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

Thursday 24 October 2013

Apricot & Coconut Loaf Cake

Now the days have become darker and the rain has started pounding on the windows, I've made myself a nest on the sofa. It started when some friends visited last weekend. When they left, they carefully stacked the duvets and pillows from the night before on the sofa. Instead of moving them, I fell straight into the (very comfortable) trap.

Obviously, aside from duvets and pillows, my nest has a large number of books and a laptop cable sneaking out to the nearest socket. All it needed was cake.

This recipe was initially inspired by a cake that I've had a few times at the Vaults in Oxford - I've been meaning to make a version of it for years. The base is a soft, fluffy coconut cake that doesn't dry out. It's laced with apricot jam, which creates a subtle flavour through the cake and a sticky, slightly caramelised bottom. It's a sweet cake, but not in an overwhelming or unwelcome way.

With a large mug of tea, it perfects my autumnal nest.

Apricot & Coconut Loaf Cake

For the cake:
200g unsalted butter, at room temperature
180g caster sugar
3 eggs
120g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of fine sea salt
80g unsweetened desiccated coconut
3 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 tbsp apricot jam/preserve (I like to use a chunky jam that's not too sweet)

For the glaze:
1.5 tbsp apricot jam
1 tbsp water
about a tsp of desiccated coconut

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Line a 9 x 4"(23 x 10cm) loaf tin with greased parchment (or as I used here, greased parchment lined foil). Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a mixing bowl if using an electronic hand whisk) and cream until light and fluffy - this takes at least four or five minutes. Sieve the flour, baking powder and salt together.

Whisk the eggs together. Add the egg in small additions to the creamed mix, making sure you beat in between each addition until the mixture has totally incorporated the egg you've added - add a tablespoon of flour about half way through and again near the end to help prevent curdling. When you've finished the egg, add the rest of the flour mix and the coconut and briefly beat to combine. Add the milk and vanilla and stir briefly again until you have a uniform mixture.

Spread 3 tbsp of the jam over the bottom of the tin. Scoop 2/3 of the cake batter on top and level it. Swirl in the remaining 3 tbsp of jam then top with the rest of the cake mixture and level off again. Bake for 45-55 minutes until deep golden brown and a toothpick/skewer can be removed cleanly from the middle.

Combine the jam and water for the glaze in a small saucepan and heat until you have a syrup. Brush it over the top of the hot cake, using all of the glaze. Sprinkle the coconut over the top. Leave to cool in the tin for 5 minutes then lift out onto a wire rack to cool. Keeps for 3-4 days in an airtight tin.

(Makes 1 loaf cake, about 10 slices)

Three more loaf cakes:
Pear and Chocolate Loaf 2.0
Cardamon & Orange Pound Cake
Apricot & Fig Tea Loaf

Thursday 17 October 2013

A Literary City Guide to Oxford

A few months ago, Nicole of Eat This Poem launched a new series of literary city guides. The guides are a "travel resource for bookworms who love to eat" and are full of bookshops, libraries, restaurants and coffee shops.

I quickly volunteered to write one about Oxford and, as of today, you can find it here.

After reading Kelsey's guide to Denver, I want to go... the mountains make it look like home. I'd love to return to San Francisco too. Which cities would you like to visit?

“I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful."

W B Yeats (1865-1939)

“Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days - such as that day - when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth.”

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966)

“In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed goodbye, the bells would be chiming too, and a nightingale would be singing, and a little breeze would be stirring the leaves in the Botanic Garden.”

Philip Pullman (1946-)

Thursday 10 October 2013

Heidi's Maple Buttermilk Pie

Though I'd spotted this pie and pinned it to my recipes to try board a few months ago, I didn't do anything about it until after I'd eaten a slice.

Last month my cookbook club decided to shake things up and try a blog instead of a book. We chose Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks. This Maple Buttermilk Pie was one of the stars that turned up.

The flavour of the filling is difficult to describe. Tangy comes to mind, but it's not sharp like a lemon tart - more of a gentle crème fraîche tang from the buttermilk, muted slightly by the warmth of the maple syrup. The filling sets to a thick and creamy consistency that slices easily.

After failing to write a recipe review post for August I thought I'd loosen it up and do them whenever I come across something interesting that's already online. I loved this pie at cookbook club so it seemed like the perfect thing to make and share with you. The combination of flavours intrigued me so I thought it'd be a good fit for the feel of the series.

I think this pie makes a great autumnal dessert - there's something about maple syrup at this time of year.

Some notes on the recipe:

- I did three turns of the pastry and made a half recipe so I didn't have extra. I didn't have any rye flour so I made it with plain flour. The crimping disappeared as the pastry puffed so I wouldn't bother with it again. I think I might try it with a non-flaky pastry another time (probably this one) - it's quicker and though the top ring of the crust is nice, I prefer non-flaky underneath the pie.

- I wasn't sure about making the filling before the shell had baked or cooled. I think another time I'd make it as the shell cools so that it's ready when it's needed rather than sitting around.

- Normally I make fake buttermilk by adding lemon juice but this time I wanted to have the proper thickness and flavour so I bought some (I found it in my local supermarket next to the milk). It's also worth seeking out grade B maple syrup - it's darker and has a stronger flavour than the normal grade A stuff.

- My filling was set (with a little wobble in the middle) and browning after 50 minutes, so I took the pie out.

- I think the filling tastes best the next day, cold from the fridge - the flavours develop overnight.

As Heidi's recipe is in cups, here are the measurements I used:

For the pastry:
125g plain flour
1/8 tsp fine sea salt
115g unsalted butter, cold
30-40ml cold water

For the filling:
6 egg yolks
30g plain flour
30g soft brown sugar
zest of a small lemon
160ml maple syrup (preferably grade B)
480ml buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp fine sea salt

Three more recipes that use maple syrup:
Maple Nutmeg Mini Madeleines
Baked Oatmeal
Ginger Bourbon Pecan Pie