Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Toasted Teacake Recipe

One thing we love at the weekends (and sometimes in the week too) is to have a proper afternoon tea. It is really nice to get all the old china out and sit down together over fresh coffee and cake, chatting or reading through magazines. The trick is to borrow all the sense of occasion and beauty from the ritual, without the stuffiness or formality.

So last weekend I decided to have a go at baking some English teacakes, the most quintessential of afternoon tea treats. Little did I know that working out what a teacake actually was would prove so difficult... but in the end I came up with a recipe that I am really pleased with.

Mrs Beeton: The addition of sugar and fruit
is very nice...
As with so much traditional English food recipes vary depending on the region and historical period, and names sometimes referred to very different recipes. Historically speaking a teacake, particularly in the north east of England (most famously Yorkshire), was a small yeast based bread, without fruit - a direct descendant of the Manchet bread or 'hand bread'. However in modern usage, almost throughout England, it refers to a bun with fruit and spices. 

Writing in 1861 Mrs Beeton's basic recipe follows this older northern use of the term and doesn't have either sugar or currants in them, although she does say that they are 'very nice' with them added, making a more southern, modern teacake. 

Two other interesting elements are the use of eggs (quite literally some do and some don't include them - really without rhyme or reason) and also the different types of fat they use. I went for butter in the end, as although the use of lard would certainly have made for a shorter mix, I could not quite bring myself to use it. Dan Lepard has a really interesting recipe on the Guardian website and suggests the use of white chocolate instead of lard... I thought about using his version, but I think it would make his already sweet recipe very sweet indeed. 

However, what I did learn from Dan was that fat, sugar and even spices slow the yeast down, so much so that for his recipe he recommends 5tsp of dried yeast. Mine are not so sweet or fatty, so I have reduced this to 3tsp - but this is still much more than I would have added for bread.

The dough is set to rise twice, until doubled
in size, which is around an hour each.
Most times teacakes are served split and toasted and I would suggest making them the day before you need them. Our toaster has a 'bagel' setting that only heats the element on one side. So I toasted them until almost done on the inside surfaces first, then turned the knob so that both sides heat up and warm the top or bottom for the last 30 seconds or so. Obviously with a grill this is even easier and on an open fire much more fun.

I was surprised to find that the buttering of teacakes is considered an art in itself, with almost every writer advocating their own tried and tested method. Perhaps the only constant was that a meanness of butter is deplored by everyone. The rather emphatic advice below is borrowed from Dorothy Hartley:

' The right way to butter toasted teacakes (IMPORTANT): Toast bottoms and tops first; split and toast insides; lay (do not poke or spread) bits of butter on the lower half; cover with the top half; and invert. Keep hot for 3 minutes, then turn the right side up, polish the top with a suspicion of butter, cut into quarters, and send to the table. In this way the butter is evenly distributed and does not soak down into the bottom crust.’

Teacakes just before brushing with milk and baking.
My first batch of teacakes followed a middle road and included some currents, but not peel or spices. They were nice, but perhaps rather predictably neither-this-nor-that and, being a southerner, I felt they would be improved with some spice. So to my second lot I added ginger, cinnamon and allspice. Allspice is an unusual spice to use (I couldn't find any other recipes using it), but is one of my favourites and I think works well. However, you could replace this with nutmeg for a more traditional combination.

The recipe produces a light and fragrant teacake, but also one which has a depth of flavour and texture from the wholemeal flour, even more so if spelt is used. Please do try it and let me know what you think... 

Teacake Recipe

   8oz (250g) white flour
   8oz (250g) wholemeal flour (wholegrain spelt is ideal)
   2 oz (50g) butter 
   4 oz (125g) currants
   1oz (25g) caster sugar 
   1 tsp of salt
   3 tsp of yeast
   1/2 pint of tepid milk


   1/2 tsp of cinnamon and dried ginger
   1/2 to 1 tsp of allspice


   1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, dried ginger and nutmeg

Mix together the milk and yeast and then set aside. Combine the flour, spices, salt and sugar before rubbing in the butter and finally adding the currents. Pour in the milk and yeast mixture to form a soft dough and then kneed until elastic and smooth.

Place the dough into a large bowl and cover with a damp tea towel, then place into a warm place until the mixture has doubled in size - I usually use the oven set to 30°c and this takes around an hour.

Cut the dough into 8 pieces, before setting
to rise a second time.
Divide the mixture into 8 equally sized pieces and form each one into a flat round, placing them onto baking trays. Cover with the damp tea towel and leave to rise in the warm place, again until they have doubled in size (about an hour).

Finally brush the tops very gently with milk (this can be done before the final proving if you wish) and then place in the oven at 400°f or 200°c for around 20mins - until they are golden brown. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Toast and butter as described above an serve on the very best chintzy china. 

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