Steak and Kidney Pudding

I enjoyed reading this tweet a few weeks ago:

I feel it’s only fair to warn you: This is an “Okay, so..” post. Click here to skip to the recipe.

This post is in response to a request made over on Time To Cook Online, and I was happy to take a deep dive into this dish because of both its convenience and cheapness. This steak and kidney pudding can be made using a slow cooker and thus uses only a small amount of electricity. It also uses the cheaper cuts of beef (although it can be used with other fillings) as well as (by some) low-regarded and lowly offal. This notwithstanding, it makes for a fantastically satisfying meal that can be ready and waiting for you when you come home from work, with very little to do other than lift it out of the slow cooker and onto a plate. You can also make it ahead and reheat easily, again using the slow cooker.

This recipe goes back a long way, into the Georgian Era of the early nineteenth century, and is a development of the even older Beef Pudding. Contributors to the Wikipedia article on Steak and Kidney pudding rely on Jane Grigson’s assertion that Mrs Beeton was the first to include both steak and kidney in a suet pastry. However, there are at least two recipes in print that pre-date Beeton. One of the quirks of British recipes is that their names are rather fluid, and the same recipe can exist under numerous names. In short, you’re not going to get very far recipe hunting if you only look for ones that bear the same name as modern ones. Differences might be related to geography, or in this case, decades of time.

Anne Cobbett published the following recipe in her (undated, but generally believed to be) 1835-ish book The English Housekeeper.

From The English Housekeeper, Anne Cobbett, 1835-ish.

An even earlier recipe can be found in Alexander Murray’s The Domestic Oracle, also undated, but believed to be around 1826. where the star of the dish would appear to be the kidney, and the steaks almost an afterthought.

From The Domestic Oracle, Alexander Murray, 1826ish.

In the almost two centuries since then, as with any recipe, there have been various tweaks and adjustments made to the basic recipe. Additions that I’ve noted include oysters, oyster sauce, mushrooms, mushroom ketchup (the catsup of Anne Cobbet’s recipe), lemon pickle, mustard, beer, wine.. it really can be whatever you want to make it.

Which brings me to my next point: there are some things you should not skirt, if you want your steak and kidney pudding to taste delicious, and I’m going to take a bit of time to explain what you should do and why you should do it. If you follow these key points, you will have the knowledge to turn out a pretty darn near perfect steak and kidney pudding right from the get-go. In addition, much of it will be adaptable to other, suet pastry puddings, both sweet and savoury. If you’re already impatient to get to the recipe, you can skip ahead by clicking here.

  • Raw or Cooked Filling
    • The Old School way was to put the filling in raw. For the past 50 years or so, people have been following Jane Grigson’s advice to cook the filling first, to stop your pudding becoming soggy. This approach increases both the length of time it takes as well as the Faff Factor™ quite considerably: First you have to cook it, then you cook it again. Well, as will be demonstrated below, if you take a little care with your preparation, there’s no danger of your pudding becoming soggy, so sorry Jane Grigson, we’re going to cut out about two hours of fiddling around on the stove, and fill the pies raw.
  • The Suet Pastry: As with baked pastry crusts, people gradually realised that it didn’t need to be just an outer casing of food, it tasted pretty darn good too, infused with all the juices from the filling. These are some steps you can take to make sure your suet pastry is the crowning glory of your pudding.
    • Suet: Back in the Dayes of Yore, suet came fresh from the butcher and had to be soaked and then grated by hand. You can still find friendly butchers that will supply you with lumps of fresh suet if you ask, and it really is worth the effort in terms of the texture and flavour of the suet crust it produces. I understand not everyone has the time for such Faff,™ and luckily we have the convenience of packs of suet on the supermarket shelves. The suet in these packs has an amazingly long shelf life, because it differs from fresh suet in that it is dried. Here’s the important point for this and any old recipe you might want to try: you need to use LESS dried suet than usual. Most old suet paste recipes are pretty much ‘half fat to flour’, which is fine if you’re using fresh suet, but when using dried, it can make the pastry heavy. So when using dried suet, you should aim to use about 10% less. For example, if a recipe called for 225g of flour, I would use 115g of fresh suet, or just 100g of dried.
    • Baking powder: The original suet pastry would have been rather heavy, but with the advent of baking powder, it can now puff up to a delightfully light texture. The general rule of thumb is 1 teaspoon of baking powder for every 115g flour.
    • Breadcrumbs: You can also lighten the pastry further by incorporating some fresh breadcrumbs into your suet pastry. Again, it is proportional to your flour, so 1 part breadcrumbs to 4 parts flour (divide the weight of your flour by 4 and that’s the weight of the breadcrumbs to use).
    • Seasoning: You don’t want your suet pastry to be a lump of nothingness, so season it! The very minimum should be salt and pepper. If you’re feeling bold, add in some chopped, fresh herbs, or a bit of mustard powder or horseradish – something to give it a bit of personality.
  • The Meat – Beef
    • For all its high-falutin’ title, the very best beef for this pudding is not going to be steak. At least, not STEAK steak. You should actually pick one of the less-prime cuts, ones that are full of flavour and do well with long, slow cooking. I recommend beef cheek, if you can find it (Morrisons supermarket in the UK has an excellent meat department and has always had it in stock whenever I’ve needed some). Also excellent is beef skirt (also carried by Morrisons). Although I haven’t tried it, beef shin is another cut that benefits from long, slow cooking. Finally you could try hangar and/or flat-iron steak, both of which have the marbling to make for a very succulent filling. Cut your meat into 1.5cm dice, so they can be packed tightly into your puddings and be perfectly cooked at serving time.
  • The Meat – Kidneys
    • I appreciate that offal is very divisive, but it tends to be cheap and it is packed with valuable vitamins and nutrients. Even within the offal world, kidneys are somewhat niche. And having researched numerous recipes to prepare for this post, I can understand why people might be kidney averse, or even be in the ‘tried it once, hated it’ camp. Because I was horrified to discover that the majority of recipes fail to prepare the kidneys properly. Everyone is very gung-ho with chopping them up and throwing them in, and I am APPALLED. There are two important stages to preparing kidneys:
      • Removing the core. The core is the hard, white ‘business part’ of kidneys and should be cut away completely. It’s not nice to chew and it never gets soft, even with extended cooking. Cut the trimmed meat into 1.5cm pieces.
      • Soaking the kidney. THIS IS IMPORTANT! The function of kidneys is to filter out the waste products from the blood and send them, and excess water to the bladder. If you don’t soak the kidney in acidulated water or similar (which will draw out the bad-tasting waste products), then they will still be full of all those waste products. That’s going to make the kidney, and everything it’s cooked with, rather ‘funky’ to say the least. Now some people might like that flavour, but for those that think they hate kidney, they probably ate a dish where the kidneys had not been soaked prior to cooking. To soak your kidney, put them in a bowl of cold water to cover, with a teaspoon of salt and the juice of half a lemon (or 2 tablespoons of vinegar) added. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and place it in the fridge for 2 hours, after which drain and discard the soaking liquid and pat the meat dry with kitchen paper.
  • Flouring The Meats
    • When cooking your pudding using a raw filling, you don’t want your pudding to become soggy during cooking, so it is advisable to toss your meats in seasoned flour beforehand, so the flour can act as a thickening agent for all the juices released during cooking. What is lacking in all the recipes I’ve read is the important point that THIS SHOULD BE CORNFLOUR. This is because cornflour doesn’t stick to itself, and consequently, unike regular flour, it doesn’t clump, so there’s only ever a very light covering on the meats and no lumps. In addition, cooked cornflour is transparent, which makes for a wonderfully clear gravy inside your pudding.
  • Gravy:
    • With your puddings properly sealed, the juices from the meats (and vegetables if using) will mingle together to keep it moist. But they will need a little help. You can choose to add water to your puddings, but the better choice is to use beef stock. I use a beef-flavoured stock cube (actually it’s a pot of jelly-like stuff) to make some double strength stock, and add in a splash or two of Worcester Sauce. You can also use beer or wine instead, which can be nice but also something of a hit-and miss in that you need to guesstimate how much to put in at the very start, instead of tasting and adjusting as you go.
    • You should also have some gravy ready to serve with the meal, either on the side or to pour directly into your puddings. Raw ingredients shrink during cooking, so there will always be a gap between filling and the top of the pudding, whatever the size.
  • Add-Ins
    • As mentioned above, there are lots of little tweaks you can do to both the pastry and the filling to jazz it up. Onions are mentioned by many of the old recipes, but are only recommended in very small quantities. They don’t break down during the cooking, which some might find noticeable pieces of onion off-putting. I recommend using onion powder/granules instead, which give the flavour without distracting from the richness of the meat filling. Carrots are another popular choice, but with a raw filling, you have to either dice them rather small, or add in already cooked carrots and run the risk of them turning to mush. Personally, I’m a bit of a purist, and believe the filling should be richly and unapologetically meaty. Perfectly cooked vegetables can be served on the side. However, as can just be made out in the photos, I have taken Dorothy Hartley’s advice and added some black-gilled mushrooms to the mix. Mushrooms have a complementary ‘meaty’ texture and their juices make a flavoursome addition to the gravy, as well as darkening it to a rich brown.
  • Buttering Your Bowls
    • This is what is going to make your puddings turn out beautifully. Use REALLY softened butter and a pastry brush to paint it on. The secret to the beautiful golden colour of the suet crust in the pictures above and below? Butter and a long slow cook in the slow cooker. Taking care to ensure every part of the inside of the bowl is buttered, will ensure a perfect pudding turnout every time.
  • Covering Your Bowls
    • The water in your slow cooker needs to come at least 3/4 of the way up your bowl(s). It never boils furiously, so there’s no danger of the water splashing over the top of the bowls. The main reason for covering your puddings is to protect from the drip of condensation from the lid. Before the advent of the pudding bowl, steamed puddings used to be covered with a floured pudding cloth, but the modern method of greased and pleated parchment and foil works very well.
  • Cooking Your Puddings Long Enough
    • This is probably the main reason things go wrong with steamed puddings, sweet or savoury. All of the old recipes suggest puddings be cooked for many hours, simmering in water which must be constantly topped up to ensure the puddings don’t boil dry. Five hours is a time frequently mentioned. Using a slow cooker has the advantage of being able to, literally, set it and forget it. No need to constantly monitor the water, as the lid keeps it all inside. No need to top up or check if it’s boiling dry. It is very difficult to overcook a suet pudding in the slow cooker. What is very easy to do, is under-cook a pudding. In her column “How To Cook The Perfect Steak and Kidney Pudding”, Felicity Cloake had little complimentary to say of Constance Spry’s cook-from-raw recipe, “The raw beef … comes out gloopy with flour, and tough as a Victorian boarding school”. In Constance’s defence, she did specify beefsteak and stewing steak had been used instead, but in my opinion the main problem was probably cook time. I trialled cooking these puddings in the slow cooker on both High and Low heat settings using raw ingredients. On High, they take 5 hours – not too bad if you’re at home all day, but not really helpful in terms of having a meal ready when you get in from work. On Low I tested puddings with cooking times of 8 hours and 10 hours. Both ended up with golden fluffy pastry and meltingly cooked filling. So provided you can get up early enough to assemble your puddings and get them cooking before you leave for work, they can be ready for supper at the end of a long day. The only suggestion I would make would be to have lots of extra gravy to hand if you’re cooking your puddings 8+ hours.

Last thing I want to have a little rant about in this marathon of a blog post, is the falsehoods I found being perpetrated ‘out there’ with respect to photographs of steak and kidney puddings. The images being posted were frequently not of the recipe they appear alongside. The worst example I found was of a photograph that has been on the internet since 2009 being posted alongside a recipe from 2022. Also, do not be deceived into thinking if you cut a wedge out of your steak and kidney pudding, the meat will tumble artfully onto the plate like many of these pictures suggest. If it does, it will leave your crust rather empty. What it will also do is ruin the structural integrity of your pudding and, if it is undercooked, cause its slow and heartbreaking collapse into a heap on the plate. Setting aside the very insipid colour of some of the pastry, even if the photo is of the actual recipe, it will have been staged for maximum eye appeal, and probably had extra filling added in order to make the image seem plentiful. I am puzzled, for example, how all this filling fit inside this pudding? If your pastry is no oil painting, do not despair, you can always drown it with the gravy (that this recipe doesn’t even tell you how to make).

So in light of these criticisms, I feel compelled to admit to the shenanigans I’ve employed in the pictures on this post. This image is from another of the test puddings, made on a different day (hence the different lighting) in a slightly smaller bowl to the one in the top picture. The ‘manipulations’ I have used include removing the top of the pudding pastry to reveal the filling, and adding in some extra gravy to increase the eye appeal. No extra filling was added and this pudding is absolutely made from the recipe below.

Steak and Kidney Pudding


These quantities are sufficient for two generous puddings in bowls of diameter 12cm. You can also put everything into a large bowl and use the longer of the cooking times. You can also increase the quantities to suit your needs. As a general guide, you need 100g beef, 40g kidney, 1 large, flat mushroom per person, but you can adjust these ratios to your liking.

For the filling:
200g beef cheek/skirt/hangar/flatiron steak, in 1.5cm pieces
80g prepared and soaked beef/ox kidney (see above), in 1.5cm pieces
2 large, dark-gilled mushrooms, chopped into 1.5cm pieces
60g cornflour
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp onion powder/granules
250ml strong beef stock
2-3tsp Worcester Sauce (optional)

For the pastry:
340g plain flour
3tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
150g dried suet (170g fresh)
85g fresh breadcrumbs

softened butter to grease the bowls

  • Butter your pudding bowls generously.
  • Tear off and butter 2 pieces of parchment to cover your puddings. The butter will help brown the pastry, and keep it from sticking. Fold a pleat across the middle of each. Set aside.
  • Tear off two pieces of foil to cover your puddings. Fold a pleat across the middle of each. Set aside.
  • Cut lengths of string to tie around the foil to keep it in place. Set aside.
  • Mix all the ingredients for the pastry.
  • Add cold water and stir gently until the mixture comes together into a soft dough.
  • Divide the dough into two. Cut off a small piece of dough to make the lid.
  • The dough is too soft to warrant using a rolling pin. Pat out the larger pieces of dough on a floured surface until about 1cm thick. Lift the dough and drop it gently into each bowl, allowing about 3cm to hang over the rim of the bowls. Be sure to patch any holes that form with extra pastry. The pastry must be ‘watertight’ to keep all the gravy from leaking out.
  • Pat out the smaller pieces of dough until 1cm thick and set aside.
  • Mix the cornflour, salt, pepper and onion powder together.
  • Toss the pieces of kidney in the seasoned cornflour . Remove any excess cornflour by tossing the pieces in a sieve over the bow. Set aside.
  • Repeat for the pieces of beef, including tossing the coated pieces in the sieve (you may need to work in batches).
  • Layer the beef, kidney and chopped mushroom until the bowls are full. The filling can be a little higher than the edge if necessary.
  • Add the Worcester sauce to the stock if using, and then pour into the puddings until the liquid is just visible below the top layer of meat.
  • Lay on the pastry lid and moisten the edges with water.
  • Fold the excess pastry over onto the lid and use a fork to seal the edges well.
  • Cover the tops of the puddings with the buttered parchment, butter side downwards.
  • Cover the parchment with foil and press closely to the sides of each bowl.
  • Tie string just under the rim of the bowls to keep the parchment/foil in place.
  • Turn your slow cooker to High or Low, depending on your schedule.
  • Place your puddings into the slow cooker.
  • Boil some water and pour carefully into the slow cooker, until the water level is ¾ of the way up the sides of the bowls.
  • Cover with the lid and cook according to your needs. On High, the puddings will take about 5 hours. On Low, they will be done in 8 hours, but can go as long as 10 hours with no deterioration in quality.
  • To serve, switch off the slow cooker and remove the puddings from the water. I find a long-handled skimmer/strainer spoon useful.
  • Cut the strings and remove the foil and parchment.
  • Place your serving dish/bowl over the puddings and turn over.
  • Lift off the bowls.
  • Serve as is with extra gravy and freshly cooked vegetables on the side, or cut the tops off the puddings and stir in some gravy to moisten before serving.
  • You can reheat the puddings by wrapping in foil (to keep from drying out) and putting into a 170°C, 150°C Fan oven, or, if using ceramic bowls, in the microwave. Alternately, keep the parchment and foil on from the original cooking, and reheat in hot water in the slow cooker on High.

Toad In The Hole

Toad In The Hole was a favourite dish of my childhood, and also one of the first dishes I made when I began cookery lessons at school, aged 11. Toad in the Hole is a traditional lunch or supper dish combining sausages and a standard Yorkshire Pudding batter.

The earliest mention attributed by the Oxford English Dictionary is 1787¹, but as the digitisation of old books increases, earlier mentions will no-doubt come to light. I’ve managed to find a few.

From 1762 we have a mention in the publication The Beauties of all the magazines selected, a kind of Readers Digest of its day, in an article describing an engraving by William Hogarth. The Hogarth print, published in 1761,  is entitled The Five Orders of Perriwigs, and the magazine’s description of the first image (below) is as follows:

The first Capital discovers only a forehead, nose, lips, and one eye, the rest of the face is eclipsed by the Wig’s protuberance, and appears like a small piece of beef baked in a large pudding, vulgarly called, a Toad in a hole.

The other mention is from several years earlier, 1749 to be exact, and is in the form of a footnote to some verse in a play².

In the eighteenth century, ‘Cant’ was secret language or jargon used by certain groups of people, such as gypseys, thieves and professional beggars, for the purposes of secrecy. In this context, it more likely to have been (slightly derogatory) slang. Together with the wig reference, the overall image is of a rather mean piece of meat being padded out to the point of almost being swallowed by a large, voluminous  and above all, filling pudding.³

Nearly three hundred years later it is still a very budget friendly dish, as it can make a meal for 4 out of a pack of sausages and a few cupboard staples.

There are a couple of tips when making a Toad which can add both flavour and interest. I was taught to put the sausages in your baking/serving dish and put the dish into the heated oven for 10-15 minutes before adding in the batter. This allows the sausages to start cooking and (hopefully) develop a little bit of colour. Most importantly, however, it will allow the fat in the sausages to start to render, thereby greasing your dish, and thus you don’t need to add any additional fat.

The second is flavouring. Many people like to serve Toad In The Hole with gravy – onion gravy is popular. But not all people are gravy enthusiasts, and so another approach is to flavour the batter. Obviously salt and pepper are a given, but the addition of some fresh herbs can add some big punch flavours, especially if the sausages are also herbed. I think you can’t go wrong with the old “Scarborough Fair” mix of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. As far as quantity, go by your own personal taste: a nice rounded teaspoon of fresh chopped, or half that if using dried is a reasonable amount to start with. Onion in some form is also another option. Pick your preferred strength from what I like to think of as an allium continuum: chives, spring onions, white/French, pink, shallots, red, brown, – and whether to add them raw, softened, browned or caramelised.

This version is time as well as budget friendly, as it cooks in the slow cooker. With only about five minutes work, you can then forget about it and be tucking into a crispy Toad in just two hours.

There are couple of important tips to using a slow cooker for your Toad In The Hole

  1. To avoid a soggy Toad, you need to prevent the condensation that will form on your slow cooker lid from dripping back onto your Toad, so you need to trap – for want of a better word – some kitchen paper or a clean teatowel under the lid to absorb the moisture.
  2. No peeking! Lifting the lid to check on progress will cause the heat to escape, which will adversely affect the cooking of your batter. I peeked several times when first trying this method, and the resulting Toad was decidedly ‘firm’. By not peeking throughout the whole two hours, the Toad had a much lighter crust. Admittedly not quite as puffed as an oven-baked Toad, but perfectly acceptable for such a hands-off approach. As a bonus, the bottom and sides get deliciously crisp and brown.
  3. (Optional) Pre-cooking the sausages. You don’t have to do this, you can just plonk everything in at once, but I find a little colour on the sausages does wonders for the visual appeal of the finished dish. The cooking doesn’t have to be that long either. In a pan on a fairly high heat, they will take a little colour in about a minute (you only need to have colour on one side). Then you can arrange them coloured-side up in your slow cooker before pouring over the batter.

Toad In The Hole – Slow-cooker method

Caveat: I have a large slow cooker, for easy batch cooking, and I appreciate not everyone will have a slow cooker of a similar size. Smaller cookers will require some adjustment in either the quantity made and/or the length of cooking time. Do let me know how you go if you are making this in a small slow cooker.

Batter (based on a 17thC recipe)
2 large eggs
120g plain flour
220ml milk
salt and pepper
herbs (optional)
onions (optional)

12 chipolata sausages.

kitchen paper or clean teatowel

  • Turn on your slow cooker to High to heat up.
  • Colour one side of your sausages in a pan. Set aside.
  • Put the eggs, flour and milk into an appropriate container and whisk into a batter (I use a stick blender).
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Stir in your herbs and/or onion if using.
  • Brush the inside of your slow cooker with some of the sausage fat. Remember to include the sides for when the batter puffs up.
  • Arrange your sausages coloured side upwards. I like to use chipolata sausages because they cover the bottom of the slow cooker more densely than regular-sized sausages.
  • Gently pour the batter between the sausages, trying to keep them from rolling over, although it’s easy to turn them back if this does happen.
  • Lay a double-thickness of kitchen roll over the top of your slow cooker and clamp it in place with the lid.
  • Set a timer for 2 hours and NO PEEKING!
  • When the time is up, remove the Toad from the slow cooker to a dish or board, and cut into serving pieces.
  • Serve with salad and/or vegetables and/or gravy.
  • DejaFood: If you have any leftover Toad, it reheats well. Wrap in foil and put into a 200°C, 180°C Fan oven for 10 minutes.

¹ “Pudding-Pye-Doll, the dish called toad-in-a-hole, meat boiled in a crust. Norf.” Francis Grose · A provincial glossary, with a collection of local proverbs, and popular superstitions · 1st edition, 1787.

² A general history of the stage; (more particularly the Irish theatre) from its origin in Greece down to the present time. (1749), by William Rufus Chetwood, printed by E. Rider, for the author, and sold by Messrs. Ewing, Wilson, Esdall, and James, in Dublin, and Mr. Sullivan in Cork, Dublin, p183.

³  Sidebar: Hannah Glasse’s 1747 book The Art of Cookery contains a recipe for Pigeons In A Hole³, which is definitely a related dish:

The art of cookery, made plain and easy; which far exceeds any thing of the kind ever yet published. (1747), Hannah Glasse, printed for the author; and sold at Mrs. Ashburn’s, a China-Shop, London, p46.

Hot Cross Buns

More interesting than toast, not as rich as cake, what’s not to love about a bun?  The buns traditionally served towards then end of Lent are… well now, here’s the thing. They go by many names. Most people might think, as the title above implies, that they’re Hot Cross Buns, but that’s not strictly accurate. “Hot Cross Buns!” was originally the cry of the street vendors who sold Cross Buns – hot. Recipes also appear under the name “Good Friday Buns” and “Easter Buns”.

Interestingly, Cross Buns weren’t originally fruited, only spiced – and thanks to an edict from Queen Elizabeth I, could only be sold on Good Friday, Christmas and for funerals.

“That no baker or other person or persons shall at any time or times hereafter, make,
utter or sell by retail within or without their houses, unto any the queen’s subjects,
any spice cakes, buns, bisket or other spice bread (being bread out of size, and not by
law allowed), except it be at burials, or upon the Friday before Easter, or at Christmas;
upon pain of forfeiture of all such spice bread to the poor.”

John Powell, The Assyse of Breade, 1595

Fruit gradually crept into recipes from about the middle of the 19th century, presumably as industrialization and improved transport links brought foodstuffs from far flung places to the UK cheaper and quicker, all to make for a really indulgent treat after the privations of Lent.

This recipe comes from a very favourite author of mine: Frederick T. Vine. Doyen of numerous professional books for the baker and confectioner. This is his own personal recipe, scaled down from a recipe in which quantities such as pounds and quarts were bandied about, and a full batch of which would produce almost 650 penny buns. The quantities below will make about 12 x 100g buns, more if you drop the weight down to 85 grams. This might seem a large amount, but they can be gifted to friends and family, or easily frozen to enjoy at a later date.

crossbunsrecipe

The buns are enriched with milk, butter and egg and are packed with bags of fruit and spice. The original recipe also includes malt extract, which gives a wonderfully rich flavour, but isn’t usually something you find in the supermarket, so you can improvise by adding some powdered Ovaltine to the mixing liquid if you have difficulty sourcing it. You can omit it altogether if liked.

The original recipe suggested using flavouring essences of lemon and ‘spice’. I happened to have some lemon flavouring, but no ‘spice’, so I used regular ground spices. Reading an inordinately large number of baking books as I do, I’ve noticed that the use of essences is very prevalent in commercial baking mixtures. The reason seems to be that regular ground spices darken the dough, which is assumed to be unappealing to the customer. This opinion contrasts greatly with the fact that, for example, in modern times the appearance of the seeds in vanilla-flavoured items today are celebrated – how things change! Personally, I like the authentic appearance of the dark flecks of spice, not to mention the flavour. Feel free to go with your own blend of spices, but I really like the punchiness of the quantities below. After all, no-one likes a bland spice bun – if you’re promised spice, you want to be able to taste it.

These buns have a sweetened, tinted glaze to be painted on after they are baked. It uses gelatine to give shine without the stickiness. If you’re not keen on using gelatine and don’t mind a little stickiness with your shine, then omit the gelatine, swap the water for milk and warm to dissolve the sugar.

Hot Cross Buns

I’ve gone for a mixture of spices, but it is traditional to only use allspice. If you’d prefer this flavouring, I suggest just 1½tsp ground allspice, as it is quite potent.

I’ve switched around the method a little to make for a more straightforward approach.

180ml water
90g unsalted butter, cubed
15g malt extract OR 2tbs Ovaltine
180ml milk
30ml of beaten egg, from1 large egg
135g soft brown sugar
½tsp salt
1 sachet fast-acting yeast
30g mixed orange/lemon peel, finely sliced/chopped
180g currants
1/2tsp lemon flavouring OR zest of 1 lemon
1tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground mace
½tsp ground allspice
½tsp ground mixed spice
500g strong white flour

Pre-bake Glaze
30ml beaten egg(from above)
30ml milk

Post-Bake Glaze
1 sheet gelatine (or vegetarian equivalent)
100ml cold water
2tbs caster sugar
1tsp treacle

  • Heat the water, butter and malt/Ovaltine until steaming and the butter melted, then add the (cold) milk. This should bring the temperature down to just warm.
  • Whisk in the egg, sugar, salt, lemon flavouring if using, and yeast.
  • Pour the warm mixture into a bowl.
  • Sift together the flour and spices and add to the bowl.
  • Knead into a soft and supple dough, about 10 mins.
  • Knead in the currants, zest if using, and peel, cover with plastic, and set to rise. Because of the enriched nature of this dough, this will take slightly longer than usual, about 1½ hours.
  • When the dough is risen, turn out onto a floured work surface and pat to deflate.
  • Weigh off the dough into 100g pieces, and then roll and shape each into a smooth ball.
  • Line a deep-sided baking tin with parchment.
  • Place the balls of dough into the pan, pressing with the flat of the had as you do so, to flatten them into discs about 2cm thick. Place these ‘cakes’ about 1cm apart from one another. This will mean they touch as they prove, giving a soft ‘kissing crust’ on each side and a rounded sqare shape.
  • Cut a cross into each bun using a dough cutter or similar. NB Take care not to cut all the way through, just deep enough so that the dough will stay apart during baking, preserving the cross.
  • Cover lightly with a cloth to rise for 30 minutes.
  • Heat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan. This is a slightly hotter temperature than usual for buns (180°C, 160°C Fan), because the sides of the tin will block direct heat, and the buns will therefore need cooking a little longer.
  • Pre-bake Glaze: Whisk the remaining egg with the milk and brush over the tops of the buns.
  • Bake for 20 minutes until risen and browned. Turn the tin around after 10 minutes to ensure even baking.
  • While the buns are baking, prepare the gelatine glaze. Soak the gelatine sheet in the water until softened. Heat gently to dissolve the gelatine, then stir in the treacle and sugar. Continue stirring until the sugar is dissolved.
  • When the buns are baked, remove from the oven and brush over with the glaze.
  • Cover lightly with a cloth and allow to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. The cloth will keep the steam close, making for a soft crust.
  • After 15 minutes uncover the buns and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. If you leave them to cool completely in the tin, they’re prone to sogginess.
  • To serve: Cut in half and toast both sides. When toasted, spread with salted butter. For added decadence, add some slices of vintage cheddar cheese. The contrasts between the hot spicy bread, the fruit, the richness of the butter and the sharp, cool and creamy tang of the cheese is sublime.

Querkles

These biscuits are great to have to hand in the cupboard for enjoying with cheese or jam, with butter, or serve them completely unadorned with drinks for toothsome and low-fat snacking – they may look plain, but they’re very moreish.

When I was writing last week’s post about Almacks, I thought to myself: I can add a link to those nice cracker biscuits – and then I couldn’t find them on the blog at all. The pictures eventually turned up in a folder on my laptop almost two years old, because it appears that I’d taken the photos but forgotten to actually write the post ! And so here we are.

These unusually-named biscuits come from the classic Victorian “Biscuits for Bakers” (1896) by Frederick T. Vine. Mr Vine has no idea where the name came from but assures us that “As the above seems rather catchy and the biscuits are something of a novelty, we will let it stand.”

Making your own savoury biscuits might seem a bit of a chore, especially when opening a packet is so much easier, but it’s always good to have a recipe to hand for short notice situations.

OK, now I think on it, I must confess I’m at a bit of a loss as to what kind of situation might warrant being deemed a biscuit emergency, so ANYHOO….

Another reason for making your own, of course, is because you have complete control over size, shape, texture and flavour of your biscuits. For crackers this is extremely simple, for it takes no more than the addition of a spoonful of dried herbs or a sprinkling of sea salt flakes to make a batch individual. The size is only limited by what biscuit cutters you possess. I’ve used a set of mini cutters to make the crackers in the picture above, each roughly the same size, but with differing shapes, which, in my opinion adds to the appeal. I’ll admit the biscuits shown in the picture are very small, about 3cm in diameter, but this means they can be popped into your mouth whole, thereby avoiding the danger lurking in larger biscuits, of shattering into pieces and dropping crumbs all down your front; I’m looking at you, Carr’s Water Biscuits and Bath Olivers.

The method for these biscuits is unusual in that, once baked, they are split open and returned to the oven so that the insides may dry and bcome toasted. Again, it is up to you how long you leave them and at what temperature, so the texture and colour can be suited to your needs.

SHOPS CLOSED ON EASTER SUNDAY! Finally thought of a biscuit memergency.

Querkles

225g wholemeal brown flour
7g butter
15g sugar
1tsp cream of tartar*
½tsp bicarbonate of soda*
½tsp salt

milk to mix

  • Heat the oven to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Put all of the dry ingredients into a food processor and blitz until well mixed.
  • Slowly add milk to mix until the mixture comes together in a paste.
  • Tip out onto a floured surface and knead smooth.
  • Roll out as for pastry, to a thickness of 5mm.
  • Cut your biscuits with whatever cutters you prefer. The top of a small glass can also serve.
  • Lay the biscuits on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment and bake for 10-12 minutes if small, 15-18 minutes if larger, until the surface is cooked, but not brown. NB If making small biscuits, work in small batches to help reduce breakage when splitting – see below.
  • Remove from the oven and with the point of a sharp knife, cut around the edges of the biscuits and split them in two. NB You should work quickly, because if the biscuits cool, then they will break rather than split apart.
  • Lay the biscuit halves insides-upwards and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes until crisp and browned to your taste.
  • Allow to cool completely, then store in an airtight container.

TOP TIP If, when cooled, your biscuits aren’t crisp, just put them back into the oven until they are. I suggest a much lower heat (100°C, 80°C Fan) for longer (20-30 minutes) in order to really dry them out. Fun Fact: Victorian bakers used drying ovens or provers to get that crispness to their biscuits without having to brown them further in the heat of the main ovens.

* Or instead of these two, 2 tsp baking powder.

Almacks

Almacks (also Almack’s and Almack) is one of many recipes that have originated from people copying dishes they have enjoyed whilst eating out. Almack’s was a Georgian/Regency London club where the great and the good could socialise during ‘the season’, Pontacks is another such establishment, now equally long gone, whose reputation remains only in the names of recipes they have inspired.

By the end of the 18th century, being presented at the Royal court was deemed old fashioned for the up and coming ladies in society, so Almacks provided a setting whereby  socialising and marriage alliances could be conducted amongst the ‘Ton’. As an example of the importance of Almack’s in the social life of the capital, when Lady Caroline Lamb published ‘Glenarvon’, with a thinly-fictionalised Lord Byron as the main character, Sarah Villiers, Lady Jersey, was so incensed at the way she had been satirised, she barred Lady Caroline from Almacks in 1816, thereby making her a social outcast *gasps and clutches pearls*. Although Lady Caroline eventually managed to regain membership three years later, thanks mainly to the assistance of her cousin, Emily Lamb (Countess Cowper), her reputation never recovered.

Almacks provided refreshments to its member and this thick fruit ‘cheese’ would have been ideal as it has great keeping qualities and is easy to serve at short notice. It can be eaten a number of ways: as a sweet, with cream or as a savoury, with biscuits and cheese. It is also versatile in its preparation as it can be varied by type of apple, pear and plum, thus giving it subtle changes in flavour with each batch. It is an ideal way to use up gluts of fruit, or to waste-not-want-not with windfalls.

Almack recipe (1785-1825) from MS1827, Wellcome Collection.

This is the earliest recipe I have found, coming from a household manuscript dated 1785-1825. The quantities are huge, even allowing for a loss of volume during the cooking. A peck of apples is roughly 6 kg, so it calls for a total of 18kg of prepared fruit, although it’s probably going to be closer to 20 kg by the time you factor in weight loss due to peeling/coring/chopping.

Almack recipe, (1800-1822) from MS1830, Wellcome Collection

This is a recipe with slightly more reasonable quantities – 3 quarts of each fruit = 7.5kg, but in the end I thought the recipe from Elizabeth Pease (below) was both the simplest and most reasonable in terms of batch size.

Elizabeth Pease’s recipe for Almacks (1802-1871) in MS3824, Wellcome Collection.

Admittedly, it does take a few things for granted such as expecting readers to know the method and how to prepare the fruit, but I’ll be filling you in on those in the recipe below.

So how much Almacks you make is really up to you and what you have to hand. As a guide, I used 750g of prepared apples and pears and 800g damsons (to allow for the stones) and it made 8 generous portions as seen in the photo above, and about 400g in a box for more casual use. The damsons add a real tang to the paste, and the low quantity of sugar means it sits right on the edge between sweet and savoury. Serve (small) portions with a drizzle of cream and a biscuit (ratafias, macaroons, etc) for crunch as a dessert, or with your favourite cheese and crackers.

Almacks

I’ve reduced the quantities, so you can make a small batch to try, but you can scale it up quite easily if you have it in mind to pot and gift it for Christmas.

500g peeled, cored and chopped apples
500g peeled, cored and chopped pears
500g plums/damsons, stones removed if possible
500g demerera sugar.

  • Cook the fruit. You want it soft enough so that it can be sieved easily. This can be done a couple of ways:
    • layer the fruit and sugar into a large casserole  (preferably ceramic or enamelled) and put it in the oven, uncovered, at 150°C, 130°C Fan for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring every 15 minutes to make sure the fruit floating on top of the juice doesn’t dry out.
    • Put the fruit and sugar into a slow cooker and cook on high for 4 hours. This method generates more juice, as it won’t evaporate as much as it does in the oven, but it has the advantage of being able to be left unattended for an extended period of time.
  • Sieve the cooked fruit until nothing is left but skin and (possibly) damson pits.
  • Simmer the puree in a preserving pan until no excess liquid is visible when you draw a spoon across the pan, and it’s just fruit puree. This will take rather a long time, if you used the slow-cooker method, due to the extra juice.
  • You MUST stir the pan, otherwise the puree will burn. Towards the end, it will turn into fruit LAVA< so have a towel cover your arm handy, to avoid the hot splashes.
  • When your puree is ready, spoon it into moulds or hot, sterilised jars as you would for jam. Silicone moulds are great, especially if you’re making Almacks to serve at a special meal – although you don’t need a special occasion to serve some delicious fruit cheese in a pretty shape. The flexibility of the silicone makes it very simple to turn out the paste, once cold.

Oaten Biscuits

The recipes this week come from a classic Victorian book “Biscuits for Bakers” (1896) by Frederick T. Vine. They are essentially two versions of the same biscuit, one sweet, one plain. The method and baking time for both is the same, with the only difference being some of the ingredients: more sugar and butter in the sweet version (above left), different mix of flours, less sugar/butter and the use of lard in the plain version (above right).

recipes

Since the recipes are from a book for commercial bakers, the quantities given are huge and the instructions rather scant. For example, instruction to ‘bake in a warm oven’ is very much open to interpretation, forcing me to, in the end, just guess as 150°C Fan.

I chose these recipes for several reasons. Firstly, I love an oat biscuit – who, in their right mind, doesn’t? Secondly, the comment that different mixtures resulted in differing suggested selling price points, with the sweet biscuit selling for 10d a pound, and the plain 8d per pound, so I was keen to see whether the sweet biscuits tasted 2d per pound better (spoiler alert, they did and they didn’t). Lastly, I wanted to use some gadgets – my vintage pastry wheels (aka jagging irons) pictured below, and the lettering stamp set I’d bought last year and not yet used.

jagging

One of my pet peeves is wastage, and the rectangular shapes of these biscuits meant that I could cut them out with absolute minimum wastage. There’s nothing wrong with re-rolling – see previous post about Empty Pudding – but you run the risk of the re-rolled items baking mis-shapen, due to poor combining of scraps, or becoming tough, due to over-mixing.

So what are they like? Well, the sweet version is like a sweet digestive – sweeter than the best-selling modern brand, but not overly sweet, and crisp and crumbly. I love the texture, but they are a little sweet for my tastes. Further experimentation with a finer grade of oatmeal and less sugar might refine this satisfactorily. I tried stamping ‘Rich Oaten’ on them, but the slight spreading due to the increased quantities of  butter/sugar meant the lettering veered towards the blobby, although they did become more browned during baking. The plain version held the lettering much better, and using the cutting wheel made for a very pleasing contrast between the flour-dusted top of the biscuit and the darker, unfloured cut sides. These biscuits are much more crisp and less crumbly, and although they were perfectly enjoyable plain, they really shine when eaten with a little salted butter, cheese or both.

During experimentation, it became clear that the optimum baking time for these biscuits is much longer than average, at 30 minutes. This is due to the need to ensure that they dry out completely, which in turn gives and maintains their crispness.

Oaten Biscuits

As mentioned above, the method and baking are the same for both types of biscuits, so just pick whichever style you prefer, and follow the method below.

Confession time: I was so engrossed in the lettering, I forgot to brush the biscuits for the photo with milk before baking. I quite like the results, but if you would like a browner biscuit, brush with milk.

Plain Oaten Rich Oaten
medium oatmeal 170g medium oatmeal 170g
wholemeal flour 115g wholemeal flour 56g
plain flour 85g plain flour 56g
caster sugar 56g caster sugar 85g
butter 28g butter 100g
lard 28g cream of tartar 1½tsp
cream of tartar 1½tsp bicarbonate of soda ¾tsp
bicarbonate of soda ¾tsp salt ½tsp
salt ½tsp milk  to mix
milk to mix    
  • Put the dry ingredients and fat(s) into a food processor and blitz to combine.
  • With the motor running, add milk a little at a time, until the mixture comes together in a ball.
  • Tip out the dough and knead a few times until smooth.
  • Roll out thinly – about 5mm – and dock (poke holes) all over, either with a docker or the end of a skewer or similar.
  • Cut out the biscuits. Rich Oaten are rectangles 3cm x 7cm, Plain Oaten are 5cm x 5cm squares.
  • If you have stamp letting to name the biscuits, use it now.
  • Chill the biscuits in the fridge for 30 minutes to help them keep their shape.
  • Heat the oven to 190°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Arrange the chilled biscuits on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush with milk if liked.
  • Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the baking sheet around and bake for another 10 minutes. Finally, flip the biscuits over so the bottoms can bake well and bake for 10 minutes, for a total of 30 minutes.
  • Cool on a wire rack.
  • When cold, store in an airtight container.

Empty Pudding

Sometimes I stumble across a hidden gem of a recipe when I am supposed to be hunting out something else. Thus it is with this recipe that I found in a nondescript Edwardian cook book¹.

There are several things that drew me to this recipe. Firstly, the name, which is curious, and after following the recipe, is also extremely accurate. Secondly, the ingredients list. It is incredibly short. Just three ingredients. Which I find rather exciting – the possibility of creating something out of practically nothing is great fun. Especially since, in this case, the recipe has been costed at 9d, nine old pence, less than a shilling for, what appears to be, pudding for four. More so if it is delicious. Which this is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This recipe so caught my attention, I don’t even remember what recipe I was searching for in the first place, so I was keen to read on and discover the secrets within. Alas, the fourth thing that drew me to this recipe is the confusing way it is written.
EmptyPuddingRecipe
As can seen above, the instructions call for one to:

  • Make pastry
  • Put zest & juice in the pudding basin
  • When basin is lined with pastry, add sugar.
  • Seal a pastry lid on top.

This didn’t seem right at all: juice trapped between the basin and the pastry would steam in the heat of the oven and prevent the pastry from becoming crisp, surely? Why use puff pastry if you didn’t want it crisp? How can you seal the pastry and prevent the steam escaping if the thing making the steam (the lemon juice) isn’t inside? This last instruction was, for me, the key, or rather the ‘permission’ to break my number one rule with old recipes and NOT bake it as written in the first place, and put the zest and juice inside the pastry.

And it worked wonderfully. I baked my puddings in individual-sized metal pudding bowls, to shorten the cooking time.

EmptyPie

And here’s how they turned out. Beautiful, golden pastry and a puffed and crispy lid. Inside, the lemon zest and juice combined with the sugar to make an incredibly zingy lemon syrup, which really packs a punch.

LiquidPie

The heat from the oven creates steam from the lemon juice inside the pudding, which in turn helps fluff the puff pastry into soft, delicate layers. The contrast of flavours and textures is amazing.

But there’s more.

Because not all of my puddings turned out perfectly. Two of them sprung a leak during baking, as can be seen here (arranged upside down).

LeakedEmptyPie

But here’s the thing: it’s not a disaster! The zest and juice still combined with the sugar to make a syrup, which, after the leak, coated the outsides of the pastry and made an amazing lemon caramel. Not all the liquid leaked out, so the insides still benefitted from steam, and puffed out fantastically. The photo at the top shows the insides of one of the ‘leaky’ puddings. These are also brilliant, as the lemon caramel hardens in the best traditions of creme brulee, and gives even more flavourful contrasts with the crisp pastry and soft interior. I might even like this variation more than the original. So if your puddings bake perfectly, or whether they spring a leak, it really is a win:win situation!

An extravagance: I used two blocks of puff pastry for just 4 puddings, because I wanted to use freshly-rolled pastry for the lids and the linings, in order to get the best ‘puff’ during baking. On reflection, this might have been unnecessary, as the basins do such a good job of ensuring the pastry puffs inwards whilst keeping the outsides smooth. Certainly, the lids were spectacular, so I’m going to recommend cutting lids from freshly-rolled pastry, and then re-roll the trimmings for the basin linings, which means you could probably get everything from a single block of puff pastry. I haven’t tested this, so I recommend having the second block of pastry on standby, just in case.

Empty Pudding

Serves 4

2 blocks puff pastry
2 lemons
4tbs caster sugar
butter for greasing
milk and caster sugar for glazing

  • Butter your pudding bowls generously. If your puddings spring a leak, you want to ensure you can still get them out of the bowls.
  • Roll out your pastry and cut 4 lids. Make sure the pastry is a little larger than the diameter of your pudding bowls, to ensure there is enough to make a firm seal.
  • Cut pastry to line your pudding bowls. Make sure the pastry overhangs the bowls a lttle to make a firm seal. Re-roll the trimmings if necessary.
  • Put the zest of half a lemon into each pastry-lined bowl.
  • Put the juice of half a lemon into each pastry-lined bowl.
  • Put 1tbs caster sugar into each pastry-lined bowl.
  • Moisten the edges of the pastry lids and attach to the rim of the bowls by pressing down firmly.
  • Chill the bowls in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to allow the pastry to relax and firm up.
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Place the chilled bowls on a baking sheet and crimp the edges between finger and thumb.
  • Brush the tops with milk and sprinkle with a little caster sugar.
  • Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the baking tray around and bake for a further 10-15 minutes. NB Puff pastry takes a surprisingly long time to be properly cooked, so when in doubt, cook a little longer. You can also return them to the oven for extra browning when turned out. See below.
  • Remove from the oven and turn out as follows.
    • Ease a knife around the edge of the pastry to loosen it from the sides of the bowl.
    • Gently test whether you can lift out an un-leaky pudding.
    • If you suspect your pudding has leaked, turn your pudding out upside down.
    • Depending on your pastry colour, you might want to return your puddings to the oven for some extra colouring. If your pudding has leaked, I would definitely recommend returning them to the oven (still upside down) to harden the lemon syrup/caramel mixture until glossy and brown.
  • Serve with custard, cream or as they come.

¹ A little book of cookery by Dora Luck, 1905, Sands & Compy., London ; Edinburgh.

 

Soda Bread

I was surprised to read recently that Soda Bread is considered to have migrated from the US, based on a notion that the early settlers used potash to improve their baking. Amelia Simmons (1796) uses potash in some of her gingerbread recipes and Mary Randolph includes a recipe for Soda Cake in her 1824 book The Virginia Housewife.

These notwithstanding, the earliest Soda Bread recipe that I have been able to find in print is a letter published in the Newry Telegraph, dated September 2nd 1836. The correspondant, who signs him/herself “M.D.” gives the following recipe:

Soda Bread recipe

Having tried a fair few soda bread recipes over the years, I was struck by how minimalistic this recipe is – literally four ingredients: flour, salt, baking soda, buttermilk. Over the years, modern recipes have managed to sneak in  a myriad of embellishments – white flour, sugar, honey, egg, butter, cream of tartar…. but this, this appears to be soda bread in its earliest and purest form. I had to try it. And I was not disappointed.

I followed MD’s recipe as written as closely as possible, and the first batch was fine, but not, in my opinion, the best it could be. The mixing of the soda in water was, for the time, an acceptable way to remove lumps, but it meant for an uneven distribution of soda throughout the flour, which resulted in blotches of yellow crumb amongst the wholemeal. Sieving the soda into the flour with the salt was a much better approach. In addition, buttermilk is not as freely available nowadays as it once was, so my solution was to mix equal quantities of whole milk and low-fat, plain yogurt. Lastly, as the recipe stated that the buttermilk should be very sour (which is what reacts with the soda to give the rise), I stirred in two teaspoons of vinegar.

Halving the batch made two mini loaves of dimensions 14cm x 8cm, which took, rather surprisingly, almost an hour to bake. If you wish to make the full batch, or bake in larger tins, you will need to increase the baking time accordingly.

The result is delicious. The crust bakes to a browned, knobbly crispness and the crumb inside is close-textured, but not claggy. Just warm from the oven and lightly spread with, as MD suggests, some fresh, salted butter, it is delicious with no further adornment. If, like me, you have occasionally read accounts of 19th century afternoon teas where guests are served ‘brown bread and butter’ and been rather puzzled at the plainness of the fare, having tasted this bread with butter, it all makes sense now.

If you’re a fan of modern soda bread recipes, this might not be to your tastes, but I would urge you to try it just once to enjoy the simple pleasure of this diamond in the rough, craggy crust.

Soda Bread

These litte loaves will almost double their size during baking, but only if you get them into the oven promptly. The soda will start reacting as soon as the liquids are added, so be sure the oven is at temperature before mixing wet and dry together.

340g stoneground wholemeal flour
1 level teaspoon of salt
1 level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
150ml whole milk
150ml low-fat, plain yogurt
2tsp white wine vinegar

a little milk (maybe)

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Grease and line two mini loaf tins (14cm x 8cm) with baking parchment. Grease the parchment.
  • Sieve the flour, salt and soda together twice (to spread the soda evenly).
  • Mix the milk, yogurt and vinegar until smooth.
  • When the oven is hot, add the liquids to the flour mixture and mix into a soft dough. You may need a little extra milk.
  • Put half of the dough into each prepared loaf tin and smooth over.
  • Using a sharp knife, cut a deep slit down the centre of each loaf.
  • Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
  • Turn the tins around and bake for another 15 minutes.
  • Remove the loaves from the tins and place them back in the oven on a rack to crisp up the crust – a final 5-10 minutes.
  • Set to cool on a wire rack.
  • Enjoy just warm on the day of baking, or toast the following day for breakfast.

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).