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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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Jane Grigson’s Orange Mincemeat

It’s just occurred to me that I haven’t put on a Christmas recipe and it is only just over two weeks until the special day. This month has flown by at a scarily quick pace.

Luckily two weeks is just enough time to make this delicious orange flavoured mincemeat. Last year I gave you Mrs Beeton’s recipe, but this one comes from the wonderful Jane Grigson. It is very moist and because of the brandy, orange juice and orange liqueur. It is also vegetarian if you want it to be; the suet can be the vegetable-based sort, or you can leave it out altogether. Give it a go.

Jane Grigson

Jane Grigson

It is extremely easy to make: there is no cooking required so all you need to be able to do is chop, grate, mix and weigh. When you pot the mincemeat, it is very important you sterilise your jars. To do this first wash them in soapy water, then rinse and allow them to dry. Place the jars on a tray, with their lids sat beside them, facing upwards and pop them in the oven for 30 minutes at around 130⁰C. Let them cool a little before potting. If this seems a lot to make in one go, you can easily reduce the amounts as you see fit.

Click here for the recipe I use for making mince pies.

 

Ingredients

250 g (8 oz) chopped candied peel

1 kg (2 lb) peeled, cored and grated apples

500 g (1 lb) suet (fresh or packed is fine, but fresh is best)

500 g (1 lb) currants

500 g (1 lb) raisins

500 g (1 lb) sultanas

500 g (1 lb) soft dark brown sugar

1 freshly grated nutmeg

125 g (4 oz) slivered almonds

Juice and zest of 2 oranges

4 tbs brandy

6-8 tbs orange liqueur

 

Mix all the ingredients together in a huge mixing bowl, then pot into sterilised jars. Store somewhere dark and cool, but not the fridge! Leave the mincemeat to mature for at least together before using it.

IMG_2519

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Shortbread

The history of shortbread goes back to at least the 12th century and originally started life as ‘biscuit bread’; biscuits that were made from left-over bread dough that was sometimes sweetened and dried out in the oven to form a hard, dry rusk. This practise took place over the whole of the British Isles, not just Scotland.

Over time the leavening was lost and exchanged for butter, making it an expensive fancy treat that was only bought for celebrations such as Christmas and Hogsmanay (Scottish New Year). There are similar ‘breads’ outside of Scotland such as Shrewsbury cakes and Goosnagh cakes.

The large amount of butter is what makes shortbread short: the term short, when applied to biscuits and pastry, means crumbly, like shortcrust pastry should be. It is the reason why the fat added to biscuits and pastries is called shortening.

Mary Queen of Scots

Today, shortbread is made from flour, butter and sugar, though other flavourings are added. Caraway was particularly popular; Mary Queen of Scots was particularly fond of them. Other extra ingredients included almonds and citrus fruits like this 18th century recipe from Mrs Frazer:

Take a peck of flour…beat and sift a pound of sugar; take orange-peel, citron, and blanched almonds, of each half a pound, cut in pretty long thin pieces: mix these well in the flour; then make a hole in the middle of the flour, put in three table-spoons of good yeast; then work it up, but not too much…roll out; prickle them on top, pinch them neat round the edges, and strew sugar, carraways, peel, and citron, on the top. Fire it…in a moderate oven.

In George Read’s 1854 book The complete biscuit and gingerbread baker’s assistant, there are fewer ingredients, but includes eggs for some reason:

1 ¼ lb. of flour, ½ lb. of sugar, ½ lb. of butter, 3 eggs, ¼ oz. of volatile salts…a little essence of lemon

FYI: Volatile salts were smelling salts, that could also be used to leaven dough.

Shortbread usually comes in three different forms: small round biscuits, fingers or large rounds. To make the fingers, dough is cut into a large rectangle and the fingers are scored with the back of a knife so they can be broken up easily after cooking. A pattern made with fork marks is always made too.

To make large rounds, the dough is pressed into a round earthenware mould or a tart tin to make petticoat tails. When making the petticoat tails, the dough is scored into triangular slices like a pizza. The term petticoat tails comes not from the French petites gatelles (‘little cakes’) as many think (though Scottish cuisine did have more in common with French food than English food during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots), but from the term petticoat tallies – the name of the triangular pattern used to make bell hoop petticoats like Elizabeth I would have worn.

You can still buy the earthenware moulds – I’ll be buying one when I move back to England later in the summer.

Basic shortbread

This recipe makes enough for two petticoat tails rounds made in a seven inch tart tin. It’s hard to say how many biscuits or fingers – it depends on how wide and thick you make them. The important thing is to take them out before they start to brown.

To achieve a nice melt-in-the-mouth crumbliness use cornflour as well as normal plain flour to make your shortbread. Somewhere between a 1:1 and a 3:1 ratio of plain flour to cornflour works well. You don’t have to do this; they are still good with just good old plain flour.

6 ounces flour mix

4 ounces salted butter cut into cubes

2 ounces icing or caster sugar, plus extra

extra caster sugar

Rub the butter into the flour using fingers, pastry blender, food mixer or processor; be careful not to overwork things though if you’re using a food processor – shortbread dough doesn’t like being handled too much. Stir in the sugar and with your hand bring everything together to make a pliable dough – it’ll feel like it won’t form a dough at first, but as your hands warm it will.

Now you can roll or press out your dough into whatever shape you like and then place in the fridge for 20-30 minutes to harden:

For petticoat tails you are best diving the two into two halves and pressing the dough into your fluted flat tin. Score lines to mark out the slices, using a ruler if you want to be really precise. Make a nice pattern with a fork.

For fingers roll out the dough to half an inch thickness into a vaguely rectangular shape. Use a knife and a ruler to cut out a large rectangle and then score the lines with your ruler and knife, making patterns with your fork prongs.

For biscuits you can really do whatever you like; thick, thin, round, square. I think a little under half an inch is a good thickness. Cut out the biscuits and make your all-so-important fork marks.

Heat the oven to 180⁰C (350⁰F). Place the biscuits onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Sprinkle with the extra sugar and bake until cooked but before any signs of browning. Petticoat Tails and fingers take about 15 minutes, individual biscuits can be variable, but usually about 12-15 minutes.

Variations:

For lemon shortbread add the zest of one lemon when you add the sugar, and for almond shortbread add 5 or 6 drops of almond extract. If you want to try it with caraway, sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds at the same time you add the sugar.

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Treacle Tart

A classic British nursery pudding, the treacle tart is much-loved. It is probably the ultimate child’s dessert because it is so unbelievably sweet; it makes my teeth hurt just looking at one! That aside, I have never really lost my sweet tooth and I love treacle – meaning golden syrup of course in this case (see here for a post on treacle). Treacle tart was very popular with poorer families – the two main ingredients being bread and treacle – no expensive fruits and spices here.

The pudding itself as we know it has only been in existence since the late nineteenth century since golden syrup was invented in the 1880s. However, the earliest recipe I have found for a treacle tart actually dates to 1879 – before the invention of golden syrup! The recipe is by Mary Jewry and is a tart made up of alternating layers of pastry and treacle. The treacle here is black treacle, and this highlights the problem in researching the origins of this pudding; treacle meant any viscous syrup that was a byproduct of sugar refinery and specifics are not always pointed out, even after golden syrup became popular. The other problem is the recipe Mary Jewry gives is nothing like the beloved treacle tart from our childhood.

 The terrifying Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

coaxing the children with shouts of  “treacle tart! All free today!”

Shudder.

Prior to the 17th century, treacle was used as a medicine; it was considered very good for the blood and was therefore used in antidotes to poisons. It starts cropping up in recipes for gingerbread in the mid-18th century. Jane Grigson mentions a gingerbread recipe from 1420 in her book English Food where spices and breadcrumbs were mixed together with plenty of honey to make a gingerbread that seems pretty similar a modern treacle tart, but without the pastry. Heston Blumenthal in his book Total Perfection also mentions a 17th century ‘tart of bread’ where bread and treacle are mixed with bread, spices and dried fruit and baked in an open pastry shell. Then just to complicate things further, Jane Grigson mentions that the predecessor to the treacle tart is the sweetmeat cake – again a 17th century invention – that uses candied orange peel, sugar and butter as a filling and no treacle or bread whatsoever!

All this confusing history waffle is giving me a headache. Here’s the recipe that I use for a treacle tart. It is adapted from Nigel Slater’s. I like it (and I have tried several recently) because it has a lot more bread in it than most other recipes – treacle tart should be chewy with a hint of   and must hold its shape when cut, many recipes fail in this respect. I use brown bread crumbs – it gives a good flavour and increases the chewiness level a little further.

There’s a pound and a half of golden syrup in this tart so the sweetness really needs cutting with some lemon juice and zest, and if you like, a tablespoon or two of black treacle; it’s not just a nod to treacle tarts of the past, its bitterness really does tone down the sweetness. This tart makes enough for ten people I would say. Be warned – if you go for some seconds, you may fall into some kind of sugar-induced diabetic coma…

For the pastry

4 oz salted butter or 2 oz each butter and lard cut into cubes and chilled

8 oz plain flour

3 tbs chilled water

For the filling

1 ½ lbs golden syrup

2 tbs black treacle (optional)

juice and zest of a lemon

10 oz white or brown breadcrumbs

The pastry is a straight-forward shortcrust. Rub the fat into the flour with your fingertips, a pastry blender, the flat ‘K’ beater of a mixer or blitz in a food processor. Mix in two tablespoons of water with your hand and once incorporated, add the last tablespoon. The pastry should come together into a ball. Knead the dough very briefly so that it is soft and pliable. Cover with clingfilm and put in the fridge to have a little rest for 30 minutes or so.

Now roll out the pastry and use it to line a 9 inch tart tin. Put back into the fridge again – you don’t have to do this step, but sometimes the pastry can collapse a bit when it goes in the oven at room temperature.

Whilst the pastry is cooling, get on with the treacle filling. Treacle can be a tricky customer: weigh it out straight into a saucepan on tared scales and then pour the golden syrup straight in. Add the black treacle if using. Place the pan over a medium heat and stir until it becomes quite runny, then stir in the lemon juice and zest and the breadcrumbs.

Pour this mixture into the lined tart tin and bake in the oven at 200⁰C (400⁰F) for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 180⁰C (350⁰F) for another 15 or 20 minutes.

Best served warm with cream, ice cream or custard.

treacle tart

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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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An Everyday Loaf

All that bread wants is time and warmth.”

After writing a post on bread a while ago, I thought I should follow it up with some bread recipes. I was going to go in a chronological order and find the earliest recipe for bread I could, but then I thought against that idea; a recipe for a delicious, but basic loaf is what we need to start with.

I bake all my own bread these days, but admittedly, I don’t eat a large amount of it, making a loaf every couple of weeks. However, I do believe that baking your own bread several times a week is possible and not the huge pain the arse you might expect. For many years, I tried to bake bread and it always tasted good, but it was always a little dry and unrisen, and was rather disappointed thinking you had to practise to get the knack. It turns out that I was doing everything correctly, the only ingredient I was missing out was time

…and this is the problem with today’s factory-made bread; it is mass produced to the extreme, hurredly leavened, containing additives that preserve, emulsify and rise. The slices are always far too light and fluffy – “flabby” is the word I think Jane Grigson used. If course you can buy posher factory-made bread, but it will cost you at least £1.30. Of course, these days there are bakery sections in our supermarkets, but Elizabeth David was very suspect of them even in 1977. Now don’t be thinking me a big old snob: I actually like some factory bread, and much instore bakery bread is very nice and crusty, but having realised I can make bread that is better tasting and so much cheaper, I can’t go back (though I am still a sucker for tiger bread). Admittedly, it doesn’t last as long in the bread bin, but then bread shouldn’t!

Here is the recipe I use for a basic loaf – it requires little elbow grease, especially if you have a food mixer with a dough hook and is based on Elizabeth David’s in her amazing book English Bread and Yeast Cookery. The best thing is that it should be made the evening before you actually want to eat it, so there’s no getting up at the crack of dawn. It contains only four ingredients too: flour, water, salt and yeast. There is the option of adding a little fat or oil and the merest pinch of sugar. The former acts as a preservative and the latter gives the yeast a kick start, if you should be using the dried stuff. You can enrich the bread by swapping some or all of the water for milk, but I think there’s no need. There are so many variations on the theme and as I discover them and try to perfect them, I shall add them to the blog.

Ingredients:

20 oz of strong white bread flour, or 16 oz strong white bread flour and 4 oz of wholemeal

a flat dessertspoon of salt

½ ounces of fresh yeast, or a teaspoon of dried yeast

sugar (optional, see below)

12 fl oz water at blood heat (i.e. 37⁰C or 98⁰F)

2 tbs oil or melted fat, e.g. olive oil, sunflower oil, butter, lard &c. (optional)

Mix the flour(s) and salt in a bowl and put it in a cool oven to warm for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cream the yeast with a little tepid water and a pinch of sugar if using dried. When the yeast has started to froth, make a well in the middle of the flour and pour in the activated yeast along with the warm water and fat or oil, if using.

Using a wooden spoon, start to mix the flour into the liquid, swapping the spoon for your hands to bring it all together. If it seems like the flour and water will not come together easily, add more water.

Important note no. 1: try to make the dough more on the wet side, rather than the dry; just keep your hands well-floured so you can handle the dough. Work it for a few minutes whilst in the bowl. Of course, if you have a mixer with a dough hook, you can simply use that on a slow to moderate speed to mix and briefly knead it.

Cover the ball of dough with some cling film and leave it to rise in a warm place.

Important note no. 2: try to let the dough rise naturally for 1 to 2 hours. Do not leave it near a radiator or anything like that – unequal heat will not do the job – you need ambient warmth. I let my dough rise in the bathroom. If you don’t have a warm place, do not worry for the quickly-metabolising yeast will begin to generate its own heat.

When it is at least double in size, knock it back, i.e. punch all the air out of it, and give the dough a few sharp slaps into the bowl. It should be squidgy and much more elastic. Now knead the dough on a floured surface. This is not as difficult as you may think it is. With the heel of your floured hand or hands,  use your body weight to push the dough out and away from you, stretching it. Bring it back and turn the dough a third of the way around and repeat. The dough shouldn’t be really sticky, though there should be some tackiness when you stretch it. Just make sure the board and your hands are evenly, but lightly floured – remember important point no. 2. Knead for about 5 to 10 minutes. If using a mixer, simply add a little flour whenever the dough looks like it is going to stick.

Now you need to let the bread prove. Bring the dough together so that any folds are underneath and place in a large 2 lb loaf tin. With a very sharp knife make a few confident diagonal slashes across the top – the more you make, the more it will rise. Cover with a billowing plastic bag.

Important note no. 3: a good proving is absolutely necessary; the dough needs to almost double in size again – many recipes say the dough should be just peeping above the tin. This is nonsense. It won’t take anywhere as near as long as the first rising. If you like and have the time, you can prove the dough twice – I would recommend this step as the texture and flavour is much improved, and there is less kneading, er, needed!

Bake in the oven on the middle shelf for 15 minutes at 220-230⁰C (425-450⁰F), then turn the heat down to 200⁰C (400⁰F) for a further 15. Remove the loaf from its tin, and place it on the rack on its side for a final 15-20 minutes at 180⁰C (350⁰F). When ready, the loaf will sound hollow when knocked with a knuckle.

Leave it to cool across its tin and wrap in greaseproof or wax paper or foil. If you have made it in the evening and don’t have time to wait, leave it overnight.

Important note no. 4: do not eat the bread when warm or even on the day you made it – contrary to popular belief, bread will be better the next day, and will not be stale.

There it is – sorry it rather long, but hopefully it is a good guide to baking proper bread. If anyone has any extra tips, let me know…

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Decorating the Christmas Cake

Once your Christmas cake is nicely matured and well-fed on brandy, it is time to decorate the bugger. In my opinion it is best to go all-or-nothing; either don’t decorate at all or go crazy. Traditionally, in England at any rate, you need a layer of marzipan and a layer of royal icing. Though I have seen recipes that have a bakeable marzipan and no icing, which I must admit is attractive, but I keep it traditional, even though I am not really bothered about the icing. No, I do it simply for tradition’s sake.

I gave the Christmas cake recipe that I use in the previous post, so if you have made one or have a bought undecorated one that you want to put your own stamp on, I have recipes for marzipan and for royal icing too. Don’t forget to add some festive bits and bobs too.

Sorry about the lack of photos, I shall update the post whenever I next decorate a Christmas cake! Instead, here is a sexy Victorian lady full of sexy Christmas cheer.

Marzipan

Marzipan is essentially a paste made of ground almonds and sugar and it found its way in Europe from the Middle East via the Crusades. It was the Italians – specifically the Milanese – that really took to the stuff, refining the techniques to produce a very high quality product that was excellent for making into extravagant sculptures. Leonardo da Vinci was quite despondent after making some amazing and intricate marzipan sculptures for the Milanese court as he ‘observed in pain that [they] gobble up all  the sculptures I give them, right down to the last morsel.’

Aside from being used as a sculpture material, marzipan also became a popular sweetmeat used by chocolatiers and bakers. Some of my favourite cakes use marzipan: Battenburg, stollen and simnel cake. The Christmas cake got its layer of marzipan because the Twelfth Night cake – traditionally covered in it – was banned by the Puritan and Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell as too frivolous, so people added the marzipan they loved so much to their Christmas cake instead.

Here’s the recipe I always use for the cake; again from Jane Grigson. What I like specifically about this recipe is that it is not too sweet, which I think the bought stuff always is. Also, when you make your own marzipan, it has a much better texture as well as flavour.

8 oz icing sugar

1 lb ground almonds

1 large egg, beaten

3-4 tsp lemon juice

1 tbs apricot jam

1 tbs water

Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl and stir in the almonds. Stir in the beaten egg and lemon juice to form a paste. Knead the marzipan on a surface floured with icing sugar. Easy.

To cover the cake with it, you first need to slice the top of your cake off so that it is a nice, flat surface. I always like that bit because I get to try the cake. Then turn it upside down and pop it on a wire rack. Warm up the jam and water in a pan and paint the whole cake with the glaze.

On a sheet of greaseproof paper, roll out two-thirds of the marzipan into a round shape that is just a little larger than the cake itself. Use the cake tin as a template. Pick up the marzipan still stuck to the paper, place it on top of the cake and peel off the paper. Next, take the remaining third of the paste and roll that out into strips the same height as the cake and secure them to the cake. Press the edges together as you go as well as any cracks that may appear.

You need to leave the cake for a couple of days to dry a little before adding the icing (should you want to).

Royal Icing

Royal icing is the classic icing for the Christmas cake – it is ‘royal’ because it was the British Royal Family that used in for their wedding cakes, and naturally if the Royals did it, then we copied it. Icing had been around since the eighteenth century; before that, their wasn’t the technology to refine the sugar to appropriate levels. The first icing was similar to royal icing, it was spread over the top of the cake but then the cake was returned to the oven to set hard. The final result was a nice flat, shiny surface like that of a frozen lake, hence we call the stuff icing. Elizabeth Raffald mentions it in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) – the first written recording of the word.

Royal icing is the most popular icing because it can be piped and coloured easily. Plus it is easy to make , which a bonus. Here’s how:

2 medium egg whites

2 tsp lemon juice

1 lb icing sugar

Whisk the egg whites until frothy but not yet stiff and then stir in the lemon juice. Sieve the sugar and then add it to the egg white bit by bit, mixing as you go – an electric beater comes in very handy here, but you can use a wooden spoon if your forearms are up to the job. Cover the bowl with some cling film and leave for a couple of hours. Spread half the mixture all over the cake using a palette knife dipped in hot water to smooth it out. Use the remaining half for decoration. I have never piped my own icing – I always chicken out, but I have bought a set now so there’s no excuse next year – instead, I add it roughly to the cake and then use the side of a knife to make a nice spiky snow effect. When decorated, leave it for a day or two to set hard.

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