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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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.

 

Welsh Cakes

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

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

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

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

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

Welsh Cakes Recipe
From MS 7788, Wellcome Library Collection

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

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

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

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

Dorothea Repps’ Welsh Cakes

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

Makes 16-20

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

caster sugar for sprinkling

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

Sugarless Biscuits

I don’t mean to boast (which means I’m going to), but I’m very pleased with this recipe, which I found in a book from 1767 entitled “Primitive cookery; or the kitchen garden display’d”. In the curious attribution style of the day, the frontispiece declares the book “Printed for J.Williams at No. 38, Fleet Street”, which leaves the authorship somewhat undetermined – possibly J.Williams or he might have been the publisher, or even the printer himself.

That mystery aside, the frontispiece also contains some wonderful claims, viz “RECEIPTS for preparing a great Variety of cheap, healthful and palatable Dishes without Fish, Flesh or Fowl; WITH A BILL of FARE of Seventy Dishes that will not cost above Two-Pence each”. The low cost and the vegetarian nature of the dishes was doubly interesting, since vegetarianism didn’t really take off in Britain until the nineteenth century. Alas, it wasn’t quite the groundbreaking publication I thought, as I found meat and meat products scattered liberally throughout, and although the seventy tupenny dishes are meatless, they consist mostly of dishes along the lines of “[insert the name of a vegetable] boiled and bread and butter”. Still, it’s not all plain fare, as the following meal suggestion illustrates: “Bread and half a pint of canary, makes an excellent meal.” With half a pint of sherry (canary) inside you, you wouldn’t really care that you only had bread to eat. And for tuppence? Bargain!

ANYHOO…..

These biscuits are listed in the book as Parsnip Cakes – the word ‘cake’ having a much more versatile usage in the eighteenth century, and more inclined to refer to shape, rather than some delightful teatime confection. Parsnips provide both bulk and a very gentle sweetness. Sliced, dried in the oven and then ground in a spice grinder, the parsnip ‘flour’ is then mixed with an equal quantity of flour, a little spice, and formed into a dough by mixing with double cream. Rolled out to a thinness of 5mm and baked in a cool oven, the resultant biscuits are crisp, crunchy and similar to a close-textured digestive biscuit. The flavour of parsnip is detectable, especially if, in the drying they have also browned a little and the sugars caramelised, but it’s not overpowering.  More nutty than vegetable. In terms of sweetness, they sit bang on the fence between sweet and savoury – sweet enough to satisfy a sugar craving, savoury enough to eat with cheese.

It’s this versatility which got me thinking of ways in which it could be adapted, and after experimentation, came up with the following:

  • Spices. You can vary the spices and tip the biscuits more towards sweet or savoury as you prefer.
    • Sweet spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves.
    • Savoury spices: garam masala, cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, curry powder.
    • Neutral spices that could go either way: aniseed, fennel, fenugreek, caraway, cardamom, Chinese five spice.
    • Herbs: thyme, rosemary, sage, garlic powder, onion powder, chives, etc.
  • Flours. This is where these biscuits are most versatile.The flour you match with the parsnip powder doesn’t have to be limited to plain white. The biscuits in the picture above have been made with stoneground wholemeal with aniseed (top) and medium oatmeal, with a little salt (bottom). Here are just a few further suggestions:
    • brown
    • wholemeal
    • medium oatmeal
    • barley
    • rice
    • plain white
    • white + cornflour
    • brown + rye
    • malted
  • Usage. The dough can also be used as a pastry, with different results coming from the different flours used. Mixing the parsnip flour with brown flour or oatmeal would make a fantastic crust for something like a cauliflower cheese tart. I haven’t tried it for turnovers/handpies, but I suspect you’d need to use bread flour and to work it quite well in order to prevent it cracking when trying to fold it.

Sugarless Biscuits

The recipe for mixing the actual biscuits requires only a fraction of your parsnip flour, thereby allowing you to make several batches from this one quantity. That said, this made only about 200g of parsnip flour in total.

4 large parsnips
50g flour of choice
½-1tsp spice/herb/flavouring of choice
50-70ml double cream

¼ tsp salt (for savoury biscuits and/or when using oatmeal)

  • Peel the parsnips and slice thinly – a mandolin is ideal.
  • Arrange the slices on parchment-lined baking sheets and put into the oven.
  • Turn the oven on low, 120°C/100°C Fan.
  • Since the slices are so thin, they won’t take very long to dry at all. Check after 15 minutes. If they have curled into flower shapes, remove from the oven and allow to cool. If they aren’t completely crisp when cold, you can easily dry them a little longer. It’s better to dry them in two stages, than to let them go a little too long and allow them to take on colour – unless that’s what you’re after, of course.
  • When the parsnips slices are crisp and cold, grind them to powder in a spice grinder, or pound them in a pestle and mortar. If you’re using them for savoury biscuits, you can get away with having it a little coarser – like semolina or polenta. For sweet biscuits, you’ll probably need to sieve out the larger pieces and re-grind.
  • Preheat the oven to 140°C/120°C Fan
  • To make the biscuits:
    • Put 50g parsnip flour in the bowl of a food processor.
    • Add 50g of your chosen flour.
    • Add your chosen spices and salt, if required.
    • Blitz for a few seconds to mix.
    • With the motor running, gradually pour in the double cream. Depending on the flour you are using, the quantity of cream required to bring the dough together will vary. Add just enough until the dough comes together in a ball, or at least resembles damp breadcrumbs.
    • Tip out and press together into a ball.
    • Roll out between sheets of cling film plastic (to avoid sticking) to about 5mm and cut into biscuits. I made rectangles of 2.5cm x 5cm, but any shape will do.
    • Lay the biscuits onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and prick the middles neatly with a fork.
    • Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the baking sheet around and bake for a further 10 minutes.
    • Transfer to a wire rack and return to the oven for a final 5 minutes in order to ensure the undersides are dried and crisp.
    • Allow to cool on the wire rack before storing in an airtight container.

 

Tunbridge Cakes

Here’s another recipe resurrection, but I’ll give you fair warning, it’s a little caraway-heavy. If you’re not a fan of the taste of caraway, then you’re not going to have a fun time.

The solution to that, of course, would be to substitute a different flavouring for the caraway – easy-peasy – aniseed or cumin if you want to keep it seedy, or lemon/orange zest to make it fresh but really, anything that appeals is fine.

ANYHOO – back to the cakes.

Despite the name, Tunbridge Cakes are actually a biscuit. In the mid nineteenth century, Alfred Romary set up a biscuit factory in the town and the biscuits were manufactured for over a hundred years. Queen Victoria was so delighted with them she awarded a royal warrant and the royal connection continued until the final batch was baked for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

The advertisements for the biscuits described them as being “As thin as lace, of a flavour so delicate as to be indefinable. The clubs serve them with port, but they are also excellent with ices or at afternoon tea. Many people prefer them to sweets and chocolate. In two flavours, Sweet and Ginger.” Interestingly, there’s no mention of caraway, nor does it appear on the ingredients list on the tins above, which mention only flour, butter, shortening, sugar and salt. George Read’s “The complete biscuit and gingerbread baker’s assistant” (1854) makes a distinction between ‘Water Cakes with Caraways’ and ‘Tunbridge Water Cakes’, though whether these bear any resemblance to the Romary biscuits is unclear.

Tunbridge Cakes actually go back much further than mere Victorian times. Recipe books from the early half of the nineteenth century contain several mentions of Tunbridge Cakes, although, on closer examination. they all appear to be plagiarised copies of Mrs Eliza Rundell’s 1806 recipe. The earliest printed recipe I could find just managed to sidle into the eighteenth century – John Perkins’ 1796 recipe for Tunbridge Wafer Cakes. However, in my favourite recipe collection, that of the manuscripts of The Wellcome Library, I found not one but four recipes more than one hundred years older than any I could find in print.

Sample Recipe
Source: MSMSL2, Wellcome Library Collection

Since the recipes were so similar, with only slight variations in proportions of flour, butter, sugar, eggs and seeds, baking a batch of each was the only way they could be fairly compared. I managed to scale down the recipes to a common quantity of flour, and then mixed and baked a batch of each.

It was immediately apparent that two of the batches stood out as being superior, but for different reasons. Batch A was incredibly light and delicate, friable and crumbly in texture, whilst the flavour of Batch B had that elusive je ne sais quoi deliciousness that was difficult to place, without knowing what the ingredients were. My dilemma was: I couldn’t decide which I liked better. Batch B was very heavy on the caraway seeds, but the background spices kept me coming back to nibble. The delicate texture of Batch A was a delight.

In the end I added the extra flavourings from Batch B to the mix of Batch A and baked a hybrid that seemed to being the best of both batches. If you want to try the original recipe, simply omit the optional flavourings in the ingredients listed below.

“Yes, but even after all the yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, they still don’t look very interesting” I hear you say. I know. They’ve not got much wow factor to look at, and if you’ve read this far, you might even be wondering why you should bother with them at all. So allow me to try and convince you. Firstly, their taste – the most basic quality for a recipe – they are delicious, and this should be reason enough. If you need further convincing,  it would be their delicate texture: crisp, crumbly and friable. And lastly, and for me this is their most enchanting quality, their age. Late 17th century. To put this in context, contemporaneous events include the English civil war, Roundheads & Cavaliers, Oliver Cromwell, the Great Fire of London, Peter The Great crowned Czar of Russia and the Salem witch trials are conducted in Massachusetts. And this is a delicious biscuit from those times. As Sue Perkins so eloquently put it in her Foreword for my first book, it’s taste-bud time travel!

Apart from the flavourings, the other key aspect of these biscuits is their thinness. And I mean thin. Really, really thin. Like 2mm. Even though the quantity of dough is small, I strongly suggest working with just half of it at a time, so that you can really concentrate on getting the dough as thin as possible. It will become translucent when rolled thinly enough. The biscuits will then take only minutes to bake.

Tunbridge Cakes

Based on recipes in The Wellcome Library 17th century manuscripts, dated 1650-1700

113g plain flour
23g unsalted butter
34g powdered sugar
1 large egg yolk
½tsp caraway seeds
½tsp ground ginger – optional
¼tsp salt – optional
50-70ml double cream to mix

  • Put the flour, butter, sugar and egg yolk into a food processor and blitz together to mix.
  • Tip mixture into a bowl and add the caraway seeds, ginger and salt, if using.
  • Stir together.
  • Gradually add the cream until the mixture comes together into a stiff paste.,
  • Tip the paste out of the bowl and knead smooth. The texture should be like a firm shortcrust pastry.
  • Wrap in plastic and chill for 1 hour.
  • Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Retrieve the paste from the fridge, divide in half and put one half back into the fridge to stay cool.
  • Lightly flour the work surface and a rolling pin and roll out the dough extremely thinly, until translucent and the work surface is visible through it.
  • Using a fork, dock (i.e. poke holes in) the whole surface of the paste. This is a little time consuming, but infinitely better than trying to dock the biscuits once they have been cut out.
  • Cut out biscuits using a plain, 8cm cutter.
  • Transfer the biscuits to baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
  • Bake for 4-6 minutes, until the edges are just beginning to brown. Check after 3 minutes and turn the baking sheet around if the biscuits are colouring unevenly.
  • Remove the biscuits from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.
  • Store in an airtight container.

Hunter’s Biscuits

As you may know, I have one or two cookbooks lying around and I haven’t actually got around to making absolutely all of the recipes contained therein.

But I’m working my way through slowly – and it’s just fabulous when I discover little gems like the recipe this week, tucked away as it was in a nondescript little booklet from the 1940s.

For a start, I have all the ingredients in the cupboard. I just LOVE it when that happens. It s a great irritation to find something delicious to make, only to discover a trip to the shops is required. So these are a great ‘spur of the moment’ bake.

Second, the recipe doesn’t make a whole mountain of biscuits – I got just twelve out of this batch. And they’re so fast to put together – little bit of melting/warming of liquids, chuck in the dry ingredients and you’re done. Even taking the time to pretty their appearance up doesn’t take long, and with 12 minute cooking time, you can be dunking them in a cup of something hot in not much more than 20 minutes.

Also – oats.  LOVE oats in a biscuit – they make them it so crunchy and satisfying. Great energy snacks too. I can just imagine these biscuits being stuffed into pockets to snack on during invigorating afternoons tramping about the countryside.

And then we come to the main reason this recipe caught my eye. The lard. Yes – I did a double take too. But it works beautifully – and deliciously. And for me it also absolutely makes it a biscuit of country origin. Back in the day, not everyone could keep a cow – but most cottagers would have a pig, and once butchered for the winter, a ready and plentiful supply of lard. If you really can’t face it, you could try butter, but I haven’t tried it myself, so do let me know how it goes if you do.

Hunter’s Biscuits

56g golden syrup
56g lard
28g demerera sugar
56g plain flour
56g wholemeal flour
56g medium oatmeal
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
1/2 tsp ground ginger
grated zest of a small lemon – or of half a large lemon
1/2 tsp salt
6 almonds – halved

  • Preheat the oven to 175°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Put the lard and the golden syrup into a small pan over a low heat to melt/warm
  • Mix all the other ingredients together.
  • When the lard has melted, tip in the dry ingredients and stir to combine. You’ll end up with a moist paste.
  • Divide mixture into 12. I have a small-ish ice cream scoop which was perfect at portioning out the mix. Roll into a ball then flatten slightly. Place half a split almond on each biscuit.
  • Put the biscuits onto a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake for 12 minutes, turning the baking sheet round 180 degrees halfway though the cooking time. The biscuits should be just browning around the edges when done. They might seem a little soft, but will crisp up beautifully as they cool.
  • Lift the biscuits from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.