Tag Archives: Elizabeth David

Toast

toasting fork

from iggandfriends.wordpress.com

Hot buttered toast must be the most popular British breakfast item, whether eaten on the run to the bus stop, or served up with a full English breakfast or posh scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on a Sunday. Elizabeth David described it as a ‘peculiarly English…delicacy’.

It is true that the wafting smell of freshly made toast combined with the sight of the slow melting of a good covering of salted butter is so comforting. Indeed, the first thing offered up to you after you’ve come round from an operation on the NHS (and I unfortunately have had many times) is tea and toast. (Digressing slightly, the first thing offered up to you after an operation in the USA is the similarly comforting cookies and milk.)

Most toast today is, of course, made from the flabby Chorleywood processed white sliced loaf, which produces quite depressingly poor ‘wangy’ toast. Proper toast requires proper bread; bread that has gone a slightly stale. Perfect toast is in the eye of the beholder: thick, thin, crisp throughout, soft in the centre, pale, dark, a scraping of butter or lashings of it.

Making toast was a way of using up stale bread, of course, so toast shouldn’t even be required now that we have the invention of Chorleywood processed bread. It’s ironic that our love of toast means we, on the whole, now make it with a product unsuitable for making it.

It won’t surprise you that there are some very detailed descriptions in old cookbooks as to the best way for making toast.

soyer

The earliest official piece of toasting equipment was the toasting fork. Here’s the flamboyant Victorian chef Alexis Soyer’s instructions from A Shilling Cookery for the People from 1854:

How to Toast Bread – Procure a nice square loaf that had been baked one or two days previously, then with a sharp knife cut off the bottom crust evenly, and then as many sliced you require, about a quarter of an inch in thickness. Contrive to have a clear fire: place a slice of the bread upon a toasting-fork, about an inch from one of the sides, hold it a minute before the fire, then turn it, hold it another minute, by which time the bread will be thoroughly hot, then begin to move it gradually to and fro until the whole surface has assumed a yellowish-brown colour, then turn it again, toasting the other side in the same manner; lay it then upon a hot plate, have some fresh or salt butter (which must not be too hard, as pressing it upon the roast would make it heavy),spread a piece, rather less than an ounce, over, and cut the toast into four or six pieces. You will then have toast made to perfection.

Coal range

Next rung up on the evolutionary ladder of toast-making was the invention of the toast plate, a cast iron rack that could sit in front of coal-powered range cooker. My friend Andreas actually has an original coal range cooker with a toast plate built in. I am very jealous.

range toasting plate

You can buy plates that lay over a gas burner on the stove top that I suppose achieves a flavour closest to the ones found on the coal ranges. Elizabeth David owned one (from English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977):

Elizabeth David

Part of the charm of the toast produced on this device is that every piece is different, and differently marked, irregularly chequered with the marks of the grill, charred here and there, flecked with brown and gold and black.

At home, the best way to make toast is by using a grill, preferably a gas grill; it produces a much more even heat and therefore even toasting than an electric grill. I love the flecked toast that David described, but an electric grill has hot spots that produce slices well done in one patch and hardly coloured in another.

THE WAY WE COOKED

You might think all you need to do is stick the bread under the grill and wait, right? Wrong. Here are Delia Smith’s instructions for making toast under a grill, though first you need to slice it (from How to Cook: Book One, 1998):

  1. The key to slicing bread is to use gentle, rapid saw movements with the knife and not to push down too hard on the loaf. For toast, cut the bread into slices about ½ inch (1 cm) thickness. The crusts can be on or off, depending how you like them.
  2. Pre-heat the grill for at least 10 minutes before making the toast, turning it to its highest setting.
  3. Place the bread on the grill rack and position the tray 2 inches (5 cm) from the heat source.
  4. Allow the bread to toast on both sides to your own preferred degree of pale or dark golden brown.
  5. While that is happening, keep an eye on it and don’t wander far.
  6. When the toast is done, remove it immediately to a toast rack…Putting it straight on to a plate means the steam is trapped underneath, making it damp and soggy. If you don’t possess a toast rack you really ought to invest in a modest one. Failing that, stand your slices of toast up against a jar or something similar for about 1 minute before serving.
  7. Always eat toast as soon as possible after that, and never make it ahead of time.
  8. Never ever wrap it in a napkin or cover it (the cardinal sin of the catering trade), because the steam gets trapped and the toast gets soggy.
  9. Always use good bread, because the better the bread, the better the toast. It is also preferable if the bread is a couple of days old.

The toast rack is an essential. Before I owned one, I leant the slices against each other as you would for a house of cards.

So there we go, a definitive guide to making toast, well, as long as you’re not using an electric toaster!

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Syllabubs

Today the syllabub is rather an unfamiliar dessert but from the 17th and early 20th centuries it was a pudding staple. It has gone through some minor changes along its way but its essence has remained the same. Originally milk was sweetened and mixed with cider sack – a sweet fortified beer not unlike sherry – and left to curdle and treated as a drink served hot or cold. At the same time at more solid version was being made with cream and wine and spirits. More recently less alcohol and more cream was used producing a dessert that could stand in a cool place that would remain delicious, soft and fully whipped – this was known as an ‘everlasting syllabub’.

The Sense of Taste Philip Mercier (1680-1760)

Detail of The Sense of Taste by Philip Mercier (1680-1760) showing a salver of syllabubs

The word syllabub comes from the name Sille, an area in the Champagne region of France that made the eponymously named wine, and the word bub, an Elizabethan slang word meaning a bubbling drink, hence Sille bub – wine mixed with a frothy cream. In fact it was a case of the frothier the better, and the best way to achieve this is to spray milk straight from the udder (which has a natural froth) into the wine, this kind of syllabub was also called ‘Hatted Kit’ and a recipe appears for it in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housewife:

“To make a Syllabub under the cow

Put a bottle of strong beer and a pint of cider into a punch bowl, grate in a small nutmeg and sweeten it to your taste. Then milk as much milk from the cow as will make a strong froth and the ale look clear. Let it stand an hour, then strew over it a few currants well washed, picked, and plumped before the fire. Then send it to the table.

elizabeth raffald Elizabeth Raffald

Charles II found this sort of syllabub so delicious that he kept cows at the palace in case he got a hankering for some Hatted Kit – he would walk up to one and squirt some milk into his flagon of wine, sack or cider.

If you are a tee-totaller, don’t worry because Sir Kenholm Digby, writing in 1669, gives recipes for syllabubs flavoured with plum juice, cherry syrups and Seville orange.

By the 19th century, the syllabub was generally made from whipping cream together with sweetened wine. The wine was flavoured with lemon and fortified with a little brandy, and it is a recipe for one of these everlasting syllabubs that I give below. It comes from Elizabeth David’s 1969 pamphlet Syllabubs and Fruit Fools (which can be found in her book An Omelette and a Glass of Wine).

Elizabeth David’s Everlasting Syllabub with Almond Biscuits

Elizabeth David

The ingredients of a syllabub, we find, are simple and sumptuous. The skill demanded for its confection is minimal, the presentation is basic and elegant.

Elizabeth David

These syllabubs were the original topping to trifles before plain whipped cream took over. They are often served with jellies or with sweet biscuits so I’ve given a recipe for some simple crisp almond biscuits too.

The most important ingredient here is the wine; you can use any sweet or dessert wine, by personal favourite being a nice Muscat. I managed to get hold of an excellent and very reasonably-priced organic free-trade one from Case Solved Wines in Manchester.

2012-12-29 20.42.01

This recipe makes between 4 and 6 servings

Ingredients for the syllabub

8 tbs sweet or dessert wine

2 tbs brandy

pared rind of one lemon

60g (2 oz) sugar

300ml (½ pint) double cream

freshly grated nutmeg

The day before you want to serve the syllabub, mix the wine and brandy in a bowl, add the lemon peel and steep overnight.

Next day, strain the wine into a large bowl and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Pour in the cream and whisk until thick. Be careful not to over-whip the cream. Spoon into glasses and scatter a few raspings of nutmeg over them.

For the biscuits:

100g (4oz) butter

50g (2oz) caster sugar

150g (6 oz) plain flour

50g (2 oz) ground almonds

Cream the butter and sugar together and then mix in the flour, and finally the almonds. Bring the mixture together with your hand to form a dough – it’ll be very ‘short’, i.e. crumbly, but it will come together – don’t be tempted to add any water or milk because it will result in a biscuit that is not crisp, and you don’t want that. Roll out the mixture to the thickness of a pound coin (about 3mm) and cut into rounds.

Bake for 8-10 minutes at 200⁰C (400⁰F) until tinged with golden brown. Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight tub.

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Hot Cross Buns

Tomorrow is Good Friday and in England it is traditional to eat hot cross buns, or rather it was, as I reckon the supermarkets and bakeries bring them out just after Christmas; and why not? They are delicious after all. The reason that Good Friday is the day these buns are traditionally baked goes back to Tudor times, when the sale of spiced buns was illegal, except on Good Friday, at Christmas and at funerals.

The cross, people assume, is to denote the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. This is in fact nonsense; spiced buns with crosses were being produced throughout much of pagan Europe. Spiced buns have always been symbolic in worship and ones adorned with crosses were made for the goddess Eostre (where Easter get its name).

The Pagan goddess, Eostra

So that is the cross taken care of, but what about the hot? We don’t actually eat them hot that often. They were simply called cross buns, until that famous nursery rhyme was written sometime in the eighteenth century:

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns!

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

What if you have neither sons nor daughters? I suppose you eat them all to yourself like the miserable old spinster you are…

I have been on a bread-bake-a-thon recently, so I thought I’d make some and provide you with a recipe. Ever since I started baking my own bread, I have sworn never to buy it again as it is just so delicious. Bought buns – like bread – are just shadow of their former selves, says Jane Grigson: ‘Until you make spiced hot cross buns yourself…it is difficult to understand why they should have become popular. Bought, they taste so dull. Modern commerce has taken them over, and, in the interests of cheapness, reduced the delicious ingredients to a minimum – no butter, little egg, too much yellow colouring, not enough spice, too few currants and bits of peel, a stodgy texture instead of a rich, light softness. In other words, buns are now a doughy filler for children.’

The recipe below asks for mixed spice, you buy a proprietary blend of course or make your own. I decided to make my own – simply because I didn’t have any. The good thing about making your own is that you can remove spices you don’t like, and enhance the ones you do. Typical spices are the warm ones: cinnamon, mace, allspice (pimento), nutmeg, cloves and ginger. I also think a little black pepper would be good, but I have never tried it.

This is based on Elizabeth David’s 1977 recipe, but all recipes seem essentially the same. There is no piped pastry cross on these buns as that would ‘involve unnecessary fiddly work’. Quite so.

Ingredients

1 lb – 1 lb 2 oz strong bread flour, include a small proportion of wholemeal if you like

around 8 fluid ounces of warm milk

1 oz fresh yeast, or 1 tsp dried

1 tsp salt

2 ounces of sugar – any you like; white, light brown, dark brown or a blend

2 tsp  mixed spice

2 oz of softened butter

2 eggs

4 oz currants, or failing that, raisins

2 oz candied peel

For the glaze:

2 tbs sugar

2 tbs milk

Warm a pound of the flour in a cool oven for a few minutes. Meanwhile cream the yeast with a little of the milk, adding a pinch of sugar if you are using dried yeast. When the flour is warmed and the yeast is foaming, mix into the flour the salt and spices, then a make a well in the centre and add the yeast and the rest of the milk. Mix together with a spoon, then use the rest of the flour to dust your hands and the dough so you can work it together for a few minutes, otherwise you become a big sticky mess. You want a rather soft dough, but one not so soft that it would become shapeless as it rises. Incorporate the currants and peel, then cover and leave around 2 hours to double in size.

Knock back the dough and knead for a few minutes and form into 24 approximately even-sized buns, folding any creases underneath to make a nice, round shape. Place on non-stick pans, cover with plastic or a damp tea towel and leave to double in size again.

When ready to go in the oven, make cross cuts on their tops and bake at 200⁰C (400⁰F) for 15 to 20 minutes.

When they are almost ready, make the glaze: boil the sugar and milk to a syrup and when the buns come out of the oven, brush them with the glaze twice.

Eat, warm or cold with butter. To reheat them, bake in the oven for 10 minutes at 150⁰C (300⁰F).

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To Make a Coburg Loaf

Here’s another recipe toad to the series of posts on bread and bread-making (see main post here).

Coburg loaves are a common sight in traditional bakeries, but are rarely spotted outside of them these days. A Coburg is a round loaf that is not baked in a tin like your basic loaf (see recipe here), but as a round plump crusty loaf on a tray. On the top there are cuts in a cross shape that open up when it bakes. It can be made with pretty much any flour you like – white, whole-wheat, rye, oat, or whatever takes your fancy. I class it as one of the basic loaves because it contains just flour, yeast, salt and water.

Technically, a Coburg is a kind of cob, the only difference being that a cob does not get cut before going in the oven. There are variations on the Coburg cuts though; sometimes several cuts are made in a chess board fashion which expands to make a porcupine loaf, which is also known as a college loaf. Alternatively, the top of the dough gets quickly stabbed with a piece of wood spiked with lots of nails. A bit hardcore that one.

The Coburg loaf became popular in the Victorian era, and I assumed the loaf was named after Queen Victoria’s hubby Prince Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, as many things were in those days. The British public were fascinated by the royal couple, and really took to many German traditions (especially a Christmastime). However, it may not be the case. There was such a thing as Coburg material; cheap and coarse and used for making mourning clothes that predated Albert so the word is older. The most likely explanation is that a German baker living in London, as many did, gave it his family name, though no baker actually knows who this was. The loaves themselves were certainly around before the Victorian era, centuries earlier in fact. They were made from courser grains than today and went by the name of a Brunswick loaf. So it seems all that occurred was a name change.

The good thing about baking these loaves is that you need no tin and consequently you achieve a good crust all over the surface. The recipe below is based on one from Elizabeth David and I haven’t provided massive detail on the making of the dough as I have already done that in the recipe for baking a basic loaf, so if you are new to bread-making, it might be worth having a little of that post first (you’ll find it here).

 

Ingredients

14 oz strong white flour (or a mix of up to 50% other flour(s) if you like)

2 tsp salt

¼ oz fresh yeast or 1 tsp of dried yeast

8 fl oz blood-heat water

 

Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl and place in a cool oven to warm a little. In the meantime cream the yeast in a little of the warm water, adding a pinch of sugar if using dried yeast. After about 10 or 15 minutes, it should be alive and foaming, so make a well in the middle of the flour and tip the yeast in along with the remainder of the water. Mix together with a wooden spoon and then bring the dough together with your hands. If it is very sticky, add a bit more flour, cover and allow it to double in volume in a warm place. Knock the dough back well and give it a knead for 5 or 6 minutes. If you want, give it another rising. On a baking tray, shape the dough into a nice plump bun by moulding the dough and pulling it under itself. If it feels that it is too moist to rise without spreading, add some more flour. Cover with an upturned bowl and allow to prove until it doubles in size once more.

Slash the top of the loaf with a sharp knife to make a cross shape and bake in the oven at 230⁰C (450⁰F) for 15 minutes, then at 200⁰C (400⁰F) for a further 15 minutes then turn the loaf upside down on its tray with the oven switched off for a final 10 minutes. Cool on a rack or over some tins.

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