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.