Bara Brith

This week it’s the classic Welsh speckled bread Bara Brith. Nowadays, this is usually made using baking powder as the leavener, but personally I prefer the more traditional yeast.

And bonus! There’s two recipes for you to choose from!

When looking at an old recipe, I usually study the range of recipes available and select the one that, to my imagination, sounds the nicest. If there is a tie, then I will make both and decide which makes the cut by taste. This time, however, it was too difficult to decide, so I chose not to choose and leave that decision to you.

Both recipes have their strongpoints, not least from their provenance and pedigree.

On the left of the photo above, we have the recipe from Walter Banfield’s classic book “Manna”: A Comprehensive Treatise on Bread Manufacture (1937), a book admired by Elizabeth David and breathtaking in its breadth and scope. It is based on additions made to ordinary white bread dough after its first proving. The large quantity of fruit and peel contrast brightly against the white of the dough and make for a very sturdy slice that will keep moist for a long time.

On the right of the photo, a possibly more authentic Bara Breith from Mrs E.B.Jones, who, for many years, ran the Powys Temperance Hotel on Market Square, Llanrhaeadr-Ym-Mochnant in the first half of the 20th century. The recipe was collected by Dorothy Hartley and included in her iconic book Food in England, first published in 1954. As can be seen from the picture, this recipe isn’t as heavily fruited as the first one, but it has the added interest of being made from half wheat flour and half oat flour (finely ground oatmeal). Against expectation, the crumb is very light, making it a much more delicate slice.

I love the richness of the fruit in the bread dough version, but also really enjoy the delicate flavours of Mrs Jones’ version. I suggest you make both and decide for yourself.

Both loaves will keep well wrapped in parchment and foil, in a cake tin. Both are best enjoyed sliced and buttered, with a hot cup of something in front of a roaring fire.

Mrs Jones’ Bara Brieth

Don’t feel the need to order oat flour especially for this recipe, you can make your own by blitzing rolled oats in a spice grinder, or just use medium oatmeal for a more robust texture.

60g candied orange peel – diced
100g currants
70g sultanas
225g strong white flour
225g oat flour or medium oatmeal
115g lard
115g Demerara sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 large egg
1 tsp mixed spice
1tsp soft brown sugar
30g fresh yeast

  • Put the peel and the fruit into a bowl and pour over boiling water. Set aside to plump for about 30 minutes.
  • After 15 minutes, cream the yeast and the soft brown sugar together.
  • Put the flours and the lard into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Tip into the bowl you will be using for mixing and add the Demerara sugar, spice and salt
  • Drain the fruit, retaining the water, and use it to mix the dough. Keep the fruit warm in a low oven while the dough is kneaded.
  • Add the yeast to the flour mixture with the egg, lightly whisked. Use the (by now just) warm fruit-soaking water to mix everything to a soft dough.
  • Knead for 10 minutes.
  • Mix in the warm fruit, cover with plastic and allow to rise until doubled in size. Due to the richness of the ingredients, this may take anything between 1 and 2 hours.
  • Grease a large loaf tin.
  • When the dough has risen, tip it out and pat down to deflate. Form into a loaf shape and lay into the prepared tin.
  • Cover lightly and allow to rise for about 45 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Bake for 30 minutes.
  • Turn the tin around 180 degrees and lay a sheet of foil lightly over the top, to prevent the loaf browning too much.
  • Bake for a further 25-30 minutes.
  • Remove from the tin and if the bottom doesn’t sound hollow, return to the oven for 5-10 minutes to crisp up. You can place the loaf directly onto the oven bars.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

Walter Banfield’s Bara Brith

450g strong white flour
½ tsp salt
1tsp soft brown sugar
30g fresh yeast
warm water to mix

115g lard in small cubes
5g mixed spice
65g Demerara sugar
1 large egg
300g currants
90g sultanas
90g raisins
60g candied orange peel – diced
50g plain flour

  • Cream the sugar and yeast together with a tablespoon of the flour and a little warm water and set aside to work
  • Mix with the rest of the ingredients into a soft dough.
  • Cover with plastic and set aside to rise for 1 hour.
  • After 30 minutes, spread the fruit (not the peel) out on a baking sheet lined with parchment and put into the oven on its lowest setting, just to warm through.
  • Grease a large loaf tin.
  • When the dough has risen to twice its original size, add in the finely cubed lard, spice, egg and sugar and knead smooth.
  • Add the warmed fruit and peel and mix thoroughly.
  • Sprinkle over the flour and mix thoroughly.
  • Shape into a large loaf and place into the prepared tin.
  • Allow a long second rise, of 1-2 hours.
  • Preheat the oven to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Bake for 30 minutes.
  • Turn the tin around 180 degrees and lay a sheet of foil lightly over the top, to prevent the loaf browning too much.
  • Bake for a further 25-30 minutes.
  • Remove from the tin and if the bottom doesn’t sound hollow, return to the oven for 5-10 minutes to crisp up. You can place the loaf directly onto the oven bars.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

Luxury Bath Buns

Here’s a variation of a recipe in MY BOOK which I have adapted from one of my favourite vintage recipe books, snappily entitled “Morning and Hot-Plate Goods including Scones, Buns, Teabread, etc” by John Boyd.

It is a book for professional bakers, in that the recipes inside involve ingredients measured in pounds rather than ounces, but it is compact nevertheless, with a jaunty yellow cover and both line and photographic illustrations throughout. It is undated, but after a quick search of t’internet, the mid 1940s seems a good guesstimate of age.

The book claims that this is the original recipe of those buns in the 18th century that caused everyone ‘taking the waters’ in Bath to put on so much weight, allegedly forcing Dr Oliver to invent the altogether much less fun Bath Oliver biscuit for people to nibble on instead. The dough is a deep, golden colour from all the butter and eggs, and dotted with crunchy sugar and orange peel. Don’t be alarmed at the quantity of nutmeg, it looks a lot, but it’s not overpowering at all – skimp on it at your peril.

These buns are definitely an indulgence  –  a delicious, DELICIOUS indulgence, but the freezer is your friend and thus these treats can be spread over a few weeks, rather than having to consume them all in one sitting, however tempting that may be.

Since my book came out, I’ve picked up a couple of snippets of additional information about Bath Buns. Despite their rich ingredients, their appearance wasn’t supposed to be a smooth, spherical ball of dough, rather they were deliberately of a rough and craggy exterior, which, I must admit, is a great contrast to their soft, luxurious interiors. The iconic sugar nib topping remains.

Some recipes suggest using a pair of spoons to portion out the soft dough, but thanks to a quick flick through MANNA by Walter Banfield, I discovered an altogether easier method (see below).

The recipe calls for fresh yeast – my latest fad – but feel free to substitute rapid-rise yeast if preferred.

Luxury Bath Buns

Makes 16-ish

450g strong white flour
4 large eggs
225g unsalted butter
30g granulated sugar
30g fresh yeast
60ml milk
2 whole nutmegs – grated
225g sugar nibs
2oz candied orange peel – finely chopped
3 drops lemon essence (original) or the zest of a lemon (my suggestion)

1 large egg for glazing

  • Heat some water in a small pan.
  • Crack the eggs into a bowl and add the milk.
  • Whisk together, then put the bowl over the simmering water and whisk until the mixture is warmed, but no hotter than blood-temperature (dip a clean finger in to test).
  • Whisk in the yeast and 50g from the flour and set aside  to rise for 30 minutes.
  • While this is working, in another bowl, gently warm the butter over the simmering water until soft. Add the granulated sugar, nutmeg and lemon essence/zest and whisk to combine.
  • Combine the two mixtures after the yeast has been working for 30 minutes and stir into the remaining flour.
  • Knead well for 10 minutes. It is an extremely soft dough, but please resist the temptation to add any more flour as this would compromise the texture of the finished buns (I use a stand mixer & a dough hook).
  • Adding the nibs and peel: Here you have a choice. You can add in 150g of the nibs at the end of the kneading, then set it to rise, OR you can add in 150g of the sugar after the first rise. Adding the sugar straight after the kneading will mean it leeches moisture from the dough and starts to dissolve as the dough rises, leading to less of a crunch in the bite of the finished bun. Add 150g of sugar nibs after the first rise, and they are still relatively large and crunchy, even after baking. The rest of the nibs will be scattered over the top of the buns, so their crunchiness needs to be factored into your decision as well. The peel can be added at either time, but I generally add it after the kneading to allow its aroma to permeate the dough.
  • Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rise for 1 hour.
  • Tip out the dough and pat down.
  • Add the sugar/peel if not already done so.
  • Portion the dough into pieces weighing 150g. Form these pieces into neat balls, then gradually stretch the ball of dough between your hands until it pulls in half – pretty much like those diagrams of cells dividing. Place the buns with the torn side upwards onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper. In the recipe in my book, the buns were placed atop a sugar cube soaked in lemon juice. As the buns cooked, the sugar and lemon juice melted together to give a deliciously crunchy coating to the base of each bun. These buns are so rich from the butter and the sugar nibs, this isn’t necessary, however the parchment is a must to ensure they don’t stick.
  • Whisk the egg with a little water and glaze the buns, then allow to rise for 45 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C Fan.
  • Glaze the buns again, then top with the remaining sugar nibs
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes, turning the tins around after 10 minutes to ensure even browning.
  • Remove from the oven and leave on the tins. Cover the hot buns with clean tea towels to keep the crust soft as they cool.
  • Enjoy warm.

Dundee Cake

This recipe is fabulous – and this recommendation is coming from an until-recently Dundee-Cake-Disliker. The crust is crisp but delicately thin, the insides delicately moist and buttery, rich with the sweetness of sultanas and the tang of candied orange peel.

The modern Dundee Cake has an iconic appearance: the carefully laid-out pattern of whole, blanched almonds immediately distinguishes it from other fruit cakes. For many years I’ve not been a fan, based on the Dundee Cakes I’d been served as a child: dry, crumbly, tasteless, overly-fruited masses with burnt nuts on the top and, horror of horrors, glacé cherries studding their depths.

After a bit of digging around in the cake history books, it turns out that the Dundee Cake known today is quite a few steps removed from the original. So I had high hopes that with a little experimentation I could, as with other recipes I’ve managed to rehabilitate from childhood dislikes, bring Dundee Cake back to its former glory and once again make it a teatime favourite.

Dundee Cake was first made by the Dundee-based Keiller company, as an off-season sideline to their marmalade business, as a way of using up excess peel generated by the marmalade manufacturing process. By gentleman’s agreement, no other bakers in the city made the cake. Keiller’s were also responsible for popularising their creation under the name Dundee Cake, described by Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food as light, buttery delicacy stuffed with sultanas, almonds and candied orange peel.

Quite when the cake was first made is a bit of a mystery, but it is mentioned in stories and novels of the mid-nineteenth century. An 1853 edition of The Lancet carries an advertisement for a Regent Street caterer, which includes Dundee Cake in its list of available cakes. This recipe is based on Madam Marie de Joncourt’s 1882 recipe, but tweaked to conform to the description of the original delicate and rich cake: more butter, almonds, sultanas and peel, no currants, no almonds on top. I’ve left off the distinguishing almonds, because they’re not mentioned in the original recipe, but you can make your own decision on that.

Dundee Cake

180g butter – softened
112g caster sugar
4 eggs
1tsp vanilla extract
180g flour
150g sultanas
2 tsp baking powder
1/3 grated nutmeg
100g ground almonds
125g candied peel, cut into thin, 2cm slivers

  • Preheat the oven to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Grease a 20cm, deep (at least 10cm) loose-bottomed cake tin.
  • Line the base with a circle of parchment.
  • Tear off a long strip of parchment, long enough to wrap around the whole tin.
  • Fold the strip of parchment in half lengthwise.
  • Unfold, then fold in each long edge towards the centre fold.
  • Fold both halves together, making for four layers of parchment.
  • Line the tin with this 4-ply strip of parchment. Any fruit-filled cake needs protecting from the high temperatures that baking in a tin will generate.
    Grease the parchment on the sides and base of the tin.
  • Put the softened butter into a bowl and whisk until light and creamy.
  • Add the sugar and whisk until pale and fluffy.
  • Whisk in the eggs one at a time. Whisk for a good 3-4 minutes before adding the next egg.
  • Stir in the vanilla.
  • Gently stir the remaining ingredients together, then fold into the wet ingredients. Don’t over-mix, or you run the risk of deflating all the air you’ve just whisked into it.
  • Spread the mixture into the tin and level the top.
  • Bake for one hour, gently turning the tin around 180 degrees after 40 minutes.
  • Check for done-ness by inserting a wooden toothpick deep into the centre of the cake. If no liquid batter is clinging to it when removed, the cake is done.
    Cool for 10 minutes in the tin, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • Store, wrapped in foil, in an airtight tin.

Candied Peel

A forgotten art in British preserving is home-made candied peel. ‘But I can buy that!’ you shriek. Yes, I know. But if you’ve ever tasted fresh candied peel made with nothing more than sugar, peel and water – you’d understand. I used to hate store-bought candied peel, and avoided anything that included it, but home-made just blows it out of the water. The explosion of citrus flavour is amazing. The beauty of making it yourself is that you can candy any citrus peel you like, and not be limited to just orange and lemon. So here, for anyone who fancies having a go, is how to do it, gleaned from 17th century manuscript recipe books. It’s not difficult or complicated, but it is a bit repetitive. But make a decent amount at one time, and you won’t have to repeat it for a good few months. Oh – and it’ll make your house smell amazing.

How To Candy Peel

Citrus fruit of choice
Sugar
Water

  • Remove the skin from the fruit. Slice off the top and bottom (to make a flat surface to stand the fruit on) and then cut the peel from the sides of the fruit by slicing downwards. Keep as much of the pith as possible.
  • Scrape any flesh and membranes from the fruit rind. Don’t worry if you can’t get it all, it’ll become easier after the peel has been boiled. Leave the pith intact – it’s the pith absorbing the sugar that keeps the rind juicy and helps prevent it becoming hard.
  • Place the rind into a pan large enough to hold it plus an inch of water. Cover with clean water.
  • Bring water to a boil and boil for a minute or two then drain.
  • Rinse the peel thoroughly, and also scrub the sides of the saucepan thoroughly as well. Why? The bitterness of the peel comes from the citrus oil in the skin of the fruit. Bringing the water to the boil helps release this oil, but it then floats on the top of the water, coats the rind when the water is poured off, and also congeals onto the sides of the pan. If you don’t rinse the peel and scrub the pan well, you just end up basically boiling the peel in the bitter citrus oil, which kinda defeats the whole purpose of repeated boilings.
  • Repeat until the peels are semi translucent and very tender. This will greatly depend on the type and condition of the fruit itself, but as a rough guide, lemons = 4 times, oranges = 5 times, grapefruit = 6 times.
  • Leave in a colander to drain well.
  • While the peel is draining, make some sugar syrup: mix 1 part water to 2 parts sugar. 500ml water to 1kg sugar is straightforward, but might leave you with a lot of leftovers, if you’re not making much peel. Not very helpful I’m afraid, but to my mind, it is better to have a little extra syrup, than have to make more once you’ve added the peels because there isn’t enough. I usually guesstimate by eye – and use non-standard measures (i.e. large mug or jug) and just measure by volume.
  • Heat the sugar and water slowly until the sugar is dissolved, then bring to a boil and continue to heat until the mixture is clear.
  • Squeeze excess water from the peels by pressing them between several layers of kitchen roll – or I find that using a clean hand towel works best – they’re surprisingly soggy peels!
  • Scrape off any remaining flesh and membranes using the side of a teaspoon and cut the peels into 5mm strips.
  • Once the syrup is clear, drop in the drained peel. Make sure that there is enough syrup to allow all of the rinds to be submerged.
  • Bring syrup and rind to a boil then cover and put onto the lowest heat. Let it stew gently until the rinds become translucent and jewel-like (almost like coloured glass). Stir occasionally. This takes about an hour. Don’t be tempted to turn up the heat to speed things along, it’ll just harden the peel.
  • Store the candied peel in screw-top jars, making sure it’s completely covered by the syrup. This will keep it moist until required, and the high sugar content of the syrup will act as a preservative. When you need to use it in a recipe, rinse off the excess syrup and pat dry with a paper towel.
  • Any excess syrup can be bottled and saved to drizzle over cakes or desserts. It will have a wonderful flavour.