Lane Cake

Lane Cake

Wotchers!

This is my End-Of-Term post for 2014, before taking a short break over the summer to do Stuff™, and so I have chosen a cake that has been on my ToDo list for many a moon.

This is Ms Emma Rylander Lane’s Prize Cake, with which she was declared champion at the Georgia State Fair, Columbus in 1898. It is also the cake immortalised in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. When the novel’s narrator, Scout Finch, described the celebrations for the arrival of her aunt Alexandra, she declared:

Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny[1] it made me tight.

Miss Maudie later decides that a Lane Cake is in order when a neighbour is hurt on the night Miss Maudie’s house catches fire.

“Mr. Avery will be in bed for a week – he’s right stove up. He’s too old to do things like that and I told him so. Soon as I can get my hands clean and when Stephanie Crawford’s not looking, I’ll make him a Lane cake. That Stephanie’s been after my recipe for thirty years, and if she thinks I’ll give it to her just because I’m staying with her she’s got another think coming.”

Over the years, the Lane Cake has suffered several adulterations and been added to and embellished like a baking Pass The Message game, and what is now purported to be a Lane Cake is frequently a far cry from the prize-winning original.

The original cake is deceptively simple: a sponge cake made with egg-whites and a dazzlingly white meringue frosting. The star, however, is the filling: a rich, sweetened egg-curd studded with raisins and shimmering with alcohol, in this case brandy although whiskey is another option.

I love the fact that, not only was the Lane Cake a special occasion cake, it was also a nineteenth century humble-brag. Refined Southern ladies would not be so coarse as to boast about their baking skills *pauses to sink gracefully onto a nearby chaise-longue and flutters fan coyly* but it would be patently obvious to anyone with any baking ability just how impressive a Lane Cake was in terms of demonstrating the baker’s skill. Not only were there few gadgets for whisking eggs and creaming butter/sugar to ensure an airy sponge, the ovens were unpredictable in terms of both strength and duration of heat. Making the filling without curdling the yolks or the frosting without burning the sugar was impressive indeed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cook treated herself to a decent glug of shinny herself – with all that stress she’d have earned it!

I really like the contrast between the simplicity of the cake and frosting and the gutsy richness of the filling. I think the original recipe needs nothing adding to it – it’s delicious just as it is – although additions over the years have included coconut, cherries, pecans etc. Gilding the lily, in my opinion. To my mind it’s akin to someone ‘improving’ Chanel’s Little Black Dress until it resembles Carmen Miranda, complete with fruit hat.

Nevertheless, there’s a couple of things that will need your consideration/decision-making when making this cake.

  • Exactly as written, the cake is a little on the firm side. Personally I like it because of the contrast in texture between the filling, the cake and the frosting. Additionally, it makes for a more stable cake during assembly. However, if you’d like to have a lighter texture, consider whisking the egg-whites separately to stiff peaks, then folding them gently into the cake mixture after adding the flour and the milk. Your call.
  • Also, the cake doesn’t have any flavouring as such. Creamy milk, rich butter and fresh eggs should be sufficient, however, if you prefer your cakes to have a definite flavor, then add 1tsp vanilla extract to the batter.
  • Due to the liquids added after cooking, the filling might need a little help in order to stay a ‘filling’ and not become an ‘oozing out and dripping down’. You can add more yolks, or consider making the mixture thicker and more of a custard by adding a little cornflour mixed with water and cooking it until thick. Emma Lane recommends letting the assembled cake stand for a day or two before cutting, and this would enable any extra liquid to be absorbed by the sponge layers, however you would need to wrap the cake firmly in cling film or an acetate band in order to keep the filling between the cakes long enough to firm up. Alternatively, thicken with cornflour and then drizzle the cake with a little extra alcohol to moisten just before assembling.

This is the original Lane Cake recipe but for one fact: it’s half the size. The original recipe called for the mixture to be shared between four cake pans, which I don’t have. Now I know I could have used 2 tins and then split each cake horizontally, but I also don’t have a large enough audience to consume said cake once assembled. Making it just a two-layer cake is still an impressive-but-manageable size, and can also be easily scaled up should the occasion arise.

Have fun in the sun until next time – and don’t get too loaded with shinny! ;) M-A

Lane Cake

For the sponge
210g sifted plain flour [2]
1tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
113g unsalted butter – softened
200g caster sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
4 large egg-whites
120ml whole milk

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Grease two 20cm sandwich tins. Cut a circle of baking parchment for each one and line the bases. Set aside.
  • Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
  • Beat the butter until light and fluffy, then add the caster sugar and beat for a further 5-10 minutes until pale and fluffy.
  • Add the egg-whites one at a time. Beat well in before adding the next.
  • Add the milk and flour mixture alternately until fully combined.
  • Divide the mixture evenly between the prepared baking tins and smooth.
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cakes are risen and golden brown and have begun to shrink away from the sides of the pans.
  • Leave the cakes to cool in the tins for 5 minutes.
  • Turn the cakes out onto a wire rack and remove the sheet of baking parchment.
  • Gently turn the cakes the right way up and leave to cool completely.

For the filling
4 large egg yolks
100g caster sugar
30g butter – softened
75g seedless raisins – chopped
3tbs brandy or whisky
½tsp vanilla extract

  • Put the yolks sugar and butter into a pan and stir together over a medium heat until quite thick.
  • Remove pan from the heat and add the chopped raisins, alcohol and vanilla.
  • Cover with cling film and set aside to cool. If the filling is too runny when cold, consider using one of the options mentioned above to rectify.

For the Italian Meringue
50g egg whites (1-2 large)
pinch of cream of tartar
few drops of lemon juice
20g caster sugar
50ml water
100g caster sugar

  • In a standing mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk egg whites until foamy.
  • Add cream of tartar and lemon juice and continue whisking on medium-high speed until soft peaks form.
  • With the whisk running, slowly add the 20g of caster sugar in a steady stream.
  • When the egg whites reach stiff peaks, stop the whisk until the syrup is ready.
  • In a heavy saucepan, gently heat the 100g of caster sugar and water, swirling the pan until the sugar is dissolved. NB Don’t stir, or the sugar will crystallise and you will have to start again.
  • Turn the heat to high and cook the syrup until the soft ball stage on a sugar thermometer (115°C). NB Youmay have to tilt the pan in order to make the syrup deep enough for the sugar thermometer.
  • Remove the pan from the heat and wait until the syrup has stopped bubbling. If you’re not confident about pouring boiling syrup from a hot pan one-handed, pour the syrup into a plastic jug.
  • Switch the whisk to medium speed and slowly pour the cooked sugar into the stiffly beaten whites. NB This is the tricky part. If you are pouring the syrup straight from the pan, be sure your oven gloves are thick enough so that your hand is fully protected. Pour the sugar syrup in a steady stream so that it hits the side of the bowl just above the point where the beaters meet the side of the bowl. This will achieve 2 things: the syrup will cool and this will help avoid cooking and/or curdling the egg-whites and the beaters won’t get covered in sticky syrup.
  • Once all the syrup has been added, continue beating the egg-whites until the outside of the bowl feels cool. This will take between 10 and 15 minutes.

To assemble the cake.

  • Spread one cake with the cooled filling.
  • Place the other cake on top.
  • Coat the whole cake with the meringue.
  • Leave for 1-2 days before cutting to allow the flavours to mix. If chilled, allow to return to room temperature before serving.

[1] Slang for alcohol.

[2] Sifting the flour adds air, which in turn add lightness to the sponge. The quantity stated in the recipe is as a result of converting from US Cups. I might have sifted too much or too little air into the flour, so it’s more of a guideline than a hard and fast quantity. Keep some sifted flour on hand to add in case the cake mixture proves too loose.


Apple Fries

Apple Fries

Wotchers!

Here’s something I created following on from the post about Fat-Free Crispy Oven Chips a few weeks ago.

I wanted to see if it would work with something sweet and after a bit of trial and error, found the perfect pairing: Bramley Apples.

Bramley Apples are native to the UK and are the most popular choice for a cooking apple, because when cooked, they fluff up into a froth of apple puree without releasing too much juice – ideal for baking pies and for this recipe! The coating of spices and egg-white emerges from the oven deliciously crisp, yet as you bite into them, the apple inside collapses in a puff of froth.

If you can’t find Bramley Apples, I am assured by @essjayeff of Essjay Eats that Granny Smith apples also fluff up during cooking.

Delicious as a dessert or a snack, they’re fat-free, wheat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free and paleo friendly – and ready in just 20 minutes!

I like them plain, but then I’m especially fond of sharp-flavoured apples. You could always add a sprinkle of sugar or some cream for dipping if you wanted to be indulgent, but the dazzle on your halo after eating such a healthy dish is almost as delicious as the fries themselves!

Apple Fries

2 large Bramley Apples
3 large egg-whites
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
1½ tsp ground nutmeg

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Line a baking sheet with baking parchment.
  • Add the spices to the egg-whites and whisk in thoroughly. This might seem a lot of spice for the mixture, but the blast in the oven will eliminate much of their strength.
  • Peel the apples and cut into quarters.
  • Remove the cores and, depending on the size, cut each quarter into 3 or 4 wedges. Don’t cut them too thin – ideally, you want them to be thick enough to be able to ‘stand upright’ on the baking sheet on their curved outside edge, for maximum crisping.
  • Toss the apple slices in the egg-white mixture and stand them upright on the prepared baking sheet.
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes until crisped. NB: these wont be as crisp as the potato wedges. Try a taste test after 20 minutes to decide if they need a little longer.
  • Although they are still nice once cooled, these are best enjoyed straight from the oven.

No Knead Cucumber Bread

Cucumber Bread

Wotchers!

OK, so I might have taken a bit of a liberty with the title of this post, but I can honestly say that I didn’t knead this loaf.

My stand mixer with it’s dough hook on the other hand…..

Owning a mixer isn’t a prerequisite, however, because this is a very moist dough – and it gets moister over time – so it’s more of a stirred dough at best.

This loaf is a proper, yeast-raised savoury bread – not a sweet vegetable cake wearing a loaf shape as a disguise. It is delicately flavoured with fresh dill, which compliments the taste of the cucumber deliciously. It has a fabulous open, soft texture inside and a crunchy crust that stays crunchy, even the day after baking.

It struck me that this loaf is also the perfect solution to the old cucumber sandwich sogginess problem: cucumber in the bread, cream cheese between the bread – tadaah!

No Knead Cucumber Bread

1 large cucumber
1 tsp salt
500g strong bread flour
1 sachet fast-action yeast
1tsp sugar
2-3tbs chopped fresh dill

water for mixing

  • Shred the cucumber into matchsticks using a mandolin. Alternately, use a coarse grater.
  • Put the cucumber bits into a sieve over a bowl and sprinkle with ½ tsp salt.
  • Stir it about, then sprinkle the remaining salt and leave to drain for 30 minutes.
  • Put the remaining ingredients in a bowl and stir.
  • Tip the drained cucumber into the bowl, followed by the liquid that has drained out of it. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. You need to add liquid to bring this all together as a dough, but – unless you’ve got waaaaaaaaaaay too much time on your hands, you probably don’t want to wait around until it slowly leeches out of the cucumber. It’s going to leech out a bit more anyways, but you need to bring it together into a soft dough first.
  • Stir the mixture, or use a stand mixer and dough hook, and add in water as required, until there is no dry flour visible. You can also get in there with your hands, which might be the best way to judge the moisture needs of the dough. As a rough guide, and depending on the moisture content of the cucumber, it should take anything between 100-200ml more liquid. If you’ve made the Grant Loaf, the texture will be similar – not liquid, but too wet to knead. NB Don’t add too much liquid (obvs.). Add just a little at a time and make sure it’s very well mixed in before adding any more. Too much moisture will make for an open-textured but damp finished loaf.
  • Cover the bowl with cling film and leave until doubled in size. Depending on the room temperature, this could take anything between 1 and 2 hours.
  • What you’ll find,when you come back to your bowl, is that yes, it has risen, but also it has become much more liquid.
  • Grease a large loaf tin. The one in the pictures below is 24cmx14cmx7.5cm.
  • Pour – for there is no other word more suitable – the dough batter into the prepared loaf tin. It will come to within 3-4cm of the top of the tin (see left-hand pic below)
  • Set aside to rise while the oven heats up.
  • Heat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • It will take about 30-45 minutes for the dough to rise to the top of the tin – see right-hand pic above.
  • When the dough has risen, carefully transfer the tin to the oven. Don’t knock the tin, or you run the risk of deflating the dough.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the tin around 180° and bake for a further 20 minutes.
  • Remove the loaf from the tin and bake for a final 10 minutes, for a total cooking time of 1 hour.
  • Cool on a wire rack.
  • Wait until this loaf is completely cold -preferably the next day – before slicing.

Variations:

Flour: The more observant of you will have noticed some discrepancies amongst the photographs. This is down to different flours used to bake each loaf.

The loaf at the top of the page is made with white flour, the photo of unrisen dough is of a loaf made with brown bread flour, and the photo of the risen dough is of the loaf made with stone-ground wholemeal bread flour.

Brown Wholemeal Cucumber Bread

You can see the difference in the texture of the brown loaves in this photo: wholemeal (top) and brown (bottom). To begin with, I recommend making this recipe with white flour first, and then exploring other flours if so inclined when you’re happy judging the amount of liquid to add.

Cheese Another variation to include with the dough, thereby turning it into a picnic loaf which needs only the addition of  butter at most, to make for a deliciously portable snack. Cut 100g-150g of your favourite cheese (I suggest strong Cheddar, aged Red Leicester, Feta or Goats cheese) into 1cm cubes  and add to the dough after the first rise.


Vegetable Cheese Scones

Vegetable Cheese Scones

Wotchers!

This week it’s more a variation on a theme, rather than a completely new recipe.

Deliciously savoury cheese scones, fortified by the inclusion of some fresh vegetables in the middle – ideal for lunchboxes, picnics, to accompany soup or salad, or even as a mid-morning or afternoon snack.

I thought they looked especially pretty with a single piece of veg inside. Other suitable contenders might be small, vine-ripened tomatoes (peel them and place with the stalk to the side in order to look prettiest when cut) and whole, caramelised shallots.

Of course, you could just as easily cut the vegetables into dice the same size as the cheese, but I quite like the surprise element of the scones appearing to be plain, albeit of a rather generous size.

The recipe I have used as a starting point is the one for Mrs McNab’s scones from my book. As an unsweetened recipe, it is perfect as a blank canvas which can be tweaked to your own needs. Here are a few tips I followed when tweaking:

  • Choose your cheese and vegetables according to your personal preference. I used cheddar for the scones with cauliflower and mushroom, although it doesn’t show up much. A more striking alternative might be Double Gloucester or an aged Red Leicester. White feta/goats cheese goes well with both the broccoli and the beetroot. Alternatively, a pale and crumbly Cheshire or Caerphilly cheese or even a blue cheese would also be suitable.
  • Cut cheese into 1cm cubes. Grated cheese tends to blend into the scone mix and get rather lost. One of the first batches I made of these scones had 100g grated Parmesan in and you could barely make out any cheese flavour at all. The cubed cheese gives a great hit of cheesiness because it is nestled in the plain scone mix, which gives it a great contrast.
  • Whenever you have cooked cheese in a recipe, add a little mustard powder. It won’t be detectable, but it will give a great boost to the flavour of the cheese.
  • Make sure the vegetables are partly cooked. The cooking time for scones is so short, the heat won’t penetrate enough to cook them, merely warm them through. I roasted the cauliflower for a bit of extra flavour and blanched the broccoli for 5 minutes. The mushrooms were poached in stock for 30 minutes and the beetroot I bought ready cooked.
  • Add some pepper to the scone mix.
  • Bake the scones in deep muffin tins to give them a good shape.

Veggie Scones close-up

Vegetable Cheese Scones

Makes 12 large scones. You can make more if you reduce the size of the scones and use small vegetables.

450g plain flour
60g unsalted butter
1 tsp salt
½tsp black pepper
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda [1]
2 tsp cream of tartar [1]
1 tsp mustard powder
1 large egg
150-200g cheese – cut into 1cm cubes
150ml plain yoghurt
150ml milk, plus extra to glaze

Assorted cooked vegetables

  • Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C Fan.
  • Grease a 12-hole muffin tin.
  • Put the flour, butter, salt, pepper, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar, mustard and the egg into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Tip the mixture into a large bowl.
  • Add the cubed cheese.
  • Mix the yoghurt and 150ml milk together thoroughly.
  • Gradually stir into the flour and egg mixture with a knife. The dough will be very soft and rather wet. This is fine.
  • Put a heaped tablespoon into the bottom of each cup of the muffin tin.
  • Press the vegetable you are using gently into the scone mix.
  • Spoon more scone mix over the top until the vegetable is completely covered.
  • Smooth the tops and brush with milk to glaze.
  • Bake for 15 minutes until risen and golden. Turn the baking sheet around 180° after 10 minutes to ensure even baking.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

[1] Or use 4tsp baking powder.


Seed Crunchies

Seed Crunchies

Wotchers!

I’m on a bit of a using-up-egg-whites roll at the moment, having made a lot of egg-yolk-heavy recipes recently, and so here is a variation on meringue that is ideal for lunchboxes, mid-morning snack or afternoon energy boost.

They’re gluten-free and, although they contain sugar, the amount-per-biscuit is really quite low (about 5g), so they can also sneak in as a Paleo treat.

They’re packed with nuts and seeds for all those beneficial vitamins and minerals. You can also choose to make them even more substantial by replacing the flaked almonds with some toasted oats (steel-rolled for preference – less dust, more crunch!) if you like. Don’t feel obliged to stick rigidly to the ingredients below, just make up the overall weight with your own mix of nutty goodness: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, etc.

Short and sweet (and crunchy!) this week. :D

Seed Crunchies

70g egg-white (2 large)
pinch of salt
70g caster sugar (or the same weight as the egg-whites)
60g flaked almonds
50g sunflower seeds
50g pumpkin seeds
30g pecans – chopped
20g flax seeds

  • Preheat the oven to 100°C, 80°C Fan – although no-fan is preferable if you want to keep the biscuits pearly-white.
  • Line  a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Add the salt to the egg-whites.
  • Whisk the egg-whites on medium speed until frothy, then gradually whisk in the caster sugar, a spoonful at a time (to allow it time to dissolve before the next spoonful). You can test whether the sugar has dissolved by rubbing a little of the egg-white between finger and thumb – you shouldn’t feel any graininess.
  • Increase the speed of whisking as you add the sugar until full speed by the time the last of the sugar is added.
  • Continue whisking until the sugar is fully dissolved and the meringue is thick and glossy.
  • Fold in the nuts and seeds.
  • Drop the mixture onto the baking sheets in whatever size you desire, but bear in mind, the larger the diameter, the longer it will take to dry out. I used a heaped tablespoon and a small round cutter to give the biscuits an even and consistent shape.
  • Dry the biscuits slowly in the oven for 1-1.5 hours.
  • Allow to cool completely before removing from the paper. Use a thin spatula in case the middle is still a little sticky.
  • Store in an airtight container.

Crispy Oven Chips

Oven Chips

Wotchers!

Here’s a life-altering post *she claims, modestly* in that it is for crispy, oven-baked chips. Chips, not fries (which are too thin to enjoy, in my opinion), although the term ‘wedges’ would also be permissible.

The main difference between these and other oven-baked chips is that they’re fat-free.

Fat-free!

Not, as many another oven-baked recipe turns out, oven-baked in oil – but completely fat free.

And gluten-free!

The secret is egg-white. Add your favourite spices and flavourings to some egg-whites and whisk until frothy – although frothiness isn’t compulsory, a light whisking that just loosens the egg-white is perfectly sufficient. Toss parboiled potatoes in the mixture, lay on parchment and bake in the oven and Tadaah!

It’s that simple. No need to sigh at the prospect of having to make yet more meringues/macaroons when faced with leftover egg-whites, THIS is the new way to use them up.

Infinitely customisable, I’ve made several batches, trying different flavourings, and each one has turned out dry and crisp and fluffy inside and deliciously fat-free.

  • Variations:
    • The suggestions below are just that – suggestions only. Feel free to mix up your own combinations. If you like things spicy, add some chilli flakes, if cheese is your passion, some grated parmesan could be just the thing, caraway seeds, fennel, tarragon, cajun spices, tandoori spices, onion or garlic powder, etc.
    • Now I’m also well aware that sometimes your taste-bids crave the oil/fat associated with chips, so if you have a go at the recipe below and it’s not quite doing it for you, try mixing in just 1 tablespoon of oil with the egg-white and spices, just before coating the chips. This small addition can, of course, be any oil you like – as well as all of the plain oils, infused oils would add an extra flavour dimension: garlic, herb, even truffle-oil – the possibilities are endless. Do let me know your own combinations!

Enough chat, on with the recipe!

Crisp Oven-Baked Chips

The following quantities are sufficient for 2 generous adult helpings. Scale up for larger quantities.

500g potatoes
60ml egg-whites (2 large)

  • Flavorings
    • Suggestion 1 – Herby: 2tsp mixed, dried herbs (I used ½tsp each of dried thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram), ¼tsp salt, ½tsp coarse-ground black pepper
    • Suggestion 2 – Spicy: 2tsp mixed ground spices (½tsp each of coriander, cumin, garam masala, smoked paprika) ¼tsp salt, ½tsp coarse-ground black pepper,

 

  • Peel the potatoes and cut them into chunky chips or wedges. They should be at least as thick as your finger, to ensure a nice contrast between crispy outsides and fluffy insides.
  • Rinse the raw chips in cold water, to get rid of some of the starch and then keep them immersed in water until ready to parboil.
  • Heat a pan of water. When the water is boiling, drain the raw chips from the cold water and tip them into the pan. This will cool the water down and take it off the boil.
  • Bring the water back to a rolling boil and let the chips cook for a further 2 minutes. This will take about 7-8 minutes from the time you tip in the potatoes.
  • Remove the chips from the water and drain in a sieve. Set aside to cool. They don’t have to be completely cold before you coat them, just not hot enough to cook the egg-white before you’ve got them coated.
  • Heat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan.
  • Line a baking sheet with non-stick baking parchment. This is important. Foil will not do, nor will greaseproof paper,  as the chips will stick.
  • Whisk together the egg-white and flavourings.
  • Gently toss the par-boiled chips in the flavourings. Work in 2 or 3 batches, to ensure they get evenly coated and don’t break apart.
  • Lay the chips onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. If there’s any egg-white left over, use a pastry brush to dab it over the chips if liked – a thicker layer makes for more crunch.
  • Bake for 20 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven and turn the chips over. Bake for another 10-15 minutes.
  • Serve with your favourite dips, sauces and relishes.

 

 


Tunbridge Cakes

Tunbridge Cakes

Wotchers!

This week I’ve got another recipe resurrection for you, but I’ll give you fair warning, it’s a little caraway-heavy. If you’re not a fan of the taste of caraway, then you’re not going to have a fun time.

The solution to that, of course, would be to substitute a different flavouring for the caraway – easy-peasy – aniseed or cumin if you want to keep it seedy, or lemon/orange zest to make it fresh but really, anything that appeals is fine.

ANYHOO – back to the cakes.

Despite the name, Tunbridge Cakes are actually a biscuit. In the mid nineteenth century, Alfred Romary set up a biscuit factory in the town and the biscuits were manufactured for over a hundred years. Queen Victoria was so delighted with them she awarded a royal warrant and the royal connection continued until the final batch was baked for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spenser in 1981.

Romary Biscuit Tins

The advertisements for the biscuits described them as being “As thin as lace, of a flavour so delicate as to be indefinable. The clubs serve them with port, but they are also excellent with ices or at afternoon tea. Many people prefer them to sweets and chocolate. In two flavours, Sweet and Ginger.” Interestingly, there’s no mention of caraway, nor does it appear on the ingredients list on the tins above, which mention only flour, butter, shortening, sugar and salt. George Read’s “The complete biscuit and gingerbread baker’s assistant” (1854) makes a distinction between ‘Water Cakes with Caraways’ and ‘Tunbridge Water Cakes’, though whether these bear any resemblance to the Romary biscuits is unclear.

Tunbridge Cakes actually go back much further than mere Victorian times. Recipe books from the early half of the nineteenth century contain several mentions of Tunbridge Cakes, although, on closer examination. they all appear to be plagiarised copies of Mrs Eliza Rundell’s 1806 recipe. The earliest printed recipe I could find just snuck (What? ‘Snuck’ is so a word!) into the eighteenth century – John Perkins’ 1796 recipe for Tunbridge Wafer Cakes. However, in my favourite recipe collection, that of the manuscripts of The Wellcome Library, I found not one but four recipes more than one hundred years older than any I could find in print.

Since the recipes were so similar, with only slight variations in proportions of flour, butter, sugar, eggs and seeds, baking a batch of each was the only way they could be fairly compared. I managed to scale down the recipes to a common quantity of flour, and then mixed and baked a batch of each.

It was immediately apparent that two of the batches stood out as being superior, but for different reasons. Batch A was incredibly light and delicate, friable and crumbly in texture, whilst the flavour of Batch B had that elusive je ne sais quoi deliciousness that was difficult to place, without knowing what the ingredients were. My dilemma was: I couldn’t decide which I liked better. Batch B was very heavy on the caraway seeds, but the background spices kept me coming back to nibble. The delicate texture of Batch A was a delight.

In the end I added the extra flavourings from Batch B to the mix of Batch A and baked a hybrid that seemed to being the best of both batches. If you want to try the original recipe, simply omit the optional flavourings in the ingredients listed below.

“Yeah, but even after all the yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, they still don’t look very interesting” I hear you say. I know. They’ve not got much wow factor to look at, and if you’ve read this far, you might even be wondering why you should bother with them at all. So allow me to try and convince you. Firstly, their taste – the most basic quality for a recipe – they are delicious, and this should be reason enough. If you need further convincing,  it would be their delicate texture: crisp, crumbly and friable. And lastly, and for me this is their most enchanting quality, their age. Late 17th century. To put this in context, contemporaneous events include the English civil war, Roundheads & Cavaliers, Oliver Cromwell, the Great Fire of London, Peter The Great crowned Czar of Russia and the Salem witch trials are conducted in Massachusetts. And this is a delicious biscuit from those times. As Sue Perkins so eloquently put it in her Foreword for my book (Geeze-Louise, here she is again with her shameless book plugging! Shamelessness I say!), it’s taste-bud time travel!

Apart from the flavourings, the other key aspect of these biscuits is their thinness. And I mean thin. Really, really thin. Like 2mm. Even though the quantity of dough is small, I strongly suggest working with just half of it at a time, so that you can really concentrate on getting the dough as thin as possible. It will become translucent when rolled thinly enough. The biscuits will then take only minutes to bake.

Tunbridge Cakes

Based on recipes in The Wellcome Library dated 1650-1700

113g plain flour
23g unsalted butter
34g powdered sugar
1 large egg yolk
½tsp caraway seeds
½tsp ground ginger – optional
¼tsp salt – optional
50-70ml double cream to mix

  • Put the flour, butter, sugar and egg yolk into a food processor and blitz together to mix.
  • Tip mixture into a bowl and add the caraway seeds, ginger and salt, if using.
  • Stir together.
  • Gradually add the cream until the mixture comes together into a stiff paste.,
  • Tip the paste out of the bowl and knead smooth. The texture should be like a firm shortcrust pastry.
  • Wrap in plastic and chill for 1 hour.
  • Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Retrieve the paste from the fridge, divide in half and put one half back into the fridge to stay cool.
  • Lightly flour the work surface and a rolling pin and roll out the dough extremely thinly, until translucent and the work surface is visible through it.
  • Using a fork, dock (i.e. poke holes in) the whole surface of the paste. This is a little time consuming, but infinitely better than trying to dock the biscuits once they have been cut out.
  • Cut out biscuits using a plain, 8cm cutter.
  • Transfer the biscuits to baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
  • Bake for 4-6 minutes, until the edges are just beginning to brown. Check after 3 minutes and turn the baking sheet around if the biscuits are colouring unevenly.
  • Remove the biscuits from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.
  • Store in an airtight container.

 


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