Week four of Lockdown 3 brought snow, sleet and several sleepless nights, a rich mix of gloom if ever there was one. Though I have to admit that the garden, frosted with ice, is a thing of beauty.
By the weekend I even succumbed to some classic kids’ cookery, made purely for my own enjoyment – I have never used mini eggs this early in the year before, but currently we have to do whatever gets us through the day.
But then, on Saturday, Harry slept through the night again – and then he did it again – and slowly I begin to feel less like a husk and more like a real, thinking, living, person. Not fully replete with vim but with life enough to think about baking something beige. And so I come to Regula Ysewijn‘s latest book, Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: A History of British Baking. It is, as the name suggests, a love letter to the great baking traditions of Britain, singing the joys of iced buns, lardy cake and simple plain toast.
I have written about Regula before and I have to state up front that a) she’s a wonder, b) I am deeply jealous (she gets paid to write about buns!) and c) I often think we could be good friends. This is a woman who waxes lyrical about giant pies from Yorkshire, who is deadly serious about the Kentish Huffkin and who insists that Chelsea buns should only ever be square (quite right). An Anglophile Belgian, she has a romantic view of our baking tradition that is fun for the Brit to read: as she rightly points out, our baking may be simple, but we are one of the few European nations to have a tradition of making cakes, buns and biscuits in our own kitchens, with our own hands; in France they wouldn’t dream of making their own patisserie, but buy it instead.
I was also pleased to see this statement at the start of her beautiful book and it makes me wonder why author’s notes like this are not more common?
Whilst I do intend to have a go at the aforementioned lardy cakes, in my fragile state I thought it best to start with something quick. Regula has a double page spread devoted to Brighton Rock Cakes and their brother, the Fat Rascal. On close examination the recipes are precisely the same except that Rock Cakes are dusted with sugar and perhaps a cherry or two, and Fat Rascals given an egg wash.
Now, I used to live on Rock Cakes as a teenager, as I considered them the only thing in the school canteen worth the calories. The Fat Rascal, however, whilst I have heard of them, was never something that we ate. According to Regula they are an old Yorkshire tradition, but in recent years the famous Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate have taken out a trademark which prevents other businesses from selling them. (Point of note: this is clearly outrageous and I struggle to believe that it is even legal. Would the Italians only allow one company to make spaghetti?!)
I then enquired my Professionally Yorkshire friend Helen to ask she knows anything about Fat Rascals and she replied in the negative, but does remember that Rock Buns (note – buns not cakes – this is Yorkshire afterall) were a regular event in her house. She duly WhatsApped me her Mum’s hand-written recipe, which calls for marg and mixed fruit. Helen’s Grandad Stokes was a baker and he didn’t sell Fat Rascals or Rock Cakes/Buns and now that I reflect on it, we didn’t have them at Cooks Bakery in Upton On Severn either. Perhaps they are home-cooking in the truest sense of the word.
Regula’s recipe for Rock Cakes uses plain flour rather than self-raising, and currants rather than mixed fruit. This is probably true to the oldest recipes; I think that sometime during the 1970s supermarkets began to sell bags of mixed fruit and that become the housewife’s choice, rather than individual packets of raisins, currants and the rest. My mum certainly never dreamed of having anything other than mixed fruit in her baking cupboard. Regula also adds a touch of mixed spice, which is new to me for this kind of simple bake, but a nice touch.
It occurs to me now that the Rock Cake is akin to the American scone, for they add eggs to their scone mix and sometimes also cream, making for a more cakey texture. I presume the early settlers took their recipes with them – but more research is needed. The movement of food cultures around the globe will never cease to be fascinating.
An amalgamation of Regula’s recipe, Mrs Annett’s recipe, and my own instinct. Makes 6.
225g self raising flour
100g caster sugar
1 tsp mixed spice
pinch of fine sea salt
75g unsalted butter, cold, diced
up to 3 tbsp full fat milk
50g raisins or currants
pearl sugar, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 200c. Line a tray with baking parchment.
Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and spice in a bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs – you can use a food processor for this but I always use fingers to save on the washing up.
Beat the egg with 1 tbsp milk, then tip into the flour mixture. Use a blunt knife or dough scraper to mix the liquid to a loose shaggy dough – add more milk if necessary. Once the dough starts to come together, add the fruit. Very lightly knead then turn onto a floured surface.
Cut into 6 pieces using a knife, then gently ease them into a rounded shape – they don’t need to be perfect. Transfer to the baking tray, brush with milk and sprinkle on a little pearl sugar (or granulated sugar if that’s all you have).
Bake for about 15 minutes, checking after 10 to see that they are baking evenly. They are done with risen, golden and no longer moist on the top. Cool slightly before tucking in – these are best eaten on the day they’re made.
Also this week:
Garden: Cut back the front garden hydrangea – it will either never recover, or will come back a monster. The ground has been covered with snow and hard with ice, but now we have gentle rain and a sleepy sun.
Eating and cooking: Anything beige due to sleep deprivation and the January blues. These are the days of toast that drips with butter. Chocolate easter nests (in January!). Also making the most of seasonal citrus: Forced rhubarb simmered with orange zest then turned into crumble. Roast chicken flavoured with seville oranges and thyme. Orange jelly.
Also: Spotted parakeets in both Warley Woods and Highbury Park. Listening to Lockdown Parenting Hell with Josh Widdecombe and Rob Beckett, for much needed relief.