy treat. For the photo above, I chose an 18thC recipe for a dairy-free whip. Similarly, fresh summer berries or indulgent fruit conserves are both equally appropriate.

Sultan Cream Tart

This enriched shortcrust pastry is halfway between pastry and shortbread: very crisp and friable and a great contrast with the buttery, puff pastry.

Sweet shortcrust
170g plain flour
60g cornflour
125g unsalted butter
15g caster sugar
1 large yolk
ice water to mix

  • Put the flours, yolk, sugar 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, knead smooth then roll out to a thickness of 5mm.
  • Transfer to a board, cover with cling film and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

To assemble the tart
1 sheet of ready rolled puff pastry
1 large yolk whisked with 1tbs water for glazing

  • Remove the chilled pastry from the fridge and cut out into circles of the desired size, 15-25cm in diameter.
  • Prick all over with a fork, to prevent blistering, and brush the surface with water.
  • Docked Pastry
  • Unroll the puff pastry. Each tart will require 5 strips of 1cm width, and 2 strips of 2cm width.
  • Place the 1cm strips of puff pastry as follows, laying two strips down the middle with a small gap in-between, as shown.
  • Lay the two, 2cm strips around the edge to form a rim. Have the ends start/finish at the top/bottom of the pastry as shown.
  • Trim the pastry ends neatly.
  • Return the pastries to the fridge and chill until firm. When thoroughly chilled, transfer each tart to a separate piece of parchment paper. using a sharp knife, cut down between the two vertical strips of pastry, and draw each half apart.
  • Heat the oven to 205°C/185°C Fan. Brush all the puff pastry edges with egg glaze and bake them until puffed and golden brown, 25-30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Finishing

These pastries can be made and finished with the glaze/nuts the day before they are required, and kept – carefully – in an airtight container until needed. Fill just before serving.

chopped pistachios
toasted, flaked almonds
75g apricot jam – warmed with 2tbs water

fillings of choice

  • Warm the jam with the water and whisk until smooth. Brush the semicircular rim with glaze and smother with toasted almonds.
  • Brush the glaze over the three dividing bars and smother with chopped pistachio nuts.
  • Fill as desired and serve at once.