Tuesday 31 December 2013

Best of 2013

Happy New Year!

Each year I pick five of my favourite recipes that have slipped under the radar slightly for a NYE roundup. Which one is your favourite?

You can also look at the:
Best of 2010
Best of 2011
Best of 2012

Thursday 19 December 2013

Mincemeat Squares

5 reasons why I had to share this recipe:

1/ As far as I'm concerned, it's not Christmas without mincemeat (especially homemade mincemeat).
2/ It's a nice change from mince pies.
3/ Brown butter is involved (and you know how I feel about brown butter).
4/ It's a quick, one-bowl, mix-with-a-spoon sort of thing.
5/ It makes buttery, nutty biscuit bars with a mincemeat core that caramelises at the edges.

I'll be back on the 31st with a Best of 2013 roundup to continue the tradition. Until then all that's left to say is...

Merry Christmas!

Mincemeat Squares
(adapted from Fig & Hazelnut Crumble Bars and inspired by a recipe in Delia's Christmas)

150g unsalted butter
150g plain flour
125g ground almonds
65g soft brown sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
two pinches of fine sea salt
350g mincemeat

Preheat to 180C/350F. Line a shallow tin (around 11x7"/28x18cm) with baking parchment or parchment lined foil. Brown the butter in a big pan (see here for a tutorial if you haven't made it before) and pour into a bowl to cool. Stir the flour, almonds, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Add the brown butter and mix together. Tip half of the mixture into the lined tin and press down with your fingers into an even layer. Spoon the mincemeat into the tin and spread it out evenly. Fork up the remaining topping into pebbles and spread over the top. Press down lightly with the fork. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Leave to cool fully in the tin on a wire rack before cutting into squares - they can be a bit crumbly when they're warm. They keep for about 4 days in a tin.

(Makes 20 small squares or 12 bigger ones)

Four recipes that I'd make for a party dessert:
Crêpes Suzette
Ginger Bourbon Pecan Pie
Hervé's Two Ingredient Chocolate Mousse

Friday 13 December 2013

St Lucia Saffron Buns

Today, the 13th of December, is St Lucia's day. In most parts of Scandinavia, these saffron buns - also known as Lussekatter or Lussebullar - are made to celebrate.

Lucia of Syracuse was one of the earliest Christian martyrs, killed by the Romans in AD 304. Lucia - Lucy in English - is the patron saint of the blind and her celebration is one of light and hope at the darkest point in the year.

Each country has a different St Lucia song about light and darkness. Here's the first stanza of the Swedish song in English (from Sweden.se, which also has more information and photos of the celebrations):

"The night treads heavily
around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun,
the shadows brood
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia!"

John Donne wrote about Lucia's day and light too:

"‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;"

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day – John Donne, c.1627.

Having looked at some more pictures of Lucia buns today I've realised that I should probably be shaping them by coiling the ends round to give a curlier 's' shape. Having said that, I've become rather fond of the way I've been tucking the ends underneath and their slightly awkward shape once they've been baked.

There isn't enough saffron in my recipe to turn the colour of the dough more than a creamy pale yellow but I didn't want to add more (it's so expensive and I don't like a strong saffron flavour) or use food dye. I tried cranberries and raisins to stud the bread but I loved dried cherries the most (as suggested by Signe). The cherries plump up from the moisture in the dough and have a spicy flavour that works beautifully.

I really love these buns - they're soft and tender inside, with a delicate sweetness and a crisp, shiny crust. They've warmed my cold hands and brightened many of my dark December mornings.

St Lucia Saffron Buns
(inspired by Scandilicious Baking by Signe Johansen, Trine Hahnemann and The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas)

180ml milk
10 strands of saffron
60g unsalted butter
10g fresh yeast/4g instant yeast
300g plain flour
30g caster sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 egg + 1 for eggwash*
16 dried cherries (or raisins, cranberries etc)

Heat the milk and saffron in a small saucepan until the milk starts to steam and bubble. Pour into a bowl/jug to steep and cool. Place the butter in the milk pan and heat until melted - leave to cool in the pan. If you're using fresh yeast, when the milk has cooled to body temperature crumble the yeast into the milk and stir. Place the flour, sugar and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer and stir together with a spoon. Stir the instant yeast into the dry ingredients at this point if you're using it. Pour the milk, butter and one beaten egg into the bowl and stir together until it starts to form a dough. Put onto the machine and knead on medium-high (I use 6 on my KA) for 5 minutes (do time this). The dough should be slightly shiny, elastic and coming away from the sides of the bowl - it's quite a wet dough. Cover with cling film and leave to rise for 75 minutes or until doubled (you can also leave it in the fridge overnight to rise).

Scrape the dough out onto a floured surface and give it a few gentle folds to knock out some of the air. Divide the dough into 8 (around 75g each) and place the dough pieces under a clean tea towel. Take one out and roll and shape it into a rope about 7"/18cm long then put it back under the towel to rest while you shape the others. Get a baking sheet and line it with baking parchment. Take the rope you formed first and shape into an S by curling each end round. Place onto the baking sheet and cover with another clean tea towel. Repeat with the other seven. Leave to rise covered in the tea towel for 15 minutes and preheat the oven to 180C/350F.

When they've risen, push a cherry into the middle of the swirl at the top and bottom of each bun, pushing deep into the bun (or they pop out). In a small bowl, beat the other egg with a pinch of salt. Brush the buns with the egg wash, carefully covering all of the sides and down into the dips. Place into the oven and bake for 16-20 minutes (mine are usually perfect at 18), turning half way if your oven bakes unevenly - they're ready when they're risen, deep golden brown and sound hollow if you tap them on the bottom.

Remove to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes - eat while they're still hot. They keep for 3-4 days in a sealed bag or box - reheat for 5 minutes in a hot oven before eating after the first day. They also freeze well.

(Makes 8 buns)

*I know using egg wash is a pain as you don't use much but these buns look so much better shiny and brown - I tend to use the remaining egg in scrambled eggs or something similar.

Three more recipes that include milk:
Coconut Cream Cake
Pancakes with Lemon & Thyme Sugar
Vanilla Ice Cream

Thursday 5 December 2013

Christmas Pudding

For Christmas this year, I decided to try making my first Christmas pudding. I chose to make it on Stir up Sunday - on the 24th November this year, Sunday before last - and mature it until Christmas Day, as the tradition goes. I wanted to participate properly - as a cook, rather than a blogger trying to get something ready for the holidays - so I decided to wait until another year to give you a recipe.

I still wanted to share some pictures of the process so I thought I would write something about the background of the Christmas pudding. When it comes to history, I can do no better than to refer you to Ivan Day's three posts on Christmas puddings, so I thought we'd look at some literature instead.

The first literary mention of plum pudding at Christmas is in Anthony Trollope's Doctor Thorne, published in 1858: "Miss Oriel's visit had been entirely planned to enable her to give Mary a comfortable way of leaving Greshamsbury during the time that Frank should remain at home. Frank thought himself cruelly used. But what did Mr Oriel think when doomed to eat his Christmas pudding alone, because the young squire would be unreasonable in his love?"

I've read a bit of Doctor Thorne online and, essentially, Frank wishes to make an 'unreasonable' marriage to the girl he loves, Mary, instead of marrying for money. His family disagrees and Mary rebuffs his advances even though she feels the same way. When he returns home for Christmas, Mary has gone to London with her friend, Patience Oriel - leaving her brother sat alone at his festive table with a solitary spoon in the pudding dish.

Since Mr Oriel's lonely dinner, most mentions of Christmas puddings have revelled in the joy and chaos of the feast, with the cook's nerves and the guest's antics only adding to the warmth. These are my favourites:

"Harry had never in all his life had such a Christmas dinner. A hundred fat, roast turkeys, mountains of roast and boiled potatoes, platters of fat chipolatas, tureens of buttered peas, silver boats of thick, rich gravy and cranberry sauce - and stacks of wizard crackers every few feet along the table. {...} Flaming Christmas puddings followed the turkey. Percy nearly broke his teeth on a silver Sickle embedded in his slice. Harry watched Hagrid getting redder and redder in the face as he called for more wine, finally kissing Professor McGonagall on the cheek, who, to Harry's amazement, giggled and blushed, her top hat lopsided."

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J. K. Rowling, Chapter 12.

"For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush."

A Child's Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas.

"But Clongowes was far away: and the warm heavy smell of turkey and ham and celery rose from the plates and dishes and the great fire was banked high and red in the grate and the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy and when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top. "

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce, Chapter 1.

"There never was such a Christmas dinner as they had that day. The fat turkey was a sight to behold, when Hannah sent him up, stuffed, browned, and decorated. So was the plum pudding, which melted in one's mouth, likewise the jellies, in which Amy revelled like a fly in a honeypot. Everything turned out well, which was a mercy, Hannah said, "For my mind was that flustered, Mum, that it's a merrycle I didn't roast the pudding, and stuff the turkey with raisins, let alone bilin' of it in a cloth."

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, Chapter 22.

"But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone - too nervous to bear witnesses - to take the pudding up, and bring it in.

Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back-yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose: a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that! That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered: flushed, but smiling proudly: with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Oh, a wonderful pudding!"

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Chapter 3.

Three of my favourite Christmas recipes:
Bûche de Noël
Father Christmas Gingerbread Cookies
Stollen Wreaths

Thursday 21 November 2013

Foundations no.9 - Using Yeast

When you first saw my Butterkuchen post, did the yeast put you off?

I know several accomplished bakers who shy away from it and as it was also mentioned a few times in my survey, I thought I would write a post trying to demystify using yeast. I'm not an expert at bread making but I do like making enriched breads and, as you can see in my successive Hot Cross Bun posts, I've increased in confidence over the years.

There are several types of yeast you might come across: dried (often called active dry), instant, fresh (a.k.a. cake/compressed) and sourdough starters. For the sweet bread baking I do, I use instant or fresh.

Instant yeast is generally easy to find. You can get it in sachets (often 7g or around 2 teaspoons) or bigger packs. I prefer instant to active dried yeast as you can mix it straight into the ingredients (dried yeast needs activating, usually by mixing it with warm liquids and leaving it for a bit). Instant yeast is formed into lots of tiny rod shapes (as you can see in the photo above) to give a big surface area, which means the yeast starts working quickly once it comes into contact with liquid.

Sometimes the packets have other ingredients - emulsifiers are relatively common, as is the addition of ascorbic acid (a.k.a. vitamin C - some say it increases the rise and/or helps create consistent results, I imagine partly because the optimum pH for yeast fermentation is slightly acidic).

{The photo series below shows a batch of dough rising in my relatively cold kitchen a few days ago - the number in the corner refers to the number of minutes.}

In Switzerland you can buy fresh yeast in the chiller cabinet in supermarkets - even the small ones. It's harder to find in the UK. Bakeries will sometimes give or sell you a small amount but it can be a struggle to find somewhere that bakes on site (surprisingly, one of the best bets is the bakery in a big supermarket). You can also get it online from the Bertinet Kitchen Bakery (they also sell via amazon) - it's delivered in temperature-controlled packaging and I was really pleased with the batch I received last week. It's often sold in small blocks of 42g (you can see one on the right in the top photo). Generally I crumble it into the wet ingredients but it can also be added straight into the dough.

One of my favourite things about working with yeast is the way my hands smell after I've crumbled fresh yeast into the bowl.

To convert a recipe from instant yeast to fresh, triple the quantity (i.e. 7g instant = 21g fresh). Essentially, 10g fresh = 4g active dry = 3.3g instant.

Yeast is a single-celled fungus. There are many species of yeast - the one we use for brewing and baking is called Saccharomyces cerevisae.

Yeast metabolizes sugar in the dough to produce energy for itself. This anaerobic reaction creates carbon dioxide and alcohol:

The carbon dioxide gas is trapped by the dough and inflates it. When you put the dough in the oven the alcohol evaporates - becomes a gas - and therefore also expands, adding to the early rise called oven spring.

This occurs even in a dough where sugar is not added as an ingredient because enzymes in the dough (such as amylase, which we also have in our digestive system) work on the starch, breaking it down into glucose.

Generally, the idea is to use as little yeast as possible to get the rise - a slow rise gives better flavour, partly because of other flavour molecules that develop during fermentation. This is why many recipes call for the first rise to occur overnight in the fridge or use a pre-ferment. If the recipe doesn't tell you to rise the dough overnight and you decide to, you can reduce the amount of yeast (I'd go for half or a third).

Yeast will work fastest at around 38C/100F, but this won't necessarily give you the best result. If you want a quick rise then a temperature of around 26C/80F (a warm place/airing cupboard, perhaps) is convenient - otherwise go for room temperature (usually around 21C/70F) or the fridge.

I've also heard that you can freeze fresh yeast in small pieces to improve the length of time you can keep it. I froze some a few days ago but I haven't tried using it yet so I can't verify it personally. We've always kept fresh yeast in the fridge for 2-3 weeks and dried yeast in the cupboard.

As you can see in the photos, dough can take a bit of time to get going - be patient. It may take longer than the recipe states. The more enriched the dough, the slower the rise is likely to be. Spices (especially cinnamon) can also slow the fermentation - which is why cinnamon rolls usually have the spices in the buttery filling.

So, overall, the three things most likely to cause problems are:

Yeast is a living organism and so, at temperature extremes, it will die (like you or I). The main time this is a danger with enriched breads is if you're scalding milk, melting butter or heating something similar just before you add it to the dough - you need to make sure it cools down (transferring it to a metal bowl and putting it in the fridge will speed it up). I go for body temperature.

Too much salt or salt that gets directly into contact with the yeast will also cause problems. The key with most recipes is to stir the salt into the dry ingredients before you add the yeast so that the salt is distributed through the flour (so you don't spoon the yeast directly on top of the salt you've just tipped into the bowl). You can also add them to different sides of the bowl.

If your yeast is out of date, hasn't been used in time or hasn't been stored correctly, it probably won't work. Check the packet date and the amount of time you can use it after opening (for instance, a packet of instant I have states that the sachet must be used within 48 hours of opening). Fresh yeast should be a pale creamy colour, ever-so-slightly damp and smell nice.


This is the ninth post in my Foundations series, which explains techniques like making meringue (part one, part two) and brown butter.

Four recipes that use yeast:
Cinnamon Cardamon Kringel Bread
Blueberry Braided Bread

Thursday 14 November 2013

Pear & Caramel Pudding Cake

In the middle of making this cake for the first time, my mum's Kenwood Major died.

It was eighteen years old, bought when I was six. Mum taught me to bake with it. I can't begin to count the number of memories it features in.

It had been going slowly wrong for the past year or so, and finally gave up as I scraped down the sides of the bowl, declining to turn on again to finish creaming the butter and sugar. It went without a whimper or a bang, quietly, in great contrast to the racket it had started to make whenever you managed to twist and push the dial just so to make it turn on.

A few days before the mixer's demise, I came across this caramel apple cake. As I hadn't made anything with pears this autumn I decided to try making a upside down caramel pear cake. That recipe and most other similar cakes I've seen start with a brown sugar mixture on the bottom. I wanted to make one with proper caramel, lightly salted - a sort of tarte tatin/cake hybrid.

I adapted the cake mixture from my Pear and Chocolate Loaf as it's one of my favourites and I already knew it went well with pears. I tried three different types of pear: Bosc, Conference and Comice. Bosc was the best.

Despite the emotional loss of the mixer (and having to do the rest by hand), the first cake came out beautifully.

But then can you really go wrong with buttery salted caramel, tender pears, fluffy cake, caramelised edges and a spoonful or two of thick crème fraîche?

Finally, a quick little guide to fully lining a tin. I rarely think it's necessary to fully line (usually it's just the Christmas cake and similar things) but for this cake I wanted to make sure the caramel didn't leak out.

1.   Take your tin apart and roll out some baking parchment. Use a pencil to draw around the bottom circle of the tin. Cut it out.

2.   Align the side part of your tin with the edge of your roll of parchment paper. Roll the tin along the paper until you have a small overlap then mark the spot.

3.   Cut a strip of paper that's a bit wider than the height of your tin up to the mark - for this, mine was about 4"/10cm wide as my tin is 3"/7.5cm. On the edge that was the outside of the roll (as this is always straight) cut little slits into the paper that are about 0.5-0.75"/1.5-2cm deep all the way along.

4.   Flatten the paper and fold the tabs formed by the slits up on the side that was outwards on the roll (if the paper is put in the same way as it was rolled, it curls inwards). Curl it into the tin so that the tabs are flat on the bottom, then secure it with the circular middle.

Pear & Caramel Pudding Cake

For the top:
100g caster or granulated sugar
30g double cream
2 pinches fine sea salt
2 pears, just ripe, preferably Bosc

For the cake:
125g unsalted butter, room temperature
75g caster sugar
50g soft brown sugar
2 eggs
135g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of fine sea salt
2 tbsp unsweetened plain yogurt (or milk)

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F. Fully line an 8"/20cm* tin (as above).

Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the bottom of a large, thick-bottomed pan. Turn the heat up to medium-high and watch carefully - after a few minutes, the sugar will start to liquify at the edges. Don't stir it - you can flick some of the crystals onto a liquid bit, but don't fiddle too much. Once it's nearly all melted and starts to caramelise, swirl it all together. Keep heating until you have a deep golden-bronze colour. Turn off the heat and stir in the cream and sea salt. Quickly scrape into the case and spread out carefully so that it covers as much of the base as possible. It will become hard once it has cooled.

Peel the pears, then chop in quarters and core. Slice each quarter into three. Arrange on top of the hard caramel in a fan shape.

Cream the butter and two sugars together until pale and fluffy, scraping down occasionally - this takes about 5 minutes. Beat the eggs together in a jug. Weigh the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. When fully creamed, start adding the eggs, bit by bit, beating all the time (I keep mine on 6 on my KA). About half way through adding the egg, add a tsp of flour, then again towards the end, scraping down each time. Sieve the flour bowl into the mixer bowl then mix together on a low speed. When it has come together, add the yogurt and mix until combined.

Dollop the cake mixture on top of the pears then spread out into an even layer - it won't seem like much mixture but it's fine. Bake for 20-26 minutes until deep golden brown and a toothpick or tester can be removed cleanly from the middle. Place on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes then remove the side of the tin and the side paper. Flip onto a serving plate and remove the bottom part of the tin and the paper.

I think this cake is much better when warm or hot, so I recommend either eating it immediately or reheating it just before. Best on the day it's made, keeps two days overall. Serve with crème fraîche.

(Serves around 6-8)

Edit 24/10/15: I've changed the caramel to a cream caramel which solves the problems some were having in the comments below (which means the photo above is incorrect for the recipe, sorry). I've also changed the milk for yogurt in the cake.

*I've also started making this in a 9" tin - either is fine, though 9" tends to cook in more like 20 minutes.

Three more posts that involve making caramel:
Salted Caramel Brownies
Choco-Caramel Sundae Sauce
Cider Caramel, Sautéed Apples & Cinnamon Ice Cream

Thursday 7 November 2013


Butterkuchen means 'Butter Cake' in German. It's part of a family of sheet cakes (called Blechkuchen) that are often made with yeasted dough. This is one of the simplest.

More poignantly, Butterkuchen is also called Freud-und-Leid-Kuchen or 'Joy and Sorrow Cake' because it is often served at weddings and funerals in North Germany. I think the name shows beautifully how entwined food is with our celebrations, our emotions and our lives.

When I decided to make a Butterkuchen I wasn't sure where to start. If I'm looking at making a recipe where I either have no idea who to trust or there are so many authoritative recipes that I don't know where to begin, I turn to a method I developed a few years ago for choux pastry.

First, I found six recipes, three in English and three in German: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six.

I then typed each ingredient into a spreadsheet, making conversions and translations as I went. From there I divided each ingredient weight by the flour weight in each recipe (i.e., for no.1 below, sugar was 30/250 = 0.12) so that I had a ratio (I sometimes use eggs as the starting point too). This means I can directly compare the proportions in each recipe.

Instead of working out the average proportion for each ingredient I tend to have a look and decide on a sensible value, taking into account my general preferences and outliers. For instance, with the sugar for the dough, I chose 0.1 after looking at 0.12, 0.28, 0.11, 0.12, 0.12 and 0.1, as I tend to err on the side of less sugar and 0.28 seemed out of line.

I then decided on a size for the recipe based on the ingredient I started with (i.e. flour). For this one I chose to make a small sheet, as it's much better when it's fresh and warm from the oven, so I went for 250g of flour. I then multiplied up the remaining ingredients (i.e, for the sugar, 0.1 x 250 = 25g).

Finally, I work out a method from comparing the recipes and my experience with similar recipes. I then adjust the ingredients and method if needed as I test. This one worked perfectly the first time, so I just tested it twice again to check it was consistent.

A few of the recipes I found included cinnamon in the topping but I decided to focus on the butter, almonds and vanilla. Vanilla is often included in the recipes as vanilla sugar sachets but I was in a luxurious mood and decided to rub the seeds from half a vanilla bean into the sugar for the topping. I think it's worth it - the flavour and smell is wonderful and the flecks look very pretty in the sugar crust.

This is a really enjoyable recipe to make. There's something incredibly satisfying about poking the holes in the soft dough and then filling all of the dents with the little chunks of butter. It's also absolutely delicious - buttery, crisp, crunchy, nutty and almost like a doughnut.

(created as explained above)

For the dough:
125ml whole milk
50g unsalted butter
250g plain flour
25g caster sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 1/4 tsp fast action dried yeast
1 egg

For the topping:
60g white caster sugar
1/2 vanilla pod*
75g unsalted butter
60g flaked almonds

Put the milk and butter into a small pan and heat until the butter has melted and the milk is steaming. Pour into a bowl (preferably metal) and place in the fridge or freezer to cool. Once the milk has cooled to warm, whisk the flour, sugar and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle in the yeast and whisk in. Lightly beat the egg then add it and the milk to the bowl. Stir until the dough comes together. Attach the dough hook and knead for 4 minutes - by the end, the dough should be smooth and elastic. It's very sticky at this point but don't worry. Cover with cling film or a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm, draft-free place until the dough has doubled (about 45-60 minutes).

Dust a work surface with flour then tip the dough out onto it. Dust the top with flour then roll out to an even rectangle of about 28 x 20cm (11 x 8"). Transfer to a greased, rimmed baking sheet. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise for about 20-30 minutes - it won't rise a huge amount, but when it's ready a poke should leave a clear indent.

Preheat the oven to 200C/390F. Weigh out the sugar into a small bowl. Split the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds into the bowl. Rub the seeds into the sugar until they're evenly distributed. Cut the butter up into tiny cubes. When the dough is ready use a finger to poke lots of dents in the dough (pushing down to the bottom but not making a hole - see picture above) - you may need to dip your finger in the sugar if it starts sticking to the dough. Place a small cube of butter in each of the dents. Sprinkle the dough evenly with the vanilla sugar, then the almonds.

Bake for about 17-20 minutes, turning at 10 minutes, until the dough has risen, bronzed and the almonds are golden-brown all over and caramelising. There might be butter in the tray - don't worry. Once it has cooled a little, you should be able to tap it and get a hollow sound. Leave to cool until warm, then slice up. Best eaten while still warm or very fresh. You can freeze it and reheat it but it's not quite the same.

(Makes one slab, about 12 slices)

*You could use vanilla sugar instead, though I love the way the seeds look and the amount of flavour they give. You can make a batch of vanilla sugar from the scraped pod when you make this and use it next time (or for something else, of course). If you don't have vanilla sugar or a pod, you could add 1 tsp of vanilla paste, or failing that, extract, to the dough, though it won't have the same effect.

(Updated 20/07/15)

Three more recipes for sweet yeasted breads:
2011: Super Chocolate Cinnamon Rolls
2012: Chelsea Buns
2013: Cinnamon Cardamon Kringel Bread

Thursday 31 October 2013

Treacle Scones

Several years after my grandmother died, I was given her cookery books. They were kept in the darkest corner of her kitchen and stacked, piled and slotted together to fill every shelf.

Amongst them I found a slight yellow and brown volume from the 70’s named Devonshire Flavour, compiled from various local contributors. In it, I found my first reference to treacle scones. A. N. Winckworth from Dunchideock House provides the recipe, explaining that the scones should be made with genuine Dunchideock treacle, “mined from the local theriaciferous rocks”. Without pausing to think, I swallowed the story whole.

After pointing out that other treacle can be used, the editor drily notes: “It is perhaps due to Lewis Carroll’s reference to a treacle well that supplies have become so elusive; becoming... almost exhausted”. At the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the sleepy dormouse tells a story about Elsie, Lacie and Tillie, the three little girls who lived in a “treacle-well”. Alice is incredulous: “There’s no such thing!”

Treacle wells and mines seem to have become a joke to trick the gullible around the time of Carroll’s writing. They still pop up – they’re mentioned in Terry Pratchett’s novels and there are plenty of websites about treacle mines.

Treacle is, of course, the syrupy product of refining sugar - sadly there are no wells or mines involved.

The treacle well in Alice was inspired by St Margaret’s Well, next to the church in Binsey, Oxfordshire. It can still be seen today, sunken and encased in mossy stone. The well was called a treacle well because the Middle English word triacle meant a curative antidote or medicine and the water was believed to have healing powers. It has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries - Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon are said to have visited to pray for a healthy son. Carroll twists this around, causing the three little girls in the well to become “very ill” from consuming the treacle.

The story behind the healing powers of the well goes back to the eighth century. According to one version, a local noblewoman called Frideswide ran to Binsey trying to escape the advances of King Algar of Mercia. Algar caught Frideswide but when he touched the holy virgin’s hand, he was struck blind by heavenly powers. In pity, she prayed that his sight might be restored. In answer, St Margaret of Antioch (who has a wonderful story herself – I love her Old English and Katherine Group lives) appeared along with her dragon and told Frideswide to strike the ground with a staff. As it hit the ground, water started to gush out. Frideswide bathed Algar’s eyes and he was healed.

Frideswide became the first Abbess of the Oxford monastery and remained there until her death in around 727. She is the patron saint of Oxford. Her tale has been handed down the generations in several versions (some not quite as dramatic as the one above) and several formats (you can see her story depicted in a big stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral). Chaucer even has the Oxford-based carpenter cry "help us Saint Frideswyde" in the Miller's Tale.

Treacle scones are homely, richly flavoured and particularly good with salted butter, hot from the oven. I wasn’t expecting to like them quite as much as I do.

I imagine my granny would frown at the extravagance of splashing the unbaked scones with melted butter and covering them with a crunchy coating of Demerara sugar, but it tastes too good to stop.

Treacle Scones

230g plain flour*
30g dark brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
120ml milk
2 tbsp black treacle
60g cold unsalted butter
5 tsp Demerara sugar

Preheat the oven to 200C/390F. Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Sieve the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt together – you may have to squish the sugar through with a spoon if it’s a fine sieve. Stir everything together.

Place the milk and treacle together in a bowl. Using a fork, keep whisking the treacle into the milk until it’s dark brown and the treacle has dissolved. Take 15g of the butter and melt it in a small pan. Cut the other 45g into cubes and then rub it into the flours until there are no big lumps left. Add the treacle-milk and gently combine (I use a folding motion) with a blunt knife or spatula until the mixture comes together – it is quite sticky.

Brush a circle of melted butter about 18cm in diameter onto the paper, then sprinkle with 2 tsp of the Demerara sugar. Tip the dough out onto the sugared paper then pat into a circle about 2-3cm high with flour-dusted hands. Cut into quarters then again into 8 triangles with a sharp knife dusted with flour. Don’t move the scones about – leave them next to each other (don’t worry, they’ll still cook properly when stuck together). Brush with the remaining butter (don’t worry about the butter pooling in the cuts, that’s normal) and sprinkle the remaining 3 tsp of sugar over the top.

Bake for 16-18 minutes until puffy and browning around the edges. Remove immediately to a wire rack so the bottom stays crisp then tear each scone off and eat while still warm with salted butter.

*I've also tried it with 180g plain flour and 50g wholemeal flour, which was lovely.

(Makes 8)

Three more recipes that involve treacle:
2013: Treacle Flapjacks
2012: Gingerbread
2011: Ginger Root Bundt Cake