Tag Archives: british food

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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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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Royal Baby: Gingerbread Acorn Biscuits

More on the theme of the royal baby, I’m afraid! Normal summer food will resume next week, but for the moment, we’ll still share in the national joy of the arrival of HRH Prince George of Cambridge.

Clearly a lot of people have decided to mark the event in various forms of cute cakes (myself included). So what else could I come up with that was interesting but not too twee or obvious. Cupcakes? Done. Cake pops? Not a fan. Macarons? Hmmm….

Then it came to me – what about gingerbread? Very traditional biscuits, with their rich spiciness said to have medicinal and healing properties. During the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, gingerbread figures covered in gold leaf would be presented to court visitors, so these biscuits also have royal pedigree. I also tweaked my spices by adding some aniseed, given its traditional association with new births. I also happened to have a rather nifty acorn cookie press, symbolising both new life (from little acorns mighty oaks do grow…) as well as the family crest of the Duchess of Cambridge’s family. With that, a perfect idea was born!

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Never one to do things by halves, I’ve had a go at two different sorts of gingerbread biscuits (and no, this time there was no pink version just in case…). First is one darker gingerbread, which is vegan. Cocoa and treacle give them a rich, deep colour.

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The lighter gingerbread is made in the more traditional way – lots of butter and syrup, as well as generous amounts of ground ginger. Both recipes are below so you can choose the one that you prefer.

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While these look very different from what you might usually associate with a new baby (being neither pale pink nor baby blue), I think they are rather striking. The flavour is also superb – they have a real depth of flavour from the spices and treacle but not too sweet.

Some tips for baking – the darker gingerbread uses oil, so it’s important to make sure it is very fresh and light-tasting. If it’s been lurking in the cupboard for a while, you’ll find that it affects the flavour of the finished gingerbread (or play it safe and use melted butter). I also found that the biscuits kept their shape better if they were put into the freezer for 10 minutes before baking. It’s not vital, but it seems to help make the details a little sharper. Finally, you can give these gingerbreads a nifty scalloped edge using a fluted cutter – I think the finished effect looks something like medallions.

If you’re keen to have a go at these biscuits and want to get presses of your own, you can buy them online from House on the Hill here.

To make light gingerbread medallions:

• 500g plain flour
• 4 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoons baking soda
• 225g butter
• 170g soft brown sugar
• 1 large egg
• 120ml golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons black treacle

1. Sift the flour, spices, salt and baking soda into a large bowl.

2. In a separate bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar and beat until soft and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well, then the syrup and treacle.

3. Add the flour mixture to the butter and mix to a soft dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and refrigerate overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

5. Take slices of the chilled dough and place on a lightly floured worktop. Roll out to around 1 1/2cm thick, then dust the top lightly with flour and press the mould into the dough. Use a fluted cutter to give the gingerbread a fluted edge. Transfer each to the baking sheet as you go.

6. Bake the biscuits in batches of 12 – they will take around 10-12 minutes to bake, until they are just golden at the edges (you may need more or less time depending on size so you might want to experiment with the first couple of biscuits).

7. When baked, allow the gingerbreads to cool for a minute, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

To make dark gingerbread medallions (from House on the Hill):

• 325 cups plain flour
• 50g cocoa powder
• 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
• 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 120ml vegetable oil

• 120ml treacle
• 120ml golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Mix the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a large bowl. Sift to ensure everything is properly combined.

2. In a bowl, stir the treacle, golden syrup, oil and water until smooth. It doesn’t look it, but it will come together and turn smooth.

3. Combine the wet and dry ingredients, mixing well until you have a solid dough. Add a few drops of water if necessary. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

5. Take slices of the chilled dough and place on a lightly floured worktop. Roll out to around 1 1/2cm thick, then dust the top lightly with flour and press the mould into the dough. Use a fluted cutter to give the gingerbread a fluted edge. Transfer each to the baking sheet as you go.

6. Bake the biscuits in batches of 12 – they will take around 10-12 minutes to bake, until they are slightly puffed (you may need more or less time depending on size so you might want to experiment with the first couple of biscuits).

7. When baked, allow the gingerbreads to cool for a minute, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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Belgian Buns

The eyes of the world might be on London in anticipation of a certain new baby, but today saw another royal development across the English Channel in Belgium.  Today is Belgian National Day, and after 20 years in the top job, King Albert II choose today as the moment to abdicate in favour of his eldest son Philippe. Hence the Brussels-themes header, complete with the Atomium.

To mark this, I’ve foregone the more familiar waffles or baked endive, and instead made a batch of Belgian Buns. Spirals of rich, yeasted dough, filled with sultanas and topped with icing and cherry.

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The funny thing is that, in spite of their name, there does not seem to be any basis for linking these buns to Belgium. Indeed, a Belgian friend told me that while they have something similar, it is named after Switzerland (the couque suisse). In the same way that the Danes refer to Danish pastries as coming from Vienna. Sort of.

While Belgian Buns might not be big in the low countries, they are a favourites in Britain. That said, I was quite surprised about how few recipes there are in cookbooks or online for these tasty treats. I’ve actually used my recipe for Swedish cinnamon buns, but without the spices. The cinnamon butter is replaced with brown sugar and sultanas, and the buns are finished with a soft fondant icing and the traditional red cherry.

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After making these buns, I realised that it has been a good few years since I’ve last enjoyed one of these little fellows, but I am very pleased with the result. The dough is rich and buttery, and allowing a decent amount of time for the dough to prove means the texture is very light and fluffy. The only little note of caution I would sound is that you should go easy on the icing – it’s very sweet, so unless you’ve got the sweetest of sweet teeth, you don’t want more than a drizzle.

So there we have it – some (fake) Belgian Buns for the coronation of the new Belgian King. And part of me thinks that it would be rather nice if these things are being served in the Royal Palace of Brussels today.

To make Belgian Buns (makes 12):

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g sugar
• 60g butter
• 130ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 325g strong white flour

For the filling:

• 120g sultanas
• 30g brown sugar
• milk

For the glaze:

• 200g icing sugar
• 3 tablespoons boiling water
• 12 glacé cherries

1(a). If using a bread machine: put the dough ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2(b). If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

3. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into a large square (around 25 x 25cm). Brush the surface with milk, then sprinkle the sultanas and brown sugar across the dough. Roll the dough into a fat sausage, then cut into 12 equal slices.

4. Lay each slice, cut face up, on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp teacloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Bake the buns for about 10-12 minutes until golden.

6. When done, remove from the oven and cover with a clean tea-towel (this will catch the steam and keep the buns soft).

7. When the buns are cool, make the glaze. Combine the icing sugar and boiling water, mixing until smooth. Drizzle over each bun and top each one with a glacé cherry.

Worth making? These buns are amazing! Very easy to make and they really look impressive when stacked up high, either on the breakfast table or with morning coffee.

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Queen Victoria

Oh we Brits love a bit of royal history. Henry VIII and his six wives, the rivalry between the stoical English Elizabeth I and her rather more flirty Scottish cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, the scandalous relationship between King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson (where rumour has it that her unsuitability was as much about being an American divorcée as being an American divorcée), the Madness of King George III, the tragedies of Princess Charlotte (the queen who never was) and Margaret, Maid of Norway (Queen of Scots for only four years and who died young before she could set foot in her kingdom), the Union of the Crowns, the English Civil War, the restoration of Charles II…it goes on! Even today, stick a picture of certain royals on the front of a magazine and you’re pretty much guaranteed an uptick in sales. And in about five weeks, I’m pretty confident that this country’s media will be going into overdrive…I’m sure you can guess why!

What is also clear is that the world of British food also has many links to royal history, with a range of dishes associated with various monarchs. It is probably a bit of a stretch to suggest that any of these were actually made by any of them, but such recipes would tend to be made either to commemorate a special occasion (such as the famous checked Battenberg cake created for a royal wedding) or, as is the case with the subject of today’s post, the Victoria Sponge, were a favourite of a king of queen. Here it is in all its jammy glory!

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This cake is part of a classic afternoon tea – it’s a fairly simple sponge cake, flavoured with vanilla if you like, then filled with jam and finished with a dusting of caster sugar. You could dust with icing sugar, but the caster sugar adds some sparkle and a little crunch on top.

Where there is some debate is what exactly the filling should be. I like raspberry jam and nothing else. However, it’s not uncommon to see whipped cream or even buttercream in the middle of this cake. I think that makes it all a bit too rich, but to each his own. If you were to add the cream, then I would just caution you and suggest it should be added at the last minute, so that the cream does not make the cake go soggy (or cheat – coat the top of the base and the bottom of the top cake with jam, which should stop the cream getting to the cake).

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There is also a bit of mythology about this cake. It was said to get its name as it was a favourite of Queen Victoria. It is also rumoured that the Victoria Sponge, while straightforward to make, is fickle to bake, and thus making it the perfect cake with which to test in new ovens. There must be an appliance manufacturer out there making a lot of cakes…

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The method I’ve used here is essentially the all-in-one technique. You can do it the hard way (cream butter, beat in the sugar, mix in the eggs, fold in the flour…), but I’ve tried both approaches, and the all-in-one produces great results with minimal fuss. The secret to getting this cake as light as possible is to use self-raising flour, and then to boost it with some baking powder. I’m willing to guarantee that if you follow the recipe, perfect results can be yours!

If you’re not sold on the idea of keeping things simple, you can try different types of jam, or even use lemon or orange curd. Citrus zest or a handful or currants can be added to the batter too, but as for the topping – go with the simple sprinkling of sugar. Do that, and I’m sure Queen Victoria would approve.

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To make a Victoria sandwich:

• 225g white caster sugar
• 225g unsalted butter, softened
• 4 large eggs
• 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 225g self-raising flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• raspberry jam (around half a jar)
• caster sugar, to finish

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Butter two 20cm (8 inch) sandwich tins, coat with flour and line the base with greaseproof paper.

2. Cream the butter in a mixing bowl until soft and fluffy. Add the caster sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour and baking powder, and mix well until just combined (don’t over-beat). Divide the mixture between the two sandwich tins. Smooth the tops with a fork.

3. Bake the cakes for 25 minutes until risen and golden, and an inserted skewer comes out clear. Allow to cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then remove form the tins, place on a wire tray and allow to cool completely.

4. To assemble the cake, remove the greaseproof paper from the bottom cake. Trim any peak if necessary, then spread generously with jam. Remove the paper from the bottom of the second cake, and place on top. Sprinkle lightly with caster sugar. Voila!

Worth making? This is a simple, but always-popular cake, which is easy to make. Highly recommended with a cuppa!

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Queen Elizabeth Cake

Today is sixty years since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Last year we had the festivities of the Diamond Jubilee, marking sixty years since her accession, but today marks the anniversary of the great celebration in Westminster Abbey which provided such memorable images to the world. And in comparison to the rather wet day we had last year, today London is basking in sunshine.

I was looking for a recipe in honour of this day, and I was rather surprised that there were not more cakes and bakes that were associated with great event. Perhaps everything else has been overshadowed by the famous Coronation Chicken? Undeterred, I kept searching and finally came across the curiously-named Queen Elizabeth Cake. This is a tray cake made with dates and nuts, finished off with a caramel glaze and topped with coconut. So far, so good.

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This is a cake with quite an interesting story. The tale goes that Her Majesty used to enjoy dabbling in home baking from time to time, and would make this recipe herself, in the Buckingham Palace kitchens, to be sold for charitable purposes. In fact, this was the only cake she would make. With this sort of regal endorsement, I just had to try this recipe. Incidentally, I’m sure the Queen would appreciate the Great British Bake-Off – but what would she make of this cake featuring as part of the technical challenge?

The technique was new to me – the cake has a lot of dates in it, but rather than just throwing them in and hoping for the best, they are soaked briefly in hot water with bicarbonate of soda. This soda, in addition to helping the cake to rise, gives the batter greater saltiness which combines with the sweet dates to enhance their flavour. The overall result is light, airy and delicious. With the caramel glaze, it probably makes you think of sticky toffee pudding.

When it came to assembling the cake, and with the utmost respect to Her Majesty, I departed from the original recipe. My cake did rise in the oven, but it was about 2 1/2 cm in depth. I wanted it higher, so I cut the cake into two slabs, and used half of the glaze as a filling, and so ended up with two layers. If you’ve got lots of people coming to tea, just go with one layer, but I think the double-layer approach looks quite nice. When it comes to the coconut, I would go for the white stuff rather than the golden toasted coconut. Nothing to do with flavour, but the white coconut looks great against the caramel.

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Now, time for a reality check. Is this cake really a secret from Buckingham Palace? Well, we do know that the Queen is very practical and hands-on when she is at her summer home, Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and from her days in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. I have no doubt she would be more than capable when it comes of baking. This also seems like a very traditional cake to me – the dates and walnuts give it an old-fashioned flavour, and I felt the air of post-war austerity over the ingredients, jazzed up with exotic coconut, all of which lends an air of plausibility to the story of this recipe coming from a newly-crowned Queen in the 1950s.

However, a few things make me cautious. This recipe does seem very close to the very British dessert of sticky toffee pudding, so perhaps it’s just that with a better story? Also, lots of the versions of this recipe featured online from yellowing scraps of paper found in attics from American sources, with references to terms like “frosting” and “pecans”. We don’t frost cakes in Britain, we ice them (and if you’ve had the pleasure of a British wedding cake, you might think we plaster them). Pecan nuts are traditionally less common than good old-fashioned walnuts over here. So on balance, if I were asked to come down in favour of a “yay” or “nay”, I would need to plump for “nay”, but even so, there is a nice story behind this cake, and if Her Majesty were to be coming round for afternoon tea, I don’t think she would refuse a slice. Congratulations Ma’am!

To make Queen Elizabeth Cake (makes 12 pieces):

For the cake:

• 175g soft dates, finely chopped
• 240ml boiling water
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 200g soft brown sugar
• 120g butter
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 egg
• 140g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 60g walnuts, chopped

For the glaze:

• 75g soft brown sugar
• 75g double cream
• 25g butter
• pinch of salt
• 30g desiccated coconut

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (300°F). Line a 23 x 31cm (9 x 12 inch) rectangular baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. In a heatproof bowl, mix the dates, bicarbonate of soda and boiling water and set aside.

3. In another bowl, beat the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well, then fold in the flour and baking powder until just combined.

4. Add the nuts and the date mixture (the dates should have absorbed a lot of the water, but the mixture will still be very wet – it should be lukewarm, not hot). Stir with a light hand until smooth.

5. Pour the batter into the tray and bake for around 25-30 minutes until the top is a rich brown colour and an inserted skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool.

6. While the cake is baking, make the glaze – put the sugar, cream, butter and salt into a saucepan, and keep stirring until the mixture comes to the boil. Remove from the heat and put aside until cold.

7. To finish the cake, cut in two equal slabs. Spread half the glaze onto one piece, then place the other on top of it. Spread the remaining glaze on the cake and sprinkle with the coconut. Trim the edges for a neat finish and cut into pieces.

Worth making? An easy recipe, but gives a rich, moist cake which cuts easily. Perfect for coffee mornings or afternoon tea. Recommended, and with royal approval!

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Chocolate and Coconut Macaroons

I’m a great believer in having a few recipes up my sleeve to produce at short notice. And this is one of them. Pillowy coconut macaroons, finished with dark chocolate.

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If you have tried making French macarons, chances are that you’ll know that they can be time-consuming and very fickle – there is a lot that can go wrong, so making them is a technique the requires precision, patience and practice.

British macaroons, made with coconut, are an altogether different beast. They are much easier to make, and part of their charm is their more “rustic” appearance. Not for them the smooth shells of their French cousins. They share a slightly crisp surface, that’s true, but underneath they have a soft, fluffy centre that is a little like a home-made Bounty bar. With that in mind, I decided to make these little guys, and finish them off by dipping the bottom in dark chocolate, and drizzling more chocolate on the top. The result was absolutely delicious and they have a great visual impact too. I took them along to a birthday party, and they seemed to vanish in a shot. Children and adults were seen sneaking off with two or three at a time, which I take as a compliment.

I mentioned these are easy to make – the mixture can be made, chilled and baked in an hour, and the dipping in chocolate only takes around fifteen minutes, so they can be easily made in the morning and on a plate to serve to guests in the afternoon. The only question is – how many is too many?

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To make 20-25 macaroons:

• 130g desiccated coconut (unsweetened)
• 20g icing sugar
• 30g flour
• 2 egg whites
• pinch of salt
• 2 pinches of cream of tartar
• 100g white sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
• 150g dark chocolate

1. Place the coconut, icing sugar and flour in a dish. Mix well and set aside.

2. In a metal bowl, whip the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar until frothy. Add the sugar, and place the bowl above a pan of barely-simmering water. Whisk constantly until the egg whites form a white, glossy mass that leaves stiff peaks when you remove the beater (around 5 minutes). This can be done by hand but is easier with an electric whisk.

3. Remove from the pan of water, and stir the vanilla into the meringue mixture. Add the coconut mixture, and fold in gently.

4, Cover and leave in the fridge to chill for 20 minutes. At this stage, preheat the oven to 170°C (335°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

5. Bake for 15 minutes until slightly puffed and lightly golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

6. Melt the chocolate over a pan of barely-simmering water. Dip the bottom of each macaroon into the chocolate, and place on greaseproof paper to set. Once you have dipped all the cookies, use the remaining chocolate to drizzle in a zig-zag pattern.

Worth making? These are sensational – if you like Bounty bars, you’ll love them. As they don’t contain too much sugar, they’re not overly-sweet, and the texture if very light. You can skip the chocolate, but the dark, bitter flavour balances the sweet coconut beautifully.

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Hot Cross Buns

It’s just not Easter without lots and lots of hot cross buns. On the basis of a rather busy social schedule this year, I had planned to just buy them (a shocking admission, I know). Well, karma kicked in, and when my shopping arrived, there were no buns in the bags. Unbelievably, they had run out! So I was straight in the kitchen and had to whip up a batch of my own.

I’ve made these buns a few times in previous years (my original post is here, which also contains a little bit of their background and history too) so I’ll just leave you to enjoy my most recent results. As you can see, they do have a pleasingly rustic look compared to their commercial counterparts.

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If you are minded to have a go at making these, I’ve got two tips.

First, it’s worth soaking the currants, sultanas and candied citrus peel in warm water, juice or brandy to ensure they are plum and soft (if not, they can be a bit dry after baking).

Second, when shaping the buns, I find the easiest way is to take a piece of dough and then roll it into a ball (so far, so obvious). Next, pull and stretch the dough from the top and sides and tuck under the bottom of the buns (the untidy party will be the bottom of the buns, so you won’t see it). This means you have a perfectly smooth bun.

There you have it! Tasty Easter treats which are wonderful either warm or toasted, served with butter and honey. Happy Easter everyone!

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To make Hot Cross Buns (makes 12-16):

For the buns:

• 400g bread flour(*)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 150-200ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg, beaten
• 50g butter
• 75g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice or Lebkuchengewürz(**)
• pinch ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g candied peel, chopped
• 100g sultanas and currants (proportions per your taste!)

(*) Make sure you are using proper bread flour – plain flour just won’t work
(**) If you prefer, just use two teaspoons of ground cinnamon

For the X:

• 3 tablespoons plain flour
• 3 tablespoons cold water

For the glaze:

• 2 tablespoons caster sugar
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Make the dough. If using a bread machine: place all the dough ingredients except the sultanas, currants and candied peel into the mixing bowl. Add the sultanas and peel to the raisin dispenser, and run the “dough” cycle. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the mixture has the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Fold in the spices, salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough. Work in the sultanas, currants and candied peel. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size.

2. Once the dough is ready, divide it into twelve to sixteen round buns. Place on a well-greased baking sheet or one lined with greaseproof paper. Leaving 4-5 cm between buns, and cover with oiled cling film or a damp teacloth. Leave somewhere warm until doubled in size.

3. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

4. Prepare the paste for the X by mixing the flour and water until smooth. Next, brush the buns with milk, then use the paste to make an X on each bun – you can use a piping bag, a plastic bag with the corner cut off, or just use a teaspoon and a steady hand.

5. Bake the buns for 15 minutes until they are a rich brown colour. You may need to tun the tray during baking to get an even colour.

6. While the buns are cooking, make the glaze: heat the water and sugar in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Once the buns are ready, remove from the oven, and brush right away with the warm syrup.

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Rhubarb & Custard Tarts

I was in the centre on the City last week, and there was a noticeable spring-like feeling in the air as I walked past St Paul’s Cathedral. Still rather fresh, but the smells of plants awakening from their winter slumber was certainly there. The flowers were not yet peeking out from the bushes and trees, but catkins and pussywillow have appeared. That was soon eliminated by the return of snow, but hey, for a brief few days, spring had sprung!

Our recent snowstorms have only been a little hiccup, and we are on the march towards warmer days. The impending bonanza of spring is also heralded by the arrival of something very special in your local fruit shop – lots and lots of neon pink Yorkshire rhubarb!

I’ve used this to make some very simple rhubarb tarts which bring together two classic flavours to make a British favourite. A sweet pastry shell, filled with pastry cream flavoured with a dash of vanilla, and then topped off with roasted rhubarb. Yes, it really is this lurid shade of pink!

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How to get the look? As I say, by roasting! The trick to getting the bright colour is by cooking the chopped rhubarb with sugar in the oven. This is, in my view, about the best way of preparing rhubarb for a tart. It keeps the shape of the stems of rhubarb, but also preserves their amazing colour. The result is almost luminous, and combines sweetness with the lip-smacking sharpness that is the hallmark of rhubarb. You also have result which is sweet, sticky and syrupy, rather than watery which can happen if you opt to poach the rhubarb.

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On little tip – when you come to use the rhubarb for the tarts, you only need the fruit, not the syrup. However, the syrup is also delicious – keep it and use it as a glaze, in yoghurt, or in your favourite cocktail (perhaps with Prosecco and gin to make a Yorkshire Pink Gin Fizz?).

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The recipe below makes four to six tarts, depending on the size of your moulds (you’ll probably have too much pastry left, but I’ll be posting a little trick to use it up shortly). I feel I should caution you that these tarts are not exactly light – the pastry, rhubarb and custard filling means that like all good British puds, they are rather substantial, but there is no reason you could not adapt this to make bite-sized morsels too.

To make rhubarb and custard tartlets (makes 4-6, depending on size):

For the rhubarb:

• 700g pink rhubarb
• 150g white sugar

For the pastry:

• 175g plain flour
• 65g caster sugar
• pinch of salt
• 65g unsalted butter
• 1 egg, beaten
• cold water

For the filling:

• 250ml whole milk
• 2 eggs
• 1 egg yolk
• 90g caster sugar
• 30g cornflour
• 75g butter

To roast the rhubarb:

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C.

2. Wash and trim the rhubarb. Cut into piece of 1-2cm. Mix with the  sugar and put into a glass or ceramic ovenproof dish. Loosely cover the dish with foil but make sure it does not touch the rhubarb (rhubarb + foil = trouble)! Bake for 30 minutes, or until the sugar has dissolved and the rhubarb is pink and soft. Remove from the oven and allow to cool (ideally, leave overnight in the fridge – the colour will intensify).

To make the pastry:

3. Mix the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl. Work the butter in with your hands, then add the egg yolk and sufficient cold water (a teaspoon at a time) to make a soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour.

4. Remove the pastry from the fridge. Roll out thinly and use to line some tartlet moulds. Fill with greaseproof paper and baking beads. Bake blind for around 20 minutes, then remove the greaseproof paper and baking beads. Bake for a further 10 minutes until golden. Leave to cool.

To make the pastry cream:

5. Put the milk into a saucepan. Bring to the boil then put to one side.

6. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, sugar, cornflour and vanilla extract. Add the milk and whisk until combined. Pour through a sieve into a clean saucepan and place over a medium heat.

7. Stir the mixture constantly until thickened (about 4-5 minutes – and really do stir it, otherwise it gets lumpy!). When very thick, remove from the heat. Add the butter and fold it into the pastry cream mixture. It might look oily, but it will come together.

8. Pour the mixture into a large dish and cover with cling film. Press the film onto the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a skin forming. Leave until completely cold.

To assemble the tartlets

9. Fill each tartlet shell with pastry cream. Top each tart with rhubarb (try to avoid getting too much syrup onto the tarts, or the pastry will get soggy).

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Sally Lunn Buns

You may well be sitting there wondering who, exactly, is this Sally Lunn lady?

Well, before we get to the “who” part, we’ll deal with the “what” part, by which I mean her buns. What is undeniable is that these buns are made from an enriched yeast dough, similar to brioche, and are an utterly delicious teatime treat with a strong association with the fine city of Bath in Somerset. In addition to these buns, Bath is famous for its remarkable Georgian architecture hewn from honey-coloured Bath limestone and its Roman thermal spas which give the city its name (as well as a more modern spa drawing on the same warm thermals, complete with a warm rooftop spa pool).

It was that thermal source that was a major draw for the British aristocracy during the Regency period, where society ladies and gentlemen would descend upon the city to take the waters. I’ve been to the modern spa, and it’s great fun to bob around in the pool, especially when you can see the spires of the old town while floating in the open-air naturally heated pool. I’ve also tried the waters, and they were, frankly, disgusting – clean, but with a lot of minerals. I can imagine Regency ladies in their fancy costumes drinking this stuff and expressing how well they now felt, all the while dreaming of something that tasted, well, nicer….such as a slice of hot, toasted and buttered slice of Sally Lunn bun!

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In the truest traditions of British baking, the real story is shrouded in some mystery, with various tales claiming to be the real deal. The first story claims the buns were created by a French Huguenot lady in the late 1600s called Solange Luyon (hence Sally Lunn), who whipped them up based on her knowledge of French brioche. The next is that the name is a corruption of “soleil et lune” (sun and moon) due to the shape of the buns. The third suggestion is that this is just rhyming slang, with Sally Lunn being a term for buns. Of the three, I like the first story most. It’s rather charming to think of Mademoiselle Solange arriving off the boat, making her way to Bath, the locals being unable to pronounce her name, re-naming her Sally and taking her to their hearts on the basis of her tasty buns. Whatever the story, these are now a firm part of the British baking landscape.

However, Sally Lunn buns are not one of those traditional recipes that comes from a particular place but which has since gone generic. Oh no, for when I visited Bath a couple of years ago, although I knew the name, I had never tried Sally Lunn buns, so we went to the original Sally Lunn shop where they bake them to a recipe that they claim to trace back to Mademoiselle Solange herself.

Well, I had something different in mind when I came to try them! It turns out I was expecting something known as the “Bath Bun” which is a completely different sort of bake. The Bath Bun is sweet, with the original versions using sugar and caraway and more modern versions featuring currants and pearl sugar on top, whereas the Sally Lunn bun is a rich bread to take with tea. Very confusing for visitors! Just in case I have whetted your appetite for British baked goods, we’ll be tacking Bath Buns another day. However, back to my experience, and I was rather taken aback when I was presented with a large (size of a head) bun, split and toasted, with various topping options. And by “options” I mean lots of butter and jam. On a cold, crisp winter day, there are few things as wonderful as a rich toasted snack with a cup of Earl Grey tea. The outsize sliced and toasted bun only adds to their charm.

The recipe I have used below is an older one that I found, and reasoned that it was a fair bet that it should work, but I must add that this isn’t the original (the one from the Sally Lunn Teashop is known to only six people, and I’m not one of them). I’ve converted the recipe to more modern measures which are the ones I used when baking it, so rest assured – the recipe has been properly tested!

Now, I’ve also seen various references to these buns as a Regency treat and a Jane Austen favourite. However, I’ve also read that Miss Austen was not entirely partial to Sally Lunns, believing them to be rich and heavy, and that they were bad for her digestion. Whatever Miss Austen used to fuel her narratives across those two inches of ivory, it must have been something other than these buns (too bad Mademoiselle Solange!).

The versions I’ve had in Bath were large – I recall around 20cm in diameter – but I’ve also tried making some into smaller buns and they work an absolute treat. While the larger buns are undeniably impressive, the smaller versions might be more practical if you’re looking to serve these to a group of people for breakfast. If it’s just you, then feel free to make the large one and devour alone!

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To make Sally Lunn (or Solange Luyon) buns:

Makes two large buns or 12 small buns:

• 450g strong white flour
• 280ml whole milk, scalded
• 60g butter
• 40g caster sugar
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 1 teaspoon salt

1. Put the milk in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the butter, and leave until lukewarm.

2. Add the lukewarm milk mixture to the beaten eggs and mix well.

3. If using a bread machine: throw everything into the machine and run the dough cycle. If working by hand: pour everything into a large bowl, and mix to a dough. Knead for around 10 minutes until elastic (it will be very sticky). Cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.

4. Once the dough has risen, knock it back. Either divide between two round cake tins (18-20cm diameter) or divide into small balls to make individual buns (line the tins with greaseproof paper). Cover loosely with cling film and leave somewhere warm until doubled in size.

5. Bake at 190°C. Allow around 12 minutes for smaller buns, 30-40 minutes for larger buns. If the buns are browning too quickly, cover with tin foil during baking.

6. Once the buns have been baked, remove from the tin and put in a plastic bag to cool. This will make sure the crust is soft.

Worth making? This is a lovely and very easy recipe. The result is rich like brioche, but the simpler shape makes it easy to slice and pop into the toaster. The flavour is excellent hot, spread with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

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