Fruitbowl Tea Loaf

Retrieved from  an old farmhouse baking book, this recipe has dates and walnuts, which make for a delicious tea loaf, but can also make it a little dry, almost dusty, especially if the walnuts aren’t in their first flush of youth. Deliciously, the inclusion of mashed bananas helps with the moistness and the apple sauce really brightens the flavour with its freshness. Neither flavour dominates, making the loaf wonderfully flavoursome. Finally, it is brought to a rich, batter consistency by a splash-ette of lager – and indeed, Lager Loaf was the original recipe title – but that sounds too much like Lager Lout to my ears – which is far from tasty – so I feel justified in renaming it.

And it is a distinct improvement to eat spread with butter, with a cup of something hot.

Fruitbowl Tea Bread

You don’t HAVE to make this with the apple – if you have the eggs, just use two and no apple.

85g unsalted butter
1tbs golden syrup
85g soft brown or light muscovado sugar
1 sharp eating apple, e.g. Jazz or Braeburn
1 large egg
280g self-raising flour
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp cream of tartar
pinch of salt
150ml lager
2 ripe bananas, peeled and mashed
125g chopped dates
50g walnuts, roughly chopped

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Grease and line a 1kg loaf tin with parchment paper. Tear off a second piece of parchment and make a fold down the middle. This piece will be used during the baking.
  • Peel and core the apple, then grate finely into a small saucepan. Cover with a lid and heat gently until the apple has broken down into a puree. Sieve to remove any lumps. If you’re impatient, whizz it in a small food processor.
  • Gently warm the butter, syrup and sugar either in a pan or using the microwave, until melted.
  • Add the lager and apple puree, then whisk in the egg.
  • Mash the bananas. Make sure your dates and walnuts are also chopped and ready.
  • Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar into a bowl.
  • Add the liquid mixture and stir thoroughly.
  • Quickly fold through the bananas, dates and nuts and pour into the prepared tin.
  • Place into the oven and prop the second piece of parchment over the tin with the fold at the top, rather like a tent. This will prevent the top of the loaf from becoming too dark during baking.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the ‘tent’ and bake for a further 15-20 minutes.
  • Be sure to test the cake for done-ness using a cocktail stick/skewer/cake tester before removing from the oven – the moisture in the bananas and apple will make it very moist, so be sure it’s baked all the way through, especially towards the bottom.
  • Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • Serve sliced and buttered, and store in an airtight container.

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.

Plum Pudding

This pudding has a lot going for it: its fruity, spiced, zesty with candied peel, suet-free and thus vegetarian, less than 2 hours in the making/baking – and over 300 years old!

I found this recipe in the manuscript recipe book of Elizabeth Philipps (circa 1694), when I was hunting for Christmas recipes. The recipe’s full title is “An excellent Plum Pudding Hot or Cake Cold”, which is just the kind of two-for-one recipe that our modern Christmas needs – especially if you’re running late and missed stir-up Sunday. Excellent example of Deja Food too!

The recipe is marked with the annotation “daughter Green”. I think this must mean the recipe was passed on by her daughter, whose married name was Green – although there were unusual naming conventions back then; perhaps Mistress Philipps had a rainbow of daughters? We can but guess. As if the title wasn’t endorsement enough, a later hand has also awarded a tick and the comment ‘good’. This made this recipe a culinary ‘dead cert’ in my opinion: something that was so delicious when tasted, the recipe was requested and recorded by hand in the family recipe book, and this approval was then endorsed by a third party coming across the recipe at a later date.

Mini Puddings
Mini Puddings

You can bake this in a regular cake tin, but a ceramic pudding bowl works just as well, and makes the resemblance to a Christmas Pudding much clearer. The hour-long baking time creates a wonderfully dark and crunchy crust, which contrasts dramatically with the light, pale insides.  You can also bake it in individual pudding bowls (the recipe makes 10 small puddings), which looks very sweet too, although the shorter cooking time makes for a paler outside. This would be too much traditional Christmas Pudding for one person, but this pudding is a yeast-raised, light, fruited, cake texture, and much more refreshing to the palate as well as being easier on the stomach.

Plum Pudding Original Recipe
Source: MS3082, Wellcome Library Collection

Plum Pudding

375g plain flour
1/3 nutmeg, grated
1 tsp ground mace
½ tsp ground cloves
1 sachet fast-action yeast

40g granulated sugar
150g unsalted butter
150ml cream/milk
50ml cream sherry or mead
2 large eggs

300g currants
75g raisins
60g mixed candied peel [1]
40g flaked almonds

  • Mix the flour, yeast and spices.
  • Put the sugar, butter and milk/cream in a pan and warm gently until the butter is melted.
  • Add the sherry or mead.
  • If the mixture is still hot, let it cool a little first, then whisk in the eggs.
  • Add the liquids to the flour and mix thoroughly. It should form a soft dough. Add up to 150ml more milk if you think it is required.
  • Set somewhere warm to rise for 30 minutes.
  • Stir in the fruit and almonds until thoroughly combined.
  • If you are making small, individual puddings, each mould or aluminium foil cup will take about 125g of dough. Otherwise, generously butter a 1.6 litre pudding bowl and add the dough.
  • Set aside for 15 minutes while the oven warms up.
  • Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Bake
    • a single, large pudding for about an hour. Turn the basin round after 30 minutes and check for done-ness at 50 minutes.
    • the small, individual puddings for 15-20 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven and set aside to rest for 10 minutes.
  • Run a spatula around the sides of the basin to loosen the pudding, and carefully turn out onto your serving plate.
  • Serve warm, with double cream.
  • For later: Even though this pudding is nice cold, it really is at its best just warm, so for serving later, zap slices/individual puddings in the microwave for 20 seconds before serving.

[1] I used 20g each of orange, lemon and pink grapefruit, rinsed of excess syrup

Goathland Treacle Tart

Goathland is a tiny village – population less than 500 – tucked away in the North York Moors National Park, just south-west of Whitby. It looks an absolutely delightful place, and Harry Potter fans will recognise Goathland Station as doubling for Hogsmeade (the station nearest Hogwarts) as well as Aidensfield from the popular TV series Heartbeat.

In the 1930s, Mrs Arthur Webb was commissioned by the BBC to visit farms throughout the UK “in order to secure something that was characteristic of its cooking and preparation of food.” In much the same way as her contemporary, Dorothy Hartley, would – Mrs Webb tramped around the countryside conversing with farmers wives and watching them cook in their own kitchens, frequently with awe and respect.

I looked at the fireplace. I watched the flames travelling under the oven.
“How do you manage to keep the heat going – you burn coal, of course?”
“Oh no” the answer came swiftly; “I never trust coal or anything else than wood for my baking. I understand wood better and I know exactly what heat it will give.”
“Do you ever have failures?”
“Failures? Of course not. I know exactly what I want and I make it.”
“Well, how do you manage to arrive at such delicious pies as these?” and I pointed to the laden table. “Do you weigh the ingredients?”
“Never. I could not spare the time. I just know how much the flour, butter, lard, milk, water and eggs will make.”

Luckily for us, Mrs Webb was able to jot down the ingredients for this fantastic tart, which I have only tweaked very slightly in converting to metric measurements and adding cooking times/temperatures. I’m curious to know which farm in this peaceful area was the origin of such a flavour-packed bake.

As you can see from the photograph. it bears little resemblance to the traditional British, tooth-achingly sweet, open-topped Treacle Tart made with golden syrup and fresh breadcrumbs. Whilst still containing breadcrumbs, the filling for this double-crust tart is packed with fruit both fresh and dried, actually contains treacle, and is much closer in taste to a traditional mincemeat, although blessedly fat-free. Along with the dried fruit and spices, the filling is given some fresh zing with chopped apple and lemon zest/juice. The dry breadcrumbs absorb any apple juice during cooking, resulting in a tart with a firm, fruity filling, no soggy bottom, and packing a huge wallop of flavour. The lack of fat in the filling means that the taste is bright and fresh and never cloying or overly rich.

I’ve chosen to wrap this in my favourite cornflour shortcrust, as its dry crispness when baked is the perfect foil against which the filling can really shine.

Sidebar: Mrs Webb’s notes tell us merely to “cover with another pastry” – which is all well and good, but pays little attention to the presentation which is, after all, usually the first thing that tempts us with a dish. I’ve made a conscious decision to try to present dishes, no matter how humble their ingredients, in the most appetising and eye-catching way. If I may paraphrase the great William Morris “Serve nothing from your oven that you do not know to be delicious or believe to be beautiful.”

Tart top
Tart top

Which is all well and good, except that when it comes to decorating, I usually have the patience and finesse of a potato. But I also have a little imagination, so I created the above decoration for the tart lid, in the best traditions of housewives across the years, with what I had to hand: namely, a teaspoon, an apple corer and a skewer.

The pastry was crimped by laying the pastry lid so that the edges lay vertically against the sides of the tin. Insert the handle of a teaspoon between the outer edge of the pastry and the tin and your finger and thumb against the inside of the pastry. Press inwards with the spoon handle as you pinch the two pieces of pastry together. I had intended only to hand-crimp the tart edges, but the imprint of the teaspoon handle has made a pretty design, so I’m going to run with it. *lying* I totally meant to do that.

The pattern was made firstly by gently pressing an apple-corer into the lid – enough to mark, but not enough to cut all the way through the pastry. Then I used a wooden skewer to poke holes in lines from the centre ring to each of the surrounding rings. Lastly I  added a line of holes between each of these lines.

If you’re in any doubt whether or not to try this tart – and I really hope you will – let me just say that I’m seriously considering using this as my mince pie recipe this year.

Just sayin’.

Goathland Treacle Tart

Pastry
225g plain flour
60g cornflour or rice flour
140g butter
ice cold water

  • Put the flours and butter into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • With the machine running, gradually add the cold water a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together in a ball.
  • Tip the mixture onto a floured surface, knead smooth then wrap in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.
  • Remove the pastry from the fridge and cut off two thirds. Put the remaining third back into the fridge.
  • Roll this piece out to a thickness of 4-5mm and use it to line a greased 18cm pie tin, loose-bottomed for preference, making sure there is enough pastry overlapping the sides of the tin to allow for joining the lid.
  • Chill while you mix the filling.

Filling

60g dry breadcrumbs [1]
60g currants
60g sultanas
30g candied orange peel – diced
30g candied lemon peel – diced
1 small cooking apple – peeled, cored and chopped/grated
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2tsp ground ginger
1/2tsp ground mixed spice
30ml treacle
30ml milk

  • Mix the breadcrumbs, dried fruit, candied peel, spices and lemon zest in a bowl.
  • Warm the treacle by placing the open can in a saucepan of water over a low heat. As it warms, it becomes less viscous and easier to pour.
  • Pour out the required amount of treacle and mix with the lemon juice, then add the milk afterwards. NB Don’t mix the lemon juice with the milk first, otherwise it will curdle.
  • Add the liquids and the chopped apple to the rest of the ingredients and stir to combine.
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Add the filling to the chilled pastry case and smooth over.
  • Roll out the remaining pastry to make the lid.
  • Wet the edges of the pastry with water, and lay the pastry lid onto the filling. Ease the edges together as per the diagram above. Make sure there’s no air trapped underneath the lid – in the oven this air will expand in the heat and may cause the lid to lift away from the filling.
  • Use the back of a knife (so as not to scratch your non-stick tin) to trim away the excess pastry, then crimp the edges as described above.
  • Decorate as desired.
  • Brush with beaten egg, or with milk and then sprinkle with a little caster sugar. (I used just egg).
  • Bake for 30 minutes, turning the tin around after 20 minutes to ensure it colours evenly.
  • Set aside to cool.
  • After cooling for 10 minutes, if you’ve used a loose-bottomed tin, the tart can be gently removed  and served, or set onto a wire rack until cold.

[1] These must be really dry. Definitely not fresh. If you have none to hand, nor any stale bread, make breadcrumbs of 3 slices of bread and lay them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Dry (without browning) in a 120°C/100°C Fan oven for 20-30 minutes.

Easter Simnel

Wotchers!

We’re back to the history books this week, with an original Simnel recipe from the 1650s. And yes, I’m exactly a week late, since they were originally enjoyed on Mid-Lent Sunday, which has, over the years, segued into Mothering Sunday/Mothers’ Day. Still, they were popular throughout the Easter celebrations, so there’s still time to rustle some up if you feel inspired.

Three regions of Britain lay claim to strong Simnel traditions: Devizes in Wiltshire, Bury in Lancashire and Shrewsbury in Shropshire. The Devises Simnel is recorded as being star-shaped and without a crust, and the Bury Simnel is traditionally flat, but the Shrewsbury Simnel was the most popular and which went on to develop into the Easter cake we know today.

The Shrewsbury Simnel of 350 years ago was much different to the traditional almond-paste-filled cake made today. Originally, it was an enriched and fruited yeast dough wrapped in a plain, yeasted dough,and then boiled before being baked, in a method similar to the way modern bagels are made. There are similarities with today’s Scottish Black Bun, the difference being both the use of unleavened pastry and the much richer filling of the northern version.

simnel cakes
Shrewsbury Simnels, from The Book of Days, Robert Chambers, 1863, Volume 1, p3
15thC simnels
Sketches of an early Tudor Symnelle (from A Pictorial Vocabulary of the 15th Century, in “A Volume of Vocabularies! by Thomas Wright, 1857, p266)

Whilst descriptions and images of what Simnels looked like are well known, recipes have, to a great extent, been either extremely vague or pretty much guess-work, as all the original recipes have vanished over the years.

Until now.

For, as I was browsing through the digitised 17th century manuscripts of The Wellcome Library, I found a recipe for a Simnell. It’s made in the traditional manner of first boiling then baking, and someone has subsequently crossed it out, but it’s still legible and much older than anything I’ve been able to find until now, so in terms of authenticity, that’s good enough for me.

SimnelRecipe
Simnel recipe from The Wellcome Library’s digitised 17th century manuscripts collection

It’s a little sparse on quantities and details such as cooking times and temperatures, but there was enough for me to muddle along with my own interpretation. Interestingly, there’s no mention of the traditional saffron flavouring, these cakes being ‘gilded’ with egg-yolk glaze only, so maybe the use of this spice was a later development.

It also fails to mention what size these festive cakes were. There’s anecdotal evidence from several 19th century sources, that claim Shrewsbury Simnels were made in all sizes from miniature up to cushion size, and also of them being sent all over the country as gifts. One account tells of a bemused recipient using hers as a footstool, not being aware that there was a delicious cake within the double-cooked crust. I opted for pork-pie-sized cakes for a couple of reasons:

  • The recipe says to “take it upon the back of your hand and pinch it” – difficult for a large sized cake.
  • The baking instructions are “bake them as cakes or small bread” – so bread roll size rather than loaf sized.
  • Mention I found of cymlings or simnels in the notes of early American settlers on the local vegetation.
    • In 1690, the Reverend John Banister recorded in his Natural History [of Virginia]

    We plant also Cucumbers & Pompions, the common, & the Indian kind with a long narrow neck, which from them we call a Cushaw. Of Melopepones or the lesser sort of Pompions there is also great variety, all which go by the Indian name of Macocks; yet the Clypeatae are sometimes called Simnels & because these others also from the Lenten Cake of that name which some of them very much resemble.

    • Earlier, in A Description of New Albion (1648), Beauchamp Plantagenet (what an AWESOME name!) observed “strawberries, mulberries, symnels, maycocks, and horns, like cucumbers” on Palmer’s Isle (now called Garrett Island)  at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay.

The vegetable they both refer to is nowadays more commonly called the pattypan squash.

Pattypan Squash
Pattypan Squash

The recipe below will make four, individual-sized Simnels. Feel free to enrich the filling for the dough even more by adding extra fruit, spice peel, sugar, butter and eggs. The mix below, however, will make a delicately spiced and fruited tea bread that is delicious on its own as well as spread with butter and/or toasted. Provided your Simnels don’t burst their seams during baking, the hard outer dough will ensure that they keep very well for a couple of weeks.

Shrewsbury Simnels

For the plain dough:

250g white bread flour
0.5tsp salt
0.5tsp mace
0.5tsp nutmeg
0.25tsp cloves
1/2 sachet easy-blend, fast-action yeast
warm water to mix

  • Sift the flour, salt, spices and yeast into a bowl.
  • Slowly add enough warm water to bring the ingredients together into a firm dough.
  • Knead for 10 minutes.
  • Put into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic film.
  • Set aside to rise for 1 hour.

For the filling dough:

250g white bread flour
0.5tsp salt
0.5tsp mace
0.5tsp nutmeg
0.25tsp cloves
1/2 sachet easy-blend, fast-action yeast
1 large egg
60ml double cream
50g butter
2tbs sugar

100g raisins
100g currants

2 large egg yolks for glazing.

  • Sift the flour, salt, spices and yeast into a bowl.
  • Cut the butter into small pieces and put into a pan with the cream and the sugar.
  • Warm gently until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved
  • Whisk the egg and add to the warmed ingredients. NB Make sure they aren’t so hot that they cook the egg.
  • Add the liquid ingredients to the flour mixture and knead for 10 minutes.
  • Put into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic film.
  • Set aside to rise for 1 hour.
  • Put a large pan of water on the cooker to boil. I use my preserving pan. Do it now because it will take practically the whole hour to come to heat up.
  • When the dough has doubled in size, knead in the raisins and currants.

To assemble the cakes:

  • Divide the plain dough into 8 even pieces and roll each piece out thinly (3mm).
  • Line 4 small deep pie/tart tins with cling film. This will help turn out the finished cakes.
  • Use 4 pieces of plain dough to line the tart tins. Leave the excess dough hanging over the edge of the tins, as it will help in forming a good seal around the cake dough.
  • Chill in the fridge together with the remaining pieces of dough, which will form the lids, for 20 minutes. This chilling will firm up the dough and make it easier to form the crust on the cakes.
  • Divide the fruit dough into four and knead until firm and smooth. If you’ve added extra fruit or your tins are on the small side, you may need to reduce the size of the dough balls.
  • Remove the chilled dough from the fridge. It is best to form one cake and then place it in the hot water immediately. If left to one side while you make the other cakes, the dough will warm up, rise and potentially burst its seals.
  • Place a ball of fruit dough in each tin.
  • Moisten the edges of the dough with water and cover with one of the dough lids.
  • Press firmly and pinch together to form a seal around the fruit filling. Trim any excess dough.
  • Crimp the edges of the cake according to your own design.
  • Fill a large bowl with cold water.
  • When the water is simmering, place each cake on a skimmer and slowly lower into the water. It will sink to the bottom of the pan initially. When the cake rises, use a skimmer to gently turn it over so that the lid cooks for about a minute.
  • Lift the cake from the hot water and lower it gently into the bowl of cold water.
  • When cooled, set the cake  onto a silicon sheet (so that it doesn’t stick) to dry.
  • Repeat for the remaining cakes.
  • Preheat the oven to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Line a baking sheet with parchment.
  • Place the Simnels onto the baking sheet.
  • Brush with beaten egg-yolk to glaze.
  • Bake for 45-50 minutes until firm and golden. They should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Don’t be tempted to take them out too early, even with the dip in the hot water, these will take a relatively long time to bake.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

Fat-free Mincemeat

This recipe is adapted from Hannah Glasse’s 1747 recipe for Mince Pies for Lent.

Nowadays, we traditionally make mincemeat far in advance of the festive season, so that it can mature in flavour. Both the sugar and the suet act as preservative and so when Christmas rolls around, you’ve got a jar of deliciously spicy sweetmeat and not a fizzing, fermenting jar of goo.

The downside of course is having to be organised enough to remember to make it far enough in advance, making enough for those unexpected baking moments (such as surprise visitors, or a last minute school bake sale contribution), and not making too much so you have storage problems. Quite apart from it not being suitable for either vegetarians or vegans.

Here, hopefully, is a solution. No suet means it’s vegetarian and vegan. No added sugar means its more suited to people needing to control their sugar intake, for whatever reason – although there IS sugar in the candied peel, so this isn’t quite a sugar-free recipe. Best of all it doesn’t need maturing, it’s literally mix and go.

The mixture is gently warmed and the fruits absorb the sherry, brandy and fruit juices. The finely-chopped dates break down and bind everything together. The result is packed full of flavour and with a much cleaner and fresher taste. This mix makes just under 500g of ready-to-use mincemeat.

NB This will keep for up to a week in the fridge, but no longer. Cooked as mince pies and frozen – up to 3 months.

Fat-free Mincemeat

50g currants
50g raisins – crimson raisins look pretty
50g sultanas
50g dates – finely chopped
25g candied orange peel [1]
25g candied lemon peel [1]
25g candied grapefruit peel [1]
35g dried cranberries
25g flaked almonds – chopped
2tbs sherry
1tbs brandy
juice & grated rind of an orange
pinch of ground ginger
a grating of nutmeg,
pinch of ground cinnamon
pinch of mixed spice
pinch of ground cloves

60-100ml apple juice

  • Put the dried fruits into a small saucepan.
  • Cut the candied peel into small pieces with scissors and add to the pan with the spices. NB If you’re using your home-made candied peel that has been stored in syrup, then there’s no need to soften it in the saucepan – just stir it in with the nuts once the fruit has plumped.
  • Add the orange juice and zest, brandy, sherry and 60ml of apple juice.
  • Stir gently to combine and set pan over the lowest possible heat.
  • Cover and let the mixture stew gently until all the liquid has been absorbed.
  • If the fruit isn’t as plumped and juicy as you would like, add a little more apple juice.
  • The mixture should be moist, but with no liquid visible in the bottom
  • When you’re happy with the consistency, stir through the chopped, flaked almonds.

[1] If you’ve made some candied peel yourself, then these are pretty straightforward. If not, then use 75g of what you have/can get. Buy whole peel pieces if possible – they retain their flavour much better than chopped – and cut them just before use.