Cream Toasts

This is going to be the newest recipe on here, because I just made it up!

Well, not to claim all the credit – it is a Lego™ recipe in that I’ve cherry-picked a bit from here and a bit from there and brought it together into something absolutely delicious. As a bonus, it can be made with just a few storecupboard ingredients.

It struck me recently that there are no 21st century recipes here – indeed, there wasn’t even a 21st century category until I added one just now. I don’t want this blog to become a museum to British food, rather for it to be an ongoing celebration of British food that ranges across centuries, including this one.

This recipe pays homage to recipes that date back to Days of Yore (a very technical term in food history circles, which means quite a number of years ago!). Poor Knights of Windsor, Fried Cream, Fried Toasts and Pain Perdu are all similar dishes and all have long pedigrees in British food. Eggs, bread, sugar and cream, together with some spices and flavourings, sometimes even a splash of alcohol, have been tweaked and teased into subtly different, but equally enjoyable, dishes for centuries.

This recipe is also similar to several dishes ‘out there’ because, as we know, there’s nothing new under the sun. I’ve done some fairly rigorous searching and there isn’t anything out there exactly like this, but if I have missed something, be sure to let me know.

It was inspired by a dish I saw recently on television, specifically a caramelised French Toast, served in a restaurant in the Basque region in Spain: the smooth shiny, crisp outside a stark contrast with the soft, creamy insides. The local name for these fried milk toasts is Torrijas. Rather that slices, I decided to make toast fingers and roll them in panko breadcrumbs for contrasting crunch, because everything tastes better with crunch!

You can make simplified versions of this, according to your cupboard contents, but I’m just going to run through the method I used and the reasons behind it, so you can make your own decisions.

The Bread: Unsliced white bread. For a start, in these modern, health-conscious times, white bread is so NORTY, which makes it taste doubly delicious when used for a treat such as this. You can make your own, which has its advantages in that it holds up better during the soaking in the milk. However, a BOUGHTEN white loaf from the bakery retains its feather lightness incredibly, if you’re willing to be patient in the handling/preparation. It helps if you stale the bread a little before the soaking, as that will help keep it from falling apart. More on this below.

The Milk: A mixture of condensed milk and fresh milk gives both sweetness and richness. Also, keeping a tin on hand in the cupboard makes these an anytime snack. You could also mix your own combination of sugars and fresh cream/milk. Just ensure your mixture is fluid enough to soak into the bread.

The Flavourings. Whatever takes your fancy, really. I infused the milk with some citrus zest and then added a generous splash of vanilla and orange-flower water. It makes for a very creamy aroma, if that makes any sense.

The Coating: Breadcrumbs, Japanese Panko-style for preference. It forms a crisp, golden shell around the soft pillowy bread and looks very appetising when cooked and golden brown. My local supermarket (the orange one) has recently started selling large bags of panko breadcrumbs in the Japanese Foods section of the International Foods aisle. Great value for money and perfect for this recipe. Also, I prefer to use eggwhites for coating, as I believe it helps give crispness.

The Frying: Again, whatever takes your fancy. I used Indian ghee (clarified butter), as I didn’t want the milk solids from regular butter to catch in the pan and spoil the breadcrumb coating with dark flecks. You could also use oil, or even deep-fry them if you have a fryer. Alas, mine is currently filled with beef dripping, which is flavoursome for savoury dishes, but not so suitable for this sweet treat.

Cream Toasts

These quantities will make several servings, so if you’re not going to use it up all at once, keep the extra milk in the fridge for later use.

white loaf of bread

280ml milk – whole, skimmed, whatever you have
zest of 1 lemon
1tsp orange flower water (optional)
1tsp vanilla flavouring (optional)
1 tin sweetened condensed milk (397ml)

eggwhites for coating
panko breadcrumbs for coating
ghee, butter or oil for frying

sharp, seedless jam (raspberry/redcurrant/cranberry) or coulis to serve

  • Remove the crusts from the loaf and set aside for crust sandwiches.
  • Cut the bread ino 3cm slices, then cut each slice into 3 x 3cm fingers. Arrange the bread fingers on a wire cooling rack to stale for about an hour. This can be done beforehand.
  • Put the milk into a small pan and add the lemon zest.
  • Bring to a gentle boil and turn off the heat.
  • Cover and allow to infuse for 30 minutes.
  • Strain out the lemon zest (if you prefer, I didn’t) and mix in the condensed milk and other flavourings until well combined. Set aside.
  • Pour a little of the milk mixture into a plastic box.
  • Arrange the slightly stale bread fingers in the box, then pour over the rest of the milk mixture. Leave to soak for 5 minutes.
  • Carefully turn the bread fingers over and allow to soak for another 5 minutes.
  • Drain off the excess milk and put the plastic box into the fridge – uncovered – for an hour or two. This will allow the outside of the bread fingers to dry a little. If you’re wanting to make these for breakfast you can do everything up to this point the night before, and then continue in the morning. If leaving overnight, cover the box lightly in cling film so that it doesn’t dry out too much.
  • When ready to cook, pour some eggwhite into a plastic box and the panko breadcrumbs onto a shallow tray.
  • Whisk the eggwhites briefly until frothy.
  • Carefully take each soaked bread finger and coat with eggwhite. Since they will be rather delicate, I usually drop them into the eggwhite one by one and then shake the box from side to side and get the eggwhite to wash over them that way.
  • Lift out and let the excess eggwhite drain off, then lay them in the panko breadcrumbs.
  • Pat the panko onto the bread fingers until thoroughly coated.
  • Set aside onto a plate until ready to be cooked.
  • Heat the fat you are using in a small pan on medium heat. I use 6 on a scale of 1-9. If you use a small pan and can make your fat/oil 2cm deep, you’ll only need to turn your cream toasts once. If it’s shallower, you may need to fry each side individually.
  • Fry 3 or 4 fingers in the pan at a time. Cook until the panko coating is crisp and golden.
  • While they are cooking, set out a wire cooling rack, with a sheet of kitchen roll underneath it.
  • When cooked, transfer the now golden brown toasts to the wire rack and allow to drain.
  • Serve warm with a pot of jam/coulis for dipping.

Bonus recipe – Crispy Eggy Bread

Four fingers of Crunchy Eggy Bread with tomato ketchup for dipping

This same method can be used to jazz-up a personal favourite of mine – Eggy Bread. This is a savoury version of egg-soaked bread, and one which I enjoyed for breakfast as a child and still do to this day.

This recipe is more easily scaled than the one above, as it can be made in a per-person quantity.

The home-made loaf I made suited this recipe better than store bought.

Crispy Eggy Bread for One

1 x 3cm thick slice of white bread
1 large egg
salt and pepper to taste

eggwhites for coating
panko breadcrumbs for coating
ghee, butter or oil for frying

tomato ketchup to serve

  • Remove the crusts from the loaf and cut into 3 x 3cm fingers. Arrange the bread fingers on a wire cooling rack to stale for about an hour. This can be done beforehand.
  • Whisk the egg vigorously, then pass through a sieve to make sure the white and the yolk are fully mixed.
  • Season egg with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Pour a little of the egg mixture into a plastic box.
  • Arrange the slightly stale bread fingers in the box, then pour over the rest of the egg mixture. Leave to soak for 5 minutes.
  • Carefully turn the bread fingers over and allow to soak for another 5 minutes.
  • Put the plastic box into the fridge – uncovered – for an hour or two.. This will allow the outside of the bread fingers to dry a little. If you’re wanting to make these for breakfast you can do everything up to this point the night before, and then continue in the morning. If leaving overnight, cover the box lightly in cling film so that it doesn’t dry out too much.
  • When ready to cook, pour some eggwhite into a plastic box and the panko breadcrumbs onto a shallow tray.
  • Whisk the eggwhites briefly until frothy.
  • Carefully take each soaked bread finger and coat with eggwhite. Since they will be rather delicate, I usually drop them into the eggwhite one by one and then shake the box from side to side and get the eggwhite to wash over them that way.
  • Lift out and let the excess eggwhite drain off, then lay them in the panko breadcrumbs.
  • Set aside onto a plate until ready to be cooked.
  • Heat the fat you are using in a small pan on medium heat. I use 6 on a scale of 1-9. If you use a small pan and can make your fat/oil 2cm deep, you’ll only need to turn your eggy bread fingers once. If it’s shallower, you may need to fry each side individually.
  • Fry the fingers in the pan until the panko coating is crisp and golden.
  • While they are cooking, set out a wire cooling rack, with a sheet of kitchen roll underneath it.
  • When cooked, transfer the now golden brown toasts to the wire rack and allow to drain.
  • Serve warm with a pot of tomato ketchup for dipping.

Chestnut Apple Pie

Lady Grisel Baillie was a Scottish noblewoman who lived in the 17th/18th century. She was married to a Scottish MP, and became known to social historians for the meticulously detailed account books she kept, which  offer a glimpse into the cost of living during that time, including food and drink, servants wages, travel costs and entertainment. Lady Grisel was also something of a foodie, as she noted down many a menu from various dinners she and her husband attended.

Extracts of Lady Grisel’s household books were published by the Scottish Historical Society in 1911 and over the years I have dipped into this book many times, and have been somewhat frustrated that menus are recorded, but not recipes. She definitely had a recipe book, because the Scottish Historical Society lists it amongst her papers:

“Lady Grisell left three ‘Day Books’ folio size, the first running from 1692 to 1718 inclusive, and containing 442 pages ; the second from 1719 to 1742 inclusive, and containing 354 pages, and the third from 1742 to the date of her death (6th December 1746), continued by her daughter, Lady Murray. She also left books containing the accounts of expenses in connection with their journeys to Bath and to the Continent ; Books containing Inventories of Bottles, etc. ; a Book of Receipts ; a Book of Bills of Fare ; Books relating to estate management during the years 1742, 1743 and 1744, and many other Account and Memoranda Books.”

A few years ago, I revisited a manuscript at the Folger Library to study a recipe for Stilton Cheese that had caught my eye, (the results of which can be found in Petits Propos Culinaires 114, June 2019), and in the course of my research, discovered that the manuscript in which it appeared was the long-lost recipe book of Lady Grisel Baillie! The manuscript had been purchased by the Folger Library in June, 1959 from the London bookseller Francis Edwards, Ltd. for the princely sum of £35.00. More intriguing is what happened to it during the preceding 48 years, from 1911, when its existence was noted by the Scottish Historical Society, and its purchase and trans-Atlantic voyage in 1959, and why the current Mellerstain estate owners didn’t know where it was. Very mysterious!

The point of this extended preamble is that this recipe comes from that self-same, long-lost recipe book. It has been on my radar for a while, because it is a sweet pie with chestnuts, and when I spotted nets of fresh chestnuts in the shops this week, I was enthused to have a stab at it.

A Cheston Pye, from the cookbook of Lady Grisel Baillie, Folger Digital Image Collection, Ms W.a.111, p289, circa 1706.

Which also brings me to the word of the day: scald. Both apples and chestnuts are scalded in this recipe, and after much hunting about reading other usages, the best definition I can come up with is: cooked gently in their skins. When scalded, the apple skin will peel off by itself freely, leaving the partially cooked flesh intact. I suspect this was done to prevent wastage, preserve flavour and minimise juice. Similarly, the chestnuts are scalded in order to soften them and to loosen both the skin and the pith surrounding the nut. This all sounds simple, but, from experience, left unsupervised, things can get a little tricky. It doesn’t take much for the water in which the apples are scalding to become too hot, thereby causing the apples to burst, and then you have to retrieve your apple pulp from the ‘soup’ in the saucepan. Scald the chestnuts for too long, and then you will have difficulty extracting them whole. This isn’t too much of a disaster, as the crumbled pieces are perfect for this dish, but if you were wanting them for another use – candying, for example – the wastage in broken nuts can get quite high.

Why you should make this pie

Well, it’s absolutely delicious, that’s why! It’s unusual, in that it is a sweet pie with chestnuts, and thus something of a novelty in modern recipes. During the long, slow baking, the pastry crisps up beautifully, and the chestnuts and candied lemon soak up some of the apple juice and become soft. The texture of the apples and the chestnuts is much more interesting that a regular apple pie and the contrast between the filling and the two different types of pastry is a delight. This pie embodies autumn in a deliciously comforting way, you’ll be elbowing your way back to the nets of chestnuts to make it again. Perfect for the upcoming holiday season!

Sliced of Chestnut Apple Pie
Slices of Chestnut Apple Pie: The pie slices very neatly when cold, and the chestnuts and candied lemon peel are shown.

Chestnut and Apple Pie

These quantities are for a 20cm diameter pie. You can obviously use as many or as few chestnuts as you like. You can, of course, shorten the prep time by using stewed apple and ready-cooked chestnuts. The only caveat to this I would add is that the ready-cooked chestnuts you can buy tend to be a little dark, whereas if you scald them yourself, they come out very similar in colour to the apple pulp.

If you’re making this from scratch, prepare the apples and chestnuts a day or so ahead, and then assemble the pie when required. The cooked apples and chestnuts will keep in the fridge several days.

Filling
4 Bramley Apples (or 600g unsweetened stewed apple)
1 x 400g net of raw chestnuts (or 300g cooked chestnuts)
30g candied lemon peel
30g unsalted butter
3-4tbs caster sugar
3tbs cornflour
zest of 1/2 a lemon (optional)

1 x box of ready rolled puff pastry
egg-white for glazing

Base Pastry
225g plain flour
60g cornflour
140g unsalted 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.
  • Roll out the pastry to the desired thickness (5mm) and line a greased, 20cm pie tin. Ease the pastry into the corners of the tin, rather than stretch it, and allow the excess to hang over the edges of the tin.
  • Place in the fridge to chill until required.

To scald the apples

  • Put the apples, whole, into a saucepan and add just enough water to cover.
  • Lay a saucer upside-down on top of the apples, to keep them submerged.
  • Put the saucepan on a gentle heat (I use 5 on a 1-9 scale) and allow the apples to barely simmer for 30 minutes. Keep an eye on them, and if the skin starts to split, remove from the heat and the water immediately.
  • Lift the scalded apples out of the pan and set aside to cool.
  • When cool enough to handle, peel away the skin and then scoop all the flesh from the core.
  • Mash the apple pulp with a fork. You don’t need to make it puree-smooth, just get rid of the larger lumps.
  • Mix the sugar and cornflour together and then add to the apple pulp and mix thoroughly.
  • Taste the apple pulp and add more sugar to taste.
  • Set the apple pulp aside until required.

To scald the chestnuts

  • Using a sharp knife, cut a slit ito each nut, being sure to pierce bith the hard outer shell and the soft skin underneath.
  • Put the nuts into a saucepan and cover with cold water.
  • Set pan on a gentle heat, and simmer the chestnuts for 30 minutes.
  • Remove from the heat and allow to cool in the water.
  • Remove the chestnuts one at a time and peel away the softened shell and skin. Don’t worry if the nut doesn’t come out whole, as pieces are perfect for this recipe. Don’t drain the chestnuts, because the shells will harden quickly once out of the water, and make peeling them difficult.
  • Crumble the chestnuts into pieces – not too small – and store in a covered container in the fridge until required.

To assemble the pie.

  • Heat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Slice the candied lemon peel into thin slivers. If you don’t have whole pieces, diced is fine, just make sure they’re not too big.
  • Divide the butter into three. Keep chilled until required.
  • Remove the pie tin from the fridge and trim the excess pastry. Leave about a 2cm overhang from the edge of the tin.
  • Fill the pie
    • Add a layer of apple pulp.
    • Add half the chestnuts in a layer
    • Add half the lemon peel
    • Dot over 1 portion of the butter in thin slices.
    • Add a layer of apple pulp.
    • Add half the chestnuts in a layer
    • Add half the lemon peel
    • Dot over 1 portion of the butter in thin slices.
    • Add a layer of apple pulp.
    • Dot over the last portion of the butter in thin slices.
    • Grate over the zest of half a lemon (optional). I like the lemony zing, but it can be omitted if you prefer.
  • Unroll the puff pastry and smooth out with a few strokes of the rolling pin.
  • Wet the edges of the shortcrust pastry with water.
  • Lay the puff pastry over the top of the pie and press the edges together gently.
  • Trim the puff pastry to the size of the shortcrust pastry.
  • Crimp the pastry edges as shown in the top photograph.
  • Cut out decorations for the top of the pie from the puff pastry offcuts and lay them on the pastry lid. I did a few apples and chestnuts.
  • Brush the top of the pie with eggwhite.
  • Bake the pie for 60 minutes. Turn the pie around after 30 minutes to ensure even colouring.
  • After a further 20 minutes, if your puff pastry isn’t quite cooked through, turn the heat up to 220°C, 200°C Fan for the last 10 minutes.
  • Remove the pie from the oven and cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.
  • Remove the pie from the tin and allow to cool until just warm.
  • Serve with double cream.

Querkles

These biscuits are great to have to hand in the cupboard for enjoying with cheese or jam, with butter, or serve them completely unadorned with drinks for toothsome and low-fat snacking – they may look plain, but they’re very moreish.

When I was writing last week’s post about Almacks, I thought to myself: I can add a link to those nice cracker biscuits – and then I couldn’t find them on the blog at all. The pictures eventually turned up in a folder on my laptop almost two years old, because it appears that I’d taken the photos but forgotten to actually write the post ! And so here we are.

These unusually-named biscuits come from the classic Victorian “Biscuits for Bakers” (1896) by Frederick T. Vine. Mr Vine has no idea where the name came from but assures us that “As the above seems rather catchy and the biscuits are something of a novelty, we will let it stand.”

Making your own savoury biscuits might seem a bit of a chore, especially when opening a packet is so much easier, but it’s always good to have a recipe to hand for short notice situations.

OK, now I think on it, I must confess I’m at a bit of a loss as to what kind of situation might warrant being deemed a biscuit emergency, so ANYHOO….

Another reason for making your own, of course, is because you have complete control over size, shape, texture and flavour of your biscuits. For crackers this is extremely simple, for it takes no more than the addition of a spoonful of dried herbs or a sprinkling of sea salt flakes to make a batch individual. The size is only limited by what biscuit cutters you possess. I’ve used a set of mini cutters to make the crackers in the picture above, each roughly the same size, but with differing shapes, which, in my opinion adds to the appeal. I’ll admit the biscuits shown in the picture are very small, about 3cm in diameter, but this means they can be popped into your mouth whole, thereby avoiding the danger lurking in larger biscuits, of shattering into pieces and dropping crumbs all down your front; I’m looking at you, Carr’s Water Biscuits and Bath Olivers.

The method for these biscuits is unusual in that, once baked, they are split open and returned to the oven so that the insides may dry and bcome toasted. Again, it is up to you how long you leave them and at what temperature, so the texture and colour can be suited to your needs.

SHOPS CLOSED ON EASTER SUNDAY! Finally thought of a biscuit memergency.

Querkles

225g wholemeal brown flour
7g butter
15g sugar
1tsp cream of tartar*
½tsp bicarbonate of soda*
½tsp salt

milk to mix

  • Heat the oven to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Put all of the dry ingredients into a food processor and blitz until well mixed.
  • Slowly add milk to mix until the mixture comes together in a paste.
  • Tip out onto a floured surface and knead smooth.
  • Roll out as for pastry, to a thickness of 5mm.
  • Cut your biscuits with whatever cutters you prefer. The top of a small glass can also serve.
  • Lay the biscuits on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment and bake for 10-12 minutes if small, 15-18 minutes if larger, until the surface is cooked, but not brown. NB If making small biscuits, work in small batches to help reduce breakage when splitting – see below.
  • Remove from the oven and with the point of a sharp knife, cut around the edges of the biscuits and split them in two. NB You should work quickly, because if the biscuits cool, then they will break rather than split apart.
  • Lay the biscuit halves insides-upwards and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes until crisp and browned to your taste.
  • Allow to cool completely, then store in an airtight container.

TOP TIP If, when cooled, your biscuits aren’t crisp, just put them back into the oven until they are. I suggest a much lower heat (100°C, 80°C Fan) for longer (20-30 minutes) in order to really dry them out. Fun Fact: Victorian bakers used drying ovens or provers to get that crispness to their biscuits without having to brown them further in the heat of the main ovens.

* Or instead of these two, 2 tsp baking powder.

Almacks

Almacks (also Almack’s and Almack) is one of many recipes that have originated from people copying dishes they have enjoyed whilst eating out. Almack’s was a Georgian/Regency London club where the great and the good could socialise during ‘the season’, Pontacks is another such establishment, now equally long gone, whose reputation remains only in the names of recipes they have inspired.

By the end of the 18th century, being presented at the Royal court was deemed old fashioned for the up and coming ladies in society, so Almacks provided a setting whereby  socialising and marriage alliances could be conducted amongst the ‘Ton’. As an example of the importance of Almack’s in the social life of the capital, when Lady Caroline Lamb published ‘Glenarvon’, with a thinly-fictionalised Lord Byron as the main character, Sarah Villiers, Lady Jersey, was so incensed at the way she had been satirised, she barred Lady Caroline from Almacks in 1816, thereby making her a social outcast *gasps and clutches pearls*. Although Lady Caroline eventually managed to regain membership three years later, thanks mainly to the assistance of her cousin, Emily Lamb (Countess Cowper), her reputation never recovered.

Almacks provided refreshments to its member and this thick fruit ‘cheese’ would have been ideal as it has great keeping qualities and is easy to serve at short notice. It can be eaten a number of ways: as a sweet, with cream or as a savoury, with biscuits and cheese. It is also versatile in its preparation as it can be varied by type of apple, pear and plum, thus giving it subtle changes in flavour with each batch. It is an ideal way to use up gluts of fruit, or to waste-not-want-not with windfalls.

Almack recipe (1785-1825) from MS1827, Wellcome Collection.

This is the earliest recipe I have found, coming from a household manuscript dated 1785-1825. The quantities are huge, even allowing for a loss of volume during the cooking. A peck of apples is roughly 6 kg, so it calls for a total of 18kg of prepared fruit, although it’s probably going to be closer to 20 kg by the time you factor in weight loss due to peeling/coring/chopping.

Almack recipe, (1800-1822) from MS1830, Wellcome Collection

This is a recipe with slightly more reasonable quantities – 3 quarts of each fruit = 7.5kg, but in the end I thought the recipe from Elizabeth Pease (below) was both the simplest and most reasonable in terms of batch size.

Elizabeth Pease’s recipe for Almacks (1802-1871) in MS3824, Wellcome Collection.

Admittedly, it does take a few things for granted such as expecting readers to know the method and how to prepare the fruit, but I’ll be filling you in on those in the recipe below.

So how much Almacks you make is really up to you and what you have to hand. As a guide, I used 750g of prepared apples and pears and 800g damsons (to allow for the stones) and it made 8 generous portions as seen in the photo above, and about 400g in a box for more casual use. The damsons add a real tang to the paste, and the low quantity of sugar means it sits right on the edge between sweet and savoury. Serve (small) portions with a drizzle of cream and a biscuit (ratafias, macaroons, etc) for crunch as a dessert, or with your favourite cheese and crackers.

Almacks

I’ve reduced the quantities, so you can make a small batch to try, but you can scale it up quite easily if you have it in mind to pot and gift it for Christmas.

500g peeled, cored and chopped apples
500g peeled, cored and chopped pears
500g plums/damsons, stones removed if possible
500g demerera sugar.

  • Cook the fruit. You want it soft enough so that it can be sieved easily. This can be done a couple of ways:
    • layer the fruit and sugar into a large casserole  (preferably ceramic or enamelled) and put it in the oven, uncovered, at 150°C, 130°C Fan for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring every 15 minutes to make sure the fruit floating on top of the juice doesn’t dry out.
    • Put the fruit and sugar into a slow cooker and cook on high for 4 hours. This method generates more juice, as it won’t evaporate as much as it does in the oven, but it has the advantage of being able to be left unattended for an extended period of time.
  • Sieve the cooked fruit until nothing is left but skin and (possibly) damson pits.
  • Simmer the puree in a preserving pan until no excess liquid is visible when you draw a spoon across the pan, and it’s just fruit puree. This will take rather a long time, if you used the slow-cooker method, due to the extra juice.
  • You MUST stir the pan, otherwise the puree will burn. Towards the end, it will turn into fruit LAVA< so have a towel cover your arm handy, to avoid the hot splashes.
  • When your puree is ready, spoon it into moulds or hot, sterilised jars as you would for jam. Silicone moulds are great, especially if you’re making Almacks to serve at a special meal – although you don’t need a special occasion to serve some delicious fruit cheese in a pretty shape. The flexibility of the silicone makes it very simple to turn out the paste, once cold.

Incomprehensible Pudding

When browsing handwritten manuscripts, my eye is always drawn to recipes with unusual titles. Whether it’s someone’s name, or a location, or as in this case, an odd title.

Incomprehensible Recipe
Incomprehensible Pudding Recipe, circa 1785, MS2242, Wellcome Collection.

To be honest, after reading it, I wasn’t sure why this pudding is incomprehensible. There are only a few ingredients – none of them unusual, and a straightforward method.

Then I made it and it turned out so light and delicate, it was a real surprise. At first glance, it seems like a custard, but the addition of the apple pulp, especially if you can get Bramley cooking apples, makes it almost frothy. With the use of clarified butter (where only the fat is used, and not the dairy solids), you could arguably denote this dairy-free.

It makes the perfect dessert in that it appears decadent, but can be enjoyed without the heaviness associated with a lot of puddings.

The original recipe called for puff pastry round the edge of the dish, which is something that has puzzled me for years, as it appears in many pudding recipes of this time. I can’t work out if it is for decoration only, or for consumption. I decided not to include pastry, because the high temperature required to cook it properly is at odds with the gentle heat needed to just set the custard.

I also opted for individual servings, so aimed for a shorter cooking time, because in typical 18th century style, the original cooking instructions are short and vague: “an hour will bake it”. Sometimes custard-style puddings are baked in a water bath, and in testing I did try baking it both ways, and for this serving size the difference was so slight I’m going to suggest no water bath. If you wanted to make a large serving, then yes, use a water bath to ensure the mixture cooks without curdling.

I’ve scaled the recipe down to a single serving size. You can scale it up as required.

The puddings in the photo are served plain, but you could also opt to sprinkle them with sugar and blowtorch/grill them to caramelise the top.

Incomprehensible Pudding for One

120g unsweetened apple pulp
1 large egg
20g liquid clarified butter
20g caster sugar

extra caster sugar or brulée sugar

  • Heat the oven to 150°C, 130°C Fan.
  • Whisk the egg and sugar until pale and frothy.
  • Add the apple and butter and mix until smooth.
  • Pour mixture into a shallow dish and bake for 20 minutes until almost set (slightly wobbly in the centre).
  • Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.
  •  (Optional) Sprinkle with caster sugar (or brulée sugar) and brulee with either blowtorch or grill.

Fruit Puffs

This recipe appears in the 17th century manuscript book of Lady Anne Fanshawe (MS.7113 at the Wellcome Collection), and is attributed to Lady Scarborough. What might appear, from the name, at first to be something pastry-based, is in fact a form of meringue.

Unsweetened fruit (I used apples) pulp is mixed with sugar and eggwhites and whisked until stiff and white. The recipe calls for this to be dropped in spoonfuls onto glass and dried in the oven, although I made adaptations for the modern kitchen. After a couple of practice runs, the result is, to all intents and purposes, an apple-flavoured meringue. Not as sweet as regular meringues, with the pleasantly tart flavour of sharp apples.

It is from the same recipe family as Apple Snow, with a slight alteration in porportions and a spell in the oven, and to my mind would be delightful served alongside that ethereal confection.

The main challenge with this recipe was the missing details. Apple and sugar quantities are given, but the instruction to beat them ‘with white of egg’ is open to interpretation. Additionally, “dry it in a stove” is hardly suffering from an over-abundance of detail. Hence the trial runs.

One of the batches I made whilst juggling baking times and temperatures turned a light caramel colour, which I suspect is not how the finished puffs should look, but proved to be absolutely delicious – crisp, delicate with a whisper of toffee apple. I’m counting that particular error as a win!

Apple and Caramel Apple Puffs

Fruit Puffs

Although I have only used apple here, the recipe does state that any fruit pulp can be used. My advice would be to choose pulp that has some bulk to it. Berries might prove too moist. Stone fruit, rhubarb and gooseberries would all be suitable, especially if tart, as the sugar content is quite high, and it would ‘cut through’ it nicely.

340g cooked cooking apples
225g caster sugar
2 large egg-whites (about 80g)

  • Puree the apple smooth with a stick blender. Sieve the puree if liked (I didn’t, but I was very thorough with the blender).
  • Add the remaining ingredients and whisk until light, white and stiff. I used a stand mixer on High and this took 10 minutes.
  • Heat the oven to 100°C, 80°C Fan. This temperature will be for the white puffs, for caramel puffs, increase the temperature to 140°C, 120°C Fan after 2 hours.
  • Add a decorative nozzle to a piping bag and spoon in some of the mixture. Pipe the mixture onto a baking sheet lined with parchment. There will be some shrinkage as the puffs dry out, so pipe them on the large side. For example, the white puffs in the top photo were 5cm tall when first piped. When dried, they are about 3cm tall.
  • Dry in the oven for 5-6 hours, depending on the size and how moist they are. Prop the oven door ajar by inserting the handle of a wooden spoon, for the first hour or so, to help dispel the moisture, (otherwise it stays trapped in the oven and slows down drying time).
  • After about 4 hours, remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes. The puffs should be firm enough by this stage to gently peel off from the parchment. Turn the puffs upside down and lay them back on the parchment, so that the bases can dry (about an hour). If you don’t let the puffs cool down first, you will squish them as you try to remove them from the paper. If the puffs aren’t firm even when cooled down, put them back in the oven for another 30 minutes and try again.
  • For Caramel Puffs, bake as above for 2 hours, then increase the heat to 140°C, 120°C Fan and bake for 1 hour. Check the colour/dryness and bake a little longer if still sticky.
  • Once the puffs are dried to your liking, store them in an airtight container. They will absorb moisture and become sticky if left in the open air for any length of time.

Soda Bread

I was surprised to read recently that Soda Bread is considered to have migrated from the US, based on a notion that the early settlers used potash to improve their baking. Amelia Simmons (1796) uses potash in some of her gingerbread recipes and Mary Randolph includes a recipe for Soda Cake in her 1824 book The Virginia Housewife.

These notwithstanding, the earliest Soda Bread recipe that I have been able to find in print is a letter published in the Newry Telegraph, dated September 2nd 1836. The correspondant, who signs him/herself “M.D.” gives the following recipe:

Soda Bread recipe

Having tried a fair few soda bread recipes over the years, I was struck by how minimalistic this recipe is – literally four ingredients: flour, salt, baking soda, buttermilk. Over the years, modern recipes have managed to sneak in  a myriad of embellishments – white flour, sugar, honey, egg, butter, cream of tartar…. but this, this appears to be soda bread in its earliest and purest form. I had to try it. And I was not disappointed.

I followed MD’s recipe as written as closely as possible, and the first batch was fine, but not, in my opinion, the best it could be. The mixing of the soda in water was, for the time, an acceptable way to remove lumps, but it meant for an uneven distribution of soda throughout the flour, which resulted in blotches of yellow crumb amongst the wholemeal. Sieving the soda into the flour with the salt was a much better approach. In addition, buttermilk is not as freely available nowadays as it once was, so my solution was to mix equal quantities of whole milk and low-fat, plain yogurt. Lastly, as the recipe stated that the buttermilk should be very sour (which is what reacts with the soda to give the rise), I stirred in two teaspoons of vinegar.

Halving the batch made two mini loaves of dimensions 14cm x 8cm, which took, rather surprisingly, almost an hour to bake. If you wish to make the full batch, or bake in larger tins, you will need to increase the baking time accordingly.

The result is delicious. The crust bakes to a browned, knobbly crispness and the crumb inside is close-textured, but not claggy. Just warm from the oven and lightly spread with, as MD suggests, some fresh, salted butter, it is delicious with no further adornment. If, like me, you have occasionally read accounts of 19th century afternoon teas where guests are served ‘brown bread and butter’ and been rather puzzled at the plainness of the fare, having tasted this bread with butter, it all makes sense now.

If you’re a fan of modern soda bread recipes, this might not be to your tastes, but I would urge you to try it just once to enjoy the simple pleasure of this diamond in the rough, craggy crust.

Soda Bread

These litte loaves will almost double their size during baking, but only if you get them into the oven promptly. The soda will start reacting as soon as the liquids are added, so be sure the oven is at temperature before mixing wet and dry together.

340g stoneground wholemeal flour
1 level teaspoon of salt
1 level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
150ml whole milk
150ml low-fat, plain yogurt
2tsp white wine vinegar

a little milk (maybe)

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Grease and line two mini loaf tins (14cm x 8cm) with baking parchment. Grease the parchment.
  • Sieve the flour, salt and soda together twice (to spread the soda evenly).
  • Mix the milk, yogurt and vinegar until smooth.
  • When the oven is hot, add the liquids to the flour mixture and mix into a soft dough. You may need a little extra milk.
  • Put half of the dough into each prepared loaf tin and smooth over.
  • Using a sharp knife, cut a deep slit down the centre of each loaf.
  • Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
  • Turn the tins around and bake for another 15 minutes.
  • Remove the loaves from the tins and place them back in the oven on a rack to crisp up the crust – a final 5-10 minutes.
  • Set to cool on a wire rack.
  • Enjoy just warm on the day of baking, or toast the following day for breakfast.

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

 

Apple Snow

This recipe is more usually served in the late summer and autumn months, but I’ve chosen it now because the weather outside today has carpeted the garden with a thick layer of snow.

This is a classic dessert whose provenance stretches back centuries. Although the name ‘Apple Snow’ is the one more usually found in modern recipe books, it can also be found under the name Apple Fluff, Apple Souffle, Apple Puff and this version, Apple Cream Without Cream.

This last was found in a manuscript from the 17th century, held by The Wellcome Library. The manuscript has been attributed to the splendidly named Mrs Deborah Haddock, who sounds as if she should be the twinkly-eyed star of stories set in a small, quaint fishing village.

It is elegant in its simplicity, requiring only apple pulp, an egg-white and a little sugar. It is also, thanks to modern kitchen gadgetry, prepared incredibly swiftly, requiring less than ten minutes to come together before serving, once the initial preparation has been completed.

Apple Cream Without Cream, aka apple Snow, c1675, MS7892, Wellcome Library Collection

Choice of Fruit

This recipe can be made with any apple you have to hand, either keeping a purity of flavour with a single variety, or mixing and matching in a clearing-out-the-fruit-bowl, waste-not-want-not kind of way.

One of the manuscript recipes I read recommended green apples as being the best, but failed to elaborate any identifying characteristics beyond colour. I prefer to use Bramley apples, for the pale insides and sharpness of taste. Other varieties you might like to try include Worcester Pearmains, which have dazzlingly white flesh that tastes faintly of lemon and rough-skinned Russets that have an almost nutty flavour.

Alternatively, you could follow the recommendation in the recipe above and try this with gooseberries.

Apple Snow

This recipe tweaks the original slightly with additions found in other versions. In terms of quantity, it will make a visually impressive amount, but is so light and delicate, a full glass is still only a relatively small amount. It will hold its shape for two hours or so, but can be mounded in more impressive heights if served immediately after preparation.

Serves 4 – 8

5 Bramley apples, or apple of your choice.
juice of 1 lemon
2tbs cream sherry (optional)
4tbs caster sugar
1 large egg-white

  • Peel, core and chop the apples finely. Toss them in the lemon juice as you go, to prevent them from discolouring.
  • Add the apple and lemon juice to a saucepan with the sherry, if using.
  • Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the apples soften and turn to froth.
  • Mash the apples to a pulp, then sieve to remove all lumps. Chill until required.
  • Whisk the egg-white until it will stand in soft peaks. Set aside.
  • Put 250ml chilled apple pulp into a bowl and whisk on High for 2-3 minutes until pale and fluffy.
  • Add the whisked egg-white and continue whisking, adding in the sugar one spoonful at a time.
  • After 2-3 minutes the mixture will have both increased in volume and become dazzlingly white.
  • Taste and whisk in more sugar if needed.
  • Spoon or pipe into glasses and serve with some crisp biscuits on the side.
  • If you have apple pulp spare, you could spoon a little of it into the glasses before adding the apple snow.

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.