Tag Archives: afternoon tea

Bath Buns

A few months ago I turned my hand to Sally Lunn buns, a rich bread associated with the English city of Bath. When I made them, I promised to have a go at another bun that hails from the same place. Today I present the “other” buns, the unsurprisingly named Bath Buns.

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Bath Buns are large, sweet yeasted buns with…well, at this point, it all goes a bit haywire. There are lots of recipes for finishing off these buns – using currants, sultanas or candied peel (or some combination of all three), and flavoured variously with nutmeg, caraway or rosewater. Crushed sugar tends to feature on top of the buns, and often in the buns during baking. So what’s the real deal and how close could I get at home?

Their origins are said to lie with a certain Dr William Oliver who lived in Bath in the 18th century. He developed these buns as a way of providing sustenance to his patients, but discovered that when you feed people warm buns with lots of butter, sugar and spices, they tend to consume them in volume. A a result, patients who had come to Bath to take the waters and obtain relief from rheumatism (and perhaps obtain a slimmer figure?) would end up waddling their way back to London. He soon switched his rich buns for rather less appealing dry biscuits. And the Bath Oliver biscuits is still made today!

If you would like to get an idea of how appealing the Doctor’s famous buns (ooh-err!) were at the time, here is a contemporary description from “Chambers Journal” published by W. Chambers in 1855:

The Bath-bun is a sturdy and gorgeous usurper—a new potentate, whose blandishments have won away a great many children, we regret to say, from their lawful allegiance to the plum-bun. The Bath-bun is not only a toothsome dainty, but showy and alluring withal. It was easier for ancient mariners to resist the temptations of the Sirens, than it is for a modern child to turn away from a Bath-bun. This bun is rich and handsome, yellow with the golden yolk of eggs that mingles with its flour, wealthy in butter and sugar, adorned with milk – white sugar – plums, curiously coloured comfits, and snowy almonds. Large, solid, and imposing, it challenges attention, and fascinates its little purchasers. Take a child into a confectioner’s shop, ask it what it prefers, and, ten to one, its tiny finger will point to where, among tartlets and sausage-rolls, nestles the Bath-bun.

All sounds rather delicious, yes? So when I was making these buns, I needed to start with a rich brioche dough. I livened this up with a good dash of freshly grated nutmeg, lemon zest and – crucially – some lightly crushed caraway seeds. Caraway? Yes. Rather surprising in baking (but delicious in these biscuits), but this is a nod to the comfits that were used in the past. Comfits were simply sugared seeds (various things like aniseed, caraway or fennel) rather like sugared almonds, that would impart sweetness and flavour. As you can see, I also finished the buns with more caraway seeds and some crushed sugar given the, eh, lack of easy access to medieval comfits in the modern city.

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These buns also have a little secret. It is traditional to add crushed sugar and put this inside the bun. During baking, this will disappear and leave lovely patches of sticky goodness inside the bun. In addition to the sugar, I also added a handful of currants to vary things a little.

The results are fantastic – the buns are soft and fluffy, the richness coming from rather a lot of eggs, butter and milk, while the sweetness comes only from the crushed sugar (there’s little sugar in the dough itself). Keeping the caraway seeds whole means the flavour of the buns gets little spicy punches as you nibble on them. They certainly make a most pleasing medicine, and you will rather quickly understand why those genteel lords and ladies found it hard to stop at just one.

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However…all is perhaps not so rosy with the reputation of the Bath Bun.  Their name apparently took a bit of a battering as a result of the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was the grand fair in London which gave us the now sadly-gone Crystal Palace but also featured Bath Buns. These proved very popular with visitors (like those 18th century visitors to Bath…) with nearly one million of them consumed over five months. However, the inevitable the dash for cash led to cheaper and cheaper ingredients being used to make the buns (for example, the butter was replaced with lard). These less-luxurious buns got the moniker “London Bath Buns” or “London Buns” and today have evolved (minus the lard, and with the butter back in) into simple buns leavened with baking powder, similar to rock buns.

If you’re in the need for some restorative baking, these buns are excellent. I think they are at their best when very fresh – serve while still just warm, or at a push, make the night before and serve the following morning. My recipe includes a sugar glaze – it’s important not to skip this, as it helps to keep the surface of the buns soft and prevents them drying out. Now – try to stop at just one of these tasty treats!

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To make Bath Buns (makes 12):

For the dough:

• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 3 large eggs
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 400g strong white flour
• 100g unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 45g caster sugar
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 teaspoon caraway seeds, crushed
• ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

For the filling:

• 100g caster sugar
• cold water
• 50g currants

1. Make the dough.

If using a bread machine: throw 2 1/2 eggs and the rest of the ingredients into the bowl and run the dough cycle. Reserve the rest of the egg.

If making by hand: throw 2 1/2 eggs and the rest of the ingredients apart from the butter into a large bowl. Reserve the rest of the egg. Mix until you have a soft, elastic dough (around 5 minutes), then work in the softened butter. Cover and leave in a warm place until doubled in size.

2. While the dough is proving, prepare the filling for the buns. Put the sugar and some water into a small saucepan. Boil gently, stirring all the time, until the sugar crystallizes (it should be white, not caramelised). Acting quickly, turn the mass onto a greased baking sheet and spread out using a metal spoon. Leave to cool. Break into pieces, taking 12 pieces the size of a sugar cube (or 3-4 pieces that would add up to a sugar cube) and put to one side. Crush the rest of the sugar roughly, then put into a sieve – you should be left with coarse pearl sugar lumps for the tops of the buns.

3. Next, shape the buns. Divide the dough into twelve equal pieces. Put the lumps of sugar and a small handful of currants into each bun, then seal the base and place seam-side down onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper.

4. Leave the buns to rise again, until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

5. Take the reserved egg and mix with two tablespoons of water. Brush the buns with the egg glaze, then sprinkle immediately with caraway seed and crushed sugar (do them one bun at a time, so the glaze does not dry out – otherwise the sugar and caraway won’t stick). Bake the buns for 15-20 minutes until golden – the should sound hollow when tapped.

6. While the buns are baking, make the sugar syrup – take all the remaining sugar that you didn’t use to make the sugar lumps/pearl sugar (I had 50g), and add three tablespoons water. Heat until all the sugar has dissolved (add a drop more water if needed), then boil for one minute. Brush the buns with the warm sugar syrup while still warm.

Worth making? Definitely. The above recipe can take a while if you’re going to do the sugar yourself, but you can take a short-cut if you buy rough-style sugar cubes and pearl sugar to save time. But cutting down on the butter…don’t you dare!

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Sweet Things

Keepin’ it Cool

It feels a little like the tail end of summer at the moment. The heatwave has gone (even it if did hint at a comeback this weekend), but I feel that we are slipping slowly but inexorably towards autumn. Ripe blackberries are starting to appear, and the days seem to be getting just a little shorter.

However, I’m being optimistic. I’m hopeful we’ll have another hot spell in the next few weeks, so my various strategies to keep cool should stand me in good stead. Lots of water, beer, chilled white wine and icy glasses of Pimm’s (filled with strawberries, mint and cooling cucumber) are perennial favourites. And warm weather also allows the mind to wander to what may well be one of the most curious of English foods, the cucumber sandwich. This is a staple of afternoon tea and garden parties, and it is quite frankly amazing how much divergence of opinion there is about something that is fundamentally sliced gourd on soft white bread.

These sandwiches are very curious. They contain very little by way of nutrition, and even if you were to scoff a whole plate of them, they’re hardly going to fill you up. But, of course, they had their heyday back in the Victoria era, when the rich could afford to sit around, take tea and nibble on curious items like this. They feature as a motif for the upper classes in literature, and even today, they’re hardly the go-to item when you’re starving. They’re a bit of fun, and served really for their novelty value than anything else.

There are actually lots and lots of different ways to make these sandwiches, from the type of bread, whether to use butter or something else, and how to prepare the cucumber. Here’s my take on them, which make a rather fun and frivolous addition if you’re serving cake and scones for afternoon tea. I’m sure Downton Abbey’s Dowager wouldn’t attend tea if these sandwiches weren’t on offer!

First things first…the bread. People sometimes get rather sniffy about using the a good old British sliced white loaf, but it traditional in making these sandwiches. If you can’t quite bring yourself to use white, you could opt for brown. Whichever you go for, try to get thin slices. Doorstep loaves are not synonymous with elegance! However, using malted, wholegrain or rustic sourdough is probably going a little bit too far – cucumber doesn’t have the sort of flavour that stands up to a really robust bread flavour. You’ve got to think about this bread being used for making elegant finger sandwiches, and crusty and rustic don’t really fit the bill for our purposes. If you still can’t bring yourself to use sliced white bread, then you could try to get posh and refined by using brioche, but I’ve never tried it and have absolutely no idea how that would work. If you try it, do leave a comment and let know.

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Having decided on the bread, next thing to sort out it the filling. There are two parts to this – the cucumber itself, and any sort of spread you might want to use (butter or cream cheese – this is essential to stop the water from the cucumber making the bread soggy).

First, the cucumber. You can either leave on the skin (more cucumber flavour) or peel it, and leave the seeds in or take them out (a point to note – the original domestic goddess Mrs Beeton recommends peeling, but not de-seeding). Leaving on the peel will give you more dark green in the finished sandwiches. However, where you will want to have a view on to salt or not to salt. If you just slice the cucumber, it can get rather wet and make the bread soggy (not good). The trick to solve this is very simple – pop the cucumber slices into a colander, then sprinkle with salt and toss lightly. Leave to drain for about half an hour, and you should find that most of the moisture has been drawn out of the cucumber. Then simply dry with kitchen paper, and you’ve managed to avoid soggie sarnies. By using the salt technique, you also add a little flavour enhancement to the cucumber, which also means that you can avoid using salted butter.

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Next, should you use butter or cream cheese? I prefer to use softened butter (unsalted), but you can also use cream cheese, which can be jazzed up with fresh chopped herbs and mint. Butter is the traditionally British approach, with cream cheese more American. What you use is up to you, but the key is to get an even spread, so that you coat the bread and prevent the cucumber turning the bread soggy.

Finally, assemble the sandwiches! I find the best way is the spread two slices of bread with either soft butter or cream cheese. Spread over the salted, drained and dried cucumber, then add the top slice of bread. Now, at this stage, you’ll come to the one things that is pretty much non-negotiable with cucumber sandwiches – trim off all the crusts to deliver dainty finger sandwiches that suggest the hight of refinement. Use a serrated knife, and press lightly and let the knife do the work. If you press too hard, you’ll squash the bread, and we want it all to look soft and light. I find the best way is to trim off all the crusts, then cut the trimmed bread into three of four fingers (depending on bread size).

So there we have it – how to make classic British cucumber sandwiches. Goes perfectly with scones and jam, cakes and lots of tea in the afternoon.

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Savoury

Cheese and Herb Scones

Yesterday I had some friends round for afternoon tea. Chocolate tartlets, coconut macaroons, jam tarts, tarte au citron, Victoria sandwich, currant scones and chocolate clusters all magicked up in the morning. While cakes and sweet treats are all well and good, I think it is essential to have some savoury items as well. Otherwise, well, all that sugar gets too much!

I made a selection of the famous cucumber sandwiches, but I also wanted to try my hand at something more substantial. The result was these scones – flavoured with strong cheddar, fresh chives and herbes de Provence, as well as a dash of nutmeg and mustard to complement the cheese.

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These scones are soft and fluffy, and perfect while still warm – split them, and all the cheese is still melted and delicious! They are also an absolute, utter breeze to make. All you have to do is rub some butter into the flour, stir in the cheese and spices, then all some milk, which really makes them ideal if you’ve got unexpected guests or you need something a little special for breakfast. Ten minutes to make, fifteen minutes to bake and a few seconds to devour!

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To make cheese and herb scones (makes 8):

• 225g plain flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 50g butter
• 75g strong cheddar
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
• 1 teaspoon dried herbs
• pinch of nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon mustard
• 150ml milk

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

2. Put the flour, baking powder and butter into a large bowl. Work with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs and there are no lumps of butter. Add the grated cheddar, chives, herbs and nutmeg. Mix well with your hands.

3. In a bowl, mix the milk and mustard. Add to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined – the mixture should hold its shape but still be fairly wet.

4. Put lots of flour onto a kitchen worktop. Turn out the dough and roll lightly. Use a cutter to shape the scones – aim to get eight from the dough.

5. Bake for around 15 minutes until the scones are puffed and golden. Serve while still warm, and best eaten the same day.

Worth making? These scones are amazingly easy to make and taste spectacular. Highly recommended!

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On Location: Skylon (South Bank, London)

Having recently waxed lyrically about the neo-gothic splendour of St Pancras station, it’s a trip south of the Thames to the very 1950s Royal Festival Hall, and in particular, the bar at Skylon. As you might expect, there is a Modernist twist to the bar, and that retro feel of “the future as seen from many years ago”, which I am rather fond of.

First of all – the name. What is a skylon? The name is taken from a futuristic sculpture that used to grace the Southbank. It was installed as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, and the logo and coasters recall what it looked like – a long cylinder, tapering in at either end. It was installed in a way that gave the impression that it floated effortlessly in mid-air.

While the original is long gone, the name now lives on in the bar. There has even been a campaign to get it re-built – so who knows, it may yet come to take its place again in skyline. It might look rather at home with the London Eye, the Gherkin and the Shard.

The “view of the future from the 1950s” theme runs through the decor – sleek seating banks and lounge chairs that have the vague air of a UFO about them. One of the things that I love about this place is that it benefits from being a large space with windows along one side – offering fantastic views across the river to some rather grand buildings, and the BT Tower hovering in the distance. All very serene by day, but at night, like in so much of London, the view really comes into its own. Sitting in the bar with a sophisticated drink, mellow lighting and the city by night – it’s great.

While Skylon is a good place for a drink, I was – unusually – there in the early afternoon, and in the mood for a cup of tea and little something sweet. As you can see below, the sleek “50s futuristic” look continues even down to the napkin holder and the bespoke chocolates. I loved these touches. They looked good in their brown-and-bronze colours, and I think this might finally have explained why so many of the more ghastly 50s and 60s buildings in London are brown – it probably looked rather nifty back in the day!

Tea arrived – a cup of Assam, which is my favourite, and in a decent china cup. It makes a difference. I like the strong flavour and intense colour, and yes – I spoil it all with a dash of milk. I’m British – it’s what we do!

However, tea was only half the story. I had anticipated that my “something sweet” would end up being some sort of standard fare – a chocolate brownie or a cupcake. But no. No, no, no. Skylon came into its own, as it had a rather intriguing item at the bottom of the menu – a selection of four mini-desserts. For a tenner. Frankly, it had to be done.

I’d gone for those, and when they arrived – well, see below, but wow! Proper dainty little dessert-like cakes. They looked absolutely beautiful – perfect and brightly coloured, the reds and yellows contrasting with the deep blue Japanese plate.

This little selection comprised a dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate cream, a raspberry and passion fruit cake, a pear, caramel and chocolate mousse  and a fruit cheesecake. A good selection, a nice balance of fruit and chocolate, and quite frankly – perfect to share between a few people if you’re after a rather informal but still swish express afternoon tea. Each was delicious in its own way, and it was nice to have quite a bit of variation in flavours and textures. Like a gastronomic mini-tour through the world of cake.

So…would I go back? For sure! I know this place for drinks, and it really does offer a unique view of the river and the site by night, making for a perfect place to meet up before going for dinner. However, I’m also pleased to have discovered that this place offers a simple alternative to a full-blown afternoon tea, so you can assuage the need for a little something sweet and a cuppa without going overboard. A real gem.

Skylon, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 8XX. Tel: 020 7654 7800. Tube: Waterloo or Embankment.

LondonEats locations map here.

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, London, On Location

On Location: The Library Lounge at County Hall

Psssst! Fancy going for afternoon tea with a great view?

I’m always on the lookout for somewhere to go for afternoon tea. Tea, finger sandwiches, cakes, scones and maybe a glass of something. That, and visitors love doing something so thoroughly British, and when there is a great view to boot, who could resist?

Recently I went to the Library Lounge at the Marriott County Hall. This is somewhere that offers fine views and some interesting history. The County Hall building is located on the south bank of the Thames, next to the London Eye and just across the river from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. So the view is one of the great views in the world. Yes, in the world. It does not fail to excite – show it to anyone, and they know what they’re looking at straight off.

County Hall was the home of the former Greater London Council until the 1980s, when the then-government got rid of it. There were a series of spats, but one of the things that annoyed the government of the day was the propensity of the occupants in County Hall to drape banners with inconvenient political truths down the side of the building – which was not something the occupants of Parliament were keen to see across the Thames when looking out of their offices! You still see extracts of this history – the walls are dotted with old political cartoons based on the battles between the Government and the Greater London Council.

While the location is stunning, it can also make it easy to overlook – locals might avoid this part of the Southbank given that it gets busy, and visitors tend to walk along the riverbank and then turn  straight onto Westminster Bridge and head towards Big Ben. So, time to change that!

Since the 1980s, County Hall has since been redeveloped, and you are now able to wander in and enjoy afternoon tea in the former library. This is a truly lovely space, living up to its name with books lined up on heavy wooden shelves. I think this is what makes the atmosphere so nice – the shelves break up the space, so it feels really rather very private – you could imagine the politicians of days gone by in this place, gossiping, making plans and scheming!

You’ve got a number of options in the Library Lounge, and faced with the selection, we plumped for the champagne tea. It just had to be done. I was there just before Christmas, just having completed my gift shopping. It had been hard work, and heck, I felt I had earned it.

I had arrived around 3 o’clock, on a clear evening as the sun was beginning to set. And I have to admit that there is a real thrill sitting there with a glass of chilled fizz, looking out over the Thames towards Parliament, and seeing Big Ben light up against the twilight sky. As a (pretend) local, it’s actually such an unusual thing to do, so easy to overlook, but it’s also a simple pleasure really worth enjoying. It’s one of those sights that makes you remember how great our city is. I know, I keep going on about the view, but it was lovely!

When it came to the tea, there was the usual wide selection, but a little touch that I rather enjoyed was receiving a tray of samples to test.

You unscrew the sample jars, and can then take in the aroma of the teas on offer. There was a good combination of classic teas (Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong and my own favourite, Assam) as well as herbal teas including rooibos with orange and cinnamon and a nice blackcurrant and lavender. Helpfully, the server was also able to offer some tips on which teas to take as well as sharing her own favourites.

As I was there just before Christmas, afternoon tea came with a festive twist. Following a section of finger sandwiches (a veggie selection was not an issue – hummus, cheese, avocado), we had Christmas cake, cranberry tartlets and tree-shaped cookies with edible pearls.

However, the highlight for me were the truly delicious scones. Light, fluffy and still warm. Yummy!

As you can see, I eat my scones the “Cornish way”. That is to say – split, spread with jam and then add the clotted cream. Apparently if you eat them with the clotted cream first and then the jam, that’s the “Devon way” – fine if you’re in Plymouth, but frowned upon if you’re in the Cornish town of Penzance.

So, would I go back? Definitely. The afternoon tea was lovely (as evidenced by the fact I managed to demolish three scones, in addition to the plate of finger sandwiches and all the cakes), and the view is breathtaking.

If you’re got a visitor to entertain, it works out a treat as you can take in the sights around Westminster, then nip in and enjoy the calm with an appropriate vista. My tip? Call to book, and check whether you are able to get a table near the window!

Library Lounge, London Marriott Hotel County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7PB. Tel: 020 7902 8000. Tube: Waterloo or Westminster.

LondonEats locations map here.

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, London, On Location