Wednesday 11 September 2013

Banqueting Stuffe To Go

I have just finished making a table full of early modern period sweetmeats for a BBC production which will chart the arrival of Renaissance culture in England. It will all be dispatched in some carefully packed pizza boxes I have scrounged from the local take away. The photo above shows an assemblage of 'banqueting stuffe' typical of the late sixteenth and seventeenth century. On the large charger on the left are 'cinnamon letters according to arte', jumbals, printed bisket, Shropshire cakes, Naples bisket, artificial walnuts, rolled wafers and date leach. At the back two edible sugar tazze are covered with marchpane in collops, muscadines, white gingerbread, sugar plate playing cards and comfits. To the right of the white hart marchpane is a gilded and painted sugar plate trencher copied from one made of beechwood in the British Museum collection. The white gingerbread figures were printed from an original early Stuart mould in my collection and made from a recipe in Lady Anne Clifford's receipt book in the BL. 

White gingerbread figures
There are two edible sugar tazze. One is in Venetian style, the other inspired by the wonderful designs for salts and tazze supported by dolphins by Giulio Romano in the Fitzwilliam Museum. I am truly fortunate in owning a remarkable wooden mould designed to make a tazza of this kind. Next month, I am running a course on sugarwork and confectionery (full up I am afraid) and my students will get a chance to have a go at making one of these themselves.
Sugar tazza in the style of Giulio Romano - moulds below

Friday 6 September 2013

Toad-in-a-Hole Biscuits and Friends

Some English biscuits from a recipe book published in the year of the French Revolution. Left: Toad in a Hole Biscuits, Top: Judge's Biscuits, Right: Fine Almond Faggots, Bottom: Yarmouth Biscuits
Biscuits have been on my mind for some time. Last week food writer and television cook Nigel Slater came to my kitchen to find out about how biscuits were made in Britain before they were mass-produced in factories. Nigel is the presenter of a programme on biscuits which will air on the BBC later this year. We made seventeenth century Shrewsbury Cakes from a recipe collected by John Evelyn and I introduced him to a number of forgotten English biscuits that once graced the dessert tables of the Georgian nobility. Most of these I made from recipes in Frederick Nutt's The Complete Confectioner (London: 1789). These luxury items, designed for accompanying wine rather than tea, are so much nicer than a lot of the manufactured biscuits consumed in Britain today They are also very easy to make. So I have appended some of Nutt's recipes at the end of this article. 

My all time favourites are his toad-in-a-hole biscuits, whose name almost certainly arose because of their similarity to the popular Georgian supper dish toad-in-a-hole. This cheap and cheerful delicacy was originally made by covering pieces of meat, usually beef, in a milk, egg and flour batter and baking it in the oven. The earliest printed recipe for the savoury toad-in-a-hole is in Richard Briggs, The English Art of Cookery (London: 1788) published only a year before Nutt's biscuit version. In the modern incarnation of the dish, the beef has been replaced with sausages. India Mandelkern, to my mind the foremost blogger on eighteenth century English food culture, has written a short, but fascinating essay on toad-in-hole, to which there is a link at the end of this posting.  

Toad-in-a-hole-biscuits were made from little rounds of almond paste into which one or two dried cherries were pushed before they were baked. Like the Yorkshire pudding batter used in the savoury dish, the almond paste rises as it bakes, enveloping the cherries, thus creating the miniature 'toad-in-a-holes'. Nutt's recipe calls for 'dried cherries'. What he means by this are syrup sweetened and candied cherries, not exactly the same as glacé cherries. I use dried morello cherries which work really well.

If my own favourite from the filming session was the toad-in-a-hole biscuit. Nigel Slater's was Nutt's 'Orange Biscuit', which he said was the most delicious biscuit he had eaten in his life. Tasting like a cumulus cloud lightly spread with marmalade, this fluffy, but incredibly crisp morsel dissolves on the tongue in micro-seconds. If you cannot read Mr Nutt's recipe in the photo below, I have appended a clearer version at the end of the posting.
Frederick Nutt's Orange Biscuits. Photo: Nigel Slater
One biscuit which originated in the early nineteenth century and remained popular for over a century was the Union Biscuit, designed originally to commemorate the Acts of Union of 1801. But why celebrate a political act with a biscuit? I cannot be sure, but I suspect that these biscuits were consumed with wine during the toasts at the end of a formal dinner. Toasts to the reigning monarch, Union etc. took place during the dessert course when biscuits were usually laid out with the other sweetmeats. These little biscuits pirnted with the word Union would have been perfect for nibbling with the sweet wines. They were still fashionable in the early twentieth century when Frederick Vine gave detailed instructions for making them in the second edition of his marvellous trade manual Biscuits for Bakers (London: 1906).

Union, Wine and some other patriotic friends
Vine not only explains the recipe, which is a very basic one, but the process of stamping them with the Union design. His full instructions are below. By 'volatile' he means ammonium bicarbonate, once known as sal volatile, or hartshorn, because it was formerly made by calcining stag antlers. At some point I will publish a detailed posting about volatile and other leavening agents.

Over many decades I have sought out quite a few of the biscuit prints and dockers formerly used by confectioners and bakers, but so far a Union Biscuit stamp has eluded me. However, I do own a remarkable biscuit roller which is carved with a total of fifteen different designs, among which is a Union stamp. Some of the other stamps on the roller are also patriotic. One, emblazoned with VR, dates the roller very definitely to the reign of Queen Victoria. There is also a royal crown, a shamrock of Ireland, a thistle of Scotland and a rose of England. Some of the other designs are decorative and represent ears of wheat, pineapples and a ship's anchor. One is engraved with the word WINE, indicating that it was for making a dessert biscuit to be consumed with a glass of wine.  

Frederick Vine gives five recipes for wine biscuits and has this to say on the subject,

'Almost all biscuits not made for special purposes are really wine biscuits; yet in almost every shop you will invariably find a special biscuit made and sold under this heading. Why it should be so, I know not; yet , being so it becomes my duty to direct your attention to the fact, and give a few special mixtures accordingly.'

What he is saying is that most biscuits were once made for consuming with wine. We now of course devour them more commonly with tea. Applying this information to the biscuits that my roller was used to produce makes a great deal of sense. Only one recipe mix was required to make the fifteen different biscuit designs, which I suspect were all intended to be used when toasting. The VR, the royal crown, the Union and the symbols of the constituent countries of the kingdom are all represented. During the nineteenth century the very large industrial biscuit manufacturers, such as Carrs, Huntley and Palmers, Peak Freans etc. produced many different stamped biscuits of this kind. Some like 'zoological biscuits' were moulded in the form of various animals for the delight no doubt of Victorian children, but all were made with the same basic recipe, usually along the lines of Vine's recipe for Union biscuits above. These enormous factories used mechanical rollers to produce their printed biscuits which were made by the million. Despite the competition from these big companies, small scale confectioners and bakers continued to make handcrafted biscuits using the old fashioned techniques described by Vine. However the biscuit roller was a step up from the biscuit stamp and I have had a great deal of fun using it to recreate these Victorian delights.

Twelve of the designs on the roller stamped into some biscuit paste. Note the symbolic flowers of Ireland, England and Scotland above. The pineapple  was a symbol much used for a confectioner's shop. The anchor represents the navy. The borders designs of the biscuits represent wheat straw and ears of corn. Although these biscuits can be trimmed down to size with a knife, I think it likely that originally a little rectangular tin cutter would have been used to cut them out more quickly.
Here are the recipes for the biscuits illustrated at the beginning of the posting. All are from Frederick Nutt, The Complete Confectioner (London: 1789). I suspect that some of them, like the fine almond faggots and orange biscuits, are Italian in origin. It is possible that Nutt learnt these from his master Domenico Negri, a confectioner from Turin who founded the Pot and Pineapple in Berkeley Square in the late 1750s. Because of the high sugar content, the orange biscuits blister and spread in the oven, but do not worry. When they are cool, just break off the ragged pieces round the edges and they will look good. The Yarmouth Biscuits are incredibly buttery. Delicious!

Toad-in-a-Hole Biscuits.

TAKE one pound of sweet, and one ounce and a half of bitter almonds, and pound them in a mortar very fine with water, then one pound and a quarter of Lisbon sugar, and mix it very well with the almonds: do not make it too thin, and remember there are no eggs in this; then put one sheet of paper on your wire, and some wafer paper on that, then take a spoon and make your biscuits round on the wafer paper, about the size of a half-crown piece; then put one or two dried cherries in the middle of them; and sift some powdered sugar over them, and put them in the oven, which must have a moderate heat, and when they come out, cut the wafer paper round them, but leave the paper at the bottom of them.

Judges Biscuits. 

TAKE six eggs and break them into a copper pan, yolks and whites together, whisk them well for about five minutes, mix half a pound of powdered sugar with the eggs, and whisk them for ten minutes, put as many carraway seeds as you think proper, and half a pound of sifted flour, mix it well with a wooden spoon, and put three papers on your plates ; then take a spoon and drop them on papers about the size of a crown piece, sift some powdered sugar over them, let them be rather thick in the middle, and the oven rather sharp and when they come out, cut them off the paper while hot.

Fine Almond Faggots.

CUT some sweet almonds in halves, put them and some whites of eggs in a bason together ; put a little powdered sugar, to make the almonds stick together, mix them well together in a bason ; put some wafer papers on your wire, make the almonds up in little heaps with your fingers, as big as you please ; sift a little powdered sugar over them, before you put them in the oven ; let them be a little brown, and then take them out, and cut the wafer paper off round them, that is ragged, and leave the wafer paper at the bottom of them.

Yarmouth Biscuits.

TAKE six ounces of currants, wash and pick them very clean, dry them well, rub a little flour among them to make them white, and put half a pound of powdered sugar with the currants upon a clean dresser, add twelve ounces of flour sifted, and half a pound of the best fresh butter you can get; break three eggs and mix all the ingredients together to become a paste that you can roll it on the dresser the thickness of an eighth part of an inch, and then cut them out either round or what shape you fancy.

N. B. Your oven must be rather hot, and put two or three sheets of paper under them, do not bake them too much, only just make them brown.

Orange Biscuits.

TAKE one pound of sweet almonds, pound them in a mortar very fine with whites of eggs ; take ten China oranges, rasp the rind off them very fine, and put it with the almonds ; add three pounds of powdered sugar, and mix. it well, if you find it too thick, put more whites of eggs to it and mix it well; then put two or three sheets of paper under, besides that you have put them on : let your oven have a moderate heat ; drop little round pieces of paste on your paper, about half as big as a nutmeg, and put them in the oven : let them have a fine brown, and take them off when cold.

N. B. Your oven must be rather hot, and put two or three sheets of paper under them, do not bake them too much, only just make them brown.

Please read India Mandelkern's great essay The Secret History of Toad-in-a-Hole