Apricot Dream Slice

For a number of years I have been collecting the original recipe books of regional Women’s Institutes. They usually take the form of spiral-bound, text-only booklets and are, I feel, a great indication of dishes being prepared in the homes at time of publication.

I have books dating from the 1920s to the 1980s and am always on the look-out for editions from missing counties to fill out the collection. For the most part, they are tried and tested recipes that embody the very best in home cooking, as long as you gloss over the late 70s/early 80s lowpoint characterised by an almost fanatical obsession with recipes that involved opening cans and packets – yes, even in the sainted W.I.!

The recipe comes from the recipe collection of the combined Federation of Women’s Institutes of Northern Ireland. The  booklet is undated, but with a little digging, I’m pretty confident it comes from the 1980s.

This traybake is a variation of a flapjack, but without all the earnest oats, which, speaking even as an oat-lover, can be a little much unless you’re particularly in the mood. It caught my eye mainly due to the title, but also because it was just that little bit different from a lot of the elaborate bakes seen today. It is also my most favourite kind of recipe, a storecupboard one: a recipe that does not require a special trip to the shops, that can usually be made with the contents of your cupboards. A mixture of crumbled digestive biscuits and dessicated coconut is sandwiched with a layer of chopped apricots and (optional) jam. It can also be varied very easily, just by changing the fruit used in the middle – I recommend keeping it sharp but exotic, with pineapple, mango, papaya, cranberries, prunes etc.

The result is crisp, crunchy, sharp, sweet and very moreish, ideal for packed lunches, and I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we did in our house.

Apricot Dream Slice

Add as many or as few apricots – or whatever fruit you have – as you like. The original recipe called for just 125g, but after trying it, I felt this a little on the meagre side, and since the bag of apricots held 200g, and I just knew the extra would inevitably end up spilled on the cupboard floor, here we are. I like it with the extra fruit – it makes it deliciously indulgent.

For the base
100g digestive biscuits (about 7), crushed
125g wholemeal flour
100g dessicated coconut
100g dark muscovado sugar
½ tsp salt
115g unsalted butter, melted

For the filling
2 large eggs
200g dark muscovado sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
40g plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
125-200g chopped dried apricots
4-5tbs jam (optional) – I used up half a jar of apricot and passionfruit (divine combo, by the way)

  • Preheat the oven to 175°C, 155°C Fan.
  • Line a baking tray with parchment. I used one of dimensions 20cm x 28cm, but anything roughly that size is fine.
  • Put all of the base ingredients except the butter into a food processor and blend until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Muscovado sugar can be a bit clumpy and this is a speedy and efficient way to break down the lumps.
  • Tip the mixture into a bowl and stir in the melted butter.
  • Set aside 1/3 of the mixture for the topping, and spread the remainder into the prepared tin. Pack it down firmly – use a flat-bottomed glass tumbler or similar to get a really smooth, firm surface.
  • Bake the base for 15 minutes.
  • While the base is baking, whisk the eggs with the sugar and lemon juice until creamy.
  • Stir in the rest of the ingredients except the jam.
  • When the base is cooked, spread over the jam, if using – the heat of the base will make it runnier and help it spread more easily.
  • Pour over the filling and smooth over.
  • Sprinkle the reserved base mixture over the top and pat smooth.
  • Bake for a further 35-40 minutes until nicely browned.
  • Allow to cool in the tin.
  • When cold, cut into bars or squares to serve.
  • Store in an airtight container.
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Orange and Walnut Garland Cake

In my head, the book from which this recipe is adapted is practically modern, as I clearly remember the year it was published, but then my brain gently reminds me that 1978 is now 40 years ago and I am PLUNGED into a slough of despond at how OLD that makes me feel. But enough of the over-dramatics…

I found this recipe in Bread, Cakes and Biscuits, by Mary Norwak, one of the 500 Recipes series published by Hamlyn. It is a fantastic collection of almost every kind of tea-time bake you could wish for, reassuringly written by someone in whose recipes I have absolute confidence. If you’re in need of well-written, dependable recipes, then Mary Norwak is a name you can trust.

The 500 Recipes series is an immense collection of themed recipe books by a variety of authors and, when published, was very competitively priced at just 99p. I regularly find copies in charity shops and car-boot sales and have amassed quite a number of the range. Their only downside is, aside from the cover, a complete lack of illustrations, being printed as they are, on rather low-grade, coarse paper. So it takes a little imagination to be able to pluck out the real gems from a flat page of text.

I chose this recipe for a number of reasons: the unusual flavours, the simplicity of the recipe and the ease with which it can quickly be turned into a very eye-catching, celebration cake.

Nowadays, the more standard cake flavour combination is for coffee to be paired with walnut, but the brightness of citrus really lifts this cake into something altogether more delightful.

I have made a few, small, changes to the original recipe and am also introducing a new element, that of the glaze for the decoration.

Firstly, I have substituted Seville Orange zest and juice for the original sweet orange. The sharpness and bitter notes really pack a punch against the sweetness of the cake.  The simple glace icing is a revelation – I do so love it when an idea exceeds all expectation. This normally (for me) overly-sweet icing is really lifted by the tang of the bitter orange. And where do I have access to Seville oranges out of season, you ask? In my freezer, I reply.  Every Seville orange season, I buy, zest and juice at least one net of Seville oranges. After mixing the juice and zest together, I freeze it in ice-cube trays (one large ‘cube’ contains the juice and zest of 1 orange) and, once frozen, pack into a ziplock bag for later use, just as in this case. It’s fantastic for Seville orange curd, custard, even savoury dishes like roast duck or game casserole. I highly recommend the practice. If you have no Seville oranges, the recipe contains a suggestion for substitution.

You can leave the cake adorned with just the icing topping and it is delicious, but for a bit of wow-factor, you can add a garland of candied fruit and whole nuts. This is my favourite kind of decoration (requires practically zero skill and almost no effort from me), where the beauty of the ingredients IS the decoration and they can really shine. And on that note, I shall segue seamlessly into the new element of this recipe – the glaze.

You will have noticed that the fruit and especially the nuts in the picture above, have a glorious shine to them, and this is achieved through the use of a glaze. For fresh fruit tarts and the like, the traditional glaze is a syrup, but this has the downside of being exceedingly sticky, and in this case might interfere with the glace icing. Also, fresh fruit tarts tend to be eaten immediately, whereas this is a cake that will last several days in an airtight container. The glaze I have used for the decoration is a mixture of simple sugar syrup and gelatine. This adds the shine without the stickiness. The excess glaze will set like a jelly, and later can be gently warmed and re-used to decorate sweet buns, tea-breads, even sweet pies for an extra shiny appearance without stickiness.

Orange & Walnut Garland Cake

Do customise the flavorings to your own personal taste. Dislike walnuts? Use hazelnuts instead, or pistachios or macadamia nuts. Dislike candied peel? Make your own for a fantastic flavour punch, leave it out altogether or add in some more fresh zest.

225g self-raising flour (or plain flour + 1 tsp baking powder)
½ tsp salt
75g unsalted butter, softened
75g caster sugar
zest & juice of 1 Seville orange [1]
3 large eggs
30g candied peel – chopped
60g walnuts – quartered
a little milk (maybe)

Icing
zest & juice of 1 Seville orange [1]
120g icing sugar

Decoration
100g mixed whole nuts
50g candied peel, cherries, etc.

Glaze
50ml water
50g caster sugar
½ sheet gelatine – or enough vegegel to set 100ml of liquid.

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Grease and line an 18-20cm cake tin with parchment.
  • Sift flour and salt.
  • Cream butter, sugar and orange zest together until light and fluffy.
  • Add eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly between additions.
  • Fold in the flour.
  • Stir in the peel, nuts and juice. If the mixture seems a little heavy, loosen it to a dropping consistency with a little milk.
  • Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 50-55 minutes, or until the cake is cooked through[2].
  • Allow the cake to cool in the tin for ten minutes (to firm up), then cool completely on a wire rack.
  • After decoration, store in an airtight container.

Decoration
As mentioned above, there’s two tiers of decoration you can use for this cake, either with just a simple glace icing, or with the addition of a garland of candied fruit and nuts.  Read through both sets of instructions, because if you want to do the glazed fruit and nuts on top, you need to start before mixing the icing.

  • Glace icing:
    • Mix the zest/juice into the icing sugar until smooth. It should be thin enough be able to pour, but not so runny that it just falls off the side of the cake.
    • Pour over cake and allow to drip down the sides a little.
    • Leave to set.
  • Glazed fruit and nuts:
    • Soak the gelatine in a little cold water.
    • Cut the cherries in half and trim the rest of the fruit to suitable sizes/shapes.
    • Dissolve the sugar in the water (zapping it in the microwave for a few seconds to warm it helps) then add the softened gelatine and stir until it is melted.
    • Now, there are two ways to arrange and glaze the fruit and nuts, either glaze first, then arrange, or arrange, then glaze.  Choose whichever approach you prefer.
      • Arrange then glaze: As soon as you have poured over the icing, press the fruit and nuts into the icing while it is still moist. As the icing dries, it will hold them securely in place. Using a clean paintbrush, paint the glaze over the fruit and nuts, being careful not to allow it to drip onto the icing too much.
      • Glaze then arrange: Put the fruit and nuts into a bowl and pour the glaze over. Toss gently to ensure and even coating. Drain in a sieve, then arrange as above.

[1] If you have no Seville oranges, use the zest of 2 sweet oranges and the juice of 1 in the cake, and for the icing, the zest of 1 orange and the juice of a lemon.
[2] Quick reminder on how to tell when a cake is cooked:

  • Ears: the cake is not making any bubbling/hissing noises.
  • Touch: the cake feels springy when lightly pressed with the fingertips.
  • Eyes: The cake has shrunk away from the sides of the tin a little.
  • Eyes: A cocktail stick inserted into the middle of the cake has no wet mixture on it when removed. NB when making moist, fruited cakes (apple, banana, etc) any fruit moisture is ok, it’s the cake mixture that’s important.

Apple Snow

This recipe is more usually served in the late summer and autumn months, but I’ve chosen it now because the weather outside today has carpeted the garden with a thick layer of snow.

This is a classic dessert whose provenance stretches back centuries. Although the name ‘Apple Snow’ is the one more usually found in modern recipe books, it can also be found under the name Apple Fluff, Apple Souffle, Apple Puff and this version, Apple Cream Without Cream.

This last was found in a manuscript from the 17th century, held by The Wellcome Library. The manuscript has been attributed to the splendidly named Mrs Deborah Haddock, who sounds as if she should be the twinkly-eyed star of stories set in a small, quaint fishing village.

It is elegant in its simplicity, requiring only apple pulp, an egg-white and a little sugar. It is also, thanks to modern kitchen gadgetry, prepared incredibly swiftly, requiring less than ten minutes to come together before serving, once the initial preparation has been completed.

Apple Cream Without Cream, aka apple Snow, c1675, MS7892, Wellcome Library Collection

Choice of Fruit

This recipe can be made with any apple you have to hand, either keeping a purity of flavour with a single variety, or mixing and matching in a clearing-out-the-fruit-bowl, waste-not-want-not kind of way.

One of the manuscript recipes I read recommended green apples as being the best, but failed to elaborate any identifying characteristics beyond colour. I prefer to use Bramley apples, for the pale insides and sharpness of taste. Other varieties you might like to try include Worcester Pearmains, which have dazzlingly white flesh that tastes faintly of lemon and rough-skinned Russets that have an almost nutty flavour.

Alternatively, you could follow the recommendation in the recipe above and try this with gooseberries.

Apple Snow

This recipe tweaks the original slightly with additions found in other versions. In terms of quantity, it will make a visually impressive amount, but is so light and delicate, a full glass is still only a relatively small amount. It will hold its shape for two hours or so, but can be mounded in more impressive heights if served immediately after preparation.

Serves 4 – 8

5 Bramley apples, or apple of your choice.
juice of 1 lemon
2tbs cream sherry (optional)
4tbs caster sugar
1 large egg-white

  • Peel, core and chop the apples finely. Toss them in the lemon juice as you go, to prevent them from discolouring.
  • Add the apple and lemon juice to a saucepan with the sherry, if using.
  • Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the apples soften and turn to froth.
  • Mash the apples to a pulp, then sieve to remove all lumps. Chill until required.
  • Whisk the egg-white until it will stand in soft peaks. Set aside.
  • Put 250ml chilled apple pulp into a bowl and whisk on High for 2-3 minutes until pale and fluffy.
  • Add the whisked egg-white and continue whisking, adding in the sugar one spoonful at a time.
  • After 2-3 minutes the mixture will have both increased in volume and become dazzlingly white.
  • Taste and whisk in more sugar if needed.
  • Spoon or pipe into glasses and serve with some crisp biscuits on the side.
  • If you have apple pulp spare, you could spoon a little of it into the glasses before adding the apple snow.

Cornflake Tart

A trip down my own personal memory lane this week, with a classic of the school dinner repertoire, Cornflake Tart.

In the 1970s and 1980s, long before the advent of the dreaded turkey twizzler, my mother was a supervisor of a kitchen that cooked dinners for seven schools in the local area, including the one I attended, so I am perhaps more familiar than most with the full range of tasty, economical and wholesome home-cooking-style meals of that era.

Whilst some dishes (spamspamspamspam) left me cold and some serving decisions (tinned tomatoes + cheese tart always = soggy tomato-juice pastry) lacking in thought, the desserts were almost (I’m looking at you, semolina-and-red-jam-blob) universally adored.

I’ve written before about Gypsy Tart and Butterscotch Tart, and today we have to join them, the classic, even iconic, Cornflake Tart. I also want to take a few moments to discuss ingredients because, when they are this few in number, they can make or break a dish. By the same token, just because ingredients are humble, doesn’t mean that you should treat them carelessly, and that paying attention to the small details with the same care that more expensive ingredients might warrant, can reap rewards just as great with only a fraction of the cost.

Cornflake Tart has four main ingredients: shortcrust pastry, jam, cornflakes and caramel.

  • Shortcrust pastry. You can use any recipe you like, even buy ready-made if time is short, but I would like to strongly recommend my cornflour shortcrust for this particular tart, for a number of reasons. Regular shortcrust usually uses half butter and half lard as the fat in order to give the best texture and flavour, but this prevents it being enjoyed by vegetarians. My cornflour shortcrust is made with all butter, making it vegetarian-friendly, and the cornflour adds the crispness. You can make delicious gluten-free pastry by substituting Doves Farm gluten-free flour for the regular flour. I actually prefer the pastry in this recipe to be gluten-free, as the crumbly texture is fantastic against the sharp jam and sweet, crunchy cornflakes.
  • Jam. You can use any kind of jam you have to hand, and strawberry seems to be a popular choice, but I recommend something sharp, to contrast with the sweetness of the caramelised cornflakes. Raspberry is good, as is blackberry (see photos), blackcurrant, cranberry, redcurrant, apricot or even apple butter. Also, it should be smooth and free from lumps, so warm and sieve/puree it before spreading onto the cooked pastry. This way you get the benefit of all the flavour and none of the distractions.
  • Cornflakes. Surprisingly, regular cornflakes aren’t gluten-free, due to the barley malt used as a flavouring. On the plus side, gluten-free cornflakes are both available and practically indistinguishable from their mainstream counterparts.
  • Caramel. I say caramel, but the addition of butter to the mixture pushes the sticky, golden glue that holds this tart together more towards a butterscotch than a true caramel. You can emphasize this even more by using soft brown or light muscovado sugar. Whatever sugar you choose, it is important to warm it slowly with the other ingredients until fully dissolved, so that the shine on your finished tart isn’t spoiled by visible sugar crystals.

Cornflake Tart

These quantities are sufficient for a medium-sized tart that will serve anything between 1 and 10 people, depending on appetite.

Pastry
225g plain flour or Doves Farm gluten-free flour
60g cornflour
140g unsalted butter
ice-cold water to mix

Filling
200g sharp jam, warmed and sieved/pureed
60g butter – salted or not, your choice
60g sugar – caster, soft brown, light muscovado
60g golden syrup
110g cornflakes – regular or gluten-free

  • Make the pastry: Put the flours and butter into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • With the machine running, gradually add the cold water a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together in a ball.
  • Tip the mixture onto a floured surface and knead smooth.
  • Roll out thinly (5mm) and line a tart or flan tin lined with parchment. For the gluten-free pastry, roll it out onto parchment cut to size, then lift into the tin and shape the corners/edges with your fingertips.
  • Cover with cling-film and chill in the freezer for 20 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Remove the pastry from the freezer and prick the base with a fork to prevent blistering.
  • Line the pastry with baking parchment and rice/baking beads.
  • Bake for 15 minutes. Remove parchment and rice and bake for a further 5-10  minutes until pale but cooked.
  • While the pastry is baking, make the caramel syrup.
  • Put the sugar, butter and syrup into a small pan and heat gently, whilst stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Pour the cornflakes into a large bowl.
  • Allow the sugar mixture to simmer gently for 5 minutes then pour over the cornflakes and toss thoroughly to coat.
  • When the pastry is baked, spread the warm jam over the base of the tart and add the cornflakes. Spread the cornflakes evenly over the tart and press lightly but not enough to crush the cereal.
  • Return the tart to the oven for 10 minutes to ‘set’ the topping.
  • Allow to cool in the tin.
  • Slice the cold tart into portions with a sharp knife and store in an airtight container.

Bonus recipe – Gluten-free Scones

Switching out regular flour for Doves Farm gluten-free flour for pastry isn’t the only easy substitution you can make. Deliciously light and airy scones are just as easily made, using Mrs McNab’s 19th century recipe from Great British Bakes.

GF Scones

One slight variation to the method is that, due to the lack of gluten, there is a tendency for the dough to spread during baking. So to keep your gluten-free scones neat and for maximum lift, bake them in baking rings. If you don’t have baking rings, then do as I do and use the tins from small cans of mushy peas.

225g Doves Farm plain flour
1tsp cream of tartar
½tsp bicarbonate of soda
½tsp salt
30g unsalted butter
1 large egg
80ml plain yogurt
80ml whole milk

milk to glaze

  • Preheat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan.
  • Grease 8 small baking rings/tins and line with parchment paper. Arrange the tins on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
  • Put the flour, cream of tartar, bicarbonate of soda, salt, butter and egg into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Tip the mixture into a bowl.
  • Mix together the yogurt and milk.
  • Gradually stir the liquid into the dry ingredients. You might not need it all, but the mixture should be soft and moist rather than dry.
  • Divide the mixture between the tins. Each one should have about 55g of dough.
  • Brush the tops with milk and bake for 15 minutes, turning the baking sheet around after 10 minutes to ensure even baking.
  • When baked, if the tops are a little pale, if possible, switch the oven to top heat with fan, remove the rings/tins and brown the scones for 3-4 minutes. If your oven doesn’t have this function, then brown lightly under a grill but don’t leave them too long or they will burn.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

Damson Preserves

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

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

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

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

Damson Conserve

MS1795
From MS1795, circa 1685, Wellcome Library Collection

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

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

1lb damsons
1lb granulated sugar
120ml water

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

Miss Milward’s Pickled Damsons

19th century

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

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

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

You can halve or even quarter this recipe if liked.

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

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

Mrs Musson’s Baroda Chutney

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

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

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

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

Shaping Meringues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use of silicone moulds

Meringue Shapes
Meringues shaped in silicone moulds

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

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

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

Use of piping tips

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

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

Swiss Meringue

450g caster sugar
300g egg-whites

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

To bake

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

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

Lemon Biscuits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Fashioned Lemon Biscuits

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

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

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

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