Gingerbread Recipes

The evolution of Gingerbread recipes illustrates the development of British cooking both in terms of both ingredients and equipment, see here.

Medieval Gingerbread

The following appears in 15th century recipe books. Note that it does not contain any ginger! Honey is an essential ingredient of this time and it is actually formed from bread.

1½ lb honey

¼ tsp each saffron and ground pepper

2½ oz breadcrumbs

½ tsp ground cinnamon

18 small bay leaves

6 cloves

Bring the honey to the boil in a pan with the saffron and pepper.  Remove from the heat and stir in the breadcrumbs so as to make a very thick paste.  Simmer on an asbestos mat over a low heat for 15-20 minutes until the paste has dried out.  Place in a 9×5 inch loaf tin.  Smooth over the top and sprinkle with cinnamon. Make 6 trefoils on the top by sticking groups of three bay leaves together at the stalk end with a clove pierced through each group into the surface of the ginger bread.  Chill for several days (in a refrigerator nowadays).  Serve in small slices.

Parliament Cake

The old hard style of Gingerbread was known in Edinburgh as Parliament cake.  The judges, lawyers and men of Parliament Square would meet for a midday break of whisky, rum or brandy accompanied by a salver of ginger biscuits or parties. Very strongly ginger-flavoured, to match the strong drink, the recipe appears in Meg Dodds (1826).  (via Laura Mason and Catherine Brown)

With two pounds of the best flour dried, mix thoroughly one pound of good brown sugar and a quarter pound of ground ginger.  Melt a pound of fresh butter, add to it one of treacle, boil this, and pour it on the flour, work up a paste as hot as your hands will bear it, and roll out in very large cakes, the sixth of an inch thick or less; mark it in squares with a knife or paper-cutter, and fire in a slow oven.  Separate the squares while soft, and they will soon get crisp.

Note that treacle has already replaced honey and flour the breadcrumbs of older recipes but that no raising agent is employed.  This is the type of gingerbread that would be used to make gingerbread men or houses although raising agent would now be employed and golden syrup replaces treacle. The following is Mary Berry’s recipe from Great British Bake Off. You will see the similarities but note also that it contains about half the ginger of the Parliament Cake.

375g/13 oz unsalted butter

300g/10½oz dark muscovado sugar

150g/5½oz golden syrup

900g/2lb plain flour

1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tbsps ground ginger

Make the mixture as described for Parliament Cake but bake the cut biscuits at 200°C for 7-8 minutes.

Parkin

Parkin is the northern form of Gingerbread.  The name was in use some time before the 1730s, when it was cited in a Halifax (West Yorkshire) court case about stolen oatmeal – one of the defining ingredients.  There are many local names and recipes, for example Thar cake, that suggest its origins stem from the Middle Ages and an association with pagan bonfire ceremonies which took place at the end of October.  It is still made for Bonfire Night in Yorkshire.

Recipes for Parkin have been modernised over time.  Originally it would have been made on a griddle or bakestone but now an oven.  In the 1800s Oatmeal became cut half and half with flour, the fat also might now be half lard and half butter.  The cake was further lightened with baking powder and, when Golden Syrup came on the market in 1880, it began to be substituted for black treacle.

In Yorkshire and the neighbouring counties Parkin is a soft, sticky sponge that improves with keeping.  The name can also relate to the biscuit form found mainly around the Scottish Borders, see Parliament Cake above.

Florence White gives no fewer than eight recipes for Parkin.  The following comes from Bolton-le-Moors.

8 oz medium oatmeal

8 oz plain flour

8oz butter

8 oz black treacle

¼ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp mace

½ tsp ground ginger

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tablespoon cream

½ tsp salt

Mix the oatmeal, flour and salt in a mixing bowl.  Rub the butter into them.

Mix together the spices and baking powder.

Warm the treacle and cream and use to blend all the dry ingredients together.  Leave all night.

The next day, bake in a flat dripping tin in a moderate oven for 1 to 1¼ hours.  Some people add candied peel, which should be very finely chopped.  This Parkin will keep a long time, and improves with keeping, but should NOT be kept in a tin or it will get dry.

White Gingerbreads

In the 17th century white gingerbreads became fashionable in the East Midlands, the best known being from Ashbourne in Derbyshire and Grantham in Lincolnshire, the key difference being the presence of eggs in the latter. Both are pale in colour and domed in shape.

Ashbourne Gingerbread

10 oz plain flour

8 oz butter

5 oz caster sugar

2 level tsps ground ginger

Pinch of salt

2 oz finely chopped candied peel

Cream together the butter and sugar.  Mix the spices and salt with the flour and stir into the creamed mixture.  When smooth, add the finely chopped peel.

Press into a Swiss roll tin and bake at 180°C for 20-25 minutes taking care that the mixture does not turn more than lightly brown. The traditional shape of these biscuits is an elongated hexagon but rectangles of about 4×6 cm will suffice.

Ormskirk Gingerbread

The style of Gingerbread sold to travellers as their stage coach, and later, train, arrived in Ormskirk was a round, crisp biscuit about 6 cm in diameter.  It is still made commercially and, although that recipe is a trade secret, several recipes have been published before along these lines:

8 oz butter

8 oz soft brown sugar

4 oz golden syrup

4 oz black treacle

¼ oz ground ginger

Pinch cinnamon

1 oz grated lemon peel

1¾ lbs plain flour

Cream together the butter and sugar.

Melt together the syrup and treacle then work these into the creamed mixture.

Add the spices to the flour together with the grated lemon peel and fold through the mixture until evenly combined.

Roll out to 5mm thick.  Cut into rounds of approximately 6 cm in diameter.

Bake at 170°C for 25 minutes, turning out the oven for the last 5 of these.  Leave to cool on a rack.

Cornish Fairings

Although the name harks back to the oldest form of Gingerbread, the biscuit recipe below is more modern with raising agents being a significant ingredient. These have been made commercially by Furniss of Truro since 1886 although their recipe is a trade secret.

A rough, irregular surface is a distinguishing feature and, containing raising agent, they are left to spread creating a less precise round somewhat thicker, and therefore less crisp, biscuit than the Ormskirk type above.

8 oz plain flour

½ tsp salt

2 level tsps baking powder

2 level tsps bicarbonate soda

3 level tsps ground ginger

2 level tsps mixed spice

1 level tsp cinnamon

4 oz butter

4 oz caster sugar

4 tbsps golden syrup

Sieve together the dry ingredients then rub in the butter (as you would for pastry).  Stir in the sugar.  Heat the syrup gently and then pour in sufficient to bind the mixture, which will be fairly stiff.

With floured hands, take walnut sized pieces of the mixture, roll into a ball and place on a greased baking sheet. Cook in a hot oven (200°C) for 5-7 minutes or until the biscuits are beginning to brown then turn out the heat and leave to cook for a further 5 minutes.

Leave to cool on the baking sheet for a couple of minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.

Pear and Ginger Upside Down Cake

With the exception of Parkin, the above recipes are all for the biscuit style of gingerbread. I have, however, given the recipe before for my favourite ginger pudding, so the link is here.

Recipes for hogget leftovers

VICARAGE MUTTON

Hot on Sunday,

Cold on Monday,

Hashed on Tuesday,

Minced on Wednesday,

Curried on Thursday,

Broth on Friday,

Cottage Pie on Saturday.

From Dorothy Hartley, Food in England, 1954

Above is one approach to using up leftover mutton or hogget.  An advantage of such flavoursome meat is that its presence is felt even when the amount is little.  This sits perfectly with the view that we should be eating less meat but of better quality. It is definitely worth cooking a larger joint than you might need “hot on Sunday” to set you up for at least one or two more meals.  Here are my favourites.

Cold on Monday

Dorothy Hartley was not a great fan of re-cooking leftover meat in other dishes, noting … ‟Cold mutton need not be unappetising.  It is a pity to spoil good joints by re-cooking, and better to serve them plain cold, with pickles and salad, keeping less interesting joints for made dishes.  The pickles for mutton should always have a fruit element, or be green: pickled damsons, pickled ash keys, spiced cauliflower, French-beans, etc., or small white pickled onions.  Mint or caper sauce may also be served with cold meat.”

It is difficult to add to this advice, certainly even shoulder can be good sliced and served cold the following day and pickled damsons and runner bean chutney are two of my favourite accompaniments.

Shepherd’s Pie

Everyone thinks they know how to make Shepherd’s Pie, but it has changed somewhat over time so first some history.  The names Shepherd’s Pie and Cottage Pie are frequently interchanged but it is now generally accepted that a Shepherd’s Pie should contain mutton or lamb whilst a Cottage Pie is made with beef.  There are earlier references to Cottage Pie than to Shepherd’s Pie, for example the diarist Reverend Woodford recorded that he had eaten Cottage Pie for dinner in 1791 (although it is not clear precisely what this contained).

Potatoes were first introduced to England in 1520 but they did not become widely accepted until the 18th century and it is probably during this century that both dishes were invented as a way of using up and eking out leftover meat.  Shepherd’s Pie originated in the north of England or Scotland, where there were the greatest numbers of sheep.  The oldest recipe using this name is dated 1886.  Food historian Alan Davidson states that the phrase “Shepherd’s Pie” dates back to the 1870s, when mincing machines made the shredding of meat easy and popular.

Cassell’s New Universal Cookery Book, written by Lizzie Heritage in 1894 gave the following full account of Cottage Pie:

…Required: a pound and a half of cooked potatoes, half a pound to three-quarters of cold meat, seasoning and gravy as below.  Cost, about 9d.

The potatoes must be nicely cooked and mashed while hot… They should be seasoned and beaten until light with a wooden spoon.  A pie dish should be greased, and potatoes put at the bottom to form a layer from half to an inch in thickness.  The meat should be made to a thick mince of the usual kind with stock or gravy…or it may be mixed with onion sauce or any other which might be sent to table with meat.  The nicer the mince, the nicer of course will be the pie.  The meat doest next, and should be put in the centre of the bottom payer, leaving a little space all around.  The remainder of the potatoes go on top, beginning at the sides – this prevents the boiling out of the gravy when the meat begins to cook.  Rough the surface with a fork all over, because it will brown better than if left smooth.  It may just be brushed with melted dripping or a coat of beaten egg, part of which can then be used in the mashed potatoes.  As soon as the pie is hot through and brown it should be served.  There are many recipes for this pie, or variations of it, and in some directions are given for putting the meat in the dish first and all of the potatoes on top.  The plan detailed above will be found the better, because the meat, being enveloped entirely in potatoes, runs no risk of becoming hard as it would do if exposed to the direct heat of the oven.  Any other cooked vegetables may be added to the above, but they should be placed between the meat and potatoes, both top and bottom.  If a very savoury pie is desired, make the mince very moist and allow a longer time for baking. The potatoes will absorb some of the gravy and found tasty.  In this case the heat must not be fierce at starting, only at the end for the pie to brown well.  For a richer pie allow a larger proportion of meat….

Modern recipes, where there is not the same need for thrift, certainly do tend to include a much greater proportion of meat.  For example, Jamie Oliver uses 1¾ lb of meat for 6 people and recommends a 2″ layer of meat topped with a 1″ layer of potato.  With less people cooking joints of meat, it is often made now by cooking minced fresh meat, although shredded meat from a cheaper cut cooked slowly on the bone gives a better flavour and more interesting texture.

SHEPHERD’S PIE

Serves 4

3 pint/1.75l capacity dish that is at least 2 inches deep. (see notes below)

500g cooked shredded meat (easiest to do before the joint if completely cold)

small onion

carrot

½ stick of celery

mushroom

tomato

bunch of thyme

salt and pepper

½ pint of leftover gravy

For the vegetable base:

1 large onion

3 carrots

½ stick of celery

salt and pepper

thyme

For the potatoes:

2½ lb floury potatoes

¼ pint whole milk

1 small onion

bay leaf

thyme

¼ tsp salt

4 peppercorns

1 egg yolk

Finely chop the onion and celery, season with salt, pepper and a few thyme leaves, and cook gently in a little of the lamb fat until soft and lightly coloured.  Cut the carrots into half rings and cook these briefly to soften slightly.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the peeled potatoes until soft.  Meanwhile gently heat the milk with the flavourings and leave to infuse.

Shred the meat from the bones using a couple of forks.  It should be shredded reasonably finely so that no cutting is required and to double check that all the meat used is tender.  This is easiest to do before the meat is cold.

When the potatoes are cooked drain them into a colander.  Remove the flavourings from the milk and put the milk into the hot saucepan in which you just cooked the potatoes so that the milk is warm (re-heat if necessary).  Put the potatoes through a ricer into the milk.  Blend the egg yolk with a tablespoon of cold milk and stir this into the potato.  Mix until smooth.

Place the cooked vegetable base in the bottom of the dish and then cover this with the meat.  Pour on sufficient gravy to barely cover the meat.

Top with the potato and rough the surface with a fork to help it brown.  Place on a baking tray (to protect the oven from spills) and place in an oven pre-heated to 180°C.  Cook until the top is nicely browned and the whole dish is bubbling hot.

Notes

The prepared Shepherd’s Pie may be covered and refrigerated once cool for cooking the next day.  In this case remove the dish from the oven to bring it up to room temperature before cooking and allow a little longer cooking time to ensure the meat is thoroughly re-heated.

The quantities given will serve 4 for a main course supper.

The quantity of potato required will depend on the exact dimensions of the dish used.  The dish needs to be at least 2 inches deep to allow sufficient room for the three layers but a deeper dish will give a greater proportion of meat to potato.  For a smaller Shepherd’s Pie a 2 pint capacity dish (1.2l ) will suffice.

RISSOLES

The name rissoles may not sound that appetising but most cuisines have their own versions, varied by the herbs and spices used and the accompaniments – some variations are suggested below.  The strength of flavour in the meat transfers so readily to the breadcrumbs that you will feel that you are eating pure meat so rissoles are a very economical way of making a small amount of leftover meat go further.

8 oz cooked hogget

1 small onion

1½ oz fresh breadcrumbs

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

2 level tbsps chopped parsley

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 small egg, beaten

salt and pepper

Either mince both the onion and the meat through the finest blade of a mincer or chop them finely in a food processor.   Then add the rest of the ingredients and combine thoroughly.

Divide the mixture into six portions and shape each into a round cake shape with your hands.  Coat each rissole with seasoned flour, cover and chill for at least half an hour.

Shallow fry for 5 minutes a side.

Variations:  For spicy rissoles add half a red or green pepper and use chilli powder in place of the cinnamon.  For a Middle Eastern flavour try adding ½ a teaspoon each of ground cumin and coriander.  A yoghurt and mint dip is a perfect accompaniment.

Picnic Recipes

CORNISH PASTIES

Makes 6

Pastry:

1½ lb strong white flour

6 oz lard

6 oz butter

Filling:

1 onion, chopped

approx. 2 oz sliced swede

approx. 2 oz sliced parsnip

6 – 12 oz skirt of beef, trimmed and diced

8 oz potatoes (peeled weight) cut into small dice/slices

To make the pastry, put the flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl.  Cut off about a quarter of the lard and rub it into the flour, then grate in the remaining lard and the butter.  Pour in 250 ml of cold water and stir until absorbed, adding a little more water if required to incorporate all of the flour.  Knead briefly until smooth, then chill for 30 minutes before using.

Heat the oven to 220°C (200°C for fan ovens) gas mark 7.

Flour your work surface.  Divide the pastry into six and roll each piece out to a circle of about 8″ in diameter.  Use an upturned plate to cut around to form neat circles.

Divide half the swede, parsnip and all of the onion between the pastry rounds, putting it across the centre.  Season well.  Put a quarter of the meat on top of the vegetables.  Sprinkle with salt.  Top with most of the potato and the rest of the swede/parsnip.  Season again and then add the rest of the potato.

Dampen one side of the pasty all round with a little water, then fold over to cover the filling and press to seal.  Fold over the edge to make it slightly thicker, then squeeze tightly between thumb and forefinger along the edge to crimp.  Tuck in the end and seal well.  Make a slit in the top with a knife and patch any holes with dampened pieces of rolled out pastry.

Put the pasties on a greased tray, brush with milk and bake at the high heat for 20-30 minutes, keeping an eye on them and turning the oven down to 160°C/140°C fan/Gas mark 3 if they start browning too much.  Cook at the lower temperature until they have had 50 minutes in total, then turn off the oven and leave the pasties in with the door shut for a further 15 minutes.  Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack for 15 minutes before eating.

Melton Mowbray Pork Pie

The following quantities will make a 6-inch diameter pie.  Although to be traditional this should be hand-raised, you can, if you prefer, use a loose-bottomed deep cake tin.

For the hot water crust pastry:

¾ lb plain flour

4½ oz lard

¼ tsp salt

7-8 fl oz boiling water

Filling:

2 lb coarsely minced pork (two-thirds lean to one third fat)

2 teaspoons salt

freshly milled black pepper

1 tbsp. chopped fresh sage

beaten egg for glazing

Grease the mould (if using) with lard and then lightly dust with flour.

Mix the meat with the seasoning and sage.

To make the pastry, sieve together the flour and salt.  Rub in the lard.  Add enough boiling water to make a soft dough.  Knead gently until smooth.

Use three-quarters of the dough to line the mould (or raise around a jar).  Keep the remaining dough covered whilst you pack the filling into the pie.

Roll out the remaining pastry into a circle to form the lid.  Brush the rim on pastry around the sides of the tin with beaten egg.  Place the lid on top and seal the edges with a fork.  Brush the top with beaten egg.  Make a large hole in the centre for the steam to escape.

Bake in a hot oven (220°C/Gas Mark 7) for 15 minutes then reduce the heat to 180°C and bake for a further 45 minutes.  Remove the pie from the oven and, very carefully so as not to burn yourself or break the pastry, slide the sides of the cake tin down, having first supported the whole on a tin.  Brush all over the pastry with beaten egg, taking care not to seal up the hole on the top, then return to the oven for a further 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool before serving.

Salamagundy and other salad recipes

SALAMAGUNDIE

Salmagundi (probably the first version of the name but there are several different spellings) is a composed “Grand Sallat” from the 17th century.  There are many variations of the recipe, crisp lettuce is always its base and although chicken is the meat most often used there are plenty of recipes that use veal, pork, duck or pigeon or even pickled herrings instead.  The name of the dish was corrupted in the 18th century to Solomon Gundy, particularly in the United States, and in the 1842 gave rise to a children’s nursery rhyme/riddle in which the life of Solomon Grundy appears to take place in the process of a single week, the answer being that each day’s events happened in a different year.

Serves 6

Cold poached chicken

Little Gem lettuces (1 per person)

6 hard-boiled eggs

bunch of spring onions

6 anchovy fillets

1 lemon (fresh or preserved)

2 oz French beans – blanched and refreshed

Additional garnish ingredients

Barberries were originally used, redcurrants could be substituted

Nasturtiums or other edible flowers (e.g. borage, marigold)

Pickled gherkins

Herbs (flat leaf parsley, tarragon, chervil)

Dressing

3 hard-boiled eggs

salt and cayenne pepper

1 tsp dry English mustard powder

1 tsp tarragon vinegar

5 fl oz whipping cream

½ tbsp chopped fresh tarragon

This is very much an “arranged” salad.

Choose a large, pretty serving platter and arrange the quartered lettuces on it with a small dish in the centre.

Slice the breast meat of the chicken and dice the leg meat more finely.  Arrange over the lettuce.  Decorate with strips of anchovy.

If using preserved lemon it is the skin that you want, dice it and scatter over the plate.  If using fresh lemon dice the flesh only.

There are a number of different approaches that can be used for the hard-boiled eggs.  You could simply slice them and arrange the slices on the plate.  Many original recipes mixed the yolks with anchovy and perhaps a little finely chopped parsley.  This was then mounded into the dish in the centre.  The chopped whites were then scattered over the rest of the plate.  The dressing, which also contains hard-boiled egg yolks, is served separately, so could be put in the central dish if you are not filling it with an egg yolk/anchovy mixture.

Finally add the blanched and refreshed green beans and other garnish ingredients.

To make the dressing, pass the hard-boiled egg yolks through a fine sieve and then blend them with the salt, cayenne pepper and mustard powder.  Mix in a teaspoon of tarragon vinegar and then whisk in the whipping cream.  Stir in chopped fresh tarragon at the end.

Solomon Grundy

Solomon Grundy, born on a Monday,

Christened on a stark and stormy Tuesday,

Married on a grey and grisly Wednesday

Took ill on a mild and mellow Thursday

Grew worse on a bright and breezy Friday

Died on a gay and glorious Saturday

Buried on a baking, blistering Sunday

That was the end of Solomon Grundy

James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps 1842

Alternative Lyrics:

Solomon Grundy,

Born on a Monday,

Christened on Tuesday

Married on Wednesday,

Took ill on Thursday,

Grew worse on Friday,

Died on Saturday,

Buried on Sunday.

That was the end of

Solomon Grundy.

Homemade Salad Cream

1 oz flour

½ tsp pepper

1 tsp salt

4 tsps dry mustard

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp sugar

2 eggs

1 pint milk

¼ pint cider vinegar

Mix the mustard, flour and seasonings to a smooth cream with a little of the milk in a basin set over a saucepan of boiling water.  Gradually add the rest of the milk, the lightly beaten eggs and the vinegar, stirring all the time so that the mixture is perfectly smooth.  As it begins to thicken, add the oil, still stirring constantly.  When it will coat the back of a spoon, remove it from the heat and cool, stirring occasionally, before pouring into sterilized screw-top jars or bottles.

Spinach and Goat’s Cheese Salad with Hazelnuts and Honey Dressing

200 g baby spinach leaves

50 g rocket leaves

8 semi-dried tomatoes

Fresh goat’s cheese (or other young cheese)

50g hazelnuts

For the dressing:

2 tbsps lemon juice

Salt and pepper

1 -2 tsps clear honey

6 tbsps olive oil

Toast the hazelnuts in a dry pan then chop them roughly.

Put the dressing ingredients into a small jar and shake vigorously to combine.  The sweetness of the dressing counterbalances the saltiness of the sun dried tomatoes and cheese, but a fresh goats cheese is less salty than an aged cheese and likewise semi-dried tomatoes less salty than completely dried – adjust the honey and lemon according to the other ingredients.

Roughly chop the tomatoes and mix these through the salad leaves.  Add the dressing and hazelnuts immediately before serving to keep everything fresh and the hazelnuts crunchy.  Crumble the goats cheese over the salad.

For notes on the art of composing a salad see article.

Tarragon Recipes

Tarragon Orange Chicken

This variation on the classic Tarragon Chicken is one I cook frequently in the summer.   Chicken legs and wings are my preferred joints as the bones create a stickier sauce than you get with chicken breasts, but you could joint a whole chicken – just keep the breasts on the bone to prevent the meat drying out.

Per person:

1 chicken leg (or other joint, see above)

Rind and zest of 1 orange

¼ pint chicken stock

1 tbsp fresh tarragon leaves, chopped

Salt and pepper

White wine (as required)

1 – 2 tbsps double cream

Pre-heat the oven to 190˚C.

Choose a dish into which all the joints will fit snugly.  Ideally it should have a lid, but if not you can use foil.  The size of dish and how well the lid fits will both affect how quickly the liquid reduces, so just keep this in mind as you follow the timings below.

Season the chicken joints and place in the dish.

Remove the zest of the orange in fine julienne strips and scatter over the chicken.  Squeeze the juice and pour over, followed by the chopped tarragon and chicken stock.

Cover with the lid or foil and cook for 30 minutes.  Remove the lid and check the liquid level – if it is drying out add some white wine.  Continue cooking for another 10 minutes, then remove the lid and cook for a further 10 minutes to reduce and thicken the juices. Stir in double cream for the last 5 minutes of the cooking.

Tarragon Vinegar

If you make only one herb vinegar it should be this, although I also like to make one with mixed herbs.   You will need it to make the Béarnaise Sauce and marinated mushrooms below, but it is also really good in salad dressings.

Pick the tarragon early in its season, and early in the day, i.e. before noon.

Choose a really good white wine vinegar.  Chop sufficient tarragon to fill about one-third of the bottle, but put it into a heat proof jug.  Heat about a third of the vinegar until it just begins to simmer.  Pour this over the chopped tarragon, so that the vinegar only just covers it all.  Leave until cool and then add the rest of the vinegar.

Transfer everything into a sterilised jar (a large necked jar will be easier than the vinegar bottle, but keep this for the final storage).  Shake the jar everyday for two weeks so that the vinegar becomes well flavoured.

Now strain the vinegar into the original bottle, which should be sterilised first with boiling water.  Add fresh sprigs of tarragon and keep in a dark cupboard until needed.

Sauce Béarnaise

The yolks of 3 large or 4 medium eggs

4 oz cold butter

2 fl oz white wine

2 tbsps tarragon vinegar

2 shallots

Black pepper

Salt

Lemon juice

A few leaves of fresh tarragon

Finely chop the shallots and put in a pan with the white wine, tarragon vinegar and a grind of black pepper.  Boil hard until the liquid has reduced to about 2 tablespoons.  Strain the liquid from the shallots into the top of a double boiler or a bowl placed above, but not touching, simmering water.

Add half the butter, cut into small pieces, to the liquid and as soon as that has melted, add the other half, again in small pieces, stirring all the time.  Now add, gradually, the beaten egg yolks and stir very carefully until the sauce thickens.  Taste and add salt if required (which it will be if the butter was unsalted), a few drops of lemon juice and a few of cold water.  Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the chopped tarragon.  Serve, tepid, as an accompaniment to steak.

Marinated Mushrooms with Tarragon

This makes ordinary button mushrooms into something interesting to serve as a side salad or a nibble with drinks.

Olive oil

2 shallots

150g/6 oz button mushrooms, wiped

1 clove of garlic

Salt and pepper

Tarragon vinegar leaves, chopped

Fresh Tarragon

Chopped parsley

Finely slice the shallots.  Wipe the mushrooms clean but don’t bother to peel them.  Cut the larger mushrooms in half, but otherwise leave them whole.

Heat a good slug of olive oil in a frying pan then add the sliced shallots and cook gently for a couple of minutes to soften.  Add the mushrooms and garlic and continue cooking for just a minute, adding more oil if any of the mushrooms remain dry.  Season with salt and pepper then add a couple of tablespoonfuls of tarragon vinegar.  Turn up the heat and let the vinegar bubble away for a minute.  Now turn out the heat and leave to cool at room temperature for a couple of hours before adding the chopped herbs.  The salt will draw moisture from the mushrooms during this time and they will soften in the olive oil and vinegar dressing.  They can be refrigerated overnight.

Elderflower Cordial

Makes about 4 pints – but use small bottles so that they can be completely immersed in water for sterilisation if you want to the cordial to last until next year.

45 heads of elderflower blossom (see notes below on when to pick)

2 lemons, sliced

2 litres/3½ pints boiling water

Sugar (approx 2½ lb/1.2 kg but see recipe for precise quantity)

2 more lemons

Day 1 – Make Elderflower Tea

Shake the blossoms to dislodge insects then place them with the sliced lemons in a large bowl.  Pour on the boiling water and stir briefly with a wooden spoon.  Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave overnight.

Day 2 – Make and sterilise Cordial

The following day strain the cold elderflower tea through muslin.  Measure the juice and add 12 oz of sugar plus the strained juice of half a lemon to each pint of tea (strain the lemon through muslin to keep the cordial clear).  Heat gently to dissolve the sugar or simmer as below *.

Pour into hot, sterilized bottles up to about an inch below the top.  Seal loosely.  Put the bottles in a water bath, standing them on dishcloths to prevent the bottles banging around.  The water should come at least to the level of the cordial, but preferably to cover the bottles.  Bring the water slowly up to 88˚C and keep it there for 20 minutes.

Ladle out sufficient water to enable you to remove the bottles.  Tighten the caps and lay the bottles on their side on a wooden surface until they are completely cool.

The cordial will now store for at least a year.  That which you wish to drink immediately, or store in the fridge for a week, does not need sterilising.

Notes on preserving cordial

As noted above it is only necessary to sterilise the cordial if you wish to keep it for a long period (the bottles themselves should always be sterilised in boiling water before use).

Many recipes include Citric Acid as a preservative.  This is not very easy to obtain (it has become more difficult since it became used in drug taking).  Brewers supply shops are the best bet, but it is only a substitute for lemon juice (the juice of one lemon is approximately equal to a rounded teaspoonful of citric acid).  The above recipe already includes a reasonable amount of lemon juice, both by extraction in the tea and as an additive.  If you intend to use all of your cordial by the end of the summer (i.e. no longer than 4 months) you can use a simplified method of sterilisation, which involves only simmering the liquid rather than immersing the whole bottle:

*Bring the cordial up to simmering point (88-90˚C on a sugar thermometer) and fill the bottles to within 1 cm of the rim (rather than the inch for hot water bath method).

Another alternative to the hot-water bath method is the oven.  In this case, stand the filled bottles in a roasting tray containing an inch of water.  Put on the centre shelf of the oven and set the temperature to 120˚C.  Once it reaches this temperature time for 2 hours before removing, cooling and sealing as above.

Postscript May 2011

I have become fascinated by the variation in recipes for Elderflower Cordial and propose to conduct further tastings this year.  In the meantime an article by Xanthe Clay in the Telegraph with Luscombe Farm’s Gabriel David provided further useful information.  Luscombe is a company I respect, producing a number of fine drinks including the best Ginger Beer, and whilst not an elderflower cordial, they make the old country drink which used to be known as Elderflower Champagne before the French got all upset about that.  Now it is called Elderflower Bubbly.  I have made it in the long distant past but whilst it tasted delicious it continued to ferment in my stomach, which was less pleasant!

These are some of the main points Gabriel makes about Elderflowers:

  • Selecting the best blooms – There will be only about 3 weeks of flowers but Gabriel maintains that the early blooms are not best… “the scent is there to attract insects to pollinate; it won’t be released until the flowers are fully open.”  Equally you don’t want to wait until the heads have begun to discolour – they should be white, not cream or with any brown flowers and they should not fall too readily when shaken.  The main crop is the most fragrant.  It must be a dry day when you pick or rogue yeasts develop with a distinct whiff of cat’s pee.  The blooms should smell of lemon.
  • On Citric Acid – Gabriel says… “Citric acid is easy and cheap, but it gives a salty back taste”.  Although it occurs naturally in lemons, this is not how it is usually produced industrially.  Most is made from a specific kind of mould cultivated from corn, sugar beet or molasses.  At Luscombe they use instead a white wine vinegar, chosen for its mild flavour.

Tartaric Acid can be used in place of citric acid, but again it should be used sparingly – 1 or 2 teaspoons per litre at most.  Too much will make your homemade cordial taste like a commercial one.  Postscript 2012 – having tried a cordial made with Tartaric Acid I would now reject this option – it tastes awful with sparkling water (probably a chemical reaction with the carbonating element).

Some ideas for using Elderflower Cordial

Elderflower Cordial enables you to add the characteristic muscatel flavour to recipes beyond the short season of the fresh bloom.  The classic pairing is with gooseberries, the dessert varieties ripening almost a month after the elderflower.  It is also a good match for strawberries – try using a little cordial to sweeten and flavour the cream or syllabub that accompanies them.  The cordial can in fact be used in any fruit salad.

Suggested Recipes:

Dessert Gooseberry and Elderflower Ice Cream

Strawberries with Elderflower Syllabub

Summer Berries in Muscatel Jelly

Elderflower Sorbet

Gooseberry and Elderflower Meringue Pie

Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool

Asparagus Recipes

Roast Asparagus with Aged Cheddar

Having obtained your super fresh asparagus, cooking is quick and easy.  Banish any thoughts that you might need a special asparagus steamer.  Steaming is an acceptable method of cooking asparagus (and I guess, although I don’t own one, that a microwave might achieve this). But I work on a general principle that vegetables retain more flavour if cooked without liquid.  I prefer roasting, which helps concentrate the natural sweetness.  It will take between 5 and 7 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stems. 

First prepare the asparagus by snapping the stems at the point where the woody base ends.  Hopefully this will be quite near the bottom – try bending the stem and the snapping point should reveal itself quite easily. 

Lay the asparagus on a baking tray and drizzle with oil.  Season with salt and pepper.  Now place in a hot oven (200˚C in a fan oven) and cook for 5 minutes.  Test by inserting the point of a knife.  A degree of crispness is good, but give it a couple more minutes if you think it needs it.

A really good aged balsamic vinegar enhances the flavour perfectly, but don’t bother if what you have isn’t thick and syrupy.  In other recipes I might substitute an aged cider vinegar, but the truth is we just don’t age it for long enough to work in this recipe. 

Where we can substitute a British ingredient is with the cheese.  Instead of parmesan, whose salty, umami flavour will underline the sweetness of the asparagus, use any cheese that has aged sufficiently to develop crystals of calcium.  Last year I had a two-year old Montgomery’s Cheddar, which shaved over the local asparagus, was as good an example of the excellence of British food as you will ever encounter.  An 18-month old Cheddar will be easier to find and probably just as good.

If you have a griddle plate or pan, this is alternative way of cooking asparagus without liquid.  Allow the pan to get really hot before adding the asparagus, which should be turned in olive oil first.  It will take about 8-10 minutes to cook.  Griddle some bread at the same time and serve as above, or with goats cheese.

Asparagus Soldiers

Another dish that demonstrates how simple cooking can be when you have first rate ingredients is to dunk cooked asparagus into a lightly boiled or coddled egg – preferably a duck egg, slightly richer than hens eggs and thankfully still seasonal.

ASPARAGUS SOUP

All of the asparagus in a bundle will normally be of the same size to ensure even cooking, but my final recipe makes use of the bundles of “mis-shapes” that are sold more cheaply as well as the woody stems removed in the previous recipes.

50g/2 oz butter

1 shallot

1 small potato, peeled and diced

1¼ pints chicken stock

1 bundle (about 300g) of asparagus sprue or mis-shapes

Salt and pepper

50 ml/2 fl oz double cream

Bring the chicken stock up to simmering point and add the woody trimmings from the asparagus.  Simmer for 10 minutes before straining to remove the stems.

Melt the butter in a large pan and add the chopped shallot and diced potato.  Season with salt and pepper, put a lid on the pan and sweat gently for about 10 minutes.   The shallot should be softened but not coloured.  Add 1 pint of the strained chicken/asparagus stock and simmer, without the lid, for 10 minutes by which time the potato should be thoroughly cooked.

Meanwhile cut the asparagus stems into lengths of approximately 3cm.  Reserve the tips and add the rest to the soup.  After about 5 minutes they should be really tender but still a bright green colour.  Purée the whole lot and then pass through a sieve or mouli.

 Return the soup to the pan and reheat.  The reserved asparagus tips will take only a minute or two to cook so this can be done either in the remaining chicken stock or as you reheat the soup.  Add the cream, check the seasoning and add the remaining stock as required.

*This soup can be served cold in which case the shallots should be cooked in oil rather than butter.