I love coming across a geographically-named recipe. It gives a place and time in which to ground the dish: Grasmere Gingerbread, Cornish Pasties, Chelsea Buns.
Almost better yet, is discovering a recipe that is also unknown today, having gone out of fashion or due to some other circumstance. Such is Ouse Bridge Cakes.
There’s practically no information available about these bakes. In “The Gentlewoman’s Kitchen” (1984), Peter Brears suggests Ouse Bridge Cakes are a yeast dough flavoured with mace, cloves and nutmeg and mixed with sugar and milk. In his book “Secret York” (2014), author Paul Chrystal writes:
“Ouse Bridge Cakes, known in the eighteenth century, a type of Yorkshire tea cake.”
And that’s pretty much it. Not much to go on at all.
Luckily, in my scouring of old manuscripts, I have turned up five, different, eighteenth-century Ouse Bridge Cake recipes. I reasoned that, within their pages lay an understanding of what constituted the original Ouse Bridge Cakes.
But first, a little history. The bridge over the River Ouse that this recipe refers refers to is in the city of York. Although there have been many bridges over the centuries, it is the fourth Ouse Bridge (1565–1810) which has been commemorated in these buns.
Just as with many city bridges of the time, the Ouse bridge was heavily built-up, its five arches supporting substantial buildings on both sides of it’s towering centre arch.
With all this busyness on the bridge, it is likely that there were businesses too, and if not a baker’s shop, then almost certainly a stall or street hawkers. Just as Wood Street Cake (see Great British Bakes) took its name from the London street where it was made, Ouse Bridge Cakes take theirs from the place where they could be bought, if not actually baked.
As already mentioned, Ouse Bridge cakes were a spiced bun. But seeing as Yorkshire has quite a reputation for similar items – the most well-known being the Yorkshire Teacake (as with all tea cakes, best eaten toasted and buttered) – it occurred to me that there must be something to distinguish the Ouse Bridge cake from a host of other buns, and that something was probably its shape. A bun of a particular shape is instantly recognisabe – just look at modern Chelsea Buns and their square, spiralled form (which isn’t the original shape – but don’t get me started, see Great British Bakes (again)).
Luckily, there were two of the five recipes (yes, remember them? Back before the detour?) that held clues. The first was in a manuscrpt dating from the mid-eighteenth century, which suggested the dough be weighed out into 8oz (225g) pieces before being shaped.
The second piece of information was from a manuscript dated 1750, the last line of which reads “make it up round in ye middle”.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and decided it meant to shape it like a bagel/ring donut. I also asked online, and the feedback was that it might mean something cottage-loaf-esque, so I experimented with both shapes. I still think the ‘hole in the middle’ is a better fit for the description, but until more recipes are rediscovered, the jury will have to remain resolutely out.
Of course, it might well be that none of these five recipes are the definitive, perfect Ouse Bridge Cakes. Back in the day, even the moderately wealthy (such as the authors of these manuscripts) didn’t necessarily bake for themselves: practically everyone bought their bread from a baker. The recipes that we find in manuscripts are attempts to copy, on a smaller scale, something enjoyed elsewhere, so that they can be enjoyed in their own homes. The five recipes in the manuscripts were all different, yet there were some uniting features, as each author tried to recreate something they had only tasted. Firstly, all of them had currants, ranging from a spartan few ounces to almost half the total weight of the ingredients. All of them were flavoured with spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace), but nutmeg was a common denominator amongst all five. All of them were enriched with milk and either butter or cream, and most had added sugar.
The recipe below is very much a Goldilocks version of them all. Neither too much nor too little of everything, because recipe testing revealed certain flaws in the versions that veered towards the extreme. The overly-fruited buns were heavy and close textured, and those buns with generous/excessive additions of butter and cream were reluctant to rise, with a rather greasy taste.
This version is moderately fruited, moderatly enriched and moderately spiced. Delicious warm from the oven, and even more so toasted, with slabs of cold, mature Cheddar cheese (it’s a taste sensation!).
Ouse Bridge Cakes
Each bun is formed from a generous 75g of dough, and I have scaled the quantities down to make a very modest seven buns per batch. Feel free to double the recipe as you see fit. The spicing is just a suggestion: change things up if you have a favourite mix.
1 sachet fast-action yeast.
30g unsalted butter
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground mace
1 large egg for glazing
- Put the milk, sugar and butter in a pan and scald. IMPORTANT Scalding is when the milk almost boils, but not quite. Heat it until it bubbles around the edges (or in the middle if you have an induction hob), then remove from the heat and allow to cool down. Scalding milk breaks down the proteins, which will allow your buns to remain soft and yielding, even when cold. Using 100% unscalded milk in a dough recipe can lead to heaviness.
- When the milk mixture has cooled to blood temperature, pour it into your mixing bowl.
- Sift the flour, yeast and spices together and add to the milk mixture.
- Knead the mixture by hand or on the lowest possible speed on your stand mixer for 10 minutes. increase speed to high for up to 2 minutes, or until the mixture comes together in a clean ball.
- Add the currants and fold them in.
- Cover the bowl with cling film. The milk, butter and sugar will make the dough slower to rise that a regular dough, so allow at least 90 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
- Tip out the dough and divide into seven pieces, each of roughly 75 grams. There’s no need to get all aggressive and start punching it: it will naturally deflate with the turning out.
- Shape the dough as you see fit. In addition to the two shapes mentioned above, you can also shape them into a regular teacake shape. NB: If you’re going for the cottage loaf shape, I recommend baking the shaped dough in cupcake tins, which really lets the dough ‘sit up’ and hold it’s shape. I used silicone baking trays rather than metal, to keep the dough from forming too crusty an outside.
- Set aside to rise for 40 minutes.
- When the dough has risen, whisk the egg and brush over the buns with a pastry brush.
- Heat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
- Bake the buns for 20 minutes, turning the baking trays/sheets after 10 minutes to ensure even baking.
- When cooked and golden brown, transfer to a wire rack to cool.
- Store in an airtight container at room temperature.