Damson Ice-Cream

The autumn months are almost upon us and it truly is the season of mellow fruitfulness.

First among equals is the damson, a fruit I have been familiar with my whole life. Damsons are small, oval, wild plums with a signature ‘bloom’. They are different to bullaces, a different wild plum which is more round and apple-shaped. It was only a few years ago that I learned that damsons aren’t universally known, rather they are concentrated in just a few counties, namely Shropshire, Worcestershire, Buckinghamshire, Cheshire and Westmorland.

Damsons are really tart – there’s no possibility of enjoying them raw – and make fabulous jams and chutneys. I particularly enjoy them in sweet dishes, because their sourness and tartness are a great foil against sugar and sweetness.

And so to this recipe. This is a fabulously simple recipe which makes beautifully soft and creamy ice-cream with just two main ingredients, plus flavouring, without the need for an ice-cream maker. This last point is especially useful if, like me, you lack worktop space. There is no need to repeatedly remove it from the freezer and stir to remove ice crystals, because they never form. You can literally mix it in minutes and freeze overnight and enjoy perfectly smooth, delicious ice-cream immediately.

The ice-cream recipes over on TimeToCookOnline include salted caramel and malt, both of which can be made with storecupboard ingredients, but I fancied adapting this recipe to use fresh fruit, and my freezer provided the ingredients. I had a bag of damsons that had been languishing there for probably three years, so their time to shine was long overdue.

The method can be used for any frozen, or indeed fresh, fruit. Most importantly, it is necessary to get rid of as much water from the fruit as possible, as it will form ice-crystals when frozen and ruin the smoothness of your ice-cream. The majority of this post will be on how you can achieve this, plus a short-cut or two.

Fruit Puree Method – Damsons

The flesh of a damson clings tightly to the stone, so the best way to separate the two is by cooking. Sweetened, stewed damsons were a regular simple pudding on the table during my childhood. One had to spoon the cooked fruit into your mouth, then discretely return the stone to the spoon and lay it on the rim of your dish. For ice-cream purposes, though, a puree is what is required.

  • Put 1kg (or more if liked) of damsons, fresh and rinsed or frozen, into a saucepan.
  • Add 3-4 tablespoons of water and cover with a lid.
  • Turn the heat to low and let the fruit gently steam/stew until soft.
  • Pour the fruit into a sieve over a large bowl and stir with a wooden spoon to separate the fruit pulp from the stones and skins. Use the back of a knife to regularly scrape the pulp from the underside of the sieve. Be warned, damson juice will stain, so wear an apron and wipe up any spills promptly, especially if you have a wooden worktop.
  • When all that remains in the sieve is stones and skins (which can be discarded), measure the fruit puree and add HALF the volume of puree in granulated sugar. e.g 4 cups of juice will need 2 cups of sugar.
  • Return the puree to the pan, add the sugar and stir to dissolve.
  • Simmer over a low-medium heat until it has reduced and thickened. This may take a while, depending on the volume of puree you’re working with. There’s a lot of pectin in damsons, so if you spoon a little onto a cold plate and it sets, it’s done.
  • What you should be left with is something of the consistency of runny honey.

Sugar Absorption Method – Fresh Apricots

This method is an adaptation of a jam-making method used by ‘The Jam Fairy’ Christine Ferber. I used it with fresh apricots which I spotted recently at a bargain £1 a punnet. It takes a little longer, but preserves the fresh flavour of the fruit.

  • Slice the apricots and remove the stones.
  • Score the inner flesh with a sharp knife, being careful not to cut too deeply – the skin should remain intact.
  • Lay your apricot halves side by side in a bowl in layers, flesh-side up.
  • When you can fit no more into the layer, cover generously with granulated sugar to a depth of about 1cm.
  • Continue layering and covering with sugar until all your fruit is in the bowl.
  • Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 8-10 hours, or overnight. The sugar will draw out the juices in the apricots and in turn be drawn into the flesh of the fruit.
  • Tip the fruit and sugar mixture into a saucepan and heat very gently until all the sugar granules have dissolved. Stir occasionally.
  • When all the sugar is dissolved, bring the syrup to a boil, turn off the heat and cover the pan. Leave to stand until cool.
  • Drain the fruit from the syrup.
  • Remove the skins of the fruit. The heat of the syrup will have softened the skins as well as separating them from the apricot flesh. If you lift up each apricot half by pinching the skin at the back, it should pull away quite easily. It is likely to remain attached at the edges, in which case you can help things along by scraping the flesh away with a teaspoon. Put the flesh into a separate bowl. Discard the skins. You can keep the apricot flavoured syrup to use as a glaze for fruit tarts, buns etc.
  • Puree the flesh.
  • Taste, and add a little lemon juice to taste to sharpen the flavour, if liked.

Storecupboard Hacks

Tinned fruit in syrup has already been processed, so you could drain some tinned apricots/peaches/pears etc and puree the fruit. The flavour won’t be quite as fresh-tasting, but it’s much quicker and you can be feet up, waiting for your ice-cream to freeze in about 15 minutes.

Even quicker, you could substitute jam for the fruit. Use a good quality brand such as Bon Maman, which has compotes and conserves in a range of delicious flavours. How much you’ll need will depend on personal preferences, but I suggest starting with 300g and seeing how that goes. Warm the compote/conserve gently, then puree. You can always stir in extra as a ‘ripple’.

Damson Ice-cream

This damson ice-cream is the best ice-cream I have ever tasted. EVER. The intense sour/tartness of the fruit is a perfect foil to the intense sweetness of the condensed milk, and the result is smooth and rich and velvety, with a huge zing of ‘rippled’ damson. Gooseberries (perhaps with a dash of elderflower cordial) and rhubarb would also work well.

Despite the title, you can use this method to make any fruit ice-cream that takes your fancy. Because it was slightly runny, but intense in flavour, I used just 350ml of damson puree in the ice-cream, and another 150ml as ‘ripple’.  The apricot puree was thicker, so I mixed in a full 500ml.

600ml chilled double cream
1 x 397g tin of sweetened condensed milk
500ml sweetened damson puree – divided

  • Put the cream and the condensed milk into the bowl of a mixer.
  • Add 350ml damson puree.
  • Whip the ingredients with a balloon whisk attachment until light and fluffy.
  • Pour into a suitable plastic container.
  • Add dollops of the remaining puree and swirl through with a knife.
  • Cover and freeze overnight.

Toad In The Hole

Toad In The Hole was a favourite dish of my childhood, and also one of the first dishes I made when I began cookery lessons at school, aged 11. Toad in the Hole is a traditional lunch or supper dish combining sausages and a standard Yorkshire Pudding batter.

The earliest mention attributed by the Oxford English Dictionary is 1787¹, but as the digitisation of old books increases, earlier mentions will no-doubt come to light. I’ve managed to find a few.

From 1762 we have a mention in the publication The Beauties of all the magazines selected, a kind of Readers Digest of its day, in an article describing an engraving by William Hogarth. The Hogarth print, published in 1761,  is entitled The Five Orders of Perriwigs, and the magazine’s description of the first image (below) is as follows:

The first Capital discovers only a forehead, nose, lips, and one eye, the rest of the face is eclipsed by the Wig’s protuberance, and appears like a small piece of beef baked in a large pudding, vulgarly called, a Toad in a hole.

The other mention is from several years earlier, 1749 to be exact, and is in the form of a footnote to some verse in a play².

In the eighteenth century, ‘Cant’ was secret language or jargon used by certain groups of people, such as gypseys, thieves and professional beggars, for the purposes of secrecy. In this context, it more likely to have been (slightly derogatory) slang. Together with the wig reference, the overall image is of a rather mean piece of meat being padded out to the point of almost being swallowed by a large, voluminous  and above all, filling pudding.³

Nearly three hundred years later it is still a very budget friendly dish, as it can make a meal for 4 out of a pack of sausages and a few cupboard staples.

There are a couple of tips when making a Toad which can add both flavour and interest. I was taught to put the sausages in your baking/serving dish and put the dish into the heated oven for 10-15 minutes before adding in the batter. This allows the sausages to start cooking and (hopefully) develop a little bit of colour. Most importantly, however, it will allow the fat in the sausages to start to render, thereby greasing your dish, and thus you don’t need to add any additional fat.

The second is flavouring. Many people like to serve Toad In The Hole with gravy – onion gravy is popular. But not all people are gravy enthusiasts, and so another approach is to flavour the batter. Obviously salt and pepper are a given, but the addition of some fresh herbs can add some big punch flavours, especially if the sausages are also herbed. I think you can’t go wrong with the old “Scarborough Fair” mix of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. As far as quantity, go by your own personal taste: a nice rounded teaspoon of fresh chopped, or half that if using dried is a reasonable amount to start with. Onion in some form is also another option. Pick your preferred strength from what I like to think of as an allium continuum: chives, spring onions, white/French, pink, shallots, red, brown, – and whether to add them raw, softened, browned or caramelised.

This version is time as well as budget friendly, as it cooks in the slow cooker. With only about five minutes work, you can then forget about it and be tucking into a crispy Toad in just two hours.

There are couple of important tips to using a slow cooker for your Toad In The Hole

  1. To avoid a soggy Toad, you need to prevent the condensation that will form on your slow cooker lid from dripping back onto your Toad, so you need to trap – for want of a better word – some kitchen paper or a clean teatowel under the lid to absorb the moisture.
  2. No peeking! Lifting the lid to check on progress will cause the heat to escape, which will adversely affect the cooking of your batter. I peeked several times when first trying this method, and the resulting Toad was decidedly ‘firm’. By not peeking throughout the whole two hours, the Toad had a much lighter crust. Admittedly not quite as puffed as an oven-baked Toad, but perfectly acceptable for such a hands-off approach. As a bonus, the bottom and sides get deliciously crisp and brown.
  3. (Optional) Pre-cooking the sausages. You don’t have to do this, you can just plonk everything in at once, but I find a little colour on the sausages does wonders for the visual appeal of the finished dish. The cooking doesn’t have to be that long either. In a pan on a fairly high heat, they will take a little colour in about a minute (you only need to have colour on one side). Then you can arrange them coloured-side up in your slow cooker before pouring over the batter.

Toad In The Hole – Slow-cooker method

Caveat: I have a large slow cooker, for easy batch cooking, and I appreciate not everyone will have a slow cooker of a similar size. Smaller cookers will require some adjustment in either the quantity made and/or the length of cooking time. Do let me know how you go if you are making this in a small slow cooker.

Batter (based on a 17thC recipe)
2 large eggs
120g plain flour
220ml milk
salt and pepper
herbs (optional)
onions (optional)

12 chipolata sausages.

kitchen paper or clean teatowel

  • Turn on your slow cooker to High to heat up.
  • Colour one side of your sausages in a pan. Set aside.
  • Put the eggs, flour and milk into an appropriate container and whisk into a batter (I use a stick blender).
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Stir in your herbs and/or onion if using.
  • Brush the inside of your slow cooker with some of the sausage fat. Remember to include the sides for when the batter puffs up.
  • Arrange your sausages coloured side upwards. I like to use chipolata sausages because they cover the bottom of the slow cooker more densely than regular-sized sausages.
  • Gently pour the batter between the sausages, trying to keep them from rolling over, although it’s easy to turn them back if this does happen.
  • Lay a double-thickness of kitchen roll over the top of your slow cooker and clamp it in place with the lid.
  • Set a timer for 2 hours and NO PEEKING!
  • When the time is up, remove the Toad from the slow cooker to a dish or board, and cut into serving pieces.
  • Serve with salad and/or vegetables and/or gravy.
  • DejaFood: If you have any leftover Toad, it reheats well. Wrap in foil and put into a 200°C, 180°C Fan oven for 10 minutes.

¹ “Pudding-Pye-Doll, the dish called toad-in-a-hole, meat boiled in a crust. Norf.” Francis Grose · A provincial glossary, with a collection of local proverbs, and popular superstitions · 1st edition, 1787.

² A general history of the stage; (more particularly the Irish theatre) from its origin in Greece down to the present time. (1749), by William Rufus Chetwood, printed by E. Rider, for the author, and sold by Messrs. Ewing, Wilson, Esdall, and James, in Dublin, and Mr. Sullivan in Cork, Dublin, p183.

³  Sidebar: Hannah Glasse’s 1747 book The Art of Cookery contains a recipe for Pigeons In A Hole³, which is definitely a related dish:

The art of cookery, made plain and easy; which far exceeds any thing of the kind ever yet published. (1747), Hannah Glasse, printed for the author; and sold at Mrs. Ashburn’s, a China-Shop, London, p46.

Harlequin Salad

It is June, and summer is upon us! It’s the time of salady goodness! And I have here a very easy salad for you which I’ve cobbled together over the years. It’s simple and fresh and delicious and exceedingly easy to make. In fact, the skill bar is set so low I’m going to sum it up in one sentence.

If you can use a knife, you can make this salad.

Yes, it’s that easy.

Like pretty much everyone, I think small is cute, especially when it comes to food. This salad embodies that notion, because all of the elements are of a similarly small size. It also addresses a perennial salad problem, that of gloopiness. Salad vegetables usually have a high water content, and when you start cutting into them, the juice starts to flow, so your salad can become somewhat waterlogged in a very short time. With just a couple of tweaks to your regular salad preparation, you can keep your ingredients crisp and fresh much longer.

Each element is neatly diced to keep the overall appearance looking clean and fresh. Cutting raw broccoli and cauliflower into miniature florets, as opposed to just chopping them, keeps the salad from becoming cluttered with stray leaves falling off. Plus mini florets look adorable.

Another advantage of this salad is how you can easily customise it to whatever you have to hand. For example, I had hoped to include radishes in the picture above, but the supermarket had not received its delivery and there were none to be had. So I just left them out. You’re only going to be limited by your imagination: if you’re a fan of fruit in salad, add in some chopped apple and pomegranate seeds, if you relish crunchy sharp flavours, add in some pickled vegetables. Just be sure to follow The Rule.

The One Rule: Everything in your salad should be roughly the same size.

Gather your ingredients and decide on the smallest item. In the salad above, it’s the sweetcorn, but it could just as easily be peas or something else. Using that as a guideline, peel and dice your salad ingredients to a similar size and mix them together.

Harlequin Salad

This salad can be scaled to your requirements – for as small a number as one, as a main course, to a family-sized bowl as a side. Undressed, it will keep in the fridge for several days. The number of ingredients is enirely up to you, but there should be roughly the same quantity of each ingredient. Here’s a brief run down of how to prep various salad ingredients. The top two are the most important to ensure your salad stays gloop-free.

  • Cucumber: Cut off a 6-8cm piece and cut it in half lengthwise. Using a teaspoon, scrape out the seeds, leaving just the green flesh. Discard the seeds.¹ Slice the rest of the cucumber lengthwise into 1cm thick strips, then cut across into 1cm dice.
  • Tomatoes: Cut in half around the middle, then slice the seed stalk as shown in the picture. Scrape the seeds into a bowl and set side (see Harlequin Salad Dressing below). Slice the tomato flesh into 1cm dice. I used mini tomatoes, which were a bit fiddly, but they had beautiful mixture of reds and yellows.

  • Celery: Wash the stalks and trim the ends. Slice into 1cm strips. Cut across into 1cm dice.
  • Carrot: Top and tail and cut lengthways into 1cm thick slices. Cut each slice into 1cm strips and then cut across into 1cm dice.
  • Raw Broccoli: Cut mini florets from the 1-2 large branches. Cut the stalk into 1cm slices, then into 1cm strips and dice.
  • Raw Cauliflower: Cut mini florets from the 1-2 large branches. Cut the stalk into 1cm slices, then into 1cm strips and dice.
  • Raw French Beans: Top and tail and cut into 1cm slices.
  • Radishes: Top and tail and cut in half. Cut each half into four. If large, you might need to cut down further.
  • Peppers – all colours: Cut in half and remove the stalk and seeds. Cut into 1cm strips, then into 1cm dice.
  • Spring onions: Remove papery outer layers and trim roots. Slice into 1cm slices.
  • Red onions/shallots: Top and tail and remove papery outer layers. Cut into 1cm slices, then across into 1cm dice.
  • Red Cabbage – raw or pickled: Cut a 1cm slice, then cut into 1cm strips and slice into 1cm dice.
  • Sweetcorn – fresh, canned or frozen: No chopping required.
  • Peas – fresh or frozen: No chopping required.
  • Pomegranate Seeds: No chopping required.
  • Apple: Have the juice of a lemon ready squeezed. Peel (or not, you choose) your apple and cut in half. Remove the core and cut each half into 1cm slices. Cut the slices into strips and then cut across into dice. Toss immediately in lemon juice to prevent browning. Drain thoroughly before adding to the rest of the ingredients.
  • Pickled silverskin onions: No chopping required.
  • Pickled cornichons: Cut in half lengthwise, then slice into 1cm pieces.
  • Olives: Cut in quarters or eighths, depending on size.

When you’ve gathered and chopped your salad ingredients, the last flourishing touch is to add the secret ingredient which makes this salad really sing:

  • at least 1 sprig fresh mint

A little goes a long way, so one sprig is probably all you’ll need, unless in a moment of madness you’ve recklessly agreed to make Harlequin Salad in catering quantities.

Strip the leaves from the sprig of mint and shred finely. Turn the shreds and chop again crossways to cut the mint into small pieces and sprinkle over your chopped vegetables. Toss gently to combine.

Harlequin Salad Dressing

The tomato seeds can be a bit irritating, and in this instance would otherwise interfere with the clean salad appearance, but the flesh around them is deliciously tart and perfect to use in a dressing.

tomato seeds from the salad
olive oil
salt and coarse-ground black pepper
a light vinegar (optional)

  • Sieve the tomato seeds over a bowl until  all that remains are the seeds.
  • Add 1tbs olive oil, salt and pepper to the tomato seed juice and mix to combine.
  • Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add more oil/vinegar as required.
  • Set aside until ready to serve the salad.

To Serve

  • Wash some lettuce leaves (I used Cos/Romaine), pat them dry with a paper towel and use them to line a serving dish.
  • Shake your dressing and pour over your chopped vegetables and toss gently to mix.
  • Spoon the dressed salad onto the leaves and serve.

¹I agonised over this, as it’s the only waste in this salad. Having thought about it for a while, my suggestion is to sieve the seeds to remove all the juice, and have a shot of cucumber water with your salad.

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.