Tag Archives: english food

Marchpane for Lovers

I’m probably not the world’s greatest romantic, but even I’ve gotten into the Valentine’s mood this year, and made something inspired by the theme of romance. However, if you’re familiar with any of my previous offerings, you’ll know that I’ve tended to shy away from pretty pink cupcakes. I’ve variously made a deep red beetroot risotto, a bittersweet red salad, and most dramatically, a dessert which looks like something has chewed out a heart and abandoned it in the snow.

This year, I’ve eased back on the drama, and instead drawn inspiration from an era in English history with which it seems that everyone (or at least everyone in television working on historical dramas) is obsessed. Yes, we’re off to Merrie Olde Tudor England to sample a sweet delight called marchpane.

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So what is marchpane? It is a very simple confection, which is something of an ancestor to our modern marzipan. It consists of almonds which were finely ground, and then mixed with sugar which had been worked to a powder. Everything would then be mixed with rosewater, and the resulting firm paste could be moulded into intricate shapes, and then coloured or gilded. And those Tudors didn’t do things by halves…there are tales of whole golden swans made from marchpane, covered with gold leaf, and on one occasion, Queen Elizabeth I was presented with a model of Old St Paul’s Cathedral made from marchpane. Apparently, she was impressed.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an original recipe from Robert May’s “The Accomplisht Cook” which dates from 1660:

To Make a Marchpane: Take two pound of almonds blanched and beaten in a stone mortar, till they begin to come to a fine paste, then take a pound of sifted sugar put it in the mortar with the almonds, and make it into a perfect paste, putting to it now and then in the beating of it a spoonfull of rose-water to keep it from oyling; when you have beaten it to a puff-paste, drive it out as big as a charger, and set an edge about it as you do a quodling tart, and the bottom of wafers under it, thus bake it in an oven or baking-pan; when you see it white, and hard, and dry, take it out, and ice it with rosewater and suger, being made as thick as butter for fritters, so spread it on with a wing feather, and put it into the oven again; when you see it rise high, then take it out and garnish it with come pretty conceits made of the same stuff.

It’s fair to say that this is not a “recipe” as we would know it today! This is a bit more of a vague description, and the fact that we’ve got some quantities in there (two pounds of almonds, a pound of sugar) is apparently quite unusual for that time. But otherwise, this seems like a fairly straightforward recipe to modern eyes. Just take two parts ground almonds to one part icing sugar, add rosewater, shape it and bake. Job done!

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Except…it was not that easy for your average Tudor baker, who didn’t have easy access to ground almonds. They would need to make them. And I suspect almonds did not come pre-blanched, so they would have to remove the skins. And all of this would take time. All very easy in our modern kitchens to boil the kettle, then pop a pan of water on the stovetop to skin the almonds, but less straightforward in a mediaeval setting. So once you have your almonds, skinned and dried, you need to grind them down. And no blender of coffee grinder then…more likely than not, it involved either a mortar and pestle or a hammer and a muslin bag!

Having sorted the almonds, we then come to the sugar. Today, we’ve got bags of lovely, fluffy, white icing sugar which you can use right away. So pity the poor Tudor confectioner, who had to take a solid cone of sugar, chip away at it to get manageable pieces, then use even more elbow grease to grind those pieces down to a fine powder to use in marchpane. All in all, a lot of time spent turning things into powders and pastes. And don’t assume it would be some kitchen serf doing all the work – I remember seeing a programme on the Tudor kitchen which claimed that it would often be left to noble ladies in the royal household to work with sugar, as it was still something of an expensive luxury at that time.

You might think that I’m labouring all this a bit, but I just want to point out that while marchpane might look easy to us, it included a couple of fairly expensive ingredients (foreign nuts, imported luxury sugar) and a lot of time, so this was not a sweetmeat to be enjoyed by the masses. Hence the fact it was made into elaborate showstoppers and covered in gold, as one does when trying to impress!

But that is enough history. In terms of actually making the marchpane, I was able to skip all the hard work, so I found making marchpane a doddle. Just mix the ground almonds and the icing sugar, then add rosewater to bind it. This is really the only tricky bit that you will face these days – if you over-work the marchpane mixture, or do it when things are too warm, the almonds will release their oil and the mixture will seem to “split”. I tested this on a small piece, and it does happen quite easily, so once you’re happy with the texture, try to handle it as little as possible and keep it cool, as there is no way to fix the marchpane (but you can still use it for something else). Once you’ve got the right texture, just roll it out and start shaping it as you fancy.

As you can see, I went for a round tablet, inspired by the way that petticoat tails are made, to be decorated with red beading and golden hearts, which I thought ended up looking a little bit like a Tudor rose. I made the hearts separately from thinly-rolled marchpane, so I’m happy to report that if you wanted to make these are individual sweets or wedding favours, then this is entirely possible. Alternatively, you can decorate the top with candied fruit and citrus peel, and sugared almonds and “comfits” (sugar coated seeds like aniseed and caraway). As you can see below, I also made a few marchpane hearts as separate sweets – and I couldn’t resist making one golden broken heart…

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It is worth saying a couple of things to note about flavours here. First, make sure you’ve got the right sort of rosewater. It should be the dilute stuff which has a mild flavour, not the very concentrated rose extract. You want a hint of rose, not something that tastes of soap! If you’ve got the strong stuff, just dilute it with water and use that to bind the marchpane. Second, there is actually something that I did not include in this recipe – almond extract. This is often used to boost the flavour of sweet almonds in baked goods, but I decided to leave it out here. This was quite deliberate – none of the traditional recipes suggested this, and I wanted the marchpane to have a more subtle flavour.

And finally…how did it all taste? Well, actually really nice. Slightly sweet, nutty with a slightly toasted flavour, and a hint of rosewater. Maybe those Tudors knew a thing or two about sweets after all.

To make Marchpane:

For the marchpane:

• 200g ground almonds
• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater

For decoration:

• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater
• natural food colours
• gold or silver leaf
• gold or silver dusting powder

To make the marchpane:

1. Put the ground almonds and icing sugar in a large bowl. Mix with a whisk to combine (trust me – this works!).

2. Add rosewater, a teaspoon at a time, until you have a smooth paste. You’ll need around 6 teaspoons for this quantity but go with what you feel is right.  You can start with a spoon to mix everything, but you need to finish with (clean) hands to make a fairly stiff dough. It should not be sticky, and don’t over-work or it will turn oily.

3. Dust a worktop with icing sugar. Put the marchpane mixture on top, and roll out to about 1cm thickness. Use a plate as a template and cut into a circle. Transfer to baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Decorate the marchpane as you wish.

4. Roll up any scraps and use to make decorations – for example, roll thinly thin, then cut out heart shapes etc.

5. Bake the marchpane disc at 150°C (300°F) for around 25-30 minutes until it is just starting to brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

6. Bake any other pieces of marchpane until just starting to brown – they will take anything from 10-20 minutes, depending on size.

To decorate the marchpane:

7. Make the icing – mix the icing sugar with enough rosewater to make a fairly thick but flowing icing. Use this to ice the top of the marchpane disc. Try to give it three coats, allowing it to dry in between.

8. Ice the decorations – I made the hearts white, and then dusted them with gold powder when dry, and tinted some of the icing red to decorate the studs. Leave to dry.

9. Finally, assemble the marchpane – use any remaining icing to glue the various pieces onto the disc.

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Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

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

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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Eton Mess

I’ve become a total flag waving maniac over the last few weeks, which culminated in a flag-and-chocolate-gold-medal arrangement in my front window for the duration of the Olympics. I’m sure the sight of chocolate just out of reach annoyed many a passing child! Earlier in the week, the Paralympic flame was lit in Trafalgar Square and the overnight torch relay is underway, so the fun starts all over again from tomorrow – and yes, I’m lucky enough to have more tickets!

But while the venues were amazing, the sport so far has been amazing and the Tube has kept on tubing, I’m going to say it…the London Games managed to get something rather wrong. It was the food, and all I can really say is “oh dear”!

OK, it wasn’t a complete disaster, but where, oh where, was the Best of British? The proper tea shop, selling scones, clotted cream and jam? Summer desserts? Bowls of strawberries? I really think they missed a trick here – I suspect Japanese visitors would have loved the sight of miniature Battenberg cakes and Bakewell tarts, although just how popular that Scottish legend, the deep-fried Mars bar, would have been remains unclear.

To counter this, and to get into practice for the Paralympics, I’ve dug out my old recipe for Eton Mess, which is essentially whipped cream, fruit and meringue. This might sound like an odd name for a recipe, but it has the benefit of being a complete doddle to make and tastes great. The fact that it is all “messed up” means that you can make this recipe with zero creative skills, but I would imagine that in most cases, the urge to artfully swirl the mixture will take hold. Whether all that meringue and cream really suits a major sporting event is another matter…

There are two ways to make this dessert. Either you can buy the meringues, then just crush them, mix with some whipped cream and chopped strawberries, and that’s it.

However, you can opt to go posh (and I suspect that at Eton they do, rather). Make your own meringue according to preference, then mix with softly whipped cream infused with whatever flavours you like (vanilla or even a tiny dash of booze). Then the fruit – prepare it ahead if time and allow to macerate, and you end up with a gloriously rich, sweet, fragrant mush then combines seductively with the rest of the pudding.

Whichever option you take, I recommend assembling this pudding at the last possibly moment – that way, you get to enjoy the soft cream, crisp-and-chewy meringue and ripe fruit. However, if you leave it for more than a few minutes, the meringue will start to dissolve and you’ll lose all the contrasting textures and flavours.

Strawberries are traditional in this dessert, but you can make changes depending on what you have to hand and what is in season. Raspberries add some sharpness that balances the sugar, stewed rhubarb goes well with the strawberries, and brambles are great later in the year. And all this talk of fruit brings me to my final tip – make sure you have the fruit at room temperature when you are making up the pudding – you’ll get the best flavour that way.

So now…sit back…and let the Games begin…again!

To make Eton Mess (serves 8):

For the meringue:

• 2 egg whites
• 100g white caster sugar
• pinch of salt
• few drops vanilla extract

To finish the pudding:

• meringues
• 1 pint (450ml) double cream
• 1 pound (450g) strawberries

To make the meringue:

1. Preheat the oven to 130°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Whip the egg whites until foamy. Add the pinch of salt, then whisk until you get to the soft peak stage. Add the sugar, a quarter at a time, mixing well after each addition, then add the vanilla and whisk on full power until the mixture is smooth, white and stiff, and you can’t see any sugar crystals (allow a good five minutes for this).

3. Place tablespoons of the mixture on the baking sheet. Put the meringues in the oven and immediately turn down the heat to 110°C. Bake for 1 hour, then turn off the heat. Leave the meringues in the oven until cold (overnight is ideal).

To prepare the dessert:

1. Clean and trim the strawberries. Cut into quarters and put in a bowl with 3 tablespoons of sugar. Stir and leave to sit at room temperature for an hour (covered with cling film to keep insects away!).

2. Break the meringues into chunks (between 1 and 1/2 inches) and place in a bowl.

3. Whip the cold cream until you have soft peaks, then add to the meringue pieces. Add 2/3 of the fruit. Fold the mixture together gently – aim for the mixture to have a rippled look.

4. Divide the mixture between the serving bowls, and top with spoonfuls of the remaining strawberries. Serve straight away.

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Filed under Les saveurs de l’été, Recipe, Sweet Things

La vie en rose

Bring something for a tea party. We’re going for a romantic theme…

That was the brief, so what, oh what could I bring? Well, something that struck me as rather suitable would have been the rose creams that I recently sampled at Charbonnel et Walker in Mayfair just before the Jubilee. However, I didn’t have the time for a visit to central London, so it was going to have to be something home-made. So I thought: what the heck, I’ll just make rose creams. And…if they don’t work, it’s going to be a Victoria sponge…

My very unscientific research tells me that a lot of folk think of rose-flavoured sweets as rather old-fashioned. I think this is perhaps due, in part, to floral flavours usually being very strong, more like perfume, and often rather artificial. If you had Parma Violets as a child, you’ll understand. A rose has a fragile perfume, so if you are going to use it to flavour something, you want the retain its delicate character. While rose is undeniably very traditional, the flavour can also seem quite contemporary, at least to Western tastes. Rose water features in a lot of Middle Eastern desserts like baklava or lokum, so when used with a light touch, it can be quite heady and aromatic. It’s all about getting the right balance between the light, fresh notes of rose oil, but avoiding a flavouring that is too floral. Oh, and apparently rose creams are a favourite of HM The Queen.

We say we eat with our eyes too, and I think the colour of anything that contains rose has a lot to do with how it is received. A piece of Turkish delight that is bright pink suggests that it’s going to be rather strong in the flavour department, but if colourless, you’re not expecting the flavour to be too strong. So that was something that I took on board – my little creations were not going to be lurid neon pink!

However, when it came to making these sweets, I was faced with a bit of a quandary. What should the filling actually be made of? It is rather obvious that my rose creams were going to be very sweet. Lots of sugar would be unavoidable. However, there are still some variations.

An easy option is to combine icing sugar and egg whites. Personally, I try not to use uncooked egg white when possible, so that was a bit of a non-starter for me. Other recipes use double cream instead. This was more palatable for a picky chef, but I was also keen to have centres that were silky-smooth. I tested the icing sugar and cream mixture, but there was a perceptible graininess.

This process of elimination brought me face to face with one of my cooking demons. Fear of fondant. I was going to have to work with hot sugar syrup. Eek! I accept that some foods require a bit of science to understand them, but fondant is, for me, a huge step up. The thing with fondant is that you work the sugar syrup so that it forms very tiny crystals, so the resulting paste is very smooth when you bite into it, with no hint of graininess and thus a perfect melting texture. My fear comes from past attempts that ended up with a nasty, gritty mess, but this time I was determined to make sure that it worked.

First off, I tried adapting this recipe from Saveur for peppermint patties. I would just swap the peppermint oil for a little rose extract. However, I found the addition of cream and butter made the filling too rich, and the use of dairy meant that the base was not sufficiently “clean” for the rose flavour to work. Peppermint oil would probably have worked better here after all.

So I went back to the basic fondant recipe – sugar, water, glucose and a dash of cream of tartar. This time, it worked like a dream. The fondant turned out brilliantly white and once the rose was added, the flavour was just right. It could be subtle as there were no other flavours in there to compete with. For a moment, I wondered if I should add any pink colour at all – in the end, I added only the tiniest amount, but I think you could actually skip this quite happily, and keep them white for a more modern look.

With the fondant successfully made, I did what so many people do when they overcome a fear and made it again, just to be sure that the recipe did indeed work. I’m happy to report that it did. It’s amazing what happens when you finally learn that when glucose appears on an ingredients list, it is essential and not just an optional extra. That, and a candy thermometer makes life so much easier!

Finally, to dip or not to dip? I decided to dip these fondants in chocolate (2/3 dark, 1/3 milk). I felt the dark chocolate would work better with the rose flavour, but that pure milk would be a little to much – that sweetness needed something bitter to balance it.

Once the chocolates were made, I headed to the tea party. I turned up, presented my chocolates, and I think they were all gone in about five minutes. Nice to see hours of work in the kitchen appreciated like that.

And if you’re humming the tune, here is what I think is the best version of “La Vie en Rose” by Grace Jones (minus the hula-hoop).

To make rose creams (makes 20):

For the filling:

• 300g white sugar
• 1 teaspoon liquid glucose
• 2 pinches cream of tartar
• 75ml water
• 1/4 teaspoon rose extract
• 2-3 drops pink food colouring

To coat the chocolates:

• 200g chocolate (I used a 2:1 mixture of dark and milk)

1. Put the sugar, glucose, cream of tartar and water into a saucepan. Bring to the boil without stirring, and cook until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (112°C / 235°F).

2. Pour the syrup sugar liquid onto a cold marble slab, and start to work with a spatula until the mixture becomes opaque. Be careful – this stuff starts of very, very hot! Eventually it will become firm and crumbly. When this happens, use your hands to work the fondant into a smooth paste. If it gets too dry, add a couple of drops of water.

4. Once the fondant is smooth, add the rose extract and food colouring (if using), and work until combined. Wrap tightly in cling film, and leave in a cool place (not the fridge) to cool completely.

5. To finish the chocolates, shape the fondant into pieces. Make them a little smaller than you expect, as they are larger once coated in chocolate. Let the fondant sit on a sheet of greaseproof paper while you melt the chocolate. To see how to temper chocolate (to get a shiny finish) see here or here.

6. To dip the fondant in the chocolate, balance a piece on a fork. Dip into the chocolate, then lift out. Tap on the side of the bowl, run the bottom of the fork over the rim of the bowl to remove excess chocolate, then place back on the sheet of greaseproof paper to set.

Worth making? Certainly! Very few ingredients, but a great result! Once you manage to make the fondant, the process is actually quite easy, so worth having a go at, and of course, you can change them with all manner of flavours.

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One a penny, two a penny, Hot Cross Buns!

It’s coming up to Easter (hence the nifty rabbit-themed header for the next few days)…

…and that means Britain is awash with hot cross buns! We’ve actually been able to tuck into them since, oh, late January, but what with the lighter evenings and warmer weather, now it feels more like the right time to be eating them.

Indeed, some people might even be reciting the nursery rhyme (which is what the title of this post refers to, in case you are wondering). Bet you can’t listen to this one more than twice!

If you don’t know them, these are enriched yeast buns with sultanas, currants, citrus peel and a goodly amount of spice, then finished off with a cross on top. This can range from a simple cross made with a sharp knife to pastry crosses, or for a more luxurious finish, marzipan. Apparently they were originally eaten throughout the year, but were associated with Catholicism, so Queen Elizabeth I, sensing that banning things tends not to work too well, allowed people to keep eating them, but limiting them to Easter and Christmas. The association with this time of year established, hot cross buns have never looked back and are now a firm favourite. While traditionally eaten on Good Friday, I am sure I’ve seen them on sale in the middle of November. Yup, we love them that much!

Now, I thought that this would all be an absolute breeze given the ease with which I made panettone just before Christmas. It’s a fruity, spicy bread, just like hot cross buns, so this should also be easy, right? Well, predictably enough, it was not quite as easy as I imagined.

I started off with Delia Smith’s recipe, which is intended for a breadmaker, but first time round I ended up with overly-hard crosses and not enough fruit. Second time, it was Delia again, but the buns didn’t rise properly, which with hindsight was probably due to me not letting them rise properly in my haste to get to the local park and soak up the sun. C’mon, it was 25 degrees and a clear blue sky!

However, two instances without success put me off Delia’s recipe, and for third time lucky, I checked out what Nigella was proposing. Her recipe was similar, but with a bit less flour and a dash of powdered ginger. So I muddled through, using a composite of Delia and Nigella (Digella? Neelia?) as a bit of a guide, leaning a bit more towards the lovely Miss Lawson, and this time, things were looking up. The resulting dough was soft, silky and puffed up beautifully, and this time they had enough time to actually rise properly. Result!

With the bun mixture sorted out, time to deal with the X.

First time, I did the Delia approach of making a simple pastry with flour and water, rolled it thin and cut out strips to place on the buns. Result? Fussy and a bit like leather. With attempt number two, I made a paste and used a piping bag (or more accurately, a plastic bag with the corner cut out…make do and mend etc), which looked good, but I’d managed to get quantities wrong. Again, the paste cooked to something a little leathery. What was happening? I suspected that I was not using enough water, so when I was mixing the paste, it was developing the gluten in the flour, making it too tough when baked.

Then…third time, I finally got it right – the simple trick is exactly equal volumes of flour and water. Result? Nice and soft!

The buns are finished with a simple hot sugar glaze as soon as they come out of the oven, which makes them nice and soft and they take on the deep, rich brown colour of new conkers.

And how to eat them? They really are at their best when still warm, as the flavours of all that fruit, spice and citrus is at its best, but if you prefer, they are great split and toasted. Then serve with a large dollop of butter and a generous drizzle of honey. For me, this was the chance to open some Hamptons Honey I picked up when I was last in the US. A perfect little combination!

Seriously – did you click the link for the nursery rhyme? I think I might have  5 second tolerance limit for it…


To make 12-16 Hot Cross Buns:

For the buns:

• 400g bread flour(*)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 150ml milk
• 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

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.

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

Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

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. Put the buns into the oven and bake for 15 minutes, until the buns are a rich brown colour. You may need to tun the tray during baking to an even colour.

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.

Worth making? I’ve made this recipe twice now, and it works perfectly. The process is actually quite easy, as long as you can spend a bit of time popping into the kitchen every so often to keep things ticking along. You can also customise them according to taste – cranberries, blueberries, chocolate chips…whatever takes your fancy!

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Sugar, spice and all things nice – Chelsea Buns

It occurred to me the other day that while I happily call my blog “LondonEats” I have not really looked at London recipes. So time to make a bit of a change, and presenting the famous Chelsea bun.

They are said to originate from the 1700s, and were apparently a particular favourite of the then-new monarchy, the House of Hanover, including George II and George III (he of the “Madness” fame) and Queen Charlotte. History does not, alas, record whether these buns played any role in George III’s deterioration, or indeed in his subsequent recovery.

The name tells you about exactly where they sprang from – a bun house in Chelsea, called – surprisingly – The Chelsea Bun House, located between Chelsea and Pimlico. Even if the original is long-gone, you can still stroll down Bunhouse Place today. Well…actually…this street is now technically in Pimlico, but it’s probably too late to try and change the well-established name of this sticky treat.

So what are they like? Think of an enriched yeast dough (not too sweet), which is formed into swirls and studded with dried fruit, baked in a single tin so that the buns merge into each other as they prove, then glazed with a sweet, sticky syrup which seeps down into the fruit filling. The result is fruity and delicious, and utterly perfect with a cup of tea. Most English cakes are at their best with a cup of tea.

When it comes to exact recipes, there is, as ever, a variety of recipes. Some contain cinnamon, some recipes feature nutmeg, and then there are those with a little or lots of citrus peel, and those that have just currants or sultanas. Even the syrup has lots of variants – ranging from a light glaze through to thick, sticky, sweet  coating with butter and honey.

Taking all this in the round….I came up with my own version. The biggest shock to myself was that I didn’t include any cinnamon. I’m normally a huge fan of cinnamon, but I thought that this could so easily overpower the flavours from the sultanas, brown sugar and honey. In the event, each of these ingredients still imparted a subtle “spiciness” to the finished buns, which was very welcome. The filling was otherwise a combination of mixed dried fruit (currants, sultanas and a few dried cranberries) plus candied peel. But if you want to add nuts, cherries or anything else, then feel free. Spices and fresh citrus zest can also go in there if the mood takes you.

So give them a bash! Perfect to tuck into while you are watching the Royal Wedding on 29 April.

To make Chelsea buns (makes 9, can easily be doubled):

For the dough:

• 100g plain flour
• 125g strong white flour
• large pinch of salt
• 40g butter
• 2 tablespoons white sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 120ml milk
• 1 egg, beaten

For the filling:

• 100g dried fruit
• 25g candied peel, chopped
• 50g soft brown sugar

For the glaze:

• 25g brown sugar
• 50g honey
• 1 tablespoon milk

• Pinch of salt

Put the flours and salt in a bowl, and rub in the butter. Add the yeast, sugar, milk and egg. Start mixing with a spoon, then use your hands. Work for around 5 minutes, until you have a smooth dough. Cover the bowl with cling film, and leave somewhere warm until the dough has risen and is about double the size (30-60 minutes).

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°C) and lightly grease a square tin with butter. Take the dough, knock it down, then on a floured worktop, roll out into a large rectangle.

Now prepare the filling: mix the fruit, candied peel and brown sugar in a bowl. Scatter evenly across the rolled dough. Roll up the dough like a swiss roll (roll lengthwise), seal the edge, and cut into 9 pieces. Arrange cut side down in the tin (the buns might not touch when you put them in the tin – this will change when the puff up, as in the pictures).

Leave the buns to rise for about 30 minutes or until doubled in size. Bake for around 25-30 minutes until the buns are golden-brown. Just before the buns come out of the oven, melt the honey, sugar, salt and milk to make the glaze. Allow the buns to sit for a couple of minutes when the come out of the oven, then brush with the glaze. Leave to cool.

Worth making? If you like fruity breads, then you will like these buns. They are very easy to make (if you’ve got a bread machine, you make the first stage using the dough cycle). The result is rich, sweet, sticky and delicious.

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