Tag Archives: scones

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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Filed under Baking, Cakes, Cakes (yeasted)

Splits, clotted cream and a Roman summer afternoon tea

Devon splits, Cornwall splits

Among the few things we crave but are just impossible to source in Rome are halloumi cheese and clotted cream. For those who don’t know, the latter is a nectar-like dairy product that comes from the Southwest of England. Fran’s from the southwest and I have strong connections, so we both have clotted cream in the blood. So to speak. It’s an essential component of a proper cream tea.

I’ve always used clotted cream with scones, but it’s also used with a less well known variation the cream tea: with splits. When I smuggled a massive tub of clotted cream back home from Blighty last week, I resolved to make splits, and do a bit of a comparison with scones.

A large - nearly empty - ot of Langage clotted cream

What is a split anyway? Well, it’s basically just a cream bun, made with a basic enriched dough, split and smeared with jam and clotted cream. (Messily smeared in our case – I’m a little ashamed we didn’t do it a bit more neatly, but then I’m no food stylist and we just wanted to scoff them!). As Rachel pointed out when we were doing just that yesterday, as it’s really not unlike a maritozzo con la panna. Though with slightly more demure amounts of cream. Sort of – clotted cream is cooked, so it’s denser and richer than whipped cream.

A split and a scone

The next question involves their origins. Are they Cornish splits? Can they be Devonshire splits? Or is the Devon cream tea always based on the split’s easier-to-make cousin the scone? I’ve always assumed splits are actually “Cornish splits”, but then I started encountering recipes for “Devonshire splits”. What you call them probably just depends your loyalties. The white cross on black or the white cross on dark green? (Something that’s almost entirely irrelevant to people outside the spatting ground of southwestern England.)

And is there a difference between a Devon and a Cornwall version? Discussing splits, and Elizabeth David’s recipe, here Nigel Slater suggests Devon splits are smaller, though the recipe I based mine on was called “Devonshire splits” – and they’re quite big.

Initial dough mixture for Cornish split, or Devon split - flour, sugar, butter, milk, yeast

And why do these two counties get their knickers in such a twist anyway? After all, surely pasties and cream teas are from the West Country, not from either county in particular? Hey, I just love the West Country in general; I’ve been going there all my life and my mother’s mother’s family is from border country in northeast Cornwall/northwest Devon. Although there are cultural differences between Devon and Cornwall, there are plenty of cultural similarities too: clotted cream for starters.

This delicious treat is, frankly, from the West Country in general and neither county in particular. Especially not now in our industrial age when clotted cream is no longer produced by local farms and dairies but instead comes from larger producers like Langage (Devon) and Rodda’s (Cornwall) – both of which are available in supermarkets in both counties and beyond.

Kneading Devonshire split dough

Anyway, I’ve made scones all my life and I even did a very scientific experiment to address the important question of whether cream or jam goes on first (includes recipe). This is my first go at splits though. They were very nice, but I’m not sure they’ll dethrone scones from my tea-time repertoire. For starters, scones are easier to make (just don’t overwork the dough!) and have a satisfying crunchy crust and crumby interior, which I found preferable to the more bread-like consistency of the splits.

Anyway. Here’s the recipe:

Makes 12 splits.

25g fresh yeast (aka lievito di birra)
300g full-fat milk
25g unsalted butter
500g strong (high protein) white bread flour (farina di Manitoba in Italy)
3g fine sea salt
25g caster sugar

Shaping balls of dough for Devonshire splits. Or Cornish splits

1. Warm the milk and butter, melting the latter and bring the liquid to around body temperature.
2. Crumble the yeast into the liquid, and give it a whisk.
3. Put the flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl and stir to combine. (If you want to use easyblend yeast, add 10g now instead).
4. Add the liquid to the flour mix, and bring together.
5. Turn out and make a dough, kneading until smooth.
6. Put the dough in a clean bowl, and cover with clingfilm/plastic wrap.
7. Leave to ferment and prove until doubled in size.
8. Turn out, gently deflate and divide into 12 pieces – they should each weigh around 68-70g.
9. Form the pieces into balls, keeping them covered with a cloth.
10. Place the balls on a baking sheet, and again, keep them covered.
11. Let them prove again, for about 20 minutes, until they’re soft to the touch. (Time will vary depending on the temperature.)
12. Preheat the oven to 200C.
13. Bake the balls for about 15 minutes. Again, time will vary depending on your oven. You want them to start browning nicely on top.
14. Remove from the oven and cool completely on a rack.
15. When cool, slice the buns on a diagonal. Into this split (hence the name) add jam of choice and clotted cream.
16. Serve dusted with icing sugar.
17. Eat, messily. Whether you’re nearly two or 42.

Balls of dough, pre-bake, for Devonshire splits. Or Cornish splits

I clearly lied in my last post about getting back to talking about Italian and Roman beer and baked goods didn’t I? Oh well – if it’s any consolation, we were sitting in a Roman garden, drinking prosecco, getting eaten by mosquitoes and being glowered at my our oddball neighbours when we ate these.

Freshly baked  Devonshire split buns

So it was a kind of English-Roman hybrid cream tea. But probably the best cream tea consumed in Rome for a while. I don’t make any bones about saying my scones are excellent, and good clotted cream is always awesome. Plus, well, Babington’s, the famous “English” tea room by the Spanish Steps, serve their cream with whipped cream not clotted cream – which is frankly just an abomination. No contest.

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Scones – cream first or jam first?

We’re big fans of scones in our household. My wife, Fran, is from Devon and I’ve got strong connections with this county in the southwest of England that, along with its neighbour Cornwall, is the homeland of the cream tea: scones with clotted cream and jam, washed down with (milky black) tea.

(Some say the scone comes from Scotland – does it? Are Scots and West Country scones the same thing? Or are they different types of “quick bread” with the same name? Some serious historical investigation needs to be done on that front before I’m persuaded either way. The word itself may derive from the Dutch “schoonbrot”, meaning fine bread or white bread, though that clarifies nothing.)

I’ve been making scones since childhood, presumably having fallen in love with them after childhood holidays in Devon and Cornwall.

Anyway, every time we eat them, the same two issues arise.
First, is it pronounced skon-ryhmes-with-John or skown-rhymes-with-own? (Seriously – there’s no either/or; as with many words, it varies, with the former pronunciation most common in Britain, especially in Scotland. See point 3.11 in this 1998 University College London British English pronunciation survey.)
And second, does one split the scone then spread it with clotted cream first, or jam first? I doubt UCL has done a survey on that, and among my friends things seem to be fairly evenly split. Fran is adamant is has to be jam first, then a blob of cream like a garnish, I’ve always spread the clotted cream first, like a kind of glorified (oh the glory!) butter.

Now, before I proceed, for any impoverished soul who hasn’t had the pleasure of eating clotted cream, let me tell you what you’re missing. Clotted cream – which most certainly is traditionally, and originally, from the West Country – is a very rich, delicious and generally delightful dairy product made using the cream of cow’s milk.

In days of yore it would have been made using the rich milk of local West Country cattle, like the charming Devon Reds, a breed that’s been making a comeback recently. (I’m lucky enough to be aquainted with recently retired champion bull “Freddie” Yeomadon Ferdinand, whose offspring are used for beef; apparently it’s not viable to female Devon Reds for dairy these days so I’ve never tried any Devon Red milk or dairy products.) These days, clotted cream is mostly made using milk from Guernsey and Jersey cows, the breeds now most associated with rich, fatty milk.

Clotted cream is traditionally made by heating rich creamy milk over a low heat, possibly in a bain-marie type arrangement, reducing its water content, and encouraging the creation of thick creamy clots, which are skimmed off. I’ve made cheese, butter and yogurt but never clotted cream. They demonstrated this traditional production method in episode 9 of BBC’2 Edwardian Farm series. It looked painstaking and protracted so I don’t think I’m likely to try and reproduce it any time soon. (Read the Wikipedia entry if you’re interested in learning more about the modern, industrial production methods.)

On a recent visit to Devon, I bought some clotted cream from Langage Farm, a Devon brand that uses the milk of Guernsey and Jersey cows. Clotted cream is something I crave, and one of the international delicacies I’ve not been able to source in my current city-of-residence, Rome. So this pot travelled all the way home with me. Ridiculous food miles for a treat I know.

After making a batch of scones yesterday (see below for my basic recipe), we had a cream tea – something that presumably doesn’t happen very often in Rome, even at vintage tea room Babington’s, whose version of a “cream tea”, according to their online menu, consists of “A Scottish scone with butter and strawberry jam”. With whipped cream. That’s just plain wrong.

My friend and sometime catering collaborator Mr Dominic Rogers raised the above-mentioned cream-or-jam first question, and we discussed them being “tasty either way”, but not necessarily “tasting the same”. This is an interesting point, and one I had to address in more detail. So I did a taste test.

As illustrated by this photo, it wasn’t entirely scientific: I didn’t weight out the amounts of cream and jam (in this case fragole, strawberry) used to make sure they were identical in both cases, and I only used one scone, which meant one piece had the top crust and the other the bottom crust, which have slightly different textures. However, the results were interesting (well, interesting for scone obsessives). They are all pretty obvious if you think about it, but I still feel it’s worth recording, considering the perennial nature of the argument.

1 As you bite the jam-on-cream arrangement, your first flavour hit is of jam, which is tart, sugary-sweet and fruity.
1b Do you enjoy the sensation of thick cream as it potentially touches your top lip?
2 As you bite the cream-on-jam arrangement, your initial flavour hit is of clotted cream, which is of course, smooth, gloopy and dairy-sweet.
2b Do you enjoy the sensation of sticky jam as it potentially touches your top lip?
3 As you continue to bite down through the scone, this initially flavour hit is prolonged, being dragged down through the crumb of the scone by your upper incisors and of course moving onto your palette and tongue.
4 Your choice of jam-on-cream or cream-on-jam defines the opening flavour notes, and initial mouth-feel and flavour, before mastication results in more even mixing of flavours and textures.

Conclusion
So, arguably, you have a choice based on whether you prefer the taste of cream or jam, or prefer those as the initial taste.
Either, frankly, is bloody delicious.

Here’s my basic plain scone recipe. Some people use buttermilk; I don’t, as it’s not always easy to source, and I’m not convinced it makes a better plain scone.

450g self-raising flour (or use plain flour with about 4% baking powder, ie 435g plain flour sifted together with 15g baking powder)
80g unsalted butter, at room temperature
35g caster sugar
Pinch of salt
300g milk

1. Pre-heat the oven to 220C.
2. Grease two baking sheets.
3. Sieve the flour (and BP, if using plain flour) into a bowl, then rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
4. Stir in the sugar and salt.
5. Blend in the milk little by little using a knife.
6. Bring together as a rough dough but do not knead or otherwise handle too much.
7. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to around 22mm thick.
8. Create rounds using a pastry cutter, or simply cut into squares.
9. Repeat with any off-cuts.
10. Place on the baking sheets, dust with a little extra flour and bake for 12-15 minutes until starting to brown.
11. Serve just slightly warm – ideally with clotted cream and jam!

Scones are always best on the day they’re made.

If you’re feeling adventurous, here are a couple of other scone recipes, though I would say for a cream tea, keep it plain!

Ginger beer scones, an excellent Dan Lepard recipe.
Maple syrup scones, from the Rose Bakery cookbook.

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