Category Archives: Cakes

Castagnole recipe

Castagnole

Lent this year starts this Wednesday, 18 February. (Making today Collop Monday in olde British parlance.)  Which means it’s still Carnival, Carnevale, and there’s time for a few more traditional treats of the season. Anyone who’s read my blog before will know I enjoy castagnole, the Italian Carnevale sweets that are basically dough-ball doughnuts. The name relates to the Italian for chestnut, castagna, as they’re of similar dimensions, and deepfried to a lovely brown colour but there’s nothing else chestnut related in the recipe.

I ate loads of them last week when we visited Rome, but here’s my own recipe, for those of us living in countries with a more miserably chaste take on Carnevale.

You can make castagnole without any leavening agent at all, or there are recipes that are leavened with yeast. But I found this worked well, resulting in the balls puffing up and cracking slightly when you deep-fry them, and a fairly open, spongy interior.

250g plain/all-purpose or low protein 00 flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch salt
50g caster sugar
Zest of half a lemon (optional)
50g butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 medium eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
Sunflower oil for frying*
Sugar for serving

1. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a bowl. Add the pinch of salt, sugar and zest.
2. Add the vanilla to the eggs and beat slightly, then add this along with the butter to the flour mixture.

Castagnole componentsCastagnole dough 1

Castagnole dough 2Castagnole dough 3
3. Combine all the ingredients, then turn out and work to a soft, smooth dough. Don’t overwork it.
4. Wrap in plastic and rest for half an hour.

Shaping castagnole
5. Divide the ball of dough up into pieces and roll these into sausage shapes.
6. Cut the sausages into small pieces, about 20g each.
7. Roll these piece between your hands to form small balls.

Frying castagnole
8. Heat oil in a large pan (to about 180C if you have a thermometer) then deepfry the balls in small batches, until golden, about 2-5 minutes.
9. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper, to absorb some of the oil.

Castagnole cooling
10. To serve, liberally with icing sugar (aka powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar) or roll in caster sugar. Or indeed both if you really like refined sugar. So healthy!

Enjoy… while you can. I mean, you can make them any time you like, especially if you’re not Catholic or are entirely nonreligious, but personally I like keeping seasonal specialities special by having them at the relevant time of the year. So that means I have to eat all these before Wednesday. It’s not like I’m religious and going to have an ascetic Lent, but I respect the principle.

Castagnole close up

 

* Italian recipes I looked at say “Olio di semi” – seed oil, ie sunflower seed oil – or simply “Olio per frittura” – oil for frying, while another says “strutto” – lard. We talked about this on our last visit to Italy, where people even use olive oil for deep-frying, something that’s contrary to what we’ve been told here in the UK. There are, however, a lot of arguments (smoke points, cost factors, etc) and a lot of myths (destruction of nutrients etc), which I won’t go into now. Suffice to say, I actually used a mix of sunflower oil and rapeseed oil, as the latter is something that’s produced locally to where I live, unlike olive oil, which, sadly, isn’t.

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Barm brack for St Brigid’s Day, or Imbolc

Barmbrack

Also called barmbrack, barnbreak, bairín breac or bairínbreac, this is the Irish cousin of the Welsh bara brith, with both names meaning “speckled bread” – bread dotted with speckles of dried fruit.

It’s traditionally eaten on Halloween as well as on 1 February, the feast day of one of Ireland’s patron saints: Brigid or Brigit of Kaldare.* This is one of those Christian feast days, in combination with Candlemas on 2 February, that was a rebranding of an older, pagan festival: Imbolc, the mid-point between winter and spring equinoxes. Indeed, although Brigid was nominally a historical figure who lived in the 5th-5th centuries, there was also an older, Irish, or Celtic goddess of the same name and the feast effectively amalgamates the two.

It’s not a big feast day for us Brits, but as Fran and myself both have Irish great-grandparents, it’s a good excuse to try a recipe.

Barm brack is one of the breads that originally would have been made with yeast from brewing, but these days you can either make a yeasted version, ie more an enriched bread, or a chemically leavened one, ie more a fruit cake. Several months ago I accidentally bought an 8kg sack of self-raising flour, so as much as I like yeasted breads, I made the latter, as part of my efforts to use it up.

If it’s not St Brigid’s Day or Imbolc or Halloween, don’t worry – you can still make this brack, and just call it a tea brack, a relative of the other similar baked goods known as tea breads in English.

Oh, and while researching recipes, I found some that were adamant you had to bake in a round tin, some that were free-form (yeasted) loaves, though the consensus seems to be to bake in a loaf tin, which makes sense as you can then slice it and spread it with butter and eat it for afternoon tea.

250g dried fruit – currants, raisins, sultanas or a mixture
300g black tea. We used Earl Grey for that citrus tang from the bergamot
1 medium egg
50g butter, melted
150g sugar, soft brown
270g self-raising flour, or 260g plain/all-purpose flour sifted together with 2 tsp baking powder
Some spice, to taste
Pinch salt
50g candied peel

1. Put the currants/raisins/sultanas in a bowl and pour over the hot tea. Leave it for a few hours, or overnight, so the fruit plumps up a bit.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C, or 160 if you have a fan. That said, my fan oven is pretty puny, so 170C seemed OK. Basically, a medium oven.
3. Grease and line a 900g/2lb loaf tin.
4. Put the flour in a large bowl, add a bit of spice if you like (I used cinnamon, a few grates of nutmeg and a pinch of black pepper, which is probably unconventional, but seemed appropriate) and the salt.
5. Add the sugar. I used soft brown and a bit of dark muscovado that was hanging around.
6. Add all the rest of the ingredients, and stir to combine. The resulting batter will be pretty sloppy.
7. Pour into the tin and bake for about one and a quarter hours, turning down the heat slightly and covering the loaf with foil if the top is browning too much.
8. When it comes out of the oven, you can brush it with a simple sugar syrup made from a few tablespoons of water and a few of sugar, dissolved then boiled quickly.
9. Turn out, allow to cool and serve.

Funny, I never much liked fruit breads and cakes, but I’m increasingly enjoying them, and this was lovely. We ate several slices, sitting around with our friend Liv, drinking gallons of tea. I was tempted to open an ale, as one source I read insists you have it with ale; which would make sense, but only a rich, malty ale, without too much newfangled hoppiness.

I’ll make a yeasted version come Halloween, but we’ve got spring and summer first, so I’m not wishing the year away on this cold late winter day.

Barmbrack 2

 

 

* Her name is also spelled Bride, and some suggest Saint Bride’s Well, and Bridewell Palace (mostly destroyed in the Great Fire of London) and St Bride’s Church in the City of London take their name from her too, possibly via Irish monks who came to England to convert the heathens.

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Sussex wassail apple cake

Sompting wassail cake
We live in a somewhat charmless 1950s-1960s neighbourhood, but we have a decent-sized garden and are close to some beautiful countryside. That garden contains, among other things, two old apple trees. A neighbour who’s lived here since the estate was built says much of it was an orchard beforehand. So those veteran apple trees, gnarled and neglected, deserve some respect as survivors.

One way we in southern Britain, particularly the southwest and southeast of England, traditionally paid our respects to our apple trees was by wassailing. To wassail is to salute, to wish good health, with the ail part of this Old English/Old Norse word equivalent to the modern English hale, as in “hale and hearty”, whole and in good health.

The word also refers to a drink drunk when wassailing, from a wooden “wassail bowl”. I must admit I didn’t make the drink this time, as the recipes I found on this fascinating site are types of punch-like concoction involving mulled cider, mulled ale, mulled cider and ale mixed, mulled cider and ale and fortified wine mixed, all often also mixed with whipped egg and garnished with toast. For toasting your apple trees, your neighbours, your community, in the hope of winning over apple tree spirits and guaranteeing a good harvest – and plenty more cider the following year. As a teenager I drank far too much snakebite – half-half beer and cider – and it made me so sick it put me off alcohol for years. So although I love tradition, I’m wary of cider-ale combinations.

Wassailing is traditionally carried out on Twelfth Night – that is, 5 January, the night before Epiphany. However, there’s also a tradition that favours Old Twelvey Night – the night of 17 January, the eve of the Epiphany according to the Julian calendar, which was replaced by the Gregorian calendar for most Westerners and Christians in 1582. This is – or was – favoured in the southwest of England, where Fran’s from, and my mother’s mother was from.

Anyway, after a few ciders – both local and from Normandy, another gift from some family friends – Fran and my mother, Helen, started singing a wassailing song, that goes (oddly, considering most the trees are bare of leaves):

“Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.”

The song is probably Victorian. Indeed, although these traditions may well be ancient, possibly with pre-Christian origins, as we so much British folk culture, the form we know today was likely largely shaped by the Victorians.

While they tried to remember the song, I made an apple cake. This recipe is from Sompting, a Sussex village about 16 miles (25km) away from where we live in Lewes. The original recipe makes for a fairly substantial foot-square cake, a little large for my family gathering.

The woman who provided the recipe, one Marjorie Clarke said of the cake tin, “We use a special one with a hole in the base, so that the cake can be carried on the end of a spear in the procession.” That’s probably not the sort of cooking kit you have. I certainly don’t, and don’t really fancy drilling a hole in one of my tins. So I think a standard square, or similarly proportioned rectangular one should do. I reduced the quantities and tweaked it slightly. Then burned the top a bit in my new oven. But no matter, that felt suitably rustic and the cake was lovely and moist, the raisins fattened with very natural Wobblegate Sussex Scrumpy I used.

Local ingredients

225g eating apples
110g raisins
225g cider
170g butter
100g (4 tbsp) honey
4 medium eggs (approx 190g egg white & yolk)
200g self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder

1. Grease and line an 18cm square baking tin, or similar.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Put the raisins in a saucepan, cover with the cider, bring to the boil then remove from the heat.
Apple, raisins, cider
4. Add the apple pieces to the cider and raisins, and allow to cool while you continue.
5. Cream the butter and honey then gradually add the beaten egg. If it starts to curdle, add a little of the flour.
6. Sieve together the flour and baking powder.
7. Add half the flour to the batter, and combine.
8. Add half the cider mixture to the batter, and combine.
9. Add the other half of the flour and fold in.
10. Add the rest of the cider mix and carefully combine, until the mixture is uniformly mixed, but not over-mixed.
11. Pour the mix into the tin.
12. Bake for about an hour, or until risen and firm.

We didn’t visit neighbours and sing to them and their apple trees. Instead we stayed indoors and ate cake and raised our glasses of cider in the direction of our apple trees – the old ones augmented by a crabapple I planted last year and a dwarf apple I planted three years ago, which was a wedding present from my cousin and her husband. Here’s to a good fruit-bearing year! Wassail!*

 

 

 

* Yes, I know I should have posted this on Saturday, but there’s always next year.

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Kladdkaka – gooey Swedish chocolate cake

Kladdkaka sliced

So this isn’t very Christmassy, but I’ve wanted to try making a kladdkaka for a while. I really must get a Swedish or Scandinavian baking book as I’m enjoying everthing I try making from recipes from that part of the world.

Kladdkaka is a kind of gooey chocolate cake. It’s unleavened – no baking powder, no soda, no yeast, so it’s not intended to be light and airy. Instead, the aim seems to be to basically leave the inside somewhat unbaked, so it’s moist to the point of runny, so it’s not unrelated to things like chocolate fondant and brownie.

In English, it can be called mud cake, but from what I can tell from online dictionaries, kladd means either draft, or rough, or daub, something a bit messy and unfinished, or goo, gunk. A Swedish-speaking friend meanwhile (he’s Finnish but is one of those annoying types who speaks multiple languages perfectly) says that “If something is ‘kladdigt’ it’s sticky, gooey, doughy, maybe even messy.” Thanks. Tom.

135g butter
55g cocoa powder
110g plain flour
320g granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
3 eggs
icing sugar, for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Grease and line a round tin, ideally 18cm or 20cm (7 or 8 inch).
3. Melt the butter then remove from the heat.
4. Sieve the cocoa and plain flour into mixing bowl.
5. Beat together the eggs and vanilla.
6. Pour the butter and egg mix into the flour, and beat together with the sugar until the mixture is combined.
7. Pour the mixture into the tin then bake for around 20-30 minutes. This is the important bit and will vary depending on the character of your oven. You want it to start pulling away from the edges of the tin, but not be baked dry in the middle.
8. Cool in the tin for about 20 minutes, then turn out.
9. Dust with icing sugar.

Kladkakka dusted

You can eat it warm, with ice cream or whipped cream. I had mine with custard, though I doubt Swedes do this; we just had some fresh custard in the fridge that needed me to nobly step in to finish it. It’s also very nice cooled completely, to a more truffle-like texture, and eaten with a cuppa.

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Microwave chocolate cake experiments

Microwave chocolate cake - weird texture?

As you may have noticed, this beer-and-baked-goods site isn’t featuring much of the latter at the moment. Due to buildings works, we’ve not had a kitchen for a month, and probably won’t have one for another couple of months at least, so there’s not baking going on here. Instead, we have a pathetic electric hotplate and a basic microwave.

And can you bake in a microwave? No, you can’t. Not literally at least, as the verb to bake apparently has its origins, via the Middle English baken, the Old English bacan, the Old Norse baka, and even the Old High German bahhan, in the Greek phōgein meaning to roast, to parch, to warm. So in essence baking is a process based around heat, specifically dry heat. Microwaving, on the other hand, involves zapping the food item with energy from approximately the middle of the electromagnetic spectrum.

You’re not cooking with thermal energy as you do in a conventional oven, you’re cooking with energy that generates thermal energy. You’re not baking with a dry heat, you’re causing molecules in the food – particularly the liquid component, the water – to dance and get hot.

I didn’t grow up with microwaves, and only acquired one when a relative of Fran’s died about a decade ago. I know they’re an efficient way of preparing food, but if you take pleasure in cooking, it’s quite likely you take pleasure in the tangibility of real heat: from an electric element in an oven, from a gas flame on a hob. The latter particularly has a kind of primal immediacy, like a neat, manageable campfire.

Is this baking? No. Give me a flame or a heating element.

So having said all that, I must report I’m surprised at my first microwave cake. How can you make a cake without baking it? I can’t really reconcile that, yet the mixture I made was a pretty normal cake mix, and it was cooked in the microwave in about five minutes, and the results are most definitely a cake. Not a good cake, but definitely a cake.

It’s not all good news though. What makes it not a good cake is a certain dryness, a weird airy homogeneity, a lack of depth of flavour and a slightly dry, ashy mouthfeel. Though the latter may be partly explained from the relatively high amount of baking powder in this recipe. Some jam and ganache, or even some standard water icing, might mask that, and compensate a bit for the dryness, but it’s definitely not as good as a real, proper, baked-in-an-oven cake. Nuking all the water molecules to cook the batter is no substitute for real heat.

But while I’ve not got an oven, it’ll have to do.

140g plain flour
40g cocoa
3 tsp baking powder
150g caster sugar
100g sunflower oil
100g hot water
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence

Microwave choc cake ingredients

1. Grease and base-line a 22cm microwave-safe cake container. This could be a glass dish or a silicon cake pan.*
2. Sieve the flour, cocoa and baking powder together into a mixing bowl.
3. Stir the sugar into the flour mix.
4. Whisk together the sunflower oil, hot water, eggs and vanilla essence in a jug.
5. Pour the liquid mix into the dry mix and combine well to break down any dry lumps.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan or dish.
7. Cover with clingfilm (aka plastic wrap). This is the bit that freaks me out. Making a cake? With heat? With plastic?

Before cooking - cover with plastic
8. Put the pan or dish in the microwave and hit it at max power. Time will depend on your microwave. Mine is 700W, and it took seven minutes. If yours is 800W max, it may only take 5 or 6 minutes. Peel back the plastic and check with a skewer to see if the cake is cooked fully. If not, nuke it a bit more.
9. Remove from the microwave and allow to sit for about five minutes.

After cooking - remove plastic
10. Run a palette knife around the edge then turn out and allow to cool completely.

Slice

11. Decorate with ganache, or apricot jam and melted chocolate and butter like a sachertorte. Plain like this (above) it’s a bit dry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* I tried to buy the latter, a silicone cake pan from a brand called Zeal. Unfortunately it didn’t say whether it was microwave-safe. I assume it would be, but don’t know enough about microwaving to be certain. So I didn’t buy it. I’ve emailed the Kitchen Innovations, the company behind the Zeal brand, but they’ve not replied. Got to love a brand that communicates with its potential customers.

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Gooseberry and thyme cake

Slice of gooseberry thyme cake

We’ve not had a kitchen for just over a week now. We’re having building work done on our house, and although the original plan was to only remove the kitchen half-way through the three-month schedule, on the first day the builder turned to me and said it’d be better if they did it straight away. Immediately. Post-haste. Subito. Or at least the day after.

So I baked my final cake and final two loaves of bread, then set about removing the units. It was a hideous kitchen, and far from practical, but not having a kitchen at all is, to say the least, even less practical. Only so much baking I can do with a kettle and a microwave. Indeed, I never really use microwaves for anything other than softening butter for making cakes, so I don’t know what else you can do with them. Apparently you can “bake” in a microwave, but I can’t really imagine how. Not in a metal cake tin – unless I actively want to add exploded microwave to the chaos.

Just before the demolition started, I was moving some shrubs from the area where we were building. One of these was a much-neglected gooseberry bush, which, despite being basically in the shade, had managed to produce a fair crop, just shy of a kilo. So that final cake had to involve gooseberries.

Now, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the “spiny grape”, as it’s called in Italian (uva spina). I used to eat them when I was a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s, but I have a feeling they’re slightly out of fashion these days. Despite how popular “retro” and “vintage” may be, I don’t hear people talking excitedly about gooseberry fools, an old-fashioned British summer recipe.

I can suffer a fool, gladly, but rather than just defaulting to using the gooseberries to make one, I wanted to try a cake. I found some good recipes from both Nigel Slater and Diana Henry, two cookery writers who are proponents of great British produce. Henry had one featuring thyme, which intrigued me. Even though I don’t have lemon thyme as her recipe suggests, my own herbs have been doing very well in this year’s shockingly pleasant south of England summer, so I used some good old Thymus vulgaris, common thyme. (Though I think my variety is the French, narrow-leaf, not the English.)

Herbs

Henry’s original recipe can be found here on the Torygraph site. I’ve tweaked it a bit.

The fruit:
350g gooseberries
60g caster sugar

For the cake:
125g butter
120g caster sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp thyme leaves, chopped (ideally lemon thyme)
1 lemon
100g plain flour, sifted with
1t baking powder
75g ground almonds

For the syrup:
50g granulated sugar
2 large lemons, juiced [I used 1 lemon, 1 orange], about 100g juice
2 small sprigs of thyme

Top & tail

1. Preheat the oven to 190C.
2. Grease and base-line a 20cm spring-form cake tin.
3. Top and tail the gooseberries then toss with 60g of caster sugar and leave them to macerate slightly.
4. Beat the butter and 120g caster sugar until pale and fluffy.

Creaming
5. Add the egg a little at a time, beating well after each addition. If it curdles at all, add a little flour.
6. Finely grate the zest of the lemon. I also used some orange zest. Just cos. Finely chop the zests together with the thyme to free up all those lovely essential oils.

Zest and thyme chopped together
7. Add the zest and herbs to the batter and combine.
8. Sieve in the flour and baking powder, then fold to combine, along with the ground almonds.
9. Spoon, pour and scrape the mixture into the tin.
10. Spread the gooseberries over the top of the mixture.

Add fruit
11. Bake for 45 minutes and test with a skewer.

Baked
12. While the cake is still warm, make the syrup by dissolving the sugar in the lemon juice, with the thyme.
13. Pierce the cake with a skewer then pour over the syrup, removing the sprigs of thyme.
14. Leave to cool then serve. You can just with icing sugar, and serve with crème fraîche, cream or ice cream.

Henry also has another one here, with flaked almonds. I think that could be nicer as the crunch of the almonds would contrast with the eyebally squish of the cooked fruit. Next year perhaps. Or perhaps Slater’s recipe, which involves a kind of crumble. Or perhaps I’ll just revisit the fool.

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Peanut butter tahini swirl chocolate brownies

Plate
Peanut butter and tahini, two lovely, tasty oily pastes that can be great editions to baked goods. I love peanut butter, especially good stuff made without daft additives. It doesn’t need added sugar, it doesn’t need artificial sweeteners and it doesn’t need palm oil, soya oil, rapeseed oil, especially not hydrogenated oil.

Peanuts, simply ground up, make for a delicious and suprisingly nutritious product. Peanuts are actually legumes – more pea than nut – so are full of protein for starters. I remember learning about calories in biology at school (many many years ago) by weighing then burning then weighing a peanut. They’re essentially half fat, but much of that is unsaturated: 31% polyunsatuared, 46% monounsatured, 18% saturated*. Peanuts also contain fibre, antioxidants, vitamins thiamin (B1), niacin (B3), folate (B9) and others, and minerals magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, copper and manganese . Tahini, ground-up sesame seeeds, meanwhile contains essential fatty acids, copper and manganese.

Adding peanut butter and tahini to a brownie mix makes it especially gooey and delectable. I’d seen recipes online that used some one or the other, but as I had a jar of each, both running out, my version involved both, plus the tahini swirl. My version also involves both cocoa and chocolate, cut up into coarse chunks. If you’re making brownies, you can’t mess around with the chocolate – it has to be plentiful, rich and dark.

As for the peanut butter, I used my normal type, which is wholenut crunchy, with skins and all, no added sugar. Some brownie recipes might suggest you use a smooth type with all that sugar and extra oil but meh to that. The wholesome crunchy type adds depth of flavour and texture. I’ve also used some oats as they help keep it moist. And as I don’t have a problem with wheat – indeed, I love the stuff, especially well-husbanded grain ground into quality flour – I added some wheat flour too.

Pile of tahini brownies

This recipe is loosely adapted from Lick and Spoon, who adapted it from here, though the my tahini swirl is inspired by yet another recipe, here.

I’m not going to pretend these are “skinny” – there’s enough sugar in there for them to qualify as a properly sweet, calorific treat, an indulgent part of a balanced diet and relatively active lifestyle. They do at least contain a smattering of the abovementioned vitamins and minerals if you’re the type who likes to beat themselves up about their foods.

70g peanut butter
50g tahini
80g full-fat yoghurt
160g full-fat milk
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla essence
Pinch salt
1 tsp baking powder
50g plain flour
50g cocoa powder
50g oatmeal
130g light brown sugar
100g dark chocolate (60% cocoa mass or more), chopped into chunks

Tahini swirl
1 egg
60g tahini
20g caster sugar
1/2 t vanilla essence

1. Preheat oven to 180C.
2. Grease and line a square 20 x 20cm baking tin.
3. Sieve together flour, cocoa and baking powder.
4. Stir in the salt, oats, sugars and chocolate chips.
5. Beat together the peanut butter, yogurt, milk, egg.
6. Pour the wet mix into the dry, beating with hand blender.
7. Blend to a runny mixture.
8. Pour into the baking tin.
9. Beat together the tahini swirl ingredients until well combined and blended.
10. Drop blobs on top of choc mixture and swirl with tip of a knife.
11. Bake for 20-25 minutes.
12. Cool, cut and serve.

Tin

* ‘The Food Bible’, Judith Wills

 

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Sweet Sussex stout chocolate muffins

Sweet Sussex and chocolate

Today, 16 June, is Sussex Day. It’s probably not a festival many people celebrate – especially as it was only invented in 2006. Though it is based on the saints day of St Richard, patron of Sussex, the land of the south Saxons. Richard de Wych was a 12th century bishop of Chichester, now the county town of West Sussex. I’m over here in Lewes, the county town of East Sussex. The historic county of Sussex, based on the ancient kingdom of the south Saxons, was divided into two modern, administrative counties in the 1860s. Chichester and Lewes are very different, notably because the former is a cathedral city of about 24,000 people, while Lewes only has about 14,000 people, and the only “cathedral” is Harveys brewery.

Later on today I plan to head down to Harveys and check out the new St Richard’s Ale, which they’re launching on Sussex Day, but in the meantime, here’s recipe made using another Harveys, county-themed ale: Sweet Sussex.

Ye olde stout vs porter
On the label and site, Harveys says Sweet Sussex is a “lush, sweet stout named after the county in which it is brewed.” It has an ABV of just 2.8%, which raises the interesting question of what truly defines a stout. Well, in linguistic terms “stout” originally meant proud, brave and courageous, but this segued into meaning physically strong, well built. As a description of people it evolved again to start meaning bulking, then fat, but in beer terms it stuck with strong. Specifically it was used to describe strong porter, the type of beer that emerged in London in the 18th century as a refreshing, nutritious, fortifying drink of hardworking porters

Dark brown or black ales, porters were made with well roasted malts, which lent them a sweet, charcoally flavour. Eventually, the term “stout porter” shifted again, with stout becoming its own town for a rich, dark ale – though not necessarily a strong one. Indeed, today, the terms stout and porter are fairly interchangeable.

Sussex Sweet may be called a stout, but it’s certainly not stout in the sense of strong. Indeed, it’s so weak, compared to those old historic stout porters which will have been 8% ABV or so, that it’s more defined by its sweetness. It’s almost like a kind of charcoal milkshake. And just the thought of thing that goes well with dark chocolate.

Muffin

Muffins vs cupcakes
I wanted to bake something chocolaty yesterday, but didn’t want something as rich as a full-on cake (like I made here with dark ale) or iced cupcakes, so I made some muffins instead. Like stout and porter, the terms muffin and cupcake have slightly blurred meanings, though broadly I’d say a muffin contained less sugar, less butter, and were broadly a tad healthier. A lot of muffins, of course, contain bran, or fruit, or are even savoury. These ones are only vaguely sweet, and have a hint of that charcoally flavour from the beer.

20g cocoa
230g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
50g butter, melted and cooled slightly
70g sugar (I used caster, but you could use a dark muscovado say)
150g dark chocolate (at least 65% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten
250g Sweet Sussex or other stout or porter, or a mixture of stout or porter and milk

1. Preheat the oven to 200C.

Light cacao
2. Sieve the cocoa, flour and baking powder into a bowl.
3. Stir in the sugar and chocolate chips.
4. Add the eggs, vanilla and beer, or beer and milk mix, along with the melted butter, to the flour mix.
5. Beat to combine.
6. Fill about a dozen muffin cases and bake for about 25 minutes.
7. Cool and enjoy, with a cuppa or perhaps with a stout. Or porter.

Muffins, baked

A note on the cocoa
There’s only a little bit of cocoa in here, but I was also using a very light-coloured type of cocoa powder, hence the results aren’t very dark. This cocoa powder I’m using is actually the Raw Chocolate Company’s Raw (organic, Fairtade, thoroughly right-on) Cacao Powder. See here for more info.

Cocoa? Cacao? Whaʼ? Don’t worry about the difference. There isn’t really one. The English word cocoa is basically a synonym for the cacao, with Theobroma cacao the scientific name for the tree that yields the beans that produce those all-important chocolate products, with “cacao” coming from the Mayan and Mesoamerican language word for the tree and “Theobroma” from the Greek for “food of the gods”. Beer and chocolate – both worthy of that name I’d say.

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A bike ride, “gluten-free” cake, X-Men and orchids. Lots of orchids

Bank of orchids near Lewes

One of the things that bugs me about the whole anti-gluten issue is that bakeries are induced to label products as “gluten free” even if they’re traditional types of cake or biscuit that have always been made without wheat flour. It’s not like these things have just been invented to cash in on a food fad / epidemic of wheat-related health issues. Think things like the classic sachertorte, its south Italian cousin torta caprese, various Sicilian almond paste delights. Never mind other things made up by celeb chefs more recently, like this lovely citrus polenta cake that’s based on a Nigel Slater recipe.

I adore cakes based on ground nuts or featuring alternatives to wheat flour, like polenta, which is maize, Zea mays, or what Americans call corn (when I was growing up we still used the word corn in the old English sense as a generic term for cereal grain). Maize, being a cereal plant and a member of the Poaceae (grass) family does contain proteins related to those that people have issues with in wheat, which specifically contains gliadin, one of the proteins that forms “gluten”. I also enjoy things made with other non-cereal flours like potato and buckwheat, which isn’t a Poaceae cereal or grain, it’s the seed of a member of the rhubarb, sorrel family and Japanese knotweed family, Polygonaceae. They can create all sorts of interesting textures and moistness. But sometimes you just need wheat.

More orchids

So anyway, today I took a quick jaunt on my bike from home in Lewes up to Uckfield, about nine miles away. Not exatly being overburdened with employment at the moment, I don’t have any excuses to not keep relatively fit. I was also toying with the idea of catching a matinee of X-Men Days of Future Past. As a former film critic, sometime comics journalist and increasingly reluctant comics collector (that stuff is just so heavy!), I was keen to see it, especially as the original comic storyline the film is loosely inspired by, first published in 1981 and created by Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin, is an utter classic.

While in Uckfield, I checked out Hartfields Produce Store. It’s a cool little place with the right attitude – “a small independant produce store and cafe based in Uckfield. Our aim is to provide great, fresh food, locally sourced wherever possible and always full of flavour!” [Sic] As I love the aforementioned ground nut-based cakes I had to try their chocolate and almond torta, despite it carrying the now-essential sign declaring its gluten-free status.

I know this shouldn’t rile me, but I’m a baker, and wheat is the backbone of baking. I’m a firm believer that many people wouldn’t suffer their wheat-related issues if they ate properly fermented bread, and avoided any and all shit industrial wheat-based products, that are made in a rush without sufficient fermentation. I touched on the evils of the Chorleywood (so-called) Bread Process here, but also went into more detail about this subject here. So I won’t rehash here. Suffice to say, I don’t consider industrial wheat-based products fit for human consumption. And frankly, I wouldn’t feed white sliced “bread” to my pigs or chooks (if I had any).

Hartfields chocolate almond torta

Anyway, back to Hartfields. In total, my bike-ride apparently burned 697 calories – presumably kcals – according to Strava. I know nothing about the calories (ie kcals) in food, as I’ve always tried to have a sensible attitude to food and fitness, and not get hung up, but I’m guessing there were at least half the number of kcals I burned on the ride in the slice. But you know, that’s why I cycle and walk regularly – so I can enjoy cake. And this was great cake. Bravo Hartfields.

After the cake, I stopped by the cinema to discover it was a parents-and-babies matinee, so as I didn’t fancy earnest X-dialogue combined with potential squalling, and as it was a nice day, I headed home. Into a terrible headwind on the final five miles heading south down the Ouse river valley on the A26. But that’s fine – the whole stretch was utterly littered with orchids, with some patches of dozens, even hundreds. I’ll have to check with my brother, who’s the family expert on such things, but I believe they were common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), in varying shades of pale pink through to a darker almost-purple, some of them up to half a metre tall. Wonderful.

Orchid

Info
Hartfields Produce Store, 71 High Street, Uckfield TN22 1AP

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Lardy Johns and the simple pleasures of pig fat-based baked goods

Johns on plate

Here’s another traditional Sussex product that doesn’t really seem to exist any longer. Much like the Sussex plum heavies I did a month ago I’ve never seen the superbly named Lardy Johns in bakeries, and there’s very little information about them online. Also much like plum heavies they sit on the fruit pastry-scone spectrum and utilise that more old-fashioned baking fat: lard.

This recipe is from ‘Sussex Recipe Book With a few excursions into Kent’, a collection of traditional recipes by Margaret Samuelson, published in 1937. Some are her own or her family, many are gathered from interviews, while others are from 18th and 19th century sources.

The book doesn’t provide the source for the Lardy Johns recipe, which is given in the following wonderfully abrupt format: “Quarter pound flour, 2oz lard, 3/4 teaspoonful baking powder, 2 teaspoons sugar and a sprinkling of currants. Rub all together in your hands, and add enough water to make a stiff paste. Cut the paste into squares and bake for about 10 minutes.”

Putting that into a modern recipe format:
120g plain flour
3/4 t baking powder
60g lard
12g sugar
25g currants
40g water – more or less

1. Sieve together the flour and baking powder.
2. Cut the lard into small pieces and rub into the flour.
3. Add the sugar. I used granulated, but caster would be fine while Demerara or other brown sugar would give a slightly richer flavour.
4. Add the currants.

Lardy mixture
5. Bring the dough together with water. It’s 40g, more or less – what Italian recipes would put as “QB” – quanto basta, “how much is enough”.
6. Roll the dough out about 12mm (half inch) thick.

Unbaked
7. Cut into squares of about 50mm (2 inches). This recipe produced six, so if you want more double it.
8. Bake in an oven preheated to 200C for about 10 minutes, until lightly browned.

Baked
9. Eat warm, or let them cool, split and eat like scones (skohn, skon) with jam.

Scone-style

These really are very basic. Ten minute jobs. Simple fare from an era before fancy fats and flavourings. But they are surprisingly good. Slightly sweet, with a texture that’s light, slightly crisp and shorter than you’d get with a crumblier scone, which is likely made with butter and/or buttermilk.

And discuss
In ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery’, Elizabeth David says, “If you cannot lay hands on pure pork lard, don’t attempt lardy cakes.” Well, I’m not sure of the purity of the stuff I’m use. It’s certainly not pure in a moral sense, being a product of the heinous industrial meat industry, something I try as much as possible not to engage with. But as I said in the heavies post, it seems almost impossible to source lard of good provenance. I’ve asked one of the meat purveyors on our local farmers’ market if she could do me some lard, so hopefully that’ll come through.

My vegetarian younger self 10 or 20 years ago would be horrified, but I’m enjoying these lard baking experiments – never mind the fact that products like these are a big part of the English culinary heritage. David suggests lardy cakes were traditionally made when people didn’t have their own stove and would bulk bake once a week. She explains, “… all the lardy cakes, the yeast dumplings, the buns and small cakes … were made from any extra dough not used for bead.” She goes on to say, “For these lovely cakes and rolls, lard is essential to achieve the proper texture, richness and weight. There is no such thing as a really light lardy cake.”

This suggests the Lardy Johns recipe from Samuelson is fairly modern,  developed from the yeast dough recipes with the advent of baking powder – a 19th century invention. Interestingly, the more common surviving members of the English lardy cake family are yeasted. Central and southern English counties like Hampshire and Wiltshire are associated with lardy cake, and the Wikipedia entry says lardy cake is found in “in several southern counties of England”. David, however, also gives a recipe for a Northumbrian version that neatly defenestrates that anonymous Wikipedia contributor’s theory.

I would hazard that lard, and a bit of sugar, and a few currants, when combined with a basic dough, would have been used by poorer folk throughout Britain to make a treat through from the early modern era to the mid-20th century, when intensification of farming made butter more cheaply available. They’re modest treats, sure, but compared to the absurdity of the cupcake, and suchlike contemporary middle-class obsessions, they have an assertive honesty and simplicity.

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