Category Archives: Cakes (yeasted)

Orange honey buns

This is a slight adaptation of a recipe by Valentine Warner, from his book What to Eat Now, published in 2008. I believe I saw him making it on telly, and had a flurry of using the recipe back then. It was forgotten for a few years, but for some reason popped up in my memory. Possibly because, well, it’s for yeasted buns that are soaked in a citrus syrup, and I’m just loving citrus syrup soaked goodies (see also this).

The result is a bit like a rum baba; he does include booze in his recipe, but I didn’t. Beacuse A) we don’t generally stock orange-flavoured liqueur and B) my bambini are the main recipients of these treats and I’m not sure they’re ready for the hard stuff.

It’s a yeasted mix – though it’s more like a cake batter than a dough. You don’t need to worry about kneading it at all. The original recipe involves easy mix yeast, just thrown in and mixed up. I don’t really use easy mix yeast, so I’ve adapted it slightly to be made with active dried yeast or fresh yeast. I also doubled the quantities, making about 18 buns. It’s nice to make them in heart-shaped silicone moulds but if you don’t have such things, normal 12 hole muffin tins are fine too.

6g active dried yeast or 12g fresh yeast
30g caster sugar
60g warm water or milk
300g plain flour
4g fine sea salt
5 eggs, lightly beaten, about 250g
150g butter, melted and cooled a bit

For the syrup
500g sugar (caster or granulated or mix)
250g freshly squeezed orange juice
250g water
Zest of one orange, in long strips
100g honey
2g orange-flower water (optional, to taste)

1. Grease the wells of a couple of 12 hole muffin trays or similar.
2. Activate the yeast in the water (or milk) with the caster sugar then mix in a large bowl with the flour and salt.
3. Beat in the beaten egg and butter.
4. Mix until smooth then cover and rest for about 15 minutes.
5. Divide the dough into the muffin tins, filling about 1/3rd.
6. Cover and leave to prove unit double in size. In a warm place, this may take about an hour. In a cool place, longer.
7. Preheat the oven to 220C.
8. Bake the buns for 12-15 minutes, or until well risen and pale golden-brown.

9. Remove from the tin and set aside to cool on a wire rack.
10. While the buns are cooking make the syrup. Heat the sugar, juice, water and rind in a pan over a low heat, stirring well. When the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat and boil for five minutes or so, until it thickens and becomes slightly syrupy.
11. Reduce the heat and dissolve in the honey. Remove from the heat and add the orange-flower water, if using.
12. Set aside until cooled slightly.

13. Put the buns in a bowl or deep plate and pour over the syrup.
14. Enjoy. Lick sticky fingers. Wipe messy children.

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The sheer indulgent excess that is monkey bread

Monkey bread

In my time as a baker and sugar addict, I’ve made or consumed a vast number of rich concoctions and enriched doughs, from multinational doughnut variations to chocolate babkas. But nothing was quite as indulgent as monkey bread, something I’d not heard of until a few weeks back when a recipe by Jane Hornby popped up in a BBC Good Food newsletter.

Monkey bread is basically made with an enriched dough, with balls or chunks dipped in more butter, sugar and spices, and arranged in a ring shaped tin for baking. It is a kind of sticky, cinnamony, buttery, pull-apart, tear-and-share bread that clearly has its origins in traditional sweet, spiced buns and breads of Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and even Britain (eg the Chelsea bun). Those traditions crossed the Atlantic with migrants who settled in America, where they changed, evolved – and had gallons of butter and tons of sugar thrown at them.

The oldest print version of monkey bread is from 1945, and by ZaSu Pitts1, an American actress with a career that spanned the silent and early sound eras. While much of Europe was suffering from rationing, American was producing monkey bread. Goshy.

No one knows where it gets its name, but it’s either because it supposedly resembles the monkey puzzle tree, or because it’s like something monkeys would get in a frenzy over pulling apart. The latter seems more likely to me, as we – four adults, four little monkeys (aged 1 to 11) – ate it together, falling on it with simian fervour.

There are savoury versions or versions with dried fruit, but this one is based on Hornby’s – cinnamon, sugar, butter, some roasted pecans – and it seems closer to the classic US type. My bundt tin wasn’t quite big enough, the whole thing was absurd, and I can’t really imagine being able to justify making it too often, but it’s a pretty awesome thing to have in one’s repertoire.

Recipe

Dough
200g full-fat milk
85g unsalted butter
12g active dried yeast (or 20g fresh yeast)
50g caster sugar
2 eggs (that is, about 110g of egg)
550g strong white flour
6g fine sea salt

Assembly
125g unsalted butter
12g cinnamon
4g powdered ginger
2g grated nutmeg
225g light muscovado or light soft brown sugar2
140g pecans, toasted and roughly chopped

Icing
100g icing sugar
3g vanilla essence
15g milk
5g cinnamon
30g unsalted butter, melted

Method
1. You need a bundt pan or similar ring-shaped tin, ideally 30cm in diameter.
2. To make the dough, first melt the butter and warm the milk slightly. I did this in a microwave. Stir in the caster sugar, scatter in the yeast, and leave it a few minutes to get going.
3. Put the flour and salt in a large bowl, then pour in the yeast mix.
4. Beat the eggs together then pour in too.
5. Bring together to form a sticky dough.
6. Turn out and knead to combine and homogenise.
7. Form a ball, then leave to rest again, covered, for another ten minutes.
8. Give it another knead, then cover and rest again. Repeat this once or twice more until you have a nice smooth dough.
9. In a clean, lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave to rest again, until the dough has doubled in size.
10. Prepare the bundt tin by melting the 125g of butter then using some of it to brush the inside of the tin.
11. Mix the sugar and spices, then sprinkle some of this into the buttered tin. Add a handful of the roasted, chopped pecans.
12. When the dough has proven, you need to divide it into pieces. Hornby’s recipe said 65, I went for 50 as that seemed a tad excessive. The total dough weighed about 1060g, so I divided it into pieces each weighing about 21g.

Balls of dough for monkey bread

13. Roll these into balls. You don’t really need to, but I fancied it, just cos, to maintain the technique, which involves cupping your hand over them, and rolling them on a lightly oiled worktop. If you get proficient, you can do one in each hand. Ta da.
14. Leave the balls under a cloth as you work so they don’t dry out.
15. Put the rest of the melted butter in a flat-bottomed bowl or container, and the rest of the sugar and spice mix in another.

Assembling monkey bread

16. Roll the balls, in batches, in the butter, shake off any excess, then roll them in the sugar and spice mix. Place them in the tin.
17. Form a layer, sprinkle with more pecans, and keep going until the tin is full and balls all used up.

Monkey bread, before final prove

18. Cover again, then leave to prove one last time, until bulging and springy to the touch. Push a finger in and the dough should slowly re-expand.

Monkey bread, after final prove

19. Heat the oven to 180C, then bake the bread for about 40 minutes. Turn the over down a bit, or cover with foil, if it’s over-browning before this time.

Monkey bread, baked
20. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out when still warm but not hot.
21. Whisk together the ingredients for the icing then drizzle over.
22. Eat with for breakfast, with a morning coffee, as afternoon tea, or even as a dessert – which is what we did.

Good. Excessive. Indulgent. But good.

Monkey bread

Footnotes
1. More about her here. Her recipe, and more about monkey bread, can be found here.
2. I find these sugars behave pretty similarly in baking, though muscovado sugars were originally those of lower quality, and have higher molasses content.

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Pangiallo, primitive cakes and winter festivals

Pangiallo

Pangiallo is a cake I encountered in Rome, and indeed one of the last posts I wrote before leaving there in October 2013 mentioned it. But I’ve only recently started to make it, and discovered a quite a lot variation in recipes. Which might seem quite surprising, until you consider it’s a cake that purportedly has roots in Ancient Rome.

Pangiallo, or pancialle, is a Roman, or Lazio, cousin to panforte, “hard bread”, the better-known dense fruit and nut cake of Sienna, and panpepato (“pepper bread”). All three can be arguably be classified as “primitive cakes”. It’s easy to imagine the first cakes were compressed discs of nuts, seeds and dried fruit bound and sweetened with honey.  although food historians suggest pangiallo’s origins are ancient Roman, and panforte is comparatively recent, possibly from the 13th century, people have probably been making these kinds of things for millennia.

Spice trails
There’s debate about what spices the ancient Romans had, but they almost certainly used cardamom, cloves, coriander, black pepper, ginger and nutmeg, and possibly cinnamon too. Such spices, many of which arrived in Europe via the Silk Road, maintained a role as important for feast day foods through the “Dark” and Middle Ages. As they had travelled so far they were expensive, so were used only for special foods on special days.

Britain, of course, has a very similar tradition of rich, spiced fruit cakes for midwinter celebrations in the form of our Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. Their characteristics have similarly ancient origins, though spices were even more scarce and valuable in northern Europe, compared to Italy. Ports such as Genoa and notably Venice were the western extremes of the maritime Silk Route, the dropping-off points for such valuable cargo; spices still had a long way to go before they reached Britain.

Pangiallo spice mix

Festival of light
Today, Pangiallo is eaten to celebrate the feast day of Santa Lucia, St Lucy, and also for Christmas. Both of these Christian feasts are associated with older winter solstice celebrations. The ancient Romans had Saturnalia, when the ancestor of pangiallo may well have been eaten. When Rome took Christianity as its official religion, many of the pagan festivals were Christianised too, and the consumption of special spiced cakes continued.

The calendar change of 1582 has confused things somewhat as St Lucy’s Day is now celebrated on 13 December in the Gregorian calendar, with Christmas Day closer to the solstice of 21-22 December. In the earlier, Julian calendar, however, St Lucy’s Day would have been closer to the solstice, the day when the night is at its longest. To dispel the darkness, it’s a festival of light, and indeed the very names Lucy and Lucia derive from lux, lucis, the Latin for light.

One Roman blogger suggests the yellow, saffron-tinted glaze of pangiallo is symbolic, looking forward to the new light of spring. The only problem with this theory is that pangiallo doesn’t always feature a yellow glaze. Many versions don’t seem yellow at all, but instead more brown from the dried fruits, caramelised sugar and honey, and even cocoa and chocolate.

Testing times
At the weekend I made the version in Rachel’s book Five Quarter’s: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. It’s closer to the version by the blogger mentioned above and does feature a rich glaze, coloured with saffron and egg yolks. Although they all contain flour, Rachel’s version is not leavened, with yeast or chemicals. So I was intrigued when I read the recipe in Oretta Zanini de Vita’s The Food of Rome and Lazio. Hers features a yeasted bread dough. That said, the dough only forms about 20 per cent of the total mass: which is predominantly raisins. Her original recipe is huge, with “1.8kg (about 4lb) zibibbo (seed raisins)”, with the whole formed into a loaf and proved for 12 hours.

For my testing process, I can’t really do such enormous bakes, so I halved the recipe and tweaked it. Hers included pine nuts too, for example; I love them, but they’re so expensive and the ones in the shops here have all travelled from China, which seems crazy. I’ve also favoured the disc-shaped form. Half quantities still produced four cakes, each scaled with 400g of dough. So I’ve halved it again here.

Pangiallo ingredients

5g fresh yeast, or 4g active dry yeast
50g plain flour
50g strong white flour
35g caster sugar
100g water, warm
20g olive oil
2g fine sea salt
250g seedless raisins
100g dried figs, quartered
120g whole or blanched almonds
20g candied peel
Spices: a mixture of ground cinnamon, coriander, black pepper, nutmeg, cardamom to total about 8g, to taste

1. Dissolve the sugar in the water.
2. Make a preferment with some of this sugar-water, the yeast and about 25g of the flour.
3. Leave to get bubbly.
4. Put the rest of the flour in a roomy bowl.
5. Add the preferment, the rest of the sugar water, the olive oil and salt.

Pangiallo mixture
6. Form a dough, adding more water if necessary, then turn out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until smooth.
7. Rest 10 minutes, then add the spices, nuts, raisins and peel.
8. Combine. I can’t really say “knead” as it’s all fruit and nuts. It’s more a case of getting your hands in there and squishing it all together.
9. Cover and rest again, for about 6 hours.
10. Form the desire shapes. I recommend a couple of equal balls.
11. Put the balls onto baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone, and squash them down into discs, about 25mm high. If it’s too sticky, flour your hands a bit as you form the discs.
12. Cover and leave again, for about 4-6 hours. Less if it’s warm, more if it’s cold.
13. Heat the oven to 180C .

Unbaked pangiallo
14. Make a batter with 15g flour, 15g water, 15g oil and 15g sugar. De Vita’s glaze wasn’t coloured yellow, but if you want to, you can add some saffron to the (warm) water and leave it to infuse for half an hour or so. Or cheat and sprinkle in a little turmeric, a spice that’s only mildly flavoured and is more used for colouring.

Unbaked pangiallo, with saffron glaze
15. Brush the glaze onto the loaves.
16. Bake for about 30 minutes, until coloured, but without burning too many raisins.

Pangiallo, baked
17. Allow to firm up on the trays for 20 minutes or so, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Two pangialli

Comparisons
Considering pangiallo is defined by spices, raisins, figs and nuts, the two recipes I tried this week are remarkably different. De Vita sweetens hers only with the fruit and some sugar. Rachel’s uses honey.

I’m struggling a bit at the moment as I keep wondering about vegan stuff for my stall, and honey is a ahem sticking point. Many vegans are staunchly anti-honey. I love the stuff, and beekeeping friends have explained to me it’s a more symbiotic relationship with the bees, not the wholly exploitative one Donald Watson suggested in his 1944 edicts on the founding of the Vegan Society.

Anyway, Rachel’s (on the left in pic above), which uses mixed nuts and more candied peel alongside the honey, has a more pleasing texture. She describes it as like a “soft, chewy, heavily spiced nougat with a whisper of cake”. Which is spot on. De Vita’s, on the other hand, is surprisingly bready, considering the yeasted dough forms such a small proportion of the whole. It’s like a dense, more traditional, fruit cake, even one we’d recognise here in Britain. It’s good, but not as good. So I’m going with honey, more peel, more varied nuts. No yeast. And possibly even egg yolks in the glaze. Though whether it really needs to be quite so yellow is something I’m still undecided about. I need another research trip to Rome!

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Michette di Liguria: sweet buns, strange legend

Michetta, michette di liguria, Dolceacqua

After a slice of my torta di Santiago, a friend of my brother’s asked if I knew of any cakes that are traditionally eaten for the Christian feast day of the Assumption of Mary, celebrated on 15 August. I didn’t.

My native England has lost so much of its traditional festival foods, and I hadn’t encountered any Assumption baked goods while living in Italy. So some research was undertaken. The Feast Day Cookbook suggested veal cutlets and shrimps in béchamel. Neither of which satisfies the cake remit. Digging around more though, I came across a sweet bun from Liguria, northwest Italy. Specifically they’re from the town of Dolceacqua.

They’re called michette. Michetta is a term that’s more commonly used in Italy to refer to a type of hollow bread roll, originating from Lombardia; I knew it in Rome as a rosetta. The Dolceacqua michetta is a little different though: it’s a small, enriched bun. It also comes with such a striking, disturbing folkloric origin story.

Once upon a time…
Here’s the story, or an interpretation thereof based on me plodding through various Italian sources and a couple in bad English.

In the 14th century, a Dolceacqua baker had a beautiful 19-year-old daughter called Lucrezia. She was set to marry a young lad called Basso. Unfortunately, Marquis Doria, the ruler of Dolceacqua, enjoyed his droit de seigneur, or lus primae noctis: the supposed right of the feudal ruler to claim peasant brides on their wedding nights. With claim basically meaning rape. Remember the scene in Braveheart? (Fictitious. Apparently droit de seigneur is fictitious too, or at least historians agree there’s no conclusive evidence for it happening in the Middle Ages in Europe.)

Understandably, Lucrezia and Basso were not happy about this and tried to hide. Doria, however, had had his eye on Lucrezia and tracked her down, taking her back to his castle. Desperate, she tried to throw herself from the window of a castle tower. The Marquis stopped her, and to subdue her, locked her in a hot, damp dungeon. She remained steadfast though, and died there of hunger and thirst.

Hearing of the death of the popular girl, the locals had had enough and approached the castle. Basso was able to sneak in and, at knife point, forced the Marquis to abolish the lus primae noctis.

To celebrate – and commemorate – local bakers like Lucrezia’s dad started to make a small, sweet bun – michette.

I’m a bit confused at this point, but some of the sources say the bun was supposed to resemble female genitals – it was like an offering to the feudal lord, an alternative to the rape. It’s the sort of thing that sounds like it has its origins in older, even weirder, stories, but I’m not sure. Some of the source even had quotes in Ligurian language, which really threw me.

Anyway, the day after the Marquis relented was the Feast of the Assumption, which in Dolceacqua also became the Festa della michetta. Since then, “the word ‘michetta’ is still used to define the virginity and the female womb”, apparently. I suspect locals could explain it all better.

Not many sweet buns come with such heavy historical and cultural associations though. Take the Chelsea bun – it’s a sweet bun, which was first made in Chelsea. That’s its story.

Michetta, michette di liguria, Dolceacqua

Shapes and notes
The most common shape for the michette seems to be a small elliptical bun. Then on this video (at 1.00 minute) you can see a baker making a version with snakes of dough rolled into three ball shapes. I’ve given instructions for forms. I’ve also read of the existence of a cross form, the crocetta, but I haven’t done these.

Note, this is a very yeasty dough – it’s not a nice healthy long fermentation bread, it’s an indulgent, feast-day bun. Even if you can buy them all year round now in Dolceacqua. It’s also a very rich dough – as befitting a feast-day sweet – containing sugar, eggs, butter and olive oil.

Butter in doughs can be problematic if it gets too warm, it’ll become greasy and ooze. If your dough is getting too greasy, cool it off in the fridge, to firm up the butter a bit.

Also note that Italians may well make the dough volcano-style, that is with the flour piled up on the work surface, a crater in the middle and the liquid ingredients added. I do this for pasta, but I find it easier to use a bowl for bread doughs, as it’s more familiar and gives me a better sense of how it’s feeling.

Recipe
500g flour – 300g strong white, 200g white plain (all-purpose)
40g fresh yeast (or 25g active dried yeast)
100g water, tepid + about 80g more
100g unsalted butter, not warm
2 eggs (about 100g, without shells), lightly beaten
120g caster sugar
2g fine sea salt
Zest of one lemon
40g extra virgin olive oil
Water
Extra caster sugar

1. Mix the yeast with about 100g of the water.
2. Put the flour in a bowl and rub in the butter until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
3. Stir in the sugar, salt and lemon zest.
4. Add the yeast mix, eggs and oil.
5. Bring to a dough. Add more water if it feels tight. I ended up adding about 80g more, so about 180g total.
6. Turn out the dough and knead. You want it quite moist and sticky – but manageable. Don’t overwork it, or the butter will get to oily. The best way to handle this is a few more short kneads over half an hour.
7. Clean out the bowl, oil it slightly, then put the dough back in and cover. Leave 10 minutes then give it a short knead. Return to bowl, cover, leave 10 minutes then give it another short knead.

Michetta dough, first proveMichetta dough, first prove, doubled

8. Put the ball of dough back in the bowl, cover and leave to prove until doubled in volume. As there’s so much yeast in this mix, it’ll be quite quick, especially if the room temperature is warm.
9. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently deflate to redistribute the gases.
10. Divide the dough into pieces, scaled at 60g if you’re being accurate.

Michetta dough, scaled at 60gMichetta dough, form balls

11. Form the pieces into balls.
12. Form the balls into the final shapes, as mentioned above, there seem to be two variables. For the basic buns, they’re small ellipses, so just squash and stretch the ball slightly. For the longer form, roll out the ball slightly, then using the karate chop side of your hand, roll slightly to make two indentations all around the circumference of the cylinder (see pic below).
13. Place the michette on baking sheets and allow to prove up again.
14. Preheat the oven to 200C.
15. Bake for about 12 minutes, until lightly browned.

Michette - two shapesMichette, baked, caster sugar

16. While still warm, brush the top with water and sprinkle with (or roll in) caster sugar.

Enjoy as a breakfast bun or for afternoon tea.

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Kubaneh – Yemeni Jewish breakfast bread

Kubaneh

The latest addition to my cookbook library is Honey & Co’s The Baking Book, by Sarit Packer and Itomar Srulovich. It has the same UK publisher as my friend Rachel’s Five Quarters (which boasts a couple of my recipes), so I went along to the launch event a few weeks ago, bought a copy, got it signed and have been trying out the recipes since.

I love enriched doughs, so I was drawn to the recipe for kubaneh. Sarit’s family has Egyptian and Yemeni connections, and this bread is from the latter culture, specifically it’s a Yemenite-Jewish Sabbath breakfast bread. Reading more about it now, it’s traditionally baked overnight in a sealed tin. While Sarit’s version bakes for a fairly long time, it’s not overnight.

Some versions include whole eggs, and can be eaten as more savoury affair, with tomatoes or a tomato dip, or skhug, Yemeni hot sauce*. This one is sweeter. It’s rich in butter (or smen/semneh fermented sheep or goat milk butter; or margarine, depending on your dietary restrictions and inclinations and shopping options) and drizzled with honey, which caramelises together slightly.

Why haven’t I heard of this before?! Just my kind of thing.

Notes
I’ve tweaked the process slightly and given the ingredients in a more consistent format, so as to also include bakers’ percentages (below).

It’s a fairly moist dough – the original recipe says 300-350ml water, but I split the difference at 325ml: 325g. That works out at about 65% hydration, so quite wet and sticky. Check out my post on handling sticky doughs.

For this baking vessel, they use a “traditional lidded aluminium pot” but say you can also use a 20cm fixed bottom round cake tin, with a “lid” made of foil.

I used fresh yeast. You could use 10g active dry/granular yeast instead. If you only have instant/powdered yeast, you don’t need to mix it with liquid first – just combine it with the flour.

The dough
60g light soft brown sugar
15g fresh yeast
325g water, at about body temperature
250g strong white bread flour
250g plain (all-purpose) white flour
6g fine salt

Plus
Vegetable oil
Unsalted butter, softened (or margarine or smen, if you can get it. Very unlikely here in England!)
Runny honey

Here is it in bakers’ percentages (rounded):

Ingredient Quantity Percentage
Light soft brown sugar 60g 12%
Fresh yeast 15g 3%
Water 325g 65%
Strong white flour 250g 50%
Plain white flour 250g 50%
Salt 6g 2.5%

1. Mix together the water, sugar and yeast. Stir to dissolve the yeast.
2. Weigh out the flours into a large bowl and add the salt.
3. Add the yeast mixture to the flour and bring together a dough. I don’t have a mixer, so my instructions are for doing it by hand. If you do, just mix until well combined and smooth.

Kubaneh shaggy doughKubaneh - kneading doughKubaneh - smooth dough
4. Turn out the shaggy mixture onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead. I used the Dan Lepard technique of not kneading too much, then returning the dough to the bowl, cleaned and oiled, leaving for 10 minutes, then kneading briefly again. Repeat this twice more, then return to the cleaned, lightly oiled bowl.
5. Cover with plastic or a clean, damp tea towel and leave to prove for a couple of hours, or until doubled in size. The time will depend on the ambient temperature. It’s about 20C in my kitchen on a mild English summer’s day, and it took about two and a half hours.

Kubaneh dough - proved
6. While it’s proving, liberally grease the cake tin with butter, and grease the underside of the foil lid too. If you have a lidded pot, grease that similarly.

Kubaneh dough - slapped around
7. Sarit describes the next step as “the strange bit” – you moisten your hands then “flip the dough about in the bowl to knock it back”. Do it three times, keeping your hands moist.

Kubaneh dough - pieces
8. Oil a tray, then divide the dough up into eight pieces and place them on the tray. The dough weighs 900g, so eight pieces at around 112g.
9. Oil your hands a bit then take each piece, stretch it slightly, and put a blob of butter in the middle. I used pieces at about 10g, half a walnut size.
10. Smear the butter a bit then wrap the dough around it to form rough balls.

Kubaneh dough pieces in tin
11. Put the balls in the prepared tin, one in the middle, the rest equally spaced around it.
12. Put some more flecks of butter on top, drizzle with honey then cover and prove again until the dough “almost reaches the top” – too high and it’ll “overflow when baked.” I drizzled a bit more honey and added a bit more butter before baking.

Kubaneh dough ready for baking
13. Preheat the oven to 220C.
14. Put the tin, with its lid, in the oven and bake for half an hour.
15. Reduce the heat to 200C and continue baking for another half an hour.
16. Reduce the heat again to 180C and continue baking for another half an hour.
17. Turn the oven off and leave in the oven “for at least an hour”.
18. It’s best served warm, so if you’re an insomniac and have been doing this all night, or proved it overnight in the fridge and baked it early, enjoy it thus.

It’s surprisingly soft and chewy, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get nice caramelised bits. I won’t be doing it every week, but it’s a great addition to my enriched breads & breakfast bakes armoury. It’s also reminiscent of English lardy cakes, particularly the fruit-free versions from my part of the country, Hampshire and Sussex. Though obviously the fats used are a bit different for that gentile bake.

It’s also got me thinking about that most indulgent of fatty-sugary-doughy caramelised concoctions, the Breton kouign amann, which is more a pastry than a bread. Still, I might have to revisit that soon.

* Aka zhug, zehug; the Honey & Co The Baking Book also has a recipe for this, to accompany their lahooh, Yemeni pancakes.

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Simnel cake, Mothering Sunday and mutating feast days

Simnel cake slice

Simnel cake is the traditional British Easter cake. Or is it? Laura Mason and Catherine Brown write in The Taste of Britain that this light fruit cake with marzipan “was originally associated with a Mid-Lent Sunday when the Lenten fast was relaxed to allow the consumption of richer foods, adding variety to an otherwise monotonous diet. This was known as Mothering Sunday…. Later the holiday developed into the secular festival of Mother’s Day.”

I’m not sure it developed into, but it’s certainly been conflated with Mother’s Day, a 20th century North American celebration. Both are moveable feasts, but while the North American Mother’s Day is usually the second Sunday in May, the older Mothering Sunday is based on the date of the spring or vernal equinox and this year is on Sunday, 15 March.1

Like so many Christian feast days, Mothering Sunday, or Laetare Sunday (from the Latin “rejoice”), may have its origins in pre-Christian celebrations. At the spring equinox the ancient Greeks celebrated the mother goddess figure they called Kybelis, who originated in what is today Turkey, but who migrated across the Mediterranean to become the Romans’ Cybele, with the feast day of Hilaria2.

As they do, the traditions evolved and migrated further over history, but the “mother” aspect was retained, getting tweaked into signifying the “mother church” for Christians.

Cake, boiled and baked
The tradition of eating something called simnel cake on this feast day emerged in Medieval England. Initially it was an enriched, yeasted wheat bread. Indeed, the word simnel may derive – like the Scandinavian semlor – from the Latin simila: fine wheat flour. But no one is sure.

The early modern versions, according to Mason and Brown, were a dough enriched with fruit, almonds and spices then “enclosed in a pastry crust and… boiled before being painted with egg yolk and baked, giving a very hard exterior.” Feast Day Cookbook by Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger mentions such a cake was so hard it gave “rise to the story of a lady who used one for years as a footstool”.

In English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David writes “At one time simnel cakes were… baked with a layer of almond paste in the centre of the cake.” She they says they these were “gradually superseded by ordinary cake batters and the strip of almond paste or marzipan moved from the centre to the top of the cake, which was originally made for Mothering Sunday.” In the 19th century, servants and apprentices were allowed Mothering Sunday off to visit their families – and take a cake to their mothers.

Burton and Ripperger describe simnel cake as “a yeast cake very yellow in colour because of the saffron and candied peel it contained”. I can’t find other mentions of saffron being an essential ingredient, though I suspect it would have been included in some parts of the country, possibly where saffron was cultivated such as Stratton in Cornwall or the famously named Saffron Waldon in Essex.

Indeed, different parts of the country had their own variations, most notably the towns of Devizes (“which produced a star-shaped version without marzipan”3), Bury (“Where a rubbed-in mixture, giving a result rather like a very rich scone, was baked in a long oval”4), and Shrewsbury. This regional varation, still so common in countries like Italy, is something that was largely lost in the era of industrialisation, neutralisation and homogenisation that’s defined British food that past 70 or so years.

Simnel cake hyacinths

Balls not eggs
The best known form today, developed from the Shrewsbury type, is decorated not just with a coating of marzipan but with 11 balls of almond paste. These balls represented Jesus’ apostles. Sometimes there are 12 balls – to include Jesus himself. Both counts exclude the notorious Judas. I feel somewhat sorry for Judas. Some poor sod was fated to be the fall guy right? Lowest circle of hell seems a bit harsh, especially if you believe his role was predestined.

The final shift in tradition has occurred fairly recently. The cake is now largely made for Easter, and some prefer to see the balls as eggs. Easter eggs perhaps laid by the Easter bunny… Got to to love the mutability of tradition.

A hybrid recipe for a mutant tradition
This is a yeasted version. It’s a modernisation of the version in David. She based her version on one from Cassells’ Universal Cookery Book by Lizzie Heritage, published first in 1894. I wanted to incorporate both traditions of the marzipan layer in the middle and grilled marzipan balls on top.

One batch of marzipan, about 400g-500g. See my recipe here.
15g fresh yeast / 8g active dried yeast (or 6g instant yeast. See instruction 5 below)
180g milk
200g strong white flour
250g plain/all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
80g caster sugar
3 medium eggs, beaten (about 160g beaten egg)
125g butter, softened
160g currants or raisins
60g candied peel
1 tsp cinnamon and 1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg (or 1 1/2 tsp mixed spice)

1. First make your marzipan. You could buy some but it really is easy to make.
2. Grease a 23cm round tin, ideally springform.
Simnel cake ingredients

3. Warm the milk slightly, then add the yeast (if using fresh or ADY) and a dessertspoon of the sugar.
4. Allow this mix to sit or until frothy and lively.

Simnel cake dough 1Simnel cake dough 2Simnel cake dough 3
5. Add the yeast mix to the flour, along with the salt, the caster sugar, and the egg. (If you’re using instant yeast, mix it with the flour at this stage.)
6. Bring to a dough, turn out onto an oiled or lightly floured work surface and knead until well combined. It will be quite sticky5, but try to use extra flour sparingly as adding too much extra will make for a dry, dense cake.
7. Form the dough into a ball, put in a clean bowl, cover and rest for about 10 minutes.
8. Give the ball another quick knead then allow it to rest again for another 10 minutes. Repeat this once more.
9. While the dough is resting, mix together the softened butter, fruit and spices.
10. Take the dough out of the bowl and stretch it out.

Simnel cake dough 4
10. Smear the buttery fruit mix over the stretched out dough, then wrap the dough around and carefully knead it all together to combine. Again, it will be sticky, but try to be sparing with any extra flour. A dough scraper is your friend.
11. Form the dough into a ball again and put back in a clean bowl.

First prove
12. Cover and leave to rise, until doubled in size.

Simnel cake, divide in two
13. Take the dough out of the bowl. It should weigh about 1250g. Divide into two equal pieces, and form these into balls.
14. Leave the balls to rest for about 10 minutes, covered, then squash them down into discs.

Simnel cake dough and marzipan discSimnel cake second disc
15. Put one of the discs of dough into the bottom of the tin and cover it with a disc formed of less than half of the marzipan, rolled and cut out, using the tin as a template.
16. Put the other disc of dough on top.
17. Cover and leave to rest again, until nearly doubled in size.
18. Preheat your oven to 200C.
19. Bake for about 20 minutes then turn the oven down to 180C. Continue baking for another 20-25 minutes. If the top starts to brown too much, cover it with foil.

Simnel before bakingSimnel after baking
20. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for about 10 minutes, then remove and cool completely.

Simnel after baking, side
21. When cool, brush the top with warmed apricot jam.

Brush and balls
22. Roll out the marzipan, keeping a bit back, and make another disc for the top. Brush with beaten egg.
23. Use the remaining marzipan to make balls (mine weighed about 10g each), placing them in a circle on the top of the cake. Brush with more beaten egg.
24. Preheat your grill or light a blow torch, and brown the top marzipan and balls slightly.
25. Take the cake to your mother, or enjoy with friends and family, hopefully welcoming the spring with a sunny day.

Simnel cake grilled

Notes
1. The Spring/vernal equinox itself, when the sun is over the equator and the lengths of day and night are roughly equal, isn’t until Friday 20 March 2015. In Western culture, its annual celebrations have been moved around between the date fixed by the ancient Romans, in the Julian calendar, then the later Gregorian Christian calendar, which most of the world uses today. Pope Gregory XIII introduced the latter because the date of Easter, which also takes it takes from the Spring equinox, was drifting and the Catholic church authorities wanted to recalibrate it. It’s quite a complicated issue, and still controversial among some Christians; read more here.
2. Hilaria means “cheerful” and relating to the modern English word “hilarious”.
3. and 4. Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, p726 (2006 edition).
5. In terms of baker’s percentages, the 450g flour = 100%. So 180g milk = 40%. The beaten egg at 160g = 35%. So the hydration – treating the milk and egg combined as the total liquid – is 75%.

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Cornish saffron cake

Overhead

Last week, I spent several days down in north Devon, helping my father shift part of a 14 ton pile of gravel. It wasn’t our only activity though. I also counted 80 marsh orchids in their meadow; saw my first Leworthy lizard (was it lost? Surely it’s far too soggy there for a sun-loving reptile?), visited Holsworthy Ales and tried their new honeyed golden ale, Bizzy Buzzy (very pleasant on a sunny day, despite the infantile name and label); and I even saw my first ever British kingfisher, which shot underneath me when I was standing on a small footbridge over the river Deer. Plus, this being the Etherington family, I also did a lot of eating, include a requisite cream tea.

Scones and clotted cream

Normally, when visiting my folks in that part of the world we go for a meal at The Castle Restaurant, Bude, over the Devon border, on the Cornish coast. But sadly it closed down in October 2013 after a six-year run. It’s a real shame, as it was one of the only places serving real food in that area of north Devon/Cornwall. It’s also a wider shame there aren’t more real food places in that area, as it’s got an interesting food heritage. For example, Stratton, just inland from Bude on the way back to Holsworthy, used to be one of England’s key saffron-growing centres.

The saffron grown there would have been used in, among other things, Cornish saffron cake. This is an enriched bread, something like a yeasted cousin to English tea loaf (aka tea bread), though dyed (slightly) with the distinctive orange-yellow of saffron. In ‘English Food’, Jane Grigson says, “Saffron has always been expensive, even during the Middle Ages when it was at the height of European popularity for flavouring dishes, and even more for the colour it gave them. People liked their food to look gay, so that saffron… was found in every prosperous household.”

While in ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery’, Elizabeth David says, “Among the most costly of spices used in early English cooking, and one which has survived – that is in our true native cooking – almost solely in yeast cakes and buns, is saffron. Originally treated as a colouring rather than a flavouring agent, it was used lavishly in sauces and for almost any category of dish, whether fruit, flesh, fowl or fish, sweet cream or savoury stew, whenever it was felt that a fine yellow colour would be appropriate.” She said its use died out through the 19th century – except in the West Country for buns and saffron cake. She suggests that when WWII deprivation forced people to replace saffron with annatto, they came to realise the former “was a very great deal more than just a colouring agent.”

Price spice
Saffron is the stigmas of Crocus sativus – Saffron crocus – which have to be harvested by hand. I imagine it’s backbreaking, slow work. The little pot I’ve got simply gives that frustratingly vague “Produce of more than one country”, which may mean India, Iran, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Spain, probably even China and perhaps even Greece, where the plant’s presumed wild ancestor (Crocus cartwrightianus) may have originated.

Grigson says, “It has been estimated it takes a quarter of a million flowers to produce one pound,” that is 454g. So if my little pot contained just 0.5g of stigmas, that’s still around 275 flowers (I think; maths isn’t my strong point). Sheesh. Or to look at it another way, if Waitrose Spanish saffron costs £3.99 for 0.4g, that’s £9.96 for 1g, for £9,975 for a kilo. The classic comparison is with gold, which at the time of writing costs about £24,000 per kilo (depending on carat).

Grigson also says the crocus was introduced to England in the 16th century and was still cultivated here until the practise died out at start of the 20th century. One enterprising grower did, however, start cultivating it in Essex again in 2001. His works out at £15 for 0.2g, or £75,000 a kilo. This is clearly a lot more than gold, but such high prices are a reflection the labour-intensiveness of a small scale operation in a first-world economy. I wonder if anyone grows it in Devon or Cornwall still? Or at least has Crocus sativus in their garden without realising the worth of its tiny red stigmas, despite how excruciatingly hard they are to extract.

For this recipe, I referred to the one in ‘English Food’ and another recipe from one of those little old-school ‘Favourite recipe’ books published by J Salmon Ltd (“Britain’s oldest post card and calendar publisher”). Despite the (somewhat haphazard) recipes, given with pounds and ounces only, and the cute watercolour wash illustrations, the books are a great repository of traditional British recipes. David also has a recipe, but I didn’t look at that till afterwards. In it she says one “valuable detail” she learned in her research was that “the little bits of saffron in the infusion which colours the cake are not strained out”. I hadn’t. They really help maintain the flavour, and just go to prove you didn’t use any old yellow colouring.

1 good pinch of saffron
A few tablespoons of boiling water
250g strong white bread flour
200g plain white flour
200g milk
7g instant yeast, or 20g fresh
100g butter
100g lard (or just use 200g butter)
1/2 t fine salt
60g caster sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
A few grates of fresh nutmeg
150g currants
50g candied peel

Saffron strands

1. In a small bowl, cover the saffron filaments with the boiling water and leave to infuse – for at least 5 hours, or overnight.

Saffron, infusing
2. Make a sponge or pre-ferment by mixing 150g strong white flour, the yeast and the milk, warmed to about body temperature. Don’t agonise about this. If it’s cooler, it’ll simply ferment slower. Just don’t get it too hot.
3. Let the sponge ferment until it’s nice and frothy.
4. In another, large mixing bowl combine the other 100g strong white bread flour and the 200g plain flour.
5. Cut the fats into cubes, then rub into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, more or less.
6. Add the salt, the sugar and the spices to the fatty floury mixture.

Ferment, flour mix and saffron infusion
7. Add the sponge along with the saffron and water to the floury mix.

Combine
8. Combine all the ingredients to form a dough. You want it moist; if it’s too dry, add a little more water or milk.
9. Give the dough a good knead, for 5 minutes or so, until it’s nice and smooth.
10. Stretch out the dough, add the dried fruit, then give it until gentle knead to distribute the fruit.
11. Form the dough into a ball and put back in the bowl, cleaned and oiled slightly.
12. Cover the bowl with a cloth or shower cap and leave to prove in a draught-free place until doubled in size. Time will vary depending on the temperature and the mood of your yeast.
13. Remove the dough and form it into a ball again, then rest this for another ten minutes or so.
14. Preheat your oven to 220C (200C fan oven).

Final prove
15. Form the dough into a baton and place this in a greased loaf tin. Cover it and leave to prove again, until it’s risen again and the dough re-inflates slightly when you push a finger into it.
16. Bake for about 20 minutes, then turn the oven down 20 degrees and keep baking for another 30 minutes. Watch it doesn’t colour too much – if it looks like it’s going to burn, cover it with foil.
17. Once baked, take it out of the tin and leave it to cool completely on a wire rack. (Or if you don’t mind a bit of indigestion, eat it while it’s still warm. Bakers don’t recommend this as a loaf that’s still warm is effectively still baking.)
18. Serve at tea time, generously buttered. It’s nice for breakfast or elevenses too.

Cut

Anyway, having done all that, I also subsequently noticed that David gives recipes for Cornish saffron cake and a Devonshire cake, a “variation” that can be made with one of my favourite foodstuffs – clotted cream. So I really ought to do that next time, considering my folks’ place is actually in Devon, and Fran, the missus, is a Devonshire girl. Although my mother’s mother was from a Cornish family (the Olivers of St Minver), and I developed a strong love of Cornwall after several childhood holidays, so I suppose I’m allowed to feel torn.

A note on the flour
I’ve just bought some supplies from Stoates in Dorset. Or “Stoate & Son / Established since 1832” as it says on their site, though I’ll overlook the grammatical strangeness as they’re producing quality stone-ground products using a proportion of locally grown grain. The site also says, “We take great care in selecting our wheat much of which is sourced locally but is always blended with a proportion of Canadian wheat to achieve an end product with consistent baking and eating qualities.”I contacted Stoates about the specific blend and Michael Stoate got back to me saying “The mix at present is about 65% local UK grain (Paragon spring wheat) and 35% Kazakhstan high protein wheat. This is giving a protein content of about 12.50% – 13.00%.”

Stoates flours

The Stoates white flours, being stone-ground and less heavily sieved retains more the bran than more industrially produced flours. It’s also not bleached. So it’s not so bright white, meaning my “white” loaves will never quite achieve that gleam like a Hollywood film star’s teeth. But they will be healthier and more wholesome.

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Hot cross buns, Easter 2014

Hot cross buns 2014

It’s Good Friday, and there’s a very interesting story in our local paper today. I’ve eaten hot cross buns on and off all my life but learned a few new facts from Kevin Gordon’s piece in the Sussex Express. These sweet, fruity buns, with their cross-shape commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus were traditionally baked “in preparation for the end of Lent on Easter Saturday.” Okay, that I knew, despite how much crass British supermarkets might start promoting them pretty much straight after Christmas these days.

Gordon continues though: “It was often a tradition that one bun would be saved until the following Easter for good luck. A hot cross bun hung up in your home would protect if from fire until the following year. It was thought that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday would never go mouldy.”

Note – this is quite a sticky dough, something that can intimidate less experienced bakers. I recommend you read my tips for handling sticky doughs here.

Makes 16

Sponge/pre-ferment:
140g strong white flour
18g fresh yeast (so about 9g ADY, 6g easy-blend yeast)
150g water

Dough:
320g strong white flour
6g salt
55g light soft brown sugar or light muscovado
55g butter, melted
1 egg, beaten [approx 58g beaten egg]
125g milk
3 t mixed spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, ginger. Whatever you like
85g peel
85g currants, sultanas or raisins

For the crosses:
60g plain flour
50g water
10g veg oil
Pinch of baking powder

1. Combine the 140g flour, yeast and 150g of water to make a sponge or pre-ferment. Leave to ferment overnight in a cool place or the fridge (but take it out in plenty of time the next morning). It should be nice and bubbly.
2. The following day, mix flour together the flour and salt.
3. Melt the butter.
4. Warm the milk to about body temperature. You can infuse it with Earl Grey tea if you like. If you’re using tea bags, don’t forget to remove them!
5. Add the sponge to the flour and salt.
4. Mix together the melted butter, milk, sugar, beaten egg and spices then add this to the flour too.
5. Bring the mixture to a dough. Turn out the dough and knead for a few minutes. Once you’ve formed a ball, put it back in the bowl, cover and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
6. Stretch out the ball, add the fruit, then fold over the dough, and knead it again to mix in. Form another ball, then cover and leave to rest for another 10 minutes.
7. Give the dough another brief knead. Rest for another 10 minutes then do a final knead.
8. Put in a clean bowl, covered, and leave to prove until doubled in size – perhaps two-three hours, depending on your room temperature.
9. When it’s proved, weigh it. It should be about 1100g. If it’s not, either I’ve cocked up or you have.
10. Divide the dough into 16 equal pieces, weighing about 70g each. Or go larger, 13 at about 85g.
11. Form the pieces into neat, tight balls.
12. Place the balls on baking sheets lined with parchment then cover and leave for a final prove. Again, this will maybe take two hours, depending on ambient temperature.
13. Preheat the oven to 200C.

Piping crosses

14. Mix the cross batter. When the buns are proved, pipe crosses onto them. Mine were a bit messy this time… Hey, it’s artisan, rustic…
15. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until nicely browned – this will depend on your oven.
16. Optional: while still warm, glaze with stock syrup – made from half/half water and caster sugar, about 50g each, heated to dissolve.

Enjoy for a Good Friday afternoon tea, or similar. The in-laws have arrived and we scoffed several for afternoon tea. Not sure if any will survive long enough to test the theory about them never going mouldy.

Bakers’ percentages

Note – the total flour is 460g, 140 in the sponge, 320 more in the dough, that is 30% and 70%.

Ingredient Percentage Quantity (g)
Flour (sponge) 30% 140
Flour (dough) 70% 320
Water 33% 150
Milk 27% 125
Egg 13% 58
Yeast (fresh) 4% 18
Salt 1.5% 6
Sugar 12% 55
Spice 2.5% 12
Butter 12% 55
Peel 18.5% 85
Currants 18.5% 85
TOTAL 242 1109

 

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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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Italian breakfast, and why a cornetto isn’t a croissant

Cornetto, saccottino and cappucino at Baylon Cafe, Trastevere, Rome

Let the Games Begin (Che la festa cominci) is the latest novel by Italian writer Niccolò Ammaniti. He’s probably best known for Io non ho paura (I’m Not Scared), the 2001 novel that became a film in 2003.

A pretty broad satire of contemporary Roman society, Let the Games Begin is passingly entertaining, but it suffers from less-than-perfect translation and editing. As well as some fairly rudimentary editorial errors, the idiomatic translation doesn’t feel quite right. It’s also quite haphazard with its translation of Italian food names. While it’s content to refer to supplì as supplì, it seems to determinedly translate cornetto as croissant.

A cornetto (“little horn”) is not a croissant (French for “crescent”). Nor is it an ice-cream. It’s an Italian relative of the croissant, likely with the same origins, but today a distinct product. Sure they look similar, but they’re slightly different. Read on.

No one is in agreement about the origins of the crescent-shaped pastry, but one abiding story (or myth) is that it was invented in Austria to commemorate the defeat of the Ottomans, who besieged the city in 1683. Wikipedia gives more background. Whatever the origins of the pastry (other variables include chiffel and kipfel), since its birth the regional and national versions have diverged.

Breakfast pastries
Both the croissant and the cornetto are breakfast pastries. The quintessential breakfast I witness being consumed day-in day-out in Rome is a coffee – either a simple caffè (espresso) or cappucino (often just called cappuccio in Rome) – with a cornetto, normally just a cornetto semplice (“simple”, ie plain).

Many cafés offer a large selection of different breakfast pastries, or lieviti (literally “yeasteds” or “risens”, meaning pastries made with a yeasted dough) and if possible I get a saccottino al cioccolato. In Italian, a sacco is a sack, so this literally is a “little sack with chocolate”. And yes, it closely resembles another French – or Viennese – pastry: the pain au chocolat, known by many ignoramuses as a “chocolate croissant” . Guys, it’s not a crescent-shape, so how can it be a croissant?

The cornetto semplice is also apparently also known as the cornetto vuoto (“empty”), to contrast it with various types of cornetti ripieni (“filled”). These include cornetto alla crema (with custard), alla marmellata (with jam, marmalade or other conserve), al miele (with honey; this is often made with an integrale, wholewheat, dough), and cornetto al cioccolato. The latter is an actual cornetto that is usually filled with that vile brown vegetable-oil product beloved of Italians, Nutella.

Choice of pastries at Baylon Cafe, Trastevere, Rome

The (subtle) difference
The French really don’t go in for all these filled variables, beyond ones with almond paste, but the biggest difference between cornetti and croissant is the lamination.

A proper croissant must be made with butter, and must be repeatedly folded and rolled, to achieve a lamination wherein the rolled dough contains several thin layers of the fat. When the croissant is baked, water in the dough is turned to steam, but this is trapped by the fat, causing pressure and rising between the layers. The resulting pastry, when done right, should be crisp and flaky, with a taste of butter but no greasiness.

A cornetto on the other hand isn’t so assiduously laminated, and can even be made with lard, not butter. The dough also contains more sugar. The result is a pastry that is just a lot sweeter than a proper French croissant, and can have a more enriched bread or cake-like texture, more like a French brioche. Some cornetti are very flaky and like croissants, but many others are more cakey; there’s a lot of variation.

Indeed, cornetti are sometimes called brioche in some northern parts of Italy, though in Naples, Sicily and parts of south with a historical French influence, the name brioche is used for a pastry more like the Gallic version. But that’s another story.

Cappuccio, spremuta, pastries at Caffe Arabo, Trastevere, Rome

A couple of cafés
Our lifestyle at the moment takes us to two cafes regularly for weekend morning cornetti. I’m not saying these have the best cornetti in Rome – how could I, without sampling cornetti in every single one of the thousands of cafés and pasticcerie in Rome? – but they’re places we enjoy.

The first is Baylon, which we started frequenting because… well, I can’t really remember. They’re so grumpy and resolutely unfriendly that even after we’ve been going there two years only one of the staff actually acknowledges us. The Ricardo Darin-lookalike is a particular sourpuss. Unlike many more traditional Roman cafés, however, it has space to hang out, and Wi-Fi. Plus, unlike many places in the tourist nexus of Trastevere, they don’t charge stupid prices.

So we keep on going back – partly for the space, partly as we can get our Saturday morning weekly English language paper nearby, and partly because they it has great selection of lieviti. Apparently it used to be a local landmark pasticceria (pastry bakery), so at least they have their own kitchens for the baking.

Our Sunday routine, on the other hand, developed as we used to go down to the farmers’ market in Testaccio’s Ex-Mattatoio every week. Although that’s now sadly been shunted further out of town, at least a direct-from-farm shop has opened near Ponte Testaccio, on the Trastevere Station side of the river, where we can get many of the same quality fresh products. There’s also Porta Portese market every Sunday, with its enormous selection of tat, junk and bric-a-brac.

Case of pastries at Caffe Arabo, Trastevere, Rome

On our route down the hill from our house, via the massively grand 19th century, weed-infested, broken-glass strewn, graffitied Ugo Bassi steps, we go to Caffè Arabo on Viale di Trastevere. This is a more traditional Roman café, no Wi-Fi or anything of that poncy nonsense, but it’s still kinda idiosyncratic. Plus, a couple of the staff not only recognise us but are friendly, even amiably laughing at my ordering a (hot) tea on a hot day. “The British drink tea in every season, every weather,” I shrugged.

They don’t have a kitchen, so their cornetti are bought-in, but they’re not bad. And occasionally they even have saccottini al cioccolato to satisfy my chocolate cravings.

Neither places, however, has croissant. A few Roman cafés do apparently do French-style croissant, but I’ve yet to sample them.

Of course, not everyone has a coffee and cornetto for breakfast or elevenses here in Rome. We sat down at Arabo last Sunday, Fran ordered a cappucino and cornetto, I ordered a spremuta d’arancia (freshly sqeezed orange juice) and a saccattino al cioccolato – then two guys sad down beside us and ordered beers. It was 10.30am.

Info
Baylon Café
Via San Francesco A Ripa 151, 00153 Rome
bayloncafe.com

Caffè Arabo
Viale di Trastevere 20, 00152 Rome

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Filed under Cakes (yeasted), Discussion, Other food, Restaurants etc