Chelsea Buns

Back in  2013 I wrote an article on the history of Chelsea Buns, ultimately included in my book Great British Bakes which culminated in a recipe suggestion for the original Chelsea Buns.

I based the recipe on anecdotes that appeared in various publications on the borough of Chelsea and its surroundings, mostly written in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

Before me appeared the shops so famed for Chelsea buns, which, for above thirty years, I have never passed without filling my pockets…. …….These buns have afforded a competency, and even wealth; to four generations of the same family; and it is singular, that their delicate flavour, lightness and richness, have never been successfully imitated.”i

To be good, it should be made with a good deal of butter, be very light and eat hotii

“The old Chelsea Buns were greatly in demand and were a superior kind to our common buns, more like Bath Buns. Old people say they were very rich and seemed full of butter. They were square in form and were made with eggs, with the kind of sugar, lemon and spice but without fruit.”iii

“Note that the true Chelsea Bun of the Hands family was by no means the darksome and dismal lump which is now sold us as a hot cross bun. On the contrary, it was specially famous for its flaky lightness and delicate flavour.”iv

“It was not round, but square in shape, and it came into the world in batches, the several individuals crammed as close together as the cells of a honeycomb…..Excellent they were—light, sweet, glistening as to their crowns in a sort of sugary varnish, and easy of digestion.”v

There was no mention of the fruit which adorns the modern version of the bun, neither was there mention of the spiral. The recipe I came up with was therefore fruitless and a regular bun shape. I couldn’t quite let go of the iconic spiral shape, though, so baked a version in this shape, too. Below is one of the original photographs taken for the book.

Chelsea Buns

Fast forward to 2020 and last week I discovered a recipe for Chelsea Buns in a manuscript (MS10979) held by the National Library of Scotland. This was very exciting, because the manuscript was dated circa 1827, which is a time when the original Chelsea Bun House was still in business. (It was eventually torn down in 1839). Prior to this, the earliest recipe available had been the one published in 1854 in George Read’s The Complete Biscuit and Gingerbread Baker’s Assistant (p103).

Recipe for Chelsea Buns from a c1827 anonymous manuscript (MS10979) at the National Library of Scotland.

The recipe itself is rather challenging to read, but there are a couple of details that I think deserve pointing out. The recipe title “Chelsea Bunds for shops” suggests that the recipe was for an independant baker, who sold his/her wares wholesale. Perhaps s/he only had a baking premises and not a shopfront. The other detail is the tiny diagram  on the bottom left of the page, showing how the buns are to be laid out: laying the buns like this will ensure the characteristic square shape once the dough has risen.

As luck would have it, and paraphrasing the well-known bus analogy, you wait seven years for a recipe, and then two come along at once. Also last week I spotted another early Chelsea Bun recipe, which had heretofore hidden from my internet searching by the cunning ruse of calling itself Chelsea Bunns. It appears in A Treatise on Confectionary, in all its branches, with practical notes, etc (1817) by Joseph BELL (p36, see below).

Chelsea Bunns

The previous recipe referred to is one for London Buns – flour, sugar, butter, yeast, and no spice. The shaping of the buns in this recipe is also unusual: I’ve never heard of Chelsea Buns being diamond-shaped, and it makes me wonder whether the author was confusing them with another bun, and if so, which?

I used to be rather evangelical about recipes for things being the PROPER recipe. Seven years ago, I was very firm in my conviction that a fruitless Chelsea Bun was the PROPER recipe and the fruit-filled, overblown, too-heavily-glazed monstrosities on sale in bakeries were borderline abominations. Now I’m much more laid back, having come to understand that, just like us, recipes have a lifespan, some longer than others, over the course of which changes happen. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the light and gently-spiced Chelsea Buns were extremely popular. Over time, personal taste, or possibly economics (costs of dried fruit & sugar) saw a change to fruit-filled buns being favourite. It is absolutely possible to like one style of Chelsea Bun over another, and liking one style doesn’t invalidate the other in the slightest.

So enjoy whatever floats your boat – or in this instance, fills your bun.

Chelsea Buns

This recipe doesn’t contain any lemon, as mentioned in one of the anecdotes. Since it was the only reference I found that did mention lemon, I’m reserving judgement on whether it was a regular ingredient in the original. However, if you’d like to include some, I suggest the zest of one lemon, and just one teaspoon of spice.

1 sachet fast-action yeast
150ml hot water
150ml milk
500g strong bread flour
75g unsalted butter
110g soft brown sugar
2tsp mixed spice

150g melted butter for glazing

1 large egg
50ml milk

3-4tbs icing sugar

  • Mix the milk and water together, then add the yeast, 1tsp of sugar (from the listed amount) and 3-4tbs of flour (again from the given amount).
  • Whisk all together thoroughly, and stand aside for 15 minutes until the mixture starts to froth.
  • Put the rest of the flour, sugar, butter and spice in a food processor and blitz until thoroughly mixed.
  • Combine the wet and dry ingredients and knead for 10 minutes. Add more flour if the mixture seems a little too soft. If using a machine with a dough hook, make the last 2 minutes maximum speed, to pull the dough together.
  • Tip out the dough and roll into a thin (5-10mm) sheet on a floured surface.
  • Cover the whole surface with melted butter, using a pastry brush.
  • Roll up the dough from the long side, keeping it tight. This will be a little tricky to start, on account of the butter making it slippery.
  • Brush the outside of the roll with more melted butter.
  • Grease a 24cm square tin.
  • Starting from the centre of the roll, slice off 4cm rounds and place them cut-side upwards in the tin. You should get 16 well-shaped slices. The smaller end pieces can be placed in cupcake tins to bake.
  • Whisk the egg and the milk together to make a glaze and paint the cut surfaces of the buns.
  • Cover the glazed buns lightly with greased clingfilm and allow to prove for 45minutes or until doubled in size.
  • Heat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Glaze the buns again just before going into the oven, and bake for 25-30 minutes until risen and golden. The smaller bun offcuts will only need 20 minutes
  • As the buns are baking, mix the sugar into the remainder of the glaze, and brush over the cooked buns as they come out of the oven. The heat of the buns will set the glaze and the sugar will make them extra shiny.
  • Cool in the tin to keep the sides soft. Cover with a clean cloth to cool if you like the tops soft as well.
  • Enjoy warm.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

i“A Morning’s Walk from London to Kew”, p22, Sir Richard Phillips, J Adlard, London 1817

iiGentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume 11, 1839, p466.

iiiThe Village of Palaces (1880) Vol II, p191

iv“By Chelsea Reach: some riverside records” Blunt, R. 1921. London. p55

v“Some Savoury Reminiscences”, The People’s magazine, May 4th, 1867, p331

 

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.

Soda Cake

This was a spur-of-the-moment bake this week, and in just over 1 hour after reading the recipe, I was taking this picture. Not as fast as scones, admittedly, but made from store-cupboard ingredients and comes together in mere minutes.

I found the recipe in a manuscript recipe book from The Wellcome Library, an impressively long-lived book containing over 100 years of family entries, starting around 1750.

The use of bicarbonate of soda became popular in the 19th century for its speed and ease of use, especially in areas where fresh yeast was difficult to come by.  This is a very early recipe – not the earliest I’ve found – that award goes to the recipe in “The Virginia Housewife” by Mary Randolph, published in the US in 1824, but this recipe has the added deliciousness of currants and candied peel.

Notes in the book suggest a larger proportion of peel and fruit can be used if liked, but I think it’s perfect as is. Best enjoyed fresh from the oven, it is delicious plain and also spread with an indulgent layer of butter.

You can add a little lemon juice to sour the milk if liked – the bicarbonate reacts best with acidity – or you could use buttermilk, a mixture of milk and plain yogurt or whey.

Soda Cake (1835) MS4645, Wellcome Library
Soda Cake (1835) MS4645, Wellcome Library

Soda Cake

450g plain flour
115g currants
115g caster sugar
115g unsalted butter
60g candied orange peel – diced small
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
240ml milk/buttermilk/yogurt+milk/whey

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Butter a square, 20cm tin or cover a baking sheet with parchment if you want to bake it freeform.
  • When the oven is heated, mix the flour, currants, sugar, peel and soda in a bowl.
  • Melt the butter in the microwave or in a pan on a low heat.
  • Add the milk (or whatever liquid you are using) to the melted butter and pour into the dry ingredients.
  • Mix thoroughly and either shape into a round on the baking sheet or in the tin, if using. Try and mound the mixture up into a dome shape, if possible, but don’t faff about too much The quicker you get the cake into the oven after adding the liquid, the more lift you’ll get from the reaction of the soda.
  • Bake for 50-55 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Turn the sheet/tin around after 30 minutes to help with even colouring.
  • Cool the cake on a wire rack.
  • Enjoy warm.

 

Snow Cake

An unusual and simple cake, with the bonus of being gluten-free!

As I was perusing one of my several vintage baking books, I came across this recipe – not in any specific allergy-related book or even chapter of a book. No, it was just included with a bunch of other recipes in a book aimed at the commercial baker, dating from the early 20th century. I have scaled the recipe down from the originally huge quantities, but otherwise, it is unchanged.

This cake is made using potato flour. IMPORTANT: Potato flour is made from RAW potatoes and is a bright white and very fine powder, with no discernible taste. It is NOT dehydrated cooked potato, which is coarse, yellowish and tastes of potato. That makes mashed potatoes when reconstituted and will add a similar texture to your cake. Readers in the US: use potato starch flour.

At first, I thought the cake got its name from it colour, because, as you can see from the photo, it is indeed a very pale cake. However, after tasting the cake, I’m now of the opinion that its name comes from its texture. It has the same quality of settled snow, in that there is a thin ‘crust’ on the top and soft, friable, almost powder-like substance underneath. The cake dissolves in the mouth – but in a different way to, say, Melting Moments. It’s incredibly light and tender and is best enjoyed simply, where it can really shine.

That said, the cream that I have teamed with it is pretty awesome itself. It is a variation of the filling I used for the mille-feuilles in the final of The Great British Bake Off. The mixture of sweetened cream cheese and whipped double cream is given a firmer set by the addition of gelatine, which helps to hold in the moisture and makes for a very luscious, rich, creamy and mousse-like texture. Just to continue the frozen theme, it’s like the very best soft-serve ice-cream, without the cold.

I’ve brightened the filling with some Apricot Jam, but any other sharp jam would also work well.

I bought the potato flour at Holland & Barrett.

Snow Cake

112g unsalted butter – softened
112g caster sugar
2 large eggs
zest of 1 lemon
2 level tsp baking powder
225g potato flour

  • Preheat the oven to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Grease and line the base of a 20cm diameter, tall cake tin – not a sandwich tin. The high sides will help shield the cake from the direct heat of the oven and keep it from becoming over-coloured.
  • Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy – 5-10 minutes.
  • Add the eggs one at a time, beating well each time.
  • Add the remaining ingredients and beat thoroughly – a good 5-10 minutes. Ordinarily, you’d run the risk of over-beating a cake mixture, which would develop the gluten in the flour, leading to a tough cake. Since the potato flour has no gluten, there’s no need to worry about this. You want to try and get as much air into the mixture as possible to make for a light texture in the cooked cake.
  • Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the surface.
  • Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the tin 180 degrees and bake for a further 10-15 minutes, for a total of 30-35 minutes. When you turn the cake after 20 minutes, slip a sheet of baking parchment over the top of the tin to keep the colour from getting too dark.
  • When cooked, remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes, then remove from the tin and cool on a wire rack.

Luscious Cream Filling

50ml double cream
50g caster sugar
2 leaves gelatine

1tsp vanilla extract
150g cream cheese,  room temperature
250ml double cream

  • Soak the leaves of gelatine in cold water for 15 minutes.
  • Warm the double cream and caster sugar until the sugar is dissolved.
  • Shake off the excess water from the gelatine and add to the pan.
  • Stir until the gelatine has melted, then remove from the heat and set aside.
  • Once the mixture has cooled a little, pour it into a bowl and add the remaining ingredients.
  • Whip the mixture until the cream has thickened and it is soft and pillowy.

To Assemble

Even though this is a light sponge cake, the weight of the top half will be too heavy initially, to avoid squidging (technical term) the cream out of the sides of the cake. Therefore, I strongly recommend using the following method to assemble your cake.

200g apricot jam – warmed and pureed

  • Using cocktail sticks, mark the midpoint of the cooled cake around the edge and cut it horizontally.
  • Spread the cut side of each cake half with apricot jam.
  • Put the bottom half of the cake back into the tin in which it was baked.
  • Slip a band of parchment or food-grade acetate around the inside of the tin, between the cake and the inside of the tin.
  • Smooth or pipe the cream filling over the bottom of the cake, making sure it reaches the edges of the cake.
  • Place the other half on top and press gently.
  • Cover with cling-film and chill for 2-3 hours, until the gelatine in the cream has set.
  • Remove from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature.
  • Remove the cake from the tin and gently peel the parchment/acetate from around the filling.
  • Smooth with a knife if necessary.
  • Dust with icing sugar to serve.

Apple Bread

This recipe was copied from the Ipswich Journal into the manuscript book from a Norfolk household in the early 19th century. The manuscript was eventually purchased by the Wellcome Library and its contents digitised and made available online, which is where I discovered it. It was the simplicity of the recipe that appealed – just 3 ingredients: Flour, yeast, apples. I immediately mixed up a batch and was delighted with the results – a lovely open textured bread with a bite/chew similar to sourdough, but with a delicate, underlying sweetness which, when toasted, almost tasted like honey. It went brilliantly, un-buttered, with some strong cheddar and a crisp apple.

Original Recipe
Source: MS3082, Wellcome Library Collection

To continue the week of coincidences, I later found this recipe reprinted word for word in my 1950 copy of Farmhouse Fare, recipes sent in to and collected by Farmer’s Weekly magazine. Which means that someone else copied the same recipe from the Ipswich Advertiser and kept it alive in their family for 150 years to be revived in 1950. Utterly delightful!

It’s a regular in this household – I hope you enjoy it also.

Apple Bread

500g strong, white bread flour
1 sachet easy-blend yeast or 20g fresh yeast
4 Bramley Apples

  • Put the apples in a saucepan and cover with water.
  • Bring to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the apples are soft and cooked. The skins might split, but as long as the water is just simmering, the apples should hold together – fast boiling water will only get you apple soup.
  • Lift the apples from the water (you might need some water later). Remove the skins and scrape the cooked apple flesh into a bowl.
  • Sieve the cooked apple to make a smooth puree. If using fresh yeast, you can crumble it into the puree and whisk until thoroughly mixed.
  • Put the flour and dry yeast into a bowl and stir to combine.
  • Add the apple puree gradually and stir to combine into a soft dough. You should need between 250-300g of apple puree. If you need more liquid, use some of the water the apples were cooked in.
  • If you have a mixer with a dough hook, work the dough for 10 minutes on the lowest speed. Otherwise, work it by hand, but be careful not to add too much flour in the kneading – you want to keep the dough nice and soft.
  • Put the dough in a bowl, cover and leave the mixture to double in size.
  • When sufficiently risen, tip the dough out of the bowl and knock back.
  • Shape into loaves and put into a 1kg greased loaf tin.
  • Cover lightly with a cloth and leave to rise for a further 30-45 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden brown and the base sounds hollow when tapped. If the bread appears cooked, but not sounding hollow, remove from the tin and return to the oven for 5-10 minutes to crisp up.
  • Cool completely on a wire rack before slicing.