All Fired Up
Read more from Gerald
It’s cold, wet, windy outside, yet all is warm and particularly cosy as I have just finished the week’s baking and the house is full of the smell of fresh-baked bread with a hint of winter wood smoke. This evening I will sit in front of the fire and enjoy one of my favourite winter suppers, a pot of tea and toasted crumpets with a slice or two of strong cheese and some crisp celery sticks or maybe some potted prawns or Gentleman’s Relish spread on the last slices of last week’s loaf still hot from the toasting fork. Bliss!
I probably enjoy this sort of thing because of my mum and dad. They used to love telling me a story of their early life together in wartime London. Their house had been bombed, destroying most of their possessions and they were living very basically in a two room flat. One cold winter’s night they were huddled round the coal fire in their dressing gowns drinking tea and making toast which they spread with a delicious beef dripping given to them by a neighbour, when there came a knock at the door and a voice which called, “It’s only me!” It was the vicar. Mum was embarrassed and started to apologise for the situation but the vicar interrupted with, “Oh joy! Dripping toast! I love it! Do you have enough for me too?” and happily joined in.
To me there are three stars of the toasting fork;
- Thick slices of bread, none of your sliced rubbish sold in plastic bags, these have to be from a good country loaf, quite apart from flavour, if the bread is poor quality the slices will tear and fall off the fork. Ideally the toast should be thick enough to be crisp on the outside and soft in the middle.
- Homemade crumpets, easy to make, can be frozen and have a much nicer texture than the sometimes rubbery bought ones.
- English muffins, again homemade are best. Any that are left-over can be frozen and toasted in the modern way and served with poached egg, ham and Hollandaise sauce for a Benedictine brunch.
These are the recipes I use:
500g plain flour
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp sugar
1½ tsp dried yeast
1 tbsp salt
Generous pinch of bicarbonate of soda
150ml warm water
Warm the flour in a mixing bowl. Mix the milk, oil and sugar together and heat to blood temperature then whisk in the yeast. Leave until the yeast starts working and the mixture develops froth. Stir the salt into the warm flour then make a well in the centre and pour in the milk/yeast mixture. Beat together for 6 or so minutes. If you are using an electric beater 4 minutes should be long enough. Cover the bowl with cling film or a shower cap and leave in a warm place for 1½-2 hours. After this time dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the water and beat this into the mixture. Leave the mixture to rise for another 30 minutes.
Grease a griddle or hotplate and grease the crumpet rings (I find even non-stick ones need this). When ready to cook, heat the griddle and the rings then pour the mixture into the rings to fill them by about two-thirds. Leave them to cook gently for between 7-10 minutes. Turn them over when then top has formed a skin and is covered in holes. Should the holes not form, this means the batter is too thick and should be thinned with a little warm water or milk before cooking the next batch. Cook for about 3 minutes more, then ease out of the ring and continue with the rest of the batter. The finished crumpet should be smooth and golden on the underside and pale and holey on top. Makes about 8-10 crumpets
4 cups plain flour
2 tsp sugar
1 cup warm milk
1 tsp salt
2 tsp dried yeast
2 tbsp melted butter
Sift the flour into a bowl and mix in the salt. Dissolve the sugar in the warm milk and whisk in the dried yeast. Leave in a warm place until the yeast starts working and a froth forms. Add this mixture to the flour together with the egg and the melted butter and mix to soft dough. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for about 10 minutes. Put the dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover loosely with cling film. Leave in a warm place to double in size. Turn the risen dough onto a floured surface and knock back to remove any air bubbles. Roll out to about 1½-2cm thick and with a pastry cutter cut out 9-10cm circles. Dust with flour then cover with cling film and leave until risen to double their size. Lightly oil or grease a griddle, hotplate or heavy frypan, heat then cook the muffins in batches for 8 or so minutes a side. Split and serve warm. Makes about 8 muffins.
One other joy that can be easily prepared in front of the winter fire is the Swiss dish raclette. The cheese, the French one named after this dish is easily available here and works very well, is held with tongs on front of the fire until it starts to melt and then the melted part is scraped off onto bread – or plain boiled potatoes – and enjoyed while still hot with gherkins, or a simple onion salad of sliced onions, oil and vinegar, Dijon mustard, pepper and salt. The cheese is melted for each person in turn.
But tonight however I think it will be a slice of mature English Cheddar that I have been saving, which with buttery fire-toasted crumpets, a few radishes and some celery will keep me quite happy. Winter? What’s that?