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.

Eggs and Bread

It’s very easy to make a meal out of just eggs and bread, as has been demonstrated over centuries. I grew up enjoying the culinary delight known in our house as Eggy Bread – bread soaked in egg and then fried in a little butter until the eggs were cooked and the slices a dappled yellow and brown. A delicious, savoury breakfast, brunch or supper.

So imagine my horror when I went out into the wide world and learned that some people sprinkle ICING SUGAR or – heaven forfend – POUR SYRUP on their eggy bread and call it French Toast or Lost Bread (pain perdu). It’s something I still can’t get my head around: imagine if I suggested you drizzled syrup over quiche. Yes, THAT level of horror. To me, Eggy Bread is, and will always be, a savoury dish.

Which leads me to this week’s recipes, neither of which are particularly old, but which are firm favourites in this house. Although I love discovering and resurrecting old recipes, I don’t live on them, and it struck me recently that it is as important to record here the ordinary, everyday recipes meals on my table, as it is to bring back the glorious fare of ages past. So here we are.

If the notion of a savoury egg and bread combo is new to you, let me lead you through, in the first instance, Eggy Bread.

Eggy Bread

Eggy Bread

As with many classic recipes, Eggy Bread is deceptively simple. It looks pretty straightforward, with just three ingredients – five if you count salt and pepper separately – but looks can be deceiving. Indulge me as I share my decades of experience in considering each element.

  • Eggs – size doesn’t matter. What matters is having enough egg to soak the bread thoroughly. A slice of Eggy Bread with too little egg is tragic. So always err on the side of caution and if in doubt, whisk in an extra egg, just to be on the safe side. A good benchmark is a 1:1 ratio of egg and bread slices. Of course, if your slices are doorsteps and your eggs quail, then some adjustments are going to be needed.
  • Bread – you can really go as wild here as you like, but with one proviso – no ready-sliced bread. Having made such a sweeping directive, I’m immediately going to contradict it – you CAN have ready-sliced bread, as long as it is done by the bakery department wherever you shop. Nice crusty cob or farmhouse or split tin – just take them to the bakery counter and ask them to slice it for you. THAT kind of sliced is fine. It’s the plastic-wrapped, ready-sliced, soft and squishy bread that is a disaster when it comes to Eggy Bread. The crumb is not open and the surface is impervious to egg: the slices slide around on top of the beaten egg and persistently fail to absorb it. Bread with airy holes in is perfect for filling with egg, so why not try a sourdough or similar?
  • Butter – for cooking the eggy bread. I recommend unsalted butter, as it makes balancing the seasoning easier.
  • Salt and Pepper. A must. Use table salt in the egg mixture, where it dissolves easily, and save your sea salt flakes for sprinkling over the finished product if liked. Pepper can be a minefield. I like coarse-ground black pepper, but the larger pieces run the risk of burning if the pan is too hot, so you have to be careful. Ground white pepper mixes in easily, but can quickly be overpowering if your hand slips when sprinkling. Dried red pepper flakes and a few dashes of hot sauce are also options.
  • Tomato ketchup – technically not an ingredient, but in my opinion a must-have to serve. I’m going to surprise you now by recommending a non-brand tomato ketchup. Not any particular brand, just not the 57 varieties one (which is too sweet, in my opinion). Cheaper, non-brand ketchups tend to be on the tart side, with the use of vinegar being a little heavy handed. Although it might sound like I’m not really selling this, the sharpness is a perfect foil against the richness of the Eggy Bread.

slices of bread
1 egg per slice of bread, + 1 extra
salt and pepper
butter

tomato ketchup

  • Break the eggs into a flat dish. A baking sheet with edges is ideal. It needs to be something large enough for the slices of bread to lie flat.
  • Whisk the eggs and season well with salt and pepper.
  • Lay the bread in the seasoned egg and allow it to soak (5 minutes).
  • Turn the bread over and soak the second side.
  • Melt a little butter in a pan. Have it set to medium heat. My hob goes from 1-9, and I cook Eggy Bread on 5.
  • Lay your slices of egg-soaked bread into the pan. Don’t crowd the pan – make batches if cooking for more than one person. If you have any egg left over, after a couple of minutes (when the surface of the egged bread has cooked) you can drizzle the remaining egg over the bread slices, filling up the holes in the bread.
  • Allow the slices to cook gently until the underside is cooked (3-4 minutes).
  • Carefully turn the slices over and cook to your desired level of done-ness. Lovers of a soft-boiled egg, or a classic French omelet, who enjoy a certain fluidity to their eggs, might want to leave it only a few moments. Personally, I can’t bear underdone eggs, so I like my Eggy Bread ‘well done’: for the egg to be fully cooked. The effect on the bread is to make it expand until they appear to be little butter-covered mattresses – very bouncy and springy.
  • Remove the cooked slices from the pan. I prefer to lay them on kitchen paper, to absorb excess butter, but if your tastes are otherwise, feel free to omit this stage.
  • Cut your Eggy Bread into soldiers and transfer to a serving plate.
  • Squeeze a generous blob of ketchup into a ramekin or similar, and serve.
  • Dip soldiers into ketchup and enjoy.

Once you have mastered Eggy Bread, or if you feel the need for more complex flavours, leap straight into Eggity Bread!

Eggity Bread

Eggity Bread

This has all the components of Eggy Bread, but rearranged and dressed up with a few exciting flourishes.

I have found several variations of this recipe on the internet, some of which might appeal more to your tastes. This version, with its jumble of textures and flavours with a pop of herbs, is the one that my daughter enjoys.

A few comments on ingredients

  • Eggs – softboiled. Cooked for between 3 and 4 minutes, just enough for the whites to be mostly cooked and the yolk runny.
  • Bread – as above, whatever you prefer or have to hand. Toasted, buttered, diced.
  • Seasoning – in addition to salt and pepper, these eggs also have a dusting of herbs. I’ve tried with both fresh herbs and dried, and my recommendation is that dried works best. It is easier to get a light dusting with dried herbs. In my experiments with fresh herbs, they quickly overpowered the eggs with the slightest slip of the hand. A light sprinkling of chopped, fresh parsley to serve is acceptable. The mixture of herbs can be anything you like – I like the combination of oregano, marjoram, thyme, and rosemary.

slices of bread
eggs – one per slice
butter
salt and pepper
dried herbs
fresh parsley to serve (optional)

  • Bring a pan of water to the boil.
  • Lower the eggs into the boiling water in a spoon and cook for 3 minutes if medium, no more than 4 minutes if large.
  • While the eggs are cooking, toast the bread and butter whilst hot.
  • Preheat the grill.
  • Cut the toast into cubes/dice. This small act makes for a fantastic mixture of flavours and textures in the finished dish – buttery, dry, soft, crunchy…
  • Remove the eggs from the pan and immediately crack them into a bowl. Don’t worry if they break – eggs boiled for this short a time are impossible to get out of the shells whole. Use a teaspoon to scoop out the shells, and chop the eggs roughly. If you find that your yolks have cooked solid, crack a raw egg into the mixture – this dish just doesn’t work without some liquid to bind everything together.
  • Season the eggs with salt, pepper and a dusting of each of the herbs. Use a light hand – literally two or three shakes of the herb jar, about 1/8th teaspoon of each.
  • Add the cubed toast to the seasoned eggs and toss together. The toast will become coated and lightly bound together with runny yolk and any liquid white.
  • Spoon the mixture into an oven-proof dish (a gratin dish as above is ideal) and place under a hot grill for about 90 seconds to heat everything through, crisp the edges of the toast and finish cooking any liquid egg.
  • Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and serve (be careful with the hot dish!).

 

Barm Bread

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

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

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

Buckwheat Wholemeal Barm Bread

 

Simple Barm Bread

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

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

 

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

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

Barm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home-made Barm

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

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

Day Four
Put into container(s)

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

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

 

Brown Bread Drops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown Bread Drops

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

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

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

30g unroasted coffee beans
15g unsalted butter

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

Wholemeal Oat Bread

For a number of years, my favourite brown bread has been the Grant Loaf, partly due to the almost ridiculously easy method of preparation, and partly due to its deliciousness, especially when either freshly baked, or lightly toasted.

However, even the most ardent of fans will admit that it is not a light loaf. It has certain brick-like qualities not limited solely to its shape. So the discovery of this loaf, which not only uses wholemeal flour, but adds oatmeal to it as well, and which results in a light and airy loaf, is a bit of a revelation. You’d think that mixing heavy, stoneground wholemeal with heavy oatmeal would be a recipe for a loaf of leaden qualities, but no – it’s almost as if these two ‘wrongs’ make a ‘right’. Fickle as I am, this is now my new favourite wholemeal loaf.

Like the Grant Loaf, it also takes advantage of the initial vigorousness of the yeast by being proofed only for two short intervals, making it much quicker than traditional bread.

The second difference is the shape in which it is baked. The recipe’s author, Sir Henry Thompson, was most famous for his expertise in the fields of medicine and surgery. However, as a recognised polymath, he was also knowledgeable in a number of other areas, including nutrition, exemplified by his book “Food and Feeding” (1879) in which he noted (on the subject of wholemeal flour)

it does not readily produce light agreeable bread when made in the form of ordinary loaves : a solid mass of this meal being a bad conductor of heat, will have a hard flinty crust if baked sufficiently to cook the interior ; or it will have a soft dough-like interior, if the baking is checked when the crust is properly done. Consequently the form of a flat cake, resembling that of the ordinary tea-cake, is preferable, since it admits of the right amount of heat operating equally throughout the mass.

4th Edition, p40.

The first edition of Sir Henry’s book suggested a mixture of wholemeal flour and fine flour. Later editions changed this to a recommendation of oatmeal – fine if using baking powder and medium if using yeast. I’ve tried both combinations and much refer the yeast version, as the baking powder version seemed to develop a sour taste quite quickly, although that might have been due to me using Sir Henry’s own version of baking powder which reversed the proportions we use nowadays, i.e. 1 part cream of tartar to 2 parts bicarbonate of soda.

This recipe can be baked in two Victoria Sandwich tins and produces deliciously airy bread, ideal for sandwiches. You can cut slices across the loaf, as in the photo, or cut it into quarters for a simpler, but less elegant, wedge.

You can make this bread with ordinary wholemeal flour, but bread flour gives the better result. If you’d like to try the baking powder version, the quantity recommended for this recipe is 15g.

You can download a free copy of Sir Henry’s book, “Food and Feeding” (4th edition) here.

Wholemeal Oat Bread

450g stoneground wholemeal bread flour
115g medium oatmeal
20g fresh yeast or 1 sachet fast action yeast
5g salt
30g unsalted butter
400ml-ish half milk, half water, warmed

  • Put all the ingredients into a bowl and knead together for 10 minutes on slow using a dough hook, or by hand.
  • If using a dough hook, at the end of the 10 minutes, switch the speed to High for 2 minutes to bring the dough into a ball.
  • Allow to rise for 20 minutes.
  • Divide the dough in half, and mould each piece into a ball.
  • Press the dough into two greased, Victoria sandwich tins (20cm diameter).
  • Set to rise for another 20 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan. Depending on how quickly your oven heats, you might want to do this as you set the bread for its second rise, or after it has been rising 10 minutes.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down by 20 degrees and bake for a further 15 minutes.
  • To crisp up the bottom crust, tip the bread out of the tins and return the loaves to the oven to bake for a final 5 minutes.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

Robert May’s Chicken Pie

Robert May had an extensive and impressive career spanning over fifty-five years and the most tumultuous part of the seventeenth century, from the twilight of the reign of Elizabeth I, through the civil war, the protectorate and the restoration of the monarchy. His cookery book, The Accomplisht Cook, was first published in 1660, when he was in his mid seventies,

As a boy, he apprenticed in France and upon his return worked for many important Catholic families in England. As a consequence, his book not only chronicles multiple decades of British food, but thanks to the generosity of his patrons, that of France,  and via printed recipe books, of both Italy and Spain. In his preface, May praises the generosity of hs patrons in allowing him the funds to prepare food at the highest quality, and admits that not all purses will be able to stretch to all of the recipes he presents. He nevertheless holds it his responsibility to pass as much of his 55 years of knowledge as he can. For the most part he claims that with his book:

the Reader shall find most of the Compositions, and mixtures easie to be prepared, most pleasing to the Palate, and not too chargeable to the Purse; since you are at liberty to employ as much or as little therein as you please.

On which note we come to this recipe.

There are two variations of this recipe in The Accomplisht Cook, with only trifling differences between them: one has nutmeg and pistachios, the other cream and breadcrumbs. It is a fraction of a much larger and more ostentatious banqueting dish, and constitutes merely the centrepiece. Robert May has called it a “Pine-Molet”, which is later defined by Randle Holme¹ in 1688 as:

a Manchet of French Bread, with a hole cut in the top, and all the crum taken out, and filled with a composition of rost or boiled Capons minced and stamped to a Paste, with sweet Herbs, Eggs and Spices, &c. and so boiled in a cloth; and serve it in strong Broth, with several sorts of Fowls about it.

This definition seems to have come from a reading of May’s own recipes, as there is no indication of the name being used prior to 1660. It is quite possibly a corruption from French of “pain mollet” a light, spongy bread introduced to France in the early 17th century and much admired and sought-after by, if not the great and the good, then definitely the wealthy, including the queen, Marie de Medici. In following Robert May’s advice, I have decided to dispense with the ‘garnish’ of several cooked birds and focus on the stuffed loaf, because it is so deliciously original, and have opted for baking rather than boiling. Leftover chicken never looked so good!

I tried several variations of the recipe, in terms of both the filling and the exterior, and have made only slight adjustments in order to keep the flavours authentic, and appetising to our 21st century palates. I like all three variations seen here, each delicious in its own right.

Pine Molet Loaf

The filling is a wonderfully unusual but distinctly savoury jumble of meat, eggs, herbs, nuts and spices, bound with more egg and with a smattering of currants. Seen here, chopped uniformly and baked in an enriched milk bread loaf, the crust has been moistened with stock to prevent it drying out as it bakes in the oven. The result is a crisp outside and a moist and savoury inside. Delicious eaten hot, the pie firms up as it cools, making it ideal for picnics and outings.

Pine-Molet Loaf 2

In this version, the filling has been chopped less finely, so that the different elements can be easily distinguished. In addition to the large loaf, I have also baked some smaller, individually-sized buns, perfect for a packed lunch.

Pine Molet Filo

This third variation has been baked in filo pastry for a thin, friable but deliciously crisp and buttery exterior. This is the same mixture as the pie on the main photograph, with the filling pleasantly chunky and the different elements providing interest visually as well as through taste. This is best enjoyed at home, as the pastry doesn’t retain its crispness once cooled, and would therefore not travel well.

Robert May’s Chicken Pie

You can customise the proportions of the ingredients to suit your  own personal tastes, but the following is both flavourful and delightfully different.

75g breadcumbs
100g shelled pistachios
50g ground almonds
50g currants
4 large eggs – hardboiled, chopped²
2 large eggs – whisked
300g cooked chicken – chopped
1/2 nutmeg – grated
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp coarse ground black pepper
1tbs fresh chopped (or 1.5tsp dried) each of chopped thyme, chives, rosemary, marjoram
2tbs chopped fresh parsley.

(optional) chicken stock

A large round loaf/brioche, buns or 1 pack of filo pastry and butter for brushing.

  • Mix all of the ingredients together well. Set aside while you prepare the loaf/pastry.
  • If using a loaf or buns, cut off the ‘lid’ neatly and hollow out the interior. Keep enough structural integrity so that the walls remain standing (no thinner than 1cm). Blitz the insides to breadcrumbs and use in the filling if required.
  • If using filo pastry, generously butter a 24cm spring-form tin and line with sheets of filo.  Brush each sheet with melted butter and allow at least 10cm of the sheets to hang outside the tin.
  • Check the filling for moistness: the breadcrumbs and almonds will have absorbed some of the moisture, so if required, add in stock until the mixture is moist but not over-saturated. Check the seasoning by frying a little patty of the filling in a pan, then tasting and adjusting as necessary.
  • Spoon the filling into the prepared loaf/buns/tin.
  • For the stuffed loaf/buns: add the lid and brush the outsides with either stock or water. Wrap in foil.
  • For the pie:  fold over the excess filo pastry to cover the filling. Cover with a loose bottom from a springform tin, or a baking sheet, and add a weight. I use a large, smooth rock, wrapped in foil.
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan.
  • Bake for 30-40 minutes until the filling is cooked and the pastry/crust is crisp. To check, use a probe thermometer, which should read at least 75°C-80°C. If making the smaller filo parcels, cooking time is reduced to 20-25 minutes.
  • For the stuffed loaf/buns: remove the foil and place on serving dish, or if eating cold, keep wrapped until required.
  • For the pie, remove the weight and baking sheet/base. place your serving plate on top of the pie and flip over. Remove tin and serve.

¹ The academy of armory, or, A storehouse of armory and blazon (1688), Holme, Randle (1627-1699), Chester

² The original recipe (as seen in the first loaf picture) suggested yolks only. I subsequently chose to use the whites as well, to avoid having to find a use for them. If you have a favourite go-to recipe, then by all means omit the whites from the filling.

Fruit Charlotte

This is a deliciously simple, autumnal dessert that, although it can be assembled from very few, ordinary ingredients, ends up tasting so much better than the sum of its parts – the crisp, golden outside, hot and sharp insides and cool cream or hot, rich custard make this a dish of delicious contrasts. It is one of the many British desserts that evolved to use up stale bread and cooked fruit. Whilst the filling can be almost any fruit purée you have to hand, the construction needs to observe a few rules if it is going to look as impressive when served as it tastes.

Firstly, the fruit purée needs to be relatively firm and ‘dry’, with little or no visible liquid. If your cooked fruit is especially moist, then just set it in a sieve to drain – the resultant liquid can be sweetened and served as a pouring syrup or saved for use in/on other desserts. Alternatively, set it over a low heat in a wide pan, to help evaporate the excess liquid. If you think your fruit is still too soft, you could consider whisking in an egg yolk or two to help thicken it during cooking, making it more of a fruit custard.

The bread should not be plastic-wrapped and pre-sliced. The best charlottes are made when the bread can absorb some moisture from the filling in much the same way as it does in Summer Pudding, and sliced bread just doesn’t have a suitable surface for this. Not that having your bread sliced by a machine is bad – it can make it wonderfully thin and regular – just buy a whole loaf and get the bakery to cut it for you on their machine. If it’s not stale, just leave the slices you intend to use out on the counter for an hour, they’ll dry just enough. During baking, the dry outside will, thanks to the coating of butter, crisp up and turn wonderfully golden, and the inside will draw moisture from the filling and pull everything together, so that you have a firm pudding to turn out.

The final important consideration is the shape of the bowl in which you construct your charlotte. It needs to be both oven-proof and domed/tapering. Straight-sided charlottes are usually cold desserts such as the Charlotte Russe, which uses sponge fingers and a firmly set cream and is also thoroughly chilled before being served, which helps greatly with presentation. A traditional, domed pudding bowl, or individual pudding bowls, are ideal. Their tapering form is most conducive to maintaining an impressive shape of your hot charlotte. The fluted tins commonly marketed as brioche tins are also the ideal shape, with the added detail of fluting giving the turned-out dish a very elegant appearance.

This is an adaptation of Mrs Rundell’s recipe from 1808. Her version calls for raw apples, sugar and butter and is baked slowly for 3 hours with a weight on top to help compress the apples as they shrink during cooking. This recipe is much shorter, just over one hour, but this length of time is necessary for the bread to crisp, turn golden and be sturdy enough to support the fruit filling until serving time. Higher heat and baking for a shorter time means that, when turned out, the pudding slowly sags and collapses, like a Victorian matron with her corset removed. The use of an already-cooked puree makes preparation that much quicker and the cooked pudding less prone to loss of volume.

Fruit Charlotte cut

Fruit Charlotte

I used some apples from a friend’s garden for this recipe, and added no sugar – the sharpness was a great contrast against the rich, buttery crust. I highly recommend this approach. If your fruit is especially sharp, consider using a sweet custard as an accompaniment.

750g fruit pulp
stale white bread slices
softened butter

pouring cream or custard to serve

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan.
  • Butter the inside of your bowl(s) generously with softened butter.
  • Cut the crusts from the bread. Cut a circle or flower shape for the bottom of your bowl and put it in first. It will make for a neat top once you turn out the pudding, and also hide the ends of all the side pieces of bread.
  • Line your bowl(s) with the crustless bread. How you choose to do this is up to you. Personally, I keep the pieced of bread whole and patch where necessary. If your bread is fresh and springy, you can make things easier for yourself by using a rolling pin to flatten them slightly. If you are using individual pudding bowls, you might want to reduce this to a width of 1.5cm, as the smaller form will need thinner slices if it is still to look dainty when turned out.  Place the slices inside the pudding at a slight angle and press into the butter. Leave the excess sticking out of the top of the bowl for now. Make sure  there are no spaces or holes for fruit to leak through. You can see on the above photo that a little apple juice has squeezed out and been caramelised by the heat of the oven. Delicious, but a flaw if you’re after an unblemished exterior to your charlotte.
  • Fill the lined mould with the fruit puree.
  • Butter slices of crustless bread for the top of the mould. Fold the ends of the bread at the sides inward and place the final pieces of bread butter-side upward over the top.
  • Spread a little butter onto a sheet of parchment and place this butter-side down over your filled bowl.
  • Add a cake tin on top together with an oven-safe weight, such as a foil-wrapped metal weight or quarry tile.
  • Bake for about an hour until the outside of the buttered bread is crisp and golden brown and the filling piping hot. For individual puddings, bake for 30-40minutes.
  • Remove the weight/tin/parchment and bake for a further 10 minutes, to allow the lid to crisp up.
  • Remove from the oven and turn out onto your serving dish.